May 01, 2021
A decade ago, the Pulitzer-winning author threw herself into mastering Italian. She talks about her love for Rome, translating Italy’s ‘finest living writer’ and rewriting her own work in English
Jhumpa Lahiri’s third novel is the triumphant culmination of her 20-year love affair with Italian, an obsession that led her to move to Rome with her family almost 10 years ago. She renounced all reading in English and began to write only Italian. Published in Italy in 2018 as Dove mi trovo – “Where I find myself” or “Where am I?” – it is her first novel written in Italian. Now she has translated it into English under the title Whereabouts.
The story follows an unnamed woman around an unnamed city over the course of a year, each chapter an espresso shot of regret and loneliness. In the second chapter, “On the Street”, the narrator bumps into a man, the husband of a friend, whom she “might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with”: they go into a lingerie shop because she needs to buy a pair of tights, leading the reader to think we have begun a particular kind of story. But many of these streets lead nowhere. The chapters relate different relationships or connections: a visit to her mother; a daily chat with a barista; a fleeting encounter. The novel asks: “How does a city become a relationship in and of itself for the female protagonist?” she says now. This is a book about belonging and not belonging, place and displacement – questions of identity that Lahiri has explored throughout her fiction, whether set in New England, Calcutta or now (we guess) Rome. Following a year of enforced isolation for so many, not least in Italy, this “portrait of a woman in a sort of urban solitude”, as she describes the novel, has assumed an unexpectedly timely resonance. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2021
The Women’s prize winner reflects on the life‑threatening virus that shaped her writing, the superstitions that held her back, and why her prize-winning novel Hamnet speaks to our times
Maggie O’Farrell found the prospect of writing the central scenes of her prize-winning novel Hamnet, in which a mother sits helplessly by the bedside of her dying son, so traumatic that she couldn’t write them in the house. Instead, she had to escape to the shed, and “not a smart writing shed like Philip Pullman’s”, she says, “but a really disgusting, spidery, manky potting shed, which has since blown down in a gale”. And she could only do it in short bursts of 15 or 20 minutes before she would have to take a walk around the garden, and then go back in again.
The novel, a fictionalised account of the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the bubonic plague (his twin sister Judith survived) and an at times almost unbearably tender portrayal of grief, was first published a year ago. An interlude halfway through, which follows the journey of the plague in 1595 from a flea on a monkey in Alexandria to a cabin boy back to London and eventually to Stratford, was referred to by an American journalist as “the contact tracing chapter”. “It certainly wasn’t conceived as that when I wrote it,” the author says of the extraordinary coincidence of her novel, set more than 400 years ago, landing in the middle of the pandemic, not least because she delayed writing it for decades. Continue reading...
Mar 13, 2021
The poet, broadcaster and children’s author contracted Covid-19 a year ago and spent 48 days in intensive care. His new collection of prose poems attempts to make sense of that time
When people stop Michael Rosen in his local neighbourhood of Muswell Hill in north London to ask him how he’s doing, which they do quite often these days, he replies: “Well, I’m not dead!” As is now well known, the former children’s laureate spent 48 days in intensive care after contracting coronavirus almost exactly one year ago. He went into hospital at the end of March as one of the nation’s favourite children’s writers and emerged a national treasure: his poem “These Are the Hands”, written to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2008, became an unofficial anthem for health-workers coping with the first wave of the pandemic; and, in a nod to his most famous book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, teddy bears were placed in windows for children to spot on their daily walks during lockdown.
Rosen was completely unaware of these tributes as he spent all of April and much of May in an induced coma, “a kind of pre-death that is similar, presumably, to when we go”, he says now. “People were reading this poem by this dead bloke, but he wasn’t actually dead, he was just lying like a cadaver up the road in the Whittington hospital.” He doesn’t cry so much now, he says, but when he was first told about the public reaction to his illness (Michael Sheen read “These Are the Hands”, “much better than me”, on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show on his birthday last year), “it was just, whoosh!” Continue reading...
Feb 20, 2021
The Nobel-winning author talks about scaring Harold Pinter, life after death – and his new novel about an ‘artificial friend’
For the Ishiguro household, 5 October 2017 was a big day. After weeks of discussion, the author’s wife, Lorna, had finally decided to change her hair colour. She was sitting in a Hampstead salon, not far from Golders Green in London, where they have lived for many years, all gowned up, and glanced at her phone. There was a news flash. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop this,” she said to the waiting hairdresser. “My husband has just won the Nobel prize for literature. I might have to help him out.”
Back home, Kazuo Ishiguro was having a late breakfast when his agent called. “It’s the opposite to the Booker prize, where there’s a longlist and then a shortlist. You hear the rumbling thunder coming towards you, often not striking. With the Nobel it is freak lightning out of the blue – wham!” Within half an hour there was a queue of journalists outside the front door. He called his mother, Shizuko. “I said: ‘I’ve won the Nobel, Shon.’ Oddly, she didn’t seem very surprised,” he recalls. “She said: ‘I thought you’d win it sooner or later.’” She died, aged 92, two years ago. His latest novel Klara and the Sun, in part about maternal devotion and his first since winning the Nobel, is dedicated to her. “My mother had a huge amount to do with my becoming a writer,” he says now. Continue reading...
