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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH MINETTE WALTERS

Published in Knizhnaya Vitrina in November 2005


Elena Dedukhina: Starting as a romantic editor and a novelist, but eventually finding your own style in writing crime stories. 11 by now. What if one day you’ll display a different flow of your imagination and we discover Minette Walters under some nom de guerre (like Agatha Christie under the name of Mary Westmacott) writing, let’s say, historic novels or biography, documentary or something else – is it possible at all?

Minette Walters: I wrote romantic fiction in my twenties to help pay the mortgage on my flat. But it wasn’t a genre I wanted to stay with. I learnt a great deal from writing it – how to create believable characters and how to construct suspense within a plot – but my ambition was always to be a psychological thriller writer. I have no idea what the future holds! Life is not so different from a suspense novel.

Elena Dedukhina: You are used to setting your plots within British society. However, if I’m not mistaken, all the characters of your books mainly come from different backgrounds and social groups except aristocracy. Does it mean that you just don’t want to stir up feelings among that society, or it is because the crime itself has much deeper roots in the working/middle classes or among unemployed? Or there are some other reasons for that?

Minette Walters: I have no problem at all stirring up feelings amongst the aristocracy – I’m sure they deserve it! – but the UK is a much more equal society today. The aristocracy represents a tiny percentage of British society, and readers find stories about them rather quaint and old-fashioned. During 1930s and 1940s, most detective stories featured upper-class characters – e.g. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsy and Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn – but the most popular writer, Agatha Christie, wrote about the middle class. I suggest that’s why she’s still widely read today and the others aren’t.

Elena Dedukhina: Why is (from your standpoint), the crime/detective genre along with melodrama (though I doubt about the latter) is the most popular among contemporary readers? Where does the interest to the murder and criminal investigation spring out?

Minette Walters: A good crime thriller must also be a good suspense novel. It makes it exciting to read. And everyone likes a bit of excitement in their lives.

Elena Dedukhina: Why do you think an interest to the British detective stories is rather more widely spread?

Minette Walters: That’s not true in America, of course, where American writers are preferred. But it does seem to be true in Europe. I think British writers tap into the many common roots and experiences that Europeans share, and it gives their books a framework that’s easily understood. I’m always sorry that non-Enlgish writers find it so hard to be translated. Writers like Henning Mankell and Peter Hoeg have contributed hugely to the genre.

Elena Dedukhina: You say that you’re not very keen on creating one main character like Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse who would move on from one book to another solving the mysteries. Is it because you’re afraid of getting bored one day with the same character/s but readers would certainly wish you to go on with them, or because it is rather difficult nowadays to contrive a character that wouldn’t resemble anyone already existed in literature?

Minette Walters: Yes, to both those questions. A series character would have tied me to time and place as well as to the character itself, and that would certainly have bored me. Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes because he became tired of him, then had to bring him back to life by public demand. Agatha Christie wanted to kill Hercule Poirot but wasn’t allowed to by her publishers. I didn’t want to find myself in that position after 4 books. I also wanted the freedom to write about anything I liked. Certainly, it becomes harder and harder to invent a believable series character in the modern age of forensic science. There are no private detectives any more so most series characters are policemen to the long line that already exists!

Elena Dedukhina: Lots of people become easily obsessed with the crime/detective books and read only that kind of literature sweeping aside any suggestions to read anything else. Do you normally compliment such obsessions?

Minette Walters: I don’t think it matters what people read… as long as they read at all. A book is cheaper and easier to carry than a television, and just as entertaining!

Elena Dedukhina: Do you have any particular habits that accompany your writing process? What are they? Did they develope gradually or become an integral part of your work from the moment you started your writing career?

Minette Walters: Just putting in the hours. Nothing happens by chance. Like everything else in life, writing takes hard work and commitment.

Elena Dedukhina: Why do you think crime writers are not very welcomed to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize? Does it mean that this sort of literature are considered to be less serious, of low quality, too popular, or something else?

Minette Walters: The Man Booker was set up to promote general fiction which traditionally doesn’t sell as well as genre fiction. For that reason, best-selling genre authors tend to be excluded. I don’t have a problem with that. There are many fine authors writing general fiction who deserve a wider audience.

Elena Dedukhina: You were nominated 7 times for the most prestigious Crime Writer’s Awards and became the winner 5 times out of 7. Among the novels that have been nominated to those prizes are The Ice House, The Sculptress, The Scold’s Bridle (the most gripping one in my point of view as far as psychological aspect is concerned), The Dark Room, The Shape of Snakes, Acid Row, Fox Evil. Do you think that among 4 novels that have been left out of the nominations so far there are at least one of them that is worthy of notice and have been unfairly disregarded by judges?


