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Comment from the book world in January 2020


‘No one reads your book as closely as a translator does'

28 December 2020

‘No one reads your book as closely as a translator does, which is something you learn very quickly. I'm in such awe of them. They also read beneath it and around it. They make me consider things I thought I knew the meaning of because I use those words in everyday dialect and that's how the characters express themselves. It's made me go back and research the origins of some of the words...

Sometimes, it's explaining not even language but what a door looks like or what kind of fire was in the mantle because the book is also so specific about a class and a place and a time that it might not translate well. It's fascinating how their minds work...

I've had an extraordinary year which has been probably not the experience of most debut novelists. It's also been extraordinary because it's been my only experience and has all happened through a screen. I've had one event where I met with actual readers and managed to connect with people in the flesh and press the flesh and talk about the book.

That globalism has allowed books to reach people who have felt excluded from festivals or literary events or readings. I think it's going to be a thing we should uphold and maintain as we go forward even when we can see each other. There's an open-door feeling to it that's really powerful.'

Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize with Suggie Bain, in Publishing Perspectives


'When a child doesn't like something they let you know'

16 December 2020

‘Just because you can write a full-length grownup novel there's no guarantee that you can transpose that ability to a children's book. In the end it was a collaborative performance both with (illustrator) Daniela Terrazzini and my children: I would read parts of the story to them and they gave instant and very direct feedback. They were very honest and sometimes pretty brutal. When a child doesn't like something they let you know - often by getting up and walking away...

Writing is a process. Obviously prizes are lovely to get, that knowledge that somebody, a reader or a panel or a child in a library, has responded to your work. But I think after that you just had to forget them. You have to keep doing good work.'

Maggie O'Farrell on her first children's book, Where Snow Angels Go. She is also the author of Hamnet, After You'd Gone, The Hand That first Held Mine, The Distance Between Us and four other novels, as well as a memoir, I am, I am, I am, in the Observer.


'The ability to create life with words is essentially a gift'

7 December 2020

‘I still suspect that most people start out with some kind of ability to tell a story but that it gets lost along the way. Of course, the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place, you can develop it; if you don't have it, you might as well forget it.

But I have found that people who don't have it are frequently the ones hell-bent on writing stories. I'm sure anyway that they are the ones who write the books and the magazine articles on how-to-write-short-stories. I have a friend who is taking a correspondence course in this subject, and she has passed a few of the chapter headings on to me-such as, "The Story Formula for Writers," "How to Create Characters," "Let's Plot!" This form of corruption is costing her twenty-seven dollars.'

Flannery O'Connor, author of two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, three short story collections, including Complete Stories and 32 short stories in all


Lee Child on why we turn to fiction

30 November 2020

‘We turn to fiction for the satisfactions that we don't get in real life. In reality you know that if a crime is committed against you they're never going to find out who did it. If your house is broken into they probably won't even show up, and if they do you'll never get your stuff back. If your car is stolen, you'll never see it again. We live with this sort of buzz of frustration and dissatisfaction. So we turn to fiction for clarity and consolation and closure. You know in a book like the Reacher books of course you're going to get your car back. Of course they're gonna find the guy.'

Lee Child, author of the 25 Jack Reacher novels, from Killing Floor to The Sentinel, who has recently handed over the writing to his brother


Booker Prize winner on his debut novel

23 November 2020

‘Growing up as the boy I was and now the man that I am in New York, they feel like two very different people. And so, though this is on-the-back-of-a-cornflakes-box psychology, it was a good way for me to make sense of the whole of me and to sort of stitch myself together. I love the boy I was. It wasn't always easy but I wanted to conjure that world. Fiction allows you take control of a situation that you might not have control over in real life. On the west coast of Scotland, we are never allowed to think of ourselves as exceptional - never exceptionally great or exceptionally hard done to. And a memoir is thinking there's an exception there that is worth sharing...

(He was acutely aware of writing "poverty safari" for a largely middle-class readership.) People like to come through for a tour and then they go back to worrying about oat milk. I thought, "Well if we are going to do that, then you are coming for a stay." We are going to look at a woman drinking. You are going to be in the room with these people to the extent that you are going to leave the book with some sense of understanding them.'

Douglas Stuart, author of debut novel Shuggie Bain, which has just won the 2020 Booker Prize, in the Guardian



'Why does the writer write?'

16 November 2020

'Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve - hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve - not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.

A writer I very much admire is Don DeLillo. At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear.

Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.'