Feb 06, 2021
The Golden Hill author talks about the family tragedy that fed his love of reading, being a middle-class socialist and why he’s trying to ‘scuff off’ the period glow of historical fiction
Francis Spufford kills off all the protagonists of his new novel in the first chapter. “I want the reader to be looking at life as you do when you are aware that the alternative is death,” he explains of Light Perpetual, the follow-up to his award-winning debut, Golden Hill. “I want life and being in time to be less taken for granted than it usually is when we are making our way through the middle, when it is easier to forget that we didn’t exist once and that we won’t exist again later,” he continues cheerfully. “I wanted it to be a picture with death as the frame.”
Related: Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford review - both a requiem and a giving of new life Continue reading...
Jan 02, 2021
Leilani’s buzzy debut novel Luster follows a young black artist drawn into an open marriage. The author talks about losing her faith, writing sex – and a year of family tragedy
A couple of months before graduating from New York University’s MFA fiction programme, Raven Leilani was in Zadie Smith’s class when she got a text from her agent saying that an offer had been made on her first novel, Luster. When it was published in the US a year later, last summer, it went straight on to the New York Times bestseller list and was given an admiring debut review in the New Yorker. Its publication in the UK this month has been heralded with interviews in glossy magazines, including Vogue.
The novel has been “received in a way that I honestly couldn’t even hope for”, Leilani says from her Brooklyn apartment. Like Edie, the artist protagonist of Luster, the author, now 30, had spent many years “doggedly practising her craft”, writing in betweenwhatever nine-to-five job she was doing to pay the rent, all the while updating a spreadsheet of rejection letters. But while finally having her book “out in the world” has been “incredible and surreal”, it has also been a very difficult year. In April, she lost her father to coronavirus. Her brother died of a rare neuro-degenerative disease in September. “Am I allowed to curse?” Leilani asks politely. “It’s been a true mindfuck.” Continue reading...
Nov 20, 2020
The author of Shuggie Bain talks about growing up in Glasgow in the 80s, the dangers of ‘poverty safari’ and what he’ll do now he has won the prestigious literary prize
As a boy in working-class Glasgow, one of the ways Douglas Stuart learned to cope with his alcoholic mother’s mood swings was to pretend to write her memoir. They never got very far, but it always began with the dedication: “To Elizabeth Taylor, who knows nothing about love.” And so the seeds were sown for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, which was awarded the Booker prize this week.
“I never thought, using that trick 40 years ago, I’d be here talking to you about my book,” the author says on a Zoom call from New York, where he has lived for the last 20 years. Instead of the usual smart dinner at London’s Guildhall (Barack Obama made an appearance at the virtual ceremony), Stuart is tucking into a plate of ham and cheese his husband has made for him. He may have a celebratory glass of champagne later. “All these wonderful things keep happening and I’ve never left the sofa,” he says of life in lockdown. Continue reading...
Nov 14, 2020
As her novel Half of a Yellow Sun is hailed as the Women’s prize ‘winner of winners’, the Nigerian-born, US-based author talks about her relief over Joe Biden’s victory – and the bittersweet highs of a difficult year
A few hours before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I are due to speak, the result of the US election is finally called. The Nigerian novelist, who is based in Maryland but is currently in Lagos, where she spends part of the year, had been on her way back from taking her daughter to a birthday party when she heard the news. “The moment that we’ve been waiting for,” she says. “Everyone was calling: my best friend, my mum, my sister called, we were all sort of screaming down the phone.” Her husband, a hospital doctor, had returned to the US the previous week. “He and I were going crazy,” she says. “I was almost close to tears because I thought this is really about people who just want decency back. I feel it is really not ideological, it is more about wanting something human and humane. I find it so moving.”
As it is for so many, her relief is tempered by disappointment at Donald Trump’s unexpectedly strong performance. “I’ve always felt that Trump is as much America as Obama,” she says. “People on the left like to say ‘This is not America’, but actually it is. If you look at the history of America, it is not that surprising that Trump is so popular.” People feel “very threatened” both by the idea of a more inclusive, multiracial politics and women having more overt power, she says. So the victory for Kamala Harris as the first black female vice-president-elect is all the more thrilling. “It is impossible to talk about her, about what’s happened today, without thinking about what might happen in four or eight years – that she might in fact become president,” Adichie says. “Even if just for the symbolism of it, because the symbolic nature of leadership is important.” Continue reading...