Minette Walters: I started to worry about having a Gold Dagger in my back when the first three books won prizes and the fourth was shortlisted. There is a limit to what any one author can win before their colleagues start sharpening their knives! Nevertheless, I’m sorry that no one recognized that The Echo was a modern interpretation of the Oedipus trilogy. I felt it was an interesting departure from the ‘standard’ crime novel.

Elena Dedukhina: If you were set at the same table with 9 other crime writers, what would you all talk about through the dinner? Would you share your immediate ideas with each other?

Minette Walters: If you mean, would I share my plot ideas, then no. I never discuss my plots with anyone. In fact I often sit at table with other crime writers and the talk is usually about the hell of trying to reach our deadlines!

Elena Dedukhina: What are the main topics at your family table then?

Minette Walters: Anything and everything. As a family, we laugh a lot.

Elena Dedukhina: I have always thought that the dedication of a crime book to some special person or group of people looks a bit sinister. Don’t you think so?

Minette Walters: Not at all. My dedications are a way of thanking people for the generosity and love they’ve shown me during my life. To date, everyone’s been thrilled to have a mention...even if the books have frightened them. The only ones who haven’t read the book I dedicated to them are my two dogs, Benson and Hedges!

Elena Dedukhina: One of my English acquaintances, whose son had been serving in the Police Forces until he decided to retire and become a priest, told me that his son had seen so much horror at his work that would never even consider the possibility to buy and read crime novels...

Minette Walters: Everyone’s tastes are different. That’s the beauty of the world. There’s room for us all.

Elena Dedukhina: Is there any particular novel you would like Russian readers to read next (to be translated into Russian)?

Minette Walters: As many as possible! Then perhaps I’ll be invited to your country. I’ve never visited Russia... but would love to.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2005
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2005

Saturday, October 14, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH TRACY CHEVALIER

Published in the Book Review newspaper Knizhnaya Vitrina in May 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You did a year-long MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Do you think that every aspiring writer nowadays should take such a course by all means if he/she wants to become successful and recognized?

Tracy Chevalier: Not necessarily. These courses will certainly help some aspiring writers, as
mine helped me, by providing: 1. a break from real life so that I could concentrate all my time and energy on writing; 2. structure in the form of assignments and deadlines; 3. a built-in critical audience to read my work and make suggestions on how I could improve my work. Some people need this
sort of discipline; others don't.

Elena Dedukhina: How strong the influence of the tutors usually is on aspiring writers taking such courses?

Tracy Chevalier: It depends on the personality of the tutor. Some are dominant people who imprint their tastes on others; others - like mine, Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain - are supportive without being overwhelming.


Elena Dedukhina: What is the most valuable lesson did you take from your tutor, Rose Tremain?

Tracy Chevalier: Rose Tremain writes historical novels too, and she told me not to overdo the research. Read and take notes, then put those notes away and simply write. The important thing is the story, not all the research you've done. It was
the best advice she gave me.


Elena Dedukhina: Nowadays it seems that without some share of mystery the book might not work all in all; a simple, anita brookner's kind of narrative will not survive; or it won't grab attention of the potential readers and thus the whole work can be declared as a complete disaster for it's not going to be sold in thousands and millions copies after all. Your novels, at least the one that Russian readers are familiar with - The Virgin Blue - has also that kind of mystery and suspense. How much is it important for you to create a mystery in your works? In each work individually?

Tracy Chevalier: I think it's true that as readers we have become impatient with mood and description, and are looking for the more muscular thrill of a plot that keeps the pages turning. I am like that as a reader, I admit; I get very bored if the words create an effect without a story to keep me interested.
I'm rather embarrassed to admit that I don't read a lot of poetry, as I get impatient. I prefer Tolstoy over Mandelshtam, in other words.

So I am very aware of wanting to tell a story that keeps people reading. My favourite compliment is when a reader tells me they had to stay up late reading my books to find out what happens!

It's not always a mystery, however, that keeps a plot going. Sometimes as a reader you know what's going to happen and yet it is so satisfying to read it happening. The Virgin Blue is probably the most mysterious of my books; the rest certainly have plots but they are maybe more predictable. I see each book as a journey that characters take, and that journey changes them. The reader reads because they want to witness those changes.


Elena Dedukhina: It's apparent that the colour (the meaning of it) plays a considerate, if not to say a major, part in your novels (that's exactly what I like most in your works - the colour, the light you create through the narration). You even admitted that before starting working on each novel you "chose the notebook to reflect the book" you were working on: dark red
velvet for the Unicorn, orange for Girl... etc. How did you come to that? Was it something that came naturally or was it something that you initially set for yourself in order to distinguish yourself from the rest writers' population?