Joy Williams, author of The Visiting Privilege, The Quick and the Dead, Ill Nature, State of Grace and The Changeling


'Culture is what's left when you've forgotten everything'

9 November 2020

‘We can't really take in everything we read in a book. When you think about what you remember of a book a month or a year later, it's a distillation - sometimes you remember an image or a scene or a moment in the plot, or an idea in an essay. You don't actively remember the entire experience, at least not consciously. My father used to say that culture is what's left when you've forgotten everything...

What we retain from our reading is that it's all there. It comes back to Proust and his madeleine - you don't know what moment will bring you back experiences or memories, whether they're things you've lived or things you've read.'

Claire Messud, author of The Emperor's Children, The Burning Girl, The Last Life and The Woman Upstairs in the Observer


Writing biography

28 October 2020

‘You write a biography from the vantage point of where you are: your gender, your race, your class. It's not a love affair or a marriage: it's a job. You're not writing autobiography; you're writing about some other person, usually a dead person. You can only access them in as far as you have materials and witnesses to allow you to access them. You are at the mercy of what you can find and read and hear and see. You become as intimate as you can with the life and work of this person... But there is always going to be a gap...

At the beginning, you don't know what you're looking for. The shape comes at you as you get deeper into the archive, and a strange force field starts to grow, as you concentrate intensely for years on end on one person... Stuff oddly comes at you in ways you don't expect.'

Hermione Lee, author of many books including biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald and now Tom Stoppard, her only living subject, in the New Statesman.


Writing scripts

19 October 2020

‘Get on top of the computer program Final Draft. It's expensive and buggy, but it's the industry standard and for a first-time screenwriter like me there is something magical about the way it makes everything look like a Hollywood movie script. The other thing I have learnt is, the better the scene the less of it there is on the page. It's what your characters aren't saying that's important. Subtext is all.'

Daisy Goodwin, scriptwriter for Victoria, the TV series, and author of several novels, including My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter, and of 8 anthologies of poetry.


'If you aren't growing as a writer, you are dead'

12 October 2020

‘Dear Aspiring Writer, you are not ready. Stop. Put that finished story away and start another one. In a month, go back and look at the first story. RE-EDIT it. Then send it to a person you respect in the field who will be hard on you. Pray for many many, many red marks. Fix them. Then put it away for two weeks. Work on something else. Finally, edit one last time. Now you are ready to sub your first work.

Criticism is hard to take at first. Trust me, I've been there. But learn to think of crit marks as a knife. Each one is designed to cut away the bad and leave a scar. Scars prove you've lived, learned and walked away a winner. Any writer who tells you they don't need edits is lying. I don't care if they have 100 books out. Edits make you grow and if you aren't growing as a writer, you are dead.'

Inez Kelley, author of Sweet as Sin, Turn It Up, Taming the Alpha and 11 other books.


‘Is the screenwriter... really an artist?'

28 September 2020

‘Is the screenwriter, set the task of adapting a novel, whether a famous or forgotten or recently published novel, really an artist? Is there an "art" to adaptation? As someone who has done a fair amount of adapting I have to say I suspect not - the artist is the one who has created the work you're transforming. Adaptation is a craft, rather than an art, I believe. But craftsmen and craftswomen are not to be sniffed at.

We are artisans de luxe, if you like, operating in a ruthless industrial medium that not only imposes stringent artistic constraints, but also stringent constraints of budget and ideology and temperament - you often have to work with very difficult, stupid and demanding people. The fact that, at the end of the day, a long novel has been rethought and reconceived as a good film (if you're very lucky) is no mean achievement. We toil in an unforgiving vineyard, but sometimes the wine we manage to make can be heady.'

William Boyd, author of many screenplays and 16 novels, including Trio, An Ice-Cream War, A Good Man in Africa and Any Human Heart, in the Sunday Times Culture

'You only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already'.

21 September 2020

'Every article and review and book that I have ever published has constituted an appeal to the person or persons to whom I should have talked before I dared to write it. I never launch any little essay without the hope - and the fear, because the encounter may also be embarrassing - that I shall draw a letter that begins, 'Dear Mr. Hitchens, it seems that you are unaware that...' It is in this sense that authorship is collaborative with 'the reader.' And there's no help for it: you only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.

It doesn't matter how obscure or arcane or esoteric your place of publication may be: some sweet law ensures that the person who should be scrutinizing your work eventually does do so.'


The late Christopher Hitchens, author of Hitch 22: A Memoir and 18 other books.