Oct 31, 2020
The satirist who skewered the 1980s in What a Carve Up! is approaching elder statesman status. He talks about Brexit, prizes, cancel culture – and his Hollywood hero Billy Wilder
One Sunday evening in 1975 in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, 14-year-old Jonathan Coe put off his school dread by switching on the telly. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was on BBC One, the beginning of the author’s lifelong fascination with director Billy Wilder, who was to become “a far more influential figure on the way that I write than any novelist,” he says, 45 years later. Such was the impact on the young Coe that he started recording the soundtracks of his favourite films from the TV so he could lie in bed listening to Wilder on his Walkman until “the rhythm to his dialogue kind of seeped into my subconscious”. That screening “set a lot of ripples in motion,” he says (young film buffs Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat also watched it that evening, leading to the hit TV series Sherlock). Coe’s latest novel, Mr Wilder & Me, has been “growing” in his head ever since.
When we meet, Coe, who talks with the unassuming solemnity of the off-duty comic, is without the beard of recent author photos. “I only grew it so people would take me more seriously and start giving me prizes,” he jokes. A few months later he won the Prix du livre européen and the 2019 Costa novel award for his last novel Middle England. So, going against lockdown trends, in March he “decided it had served its purpose and shaved it off”. He was already well into the new novel by the time the restrictions struck, which “really took my mind off the horror that was going on around me,” he says in the socially distanced autumnal sunshine of a cafe garden in Earl’s Court, west London, where he has lived for many years. Continue reading...
Aug 20, 2020
The award-winning writer of H Is for Hawk talks about her post-lockdown tattoo, the climate emergency and living alone in middle-age
Helen Macdonald is very excited to show off her tattoo. It was one of the first things she did when lockdown eased and no one else has seen it yet. It is a seraph inspired by the gilded angels on “a completely over the top 19th-century screen by Sir Ninian Comper” in St Peter’s Church, Ely. He has a sword, “an expression of tender solemnity” and, most importantly for the author of H Is for Hawk, six wings, “which is very cool. I love him to bits.”
Her parrot, called Birdoole (“slightly Games of Thronesish”), is wandering over the kitchen table. “Tattoos are all about mortality and getting old,” she says. “They are all about who you are.” The writer, naturalist, poet and illustrator, who turns 50 this year, insists it has nothing to do with a midlife crisis: “I’ve had loads of those already.” Instead, it goes back to her earliest days and the death of her twin brother soon after he was born. “It has taken me many years to realise that was a very important loss for me.” Continue reading...
Aug 15, 2020
Famous for writing about isolation, the author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation talks about her new novel, chronic pain and growing up as the child of migrants in America
“It is just kind of a coincidence, obviously,” Ottessa Moshfegh says of the importance of isolation in her fiction, from her home in Pasadena, California. “But yeah, it has been a major theme in my life.” She was due to be in the UK this summer as part of a publicity tour for her third novel, Death in Her Hands, but she had an odd sense “that something was going to get fucked up”. Clearly, she didn’t foresee a global pandemic, but her 2018 cult novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, in which her unnamed narrator holes up in her New York apartment, has made her the unofficial laureate of lockdown. “I guess it makes me glad that people are having a place to put their isolated misery,” she says of the novel’s resurgence in recent months.
Routinely hailed as one of the most exciting young American authors working today, she has been compared to Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson and Charles Bukowski (one of her heroes). Her characters are a miserable ensemble of drunks and dropouts, misfits and murderers, pervs and pill-heads – all loners. And she has created an inimitable band of angry, sometimes amoral, often unpleasant and always unreliable narrators, who challenge our assumptions about femininity in uncomfortable ways. Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier. But it is is also beautiful: “like seeing Kate Moss take a shit”, as she memorably described her writing; the depravity of her material matched by the purity and precision of her prose (a sort of American Edward St Aubyn, minus the aristos). Just don’t call her a millennial writer, “even though I am millennial”, says the author, who turns 40 next year. “There’s nothing flattering at all about the description right now.” Continue reading...
Apr 04, 2020
The children’s author talks about her latest, perhaps bravest, novel in which she tackles gay love for the first time – and shines a light on her own private life
“I can’t think of a book where there’s a woman born into a working-class background, who in her 70s is living a very comfortable, upper-middle-class sort of life; a woman who married at 19, had a baby at 21, was a policeman’s wife for years, but whose marriage broke up in late middle age and who became very well known for a time. She then met a woman and became very happy with her. There isn’t one!”
Former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson is rattling through the outline of her own autobiography – which she has no plans to write, although she did publish a “simplified” memoir for children, Jacky Daydream, in 2007. While her story – her rise from “perfectly ordinary” beginnings to become one of the most successful British children’s authors – is well known, the last chapter may come as surprise to her legion of fans. Continue reading...
Apr 03, 2020
Simon Armitage pogos to neo-punk, Anne Enright craves for Cary Grant, The Seventh Seal cheers up Julian Barnes, Diana Evans works out to hip-hop and Jeanette Winterson talks to herself … writers reveal how they’re surviving the corona crisis Continue reading...