Tracy Chevalier: I have always been visual, and I love colour, so it was natural to include it in my writing. I didn't think about it consciously, it just happened. It's interesting: I have spoken to other writers and we've found that there is usually one word we get hung up on as we're writing, a word we use a lot
and have to find synonyms for. For some it is "said", others "take", others "go". For me it is "see". My characters are always looking, watching, staring, studying, etc. And that's because it's such an important thing for me.

Elena Dedukhina: The plots of your novels were sprung out of the art objects – pictures (Girl With A pearl Earring), tapestries (The Lady and the Unicorn), sculptures (Falling Angels)... What if one day your inspiration will dry out in that direction? Will you be waiting for it coming back to you or there are plenty of other topics you will be interested in, and you'll get yourself engaged into exploring and writing about? What are they, other topics?

Tracy Chevalier: I often worry (I think most writers do) that I will stop having ideas for novels! It is a scary thought. But I have been lucky so far. Each time as I'm writing a book, about halfway through I have the idea for the next one. I never know when I'm going to have it, I just get a spark - usually when
I've seen something, a painting or a tapestry or a statue. But it's not always art. I have just finished a novel about the poet/painter William Blake, and with him it was a combination of words and images. And my idea for the next book has nothing to do with art, but is going to be about a 19th-century woman fossil collector. I had that idea by seeing an engraving
of her collecting fossils, and then going and finding fossils myself. So it was a combination of seeing and touching.

Elena Dedukhina: Many Russian readers became aware of your works after they had seen the film based on your novel 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'. Generally speaking, a lot of people think that a film version of a book gives some kind of a second life to any novel for it triggers public interest to it. Don't you think that such dependence on a vision art makes a contemporary author more, let's say 'tractable', because he/she is always keeping in mind the possibility of gaining extra points if the work is worthy attracting people from the film industry?

Tracy Chevalier: I never write books thinking they might become films. I think it's a terrible idea for a writer to do that, and they are idiots to do such a thing. Books and films tell stories in such different ways, and if you try to write a "filmable" book you will compromise your storytelling and the book just won't be as good. Of course it's tempting, for indeed more people see a film than read a book, and so it brings your work to a wider audience, but that is rare and lucky, and is not something a writer should strive for.

I felt very lucky that the film of Pearl Earring turned out so well, but I can think of plenty of good novels that were made into terrible films. That doesn't help the book much, does it? So I think writers should concentrate on writing, and not think much about possible films.


Elena Dedukhina: You came to Britain from America and started your writing career in Britain, so it's safe to say that you're a British writer. Now, from your own point of view, what are the main differences between contemporary British and American literature world (in all senses)? Why do you think so many quite established American writers feel the urge to go to Britain and
Europe in search of their inspiration? And have you ever felt the reverse urge - to go back to America in order to set your next novel in that land? Why?


Tracy Chevalier: I think the main difference between British and American writers is the size of their perspective. Americans have a tendency to think they own the world - for better and worse! So they write generously and with confidence that
many people will read what they have to say. However, they tend to set their works in contemporary America, and expect people all over the world to take interest in that. British writers are much more circumspect and self-deprecating. Their perspective is narrower and more focused. On the other hand, they know more about the world, and so are likelier to set books in places other than Britain.

In other words, Americans are flashier, more generous, and sometimes arrogant and tedious; British are more regional, more repressed, yet much worldlier and more knowledgeable.

I guess I would love to think I take the positive aspects of each!

I think American writers like to bust out of the American way to free themselves from the insularity of America and be challenged by different perspectives. It's funny, but I have never been in the least tempted to set a novel in America, either in the present or in the past.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2006

Friday, October 13, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH ROSE TREMAIN

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in June 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You lectured in creative writing for several years at the University of East Anglia. Among your students were: Andrew Miller, Tracy Chevalier, Mick Jackson, Erica Wagner... – they are all now established, well-known writers whose works have been translated into a lot of foreign languages (including Russian) and have become the household names. So, it’s evident what former students of yours got from their study. But what about their famous tutor – what that job (tutoring) gave you as a person and most of all you as an already established by that time writer?

Rose Tremain: I’m certainly proud of what the others you mention have achieved. It was interesting how tuned and alive these particular people were in the discussion groups: this singled them out early as people who understood what goes into the making of good fiction.

I taught on the course for seven years. In the first four or five years, the mutual exchange between me and the students fed powerfully into my own work and I think I learned as much as they did during this time. In the latter two or three years, the expectations the students had of the course seemed to change; they began to see it as a passport to instant fame – and this was difficult for me to endorse. In my view, writing needs a long apprenticeship - particularly novel writing.

Elena Dedukhina: Were there among other students those who were showing promise to become really good writers, but didn’t eventually justify your hopes? What do you feel about them?

Rose Tremain: Some took longer to come through. One such was a writer called Jane Harris, who has worked on two or three novels since 1996 and has now – finally – got one of them off to a good launch; an historical novel called The Observations, which has been well reviewed in Britain this spring. Others, like Suzanne Cleminshaw, have produced one book (The Big Ideas, 2001, shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel prize) and then seemed to falter. I hope she can pick up again with a new book soon.

Elena Dedukhina: Why did you finally give up teaching?


Rose Tremain: I wanted to give up after five years (see above…) but I kept going for another two, out of financial considerations. (I was a single mother, at that time, financing my student daughter.) But teaching on this course is very time-consuming and I prefer my time to be consumed by my own writing.

Elena Dedukhina: You judged the Booker prize twice, in 1988 and 2000, and were nominated (shortlisted) in 1990. How have you felt about ‘making’ someone a winner and not being a winner of the same prize yourself?

Rose Tremain: The Booker Prize is like a “sleeping policeman”, an object in the road you can’t quite ignore. Being a judge is demanding but very interesting: it gives you a panoramic view of what is happening in Anglo-Saxon fiction in that year. I was happy with the two choices I was involved in making: Peter Carey and Margaret Atwood. Both deserved the prize. I don’t know whether I deserve it. Time will tell…

Elena Dedukhina: What do the nominations to different prizes mean to you? Do they somehow ‘invigorate’ your itch for writing? (Can they do that at all?)

Rose Tremain: Prizes are confirming. Self-belief is a profound requisite of being a writer and – as with any self-generated phenomenon, it can falter from time to time. Winning a prize helps to get you back on the road of self-belief.

Elena Dedukhina: In your works you touch some dark sides of human life: incest, change of gender, botched abortion, anal rape... Yet, your novels can hardly be called ‘mystery’, ‘suspense’, ‘thriller’... We (Russians) know you mainly as a historical novelist thanks to the two costume drama novels – ‘Restoration’ and ‘Silence and Music’ (the only ones translated into Russian so far) which full of the dark sides of human lives of the main characters too. Why is it so important for you to explore those subjects in your works all in all?

Rose Tremain: Well, this is a big question! Here, you know, we live in a world crowded with ‘easy’ fiction, but I’ve only ever been interested in writing the kind of book I like to read: stories which explore the great (and timeless) human dilemmas. And these will inevitably incorporate the dark side of our natures. Using history as a ‘mirror’ to our own times has given me a freedom I do not have to the same degree when writing contemporary stories, which is a profound freedom of invention. I know that I am happiest when there is most to be invented – not just described.

Elena Dedukhina: “… writers who push to the extremes, if they’re English, are usually reacting against a prevailing social realism of the English novel,” said Ian McEwan talking about your tendency of ‘taking things to the edge’ in your works. What do you think about it – is it true? What does ‘a prevailing social realism of the English novel’ mean from your own standpoint?

Rose Tremain: Fiction offers two primary pleasures – the pleasure of recognition (i.e. a recognised realism, confirming the reader’s perception of how things are right now) and the pleasure of surprise (i.e. making the reader see something from an entirely new perspective.) Both are important, but I tend to favour trying to do the latter. However, many writers in Britain seem not to consider this as an aim for their fiction. Much contemporary fiction is really quite dull reportage of one kind or another.

Elena Dedukhina: Nevertheless, you are not very pleased with the idea being described as a ‘historical novelist’. Yet, we live in the world where each of us is expected to be attached to either political party or association, duty or genre in which one is working in... So, how would you describe yourself as an author regarding the genre you are writing in? Is it possible at all? Is it wise to do so? Why?

Rose Tremain: I’ve resisted the term ‘historical novelist’ because it implies a shallow kind of fiction, in which the reader can escape completely any obligation to think about the modern world. I believe/hope that, although (some of) my fictions transport the reader to a different time, the human dilemmas we face today are present in the story. I offer, as an example of this, the plot of Music & Silence, in which King Christian is plagued by the highly contemporary worries of a failing marriage and a diminishing bank account. In Restoration, the hero is obsessed by money, advancement and fame – as is British society today. So…the reader has to address these things.

I’ve searched hard for a new word to describe this genre of non-escapist historical writing, but have still found nothing which perfectly fits it.

Elena Dedukhina: Some famous writers are used to saying that they take their inspiration from the pictures, news (headlines), gossips, etc. What does normally inspire you to write every other book?

Rose Tremain: Inspiration arrives in many forms: sometimes a single image, seen in the street; sometimes an item in a newspaper; sometimes a forceful idea for a character.
Music & Silence was inspired the legend of King Christian IV of Denmark and his orchestra housed in the wine cellar, told to me while on a trip to Copenhagen. Restoration was born out of my discomfort with Thatcherite materialism and all that this brought with it. The age of Charles II mirrors Thatcherism in some ways.

Elena Dedukhina: “She holds gloriously challenging and sometimes confrontational views about contemporary fiction,” was said about you in some article. What is your view about contemporary fiction on the whole and the British one in particular?

Rose Tremain: I think the last twenty-five years may be seen as a kind of ‘golden age’ of fiction writing in the Anglo-saxon world. During this time, the novel has taken many different directions, from the politically aware hyper-realism of writers like Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen, to the magical realism of Salman Rushdie, inspired by Borges, Garcia Marquez and other writers from South America. Louis de Bernieres and Andrew Miller also take something from the South American writers and use it to wonderful effect. The dazzling imagination and empathy of some women writers has also been with us. I’m thinking, in particular, of Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Penelope Fitzgerald, the late Angela Carter, Annie Proulx and Joyce Carol Oates. New on the British scene are talented women writers from the former Commonwealth countries, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali and Andrea Levy. Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes continue to produce urbane, highly wrought and original work. Gay fiction is currently getting a huge boost from Sarah Waters. I think, all in all, the fiction scene is still lively…

Elena Dedukhina: Your characters never represent either full moon or lunar eclipse. They always have two phases - dark side along with the white one which just move around. When you create a character, what is the prevailing thing for you – to elicit his/her dark sides of the nature or the positive ones?


Rose Tremain: I think my characters are often pulled in opposite different directions and show both their dark sides and their generous natures. Merivel in Restoration pivots between duty ( as represented by his Quaker friend, Pearce) and abandonment to material things (as represented by the Court.)
He is both generous and passionate as well as avaracious and lazy. My true aim with all my characters is to make the reader care about them. If the reader doesn’t care, then everything is lost.

Elena Dedukhina: How much do you normally become attached to your characters? Has there ever been such a character that didn’t leave you in peace even when the book was already published?


Rose Tremain: I still sometimes wonder if I might write the sequel to Restoration. The thing I adore about Merivel is that he really makes he laugh! I think that, as an older man, his story might be moving. But sequels, alas, are usually doomed to failure.

Elena Dedukhina: How do you feel when people suggest their own visions of the characters which you have never perhaps even considered yourself?


Rose Tremain: Every reader will shape a fictional character to fit his/her own perceptions and desires. If a book is widely read, then you know the character must be accessible to people in many different shapes and guises. It never worries me when a reader sees a character differently from how I’ve seen him or her.

Elena Dedukhina: Have you ever experienced being restless while writing a novel? How do you manage to overcome it?

Rose Tremain: Not really restless. I’ve never given up on a book. I’ve often felt tired or blocked, or both. Sometimes anguished. Sometimes ecstatically happy. Writing a novel is to embark upon a long journey and the writer’s moods are bound to swing and alter along the way.

Elena Dedukhina: You said that you have learned to enjoy public events and literary festivals. It means you had to learn to enjoy the questions (and the repetitiveness of them) the audience tends to ask you. What kind of the questions you are enjoying most? Which ones usually do disconcert you?

Rose Tremain: It’s the writing itself that gives me most pleasure and satisfaction, not talking about the writing in front of audiences. However, literary festivals – and audience questions – can be fun now and then. The knack with questions is to turn them from the mundane towards the complex.

Elena Dedukhina: English court of Charles II, Danish royal court... Are you interested in Russian royal court and history to be inspired to write the very next novel?

Rose Tremain: Russian history is sublimely extraordinary! In a contemporary novel of mine, The Way I Found her, a young English boy falls in love with a Russian writer called Valentina, who then disappears. From Valentina, the boy picks up a few pieces of Russian history – some nuggets about the life and lovers of Catherine the Great, and later, quite a lot about the Second World War, in particular, about the siege of Leningrad. Later still, Valentina tells him about Kruschev’s “maize craze” which was so hard on Russian farmers. Maybe you should have a look at this book? I am now writing the screenplay of it, which I hope will be made in 2007.

Elena Dedukhina: In one of your interviews you said that there are now a group of ‘mystical boys’ in your fictions referring mainly to the idea of having children with the ability to communicate with the outer world. Some of your former students like Mick Jackson, Tracy Chevalier have created much like similar world of a child (ghost child). Don’t you think they simply duplicate your ideas about it (though I admire their works too)? How strong the influence of a tutor and mentor can be on his/her students as far as literature is concerned?

Rose Tremain: Well, sometimes I see ideas that have been carried on from my work by former students – like the idea of the heart/body with no feeling in Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. As long as they do their own thing with it – and make it theirs – it doesn’t really bother me. And perhaps my work gave them the courage to begin their books in the first place – which is good.

Elena Dedukhina: Notwithstanding the fact that the Hollywood version of ‘Restoration’ won two Oscars in 1995, you were disappointed by that film and have become writing your own scripts for the other novels of yours? What is so disappointing was in that film that incited you to becoming a script writer too?
Rose Tremain: My disppointment with the film of Restoration lies only with the storytelling. The film has a beautiful texture to it and is, on the whole, well acted, but the story has no logic and so does not move the audience. This disappointment has led me to experiment with doing my own scripts. A script is a novel broken apart and reassembled differently. This reassembling must have cinematic logic (i.e. the audience must understand what they’re being asked to care about) or the film will fail.

Elena Dedukhina: What does ‘a question of time’ mean for you?

Rose Tremain: When you get older (I’m 62) time accelerates in a frightening way. I feel that there is a lot more that I want to realise before this acceleration gets out of control.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2006

Thursday, October 12, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH KATE MOSSE

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in April 2006

Elena Dedukhina: You have been asked about it many times, of course, yet, for the majority of Russian readers it will be a new chapter, because only in recent years the authors who were nominated to the Orange in the past have at last attracted the Russian Publishing Companies’ attention, and we have got the opportunity to be acquainted with their works translated into Russian. So, how did the idea of the Orange Prize for Fiction come to you in the first place? And how difficult it was to put it into effect?

Kate Mosse: There was a shortlist for the Booker Prize in 1991 that had no female authors on it at all. It was not deliberate, of course – the judges had just chosen the books they most enjoyed! But they had not noticed there were no women on the list. Also, many male and female publishers, agents, authors and journalists commented on how there would be a big outcry if the list had been published with no men on it all!

Prizes are important in bringing new authors and new titles to a wider readership. Since, at that stage, 60 per cent of novels published were written by women, it seemed odd that women didn’t appear more regularly on the shortlists of literary prizes.

So, the Orange Prize was conceived. We wanted to celebrate international fiction written by women throughout the world, to introduce outstanding work by women to male and female readers and also to use the publicity generated by the prize to sponsor a wide range of educational, literacy and research initiatives.

We spent several years in research and finding a sponsor. Finally, at the end of 1995, the mobile telecommunications company Orange – who were just launching in the UK – came on board and the Orange Prize for Fiction was launched in 1996. It has been a long and happy partnership that has endured ever since.


Elena Dedukhina: How did the British world of literature take it in?

Kate Mosse: Publishers, literary agents, booksellers and librarians thought the Orange Prize for Fiction was a good idea from the very beginning. However, some sections of the press were very hostile and a few authors – worried that it would suggest women writers were second class citizens in the world of literature – expressed concerns.

However, once the first shortlist was announce in 1996 – and everybody saw the wonderful six books, all of which had been overlooked by the other major prizes (both from established and new writers) – opinion began to turn.

In 2005, when we were celebrating our 10th Orange Prize for Fiction – and there were many articles in the media – there was nobody who was prepared to speak against the OPF. Everybody said it had been an excellent idea and had succeeded in its goal of promoting outstanding fiction by women to male and female readers. The fact that OPF books are being translated into Russian – and many other languages – is proof of that!

Elena Dedukhina: The prize was initially set for the fiction written exclusively by women to promote literature that “was not being brought to the attention of male and female readers who’d appreciate them.” Have you ever had the feeling that the Prize has a bit overdone since then – nowadays there seem to be more female names in the world of literature than male’s?

Kate Mosse: No. There were always more books published that were written by women rather than written by men. That has not changed. The concern was that even though women writers historically made up the majority of authors publishing fiction, the literary prizes did not seem to value their work as highly as their male counterparts, hence the disproportionately small number of women – given the figures of male/female novels published – that made it to the shortlists of other literary awards.

Elena Dedukhina: In comparison with other Prizes the Orange doesn’t have any restrictions for the works – it could be the mainstream literature, thriller, detective story or romance... What is the main feature the book has to have in order to be nominated to the Orange apart from being written by woman?

Kate Mosse: It is important to understand that there is no such thing as the ‘best book’. There is only the book that the particular group of judges, of a particular award, in a particular year enjoy the most. We therefore simply ask our judges to choose books that they would recommend and books that make the hair on their neck stand on end! We have only three words as a guideline of which books to longlist (20) then shortlist (6): accessibility, originality and excellence. Each of these three qualities is equally important.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you have your own favourites among the nominees of different years? Who are they and why?

Kate Mosse: I chaired the judging panel in the first year (1996), but other than that my job is promote the OPF in general terms and each year’s selection of novels. It is important that only the judges express their opinions about the books they have chosen.

Elena Dedukhina: Nine British authors against eight Americans, two Australians and one Tahitian in the long-list this year. Does it mean that British talents have become scanty so that there is a pressing need to reinforce the nominee candidates for the Prize by the foreign writers who write in English, otherwise the competition will look unconvincing?

Kate Mosse: No. This is an average to high number of British authors on the list actually. If you look back through the longlists over the past eleven years, you will see sometimes there are fewer British authors. The judges do not pay attention to the nationality of the author when they are reading. They simply choose the novels they enjoy the most. Only when the 20 books for the longlist are chosen do we realize what the combination of nationalities is. For the Orange Prize, nationality or country of residence are completely irrelevant.

Elena Dedukhina: For the second time Ali Smith and Zadie Smith were nominated to the same prize at the same time. We saw in British press the titles like “Smith vs Smith: Battle rejoined...” Has it been done on purpose to spur up an interest in the world of literature and make the competition look tougher? Or it is happened out of pure coincidence?

Kate Mosse: As above, the judges choose the books they like the best. That is their responsibility. They do not ‘construct’ the list by choosing people for marketing or publicity purposes at all. Because of the nature of publishing cycles, every year there are authors who have appeared on the list together before. It is unavoidable. The reason the press focussed on Smith v Smith was, first, because it was a quick and easy story (!) and second because they had recently been on the same Man Booker shortlist in 2005 – where neither of them won.

Elena Dedukhina: What if this “battle” will divert the judges’ attention from other authors, especially newcomers?

Kate Mosse: It is how the literary press works in the UK to try to spice up the stories. The longlist is promoted as a complete list of 20 books. Libraries throughout the UK buy the entire longlist and promote to their borrowers, bookshops promote the entire list. Apart from when the list is first announced in the press – when journalists do tend to focus on one or two authors – readers simply enjoy the wide range of novels chosen. Every year there is this sort of manufactured press story, but it makes no difference to either the sales of the other books or the attention given to the list as a whole.

Elena Dedukhina: Don’t you think that if the main goal of the Orange has been to promote women’s writing, it would be fairer to promote more new names rather than already established and well-known?

Kate Mosse: The aim of the Orange Prize is celebrate international fiction writing by women and promote outstanding novels to male and female readers. We have a new award – launched to celebrate 10 years in 2005 – which honours first time fiction writers (of novels, short story collections of novellas). It’s called the Orange Award for New Writers and is there to support promise, potential and imagination in up-and-coming writers.

The OPF was never intended to ignore established names. Just because a female author (or indeed male author) is well known, it does not mean at all that they have big sales. Every year, those books shortlisted for the Orange Prize – and especially the winning novel – go on to sell many more books that they had before reaching the shortlist. Many of the winning novels are by established writers. For example, We Need to Talk About Kevin – which won in 2005 – is Lionel Shriver’s 7th Novel. She was an established author, but yet the novel had only sold approximately 2000 copies. It has now sold nearly 250,000 copies in the UK alone! That uplift in sales means many more readers. That’s what the OPF is about.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you have any plans to extend the Prize to the level (like the Booker) when it’s going to be recognized as the International Prize for Fiction written by women?

Kate Mosse: It already is! We have anecdotal evidence from many different countries – for example Nigeria, Haiti, New Zealand – that the existence of the OPF leads to more publishing opportunities for women in those countries. OPF shortlisted and winning books do better in America, Canada and many other countries because of having been chosen.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you personally read all the nominations to the Orange before or after the winner is announced?

Kate Mosse: No. I am not a judge – except for 1996 – so it would be inappropriate for me to be involved in the selection process. However, once the longlist is chosen, I then read that selection of 20 books so that I have a sense of what’s been chosen and so that I can effectively promote the list as a whole in the media and press.

Elena Dedukhina: How do you feel when an author or a book you like most didn’t get even into a shortlist not to say became a winner?

Kate Mosse: My role, as Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is to promote the list as a whole as the choice of our annual judging panels (which are different every year – nobody judges more than once). Truthfully, though, I rarely feel that my favourites are not there. The OPF submission process is very comprehensive, which means that all books that are eligible are submitted and the choice is always very wide. Besides, like all other readers, I like to hear about new authors who I’ve not read before, as well as to read the book of writers I already admire and enjoy.

Elena Dedukhina: The following authors from the Orange list have recently been translated into Russian, though not necessary those works were the winners: Rose Tremain, Stella Duffy, Toni Morrison, Audrey Niffenegger, Ann Donovan, Zadie Smith, Joanne Harris, Sue Monk Kidd, Joyce Carol Oats, Lily Prior, Rachel Seiffert, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Trezza Azzopardi, Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, Tracy Chevalier, Beryl Bainbridge, Ann Patchett, Deirdre Purcell, Christina Garcia, Annie Proulx, Linda Grant, Laurie R.King. Who do you think is unjustly absent from that list?

Kate Mosse: It is fantastic to see such a wonderful range of writers being translated into Russian and therefore enjoyed by new readers. I’m surprised that Lionel Shriver, last year’s winner, isn’t on the list. Also, that the 2004 winner Andrea Levy– and winner of the Best of the Best (to celebrate the first ten OPF winners in Autumn 2005) – is missing. They are both fabulous authors and I think Russian readers would enormously enjoy their work.

Elena Dedukhina: Your ‘Labyrinth’ has recently been translated into Russian. I’m looking forward to see your other books, ‘Eskimo kissing’ and ‘Crucifix Lane’, translated into Russian too. However, I couldn’t help noticing that between the first and the next book of yours there is a gap in several years. Why?

Kate Mosse: I am actually focusing particularly on my fiction writing at present. My latest novel LABYRINTH – a timeslip adventure quest novel set half in medieval and half in contemporary France - was published in the UK last July! It was on the hardback fiction bestseller list for 14 weeks, has been at the top of the paperback fiction bestseller list since the beginning of 2006, is currently on the New York Times bestseller list – as well as making the bestseller lists in Italy, Germany, Holland, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. It is being translated into 35 languages (including Russian, Estonian, Latvian, Slovenian, Japanese and French). I am currently working on another novel, SEPULCHRE, which I will finish by the end of 2006.

The reason for the gap between my novels is simply that my broadcasting commitments – I present radio and television arts programmes for the BBC – and a three-year period as Executive Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, not to mention my work with the Orange Prize – meant that I simply was unable to put my own writing first. Since 2000, however, that has changed and now writing is my first job!

Elena Dedukhina: Would you like to see your own book to be nominated one day for the Orange? Is it possible at all?

Kate Mosse: No, it would be completely inappropriate. LABYRINTH was eligible to be entered for the OPF, but as the Co-Founder & Honorary Director of the Prize, it would be unethical. In the media in the UK, any employee (paid or otherwise) is not allowed to enter a competition sponsored or run by the company. I therefore applied the same rule to myself and my novel was not entered.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006

Intoduction. A few words about the copyright of the posts in this blog.

In this blog English-speaking friends can read my interviews with some famous writers who kindly agreed to take part in the interviews for the Russian Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA that is published in Russia and consequently in Russian language. But I think it would be unfair to conceal from the English-speaking public the Wisdom and Sense of my favourite and much respected writers only because their opinions were intended for the Russian readers and therefore were translated (by me) into Russian. The interviews will appear here only after they have been published in the KNIZHNAYA VITRINA, so all rights belong to the Book Review newspaper Knizhnaya Vitrina and myself (along with the authors who took part in the interviews) and all publications here in English as well as in Russian in the newspaper and its website may be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form or by any means, only with the prior permission in writing of the Editor and myself. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the terms of the Copyright Law should be sent to the Editor at the address: Knizhnaya Vitrina, TOP-KNIGA, 1/1 Arbuzova Street, Novosibirsk; Alternatively Click Here to contact the Editor:

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

INTERVIEW WITH AUDREY NIFFENEGGER

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in September 2006


Elena Dedukhina: Nowadays there are quite a lot of debates about female writings going on in Mass Media

(For example: "I don't really like separating women from men novelists. Most female novelists of any caliber are not writing novels that remotely suggest that they're written by women." or "Of course women's writing is different from men's. It's bound to be. Our experiences are different." Another one: "Women have a 'heart' rather than a 'head' approach, a decidedly female sensitivity." And one more: "Women are noticeably going into traditionally 'male' territory, from adventure stories to sci-fi, with Audrey Niffenegger")

So, from your own point of view - is there such a thing as feminine writing? And which standpoint is closer to your own?

Audrey Niffenegger: These arguments make me feel rather tired. When I write I do not worry about whether I have a female point of view; I worry about representing both male and female characters in a believable way. I know more about the female characters, because they share certain aspects of my own experience. But I think I am actually better at writing the male characters. They seem to have a bit more flair, they are weirder. I don’t think any corners of literature are off-limits to any writer, male or female. I’d like to see more men writing chick-lit.


Elena Dedukhina: Once you said that had ‘wanted to write a book about waiting; about a perfect marriage that was tested by something outside the control of the couple.’ Why did you use such an unreal test for Henry and Clare’s marriage?

Audrey Niffenegger: Because it was a cool idea, that’s all. As a reader, I am not especially interested in realist fiction. If I want reality straight up I’ll go out and live my life. I come to fiction for strangeness and lives that can’t happen outside of literature.

Elena Dedukhina: Can we assume that your character Clare (Botticelli like) bears some resemblance to you?

Audrey Niffenegger: Very little. We both have red hair (at the moment). We are both artists (she’s a sculptor, I am a painter/book artist). We both went to Catholic grade school. Everything else is invention. As a person, I am more similar to Henry.

Elena Dedukhina: You said in one of your interviews, “My work tends to be... strange, and quiet.” How do those two things can blend together? Do you mean ‘quiet’ as ‘not noisy’, or there are some other, more profound meanings in it?

Audrey Niffenegger: My work tends to sneak up on people. It’s not always obvious about what it means, and people are often surprised when they figure it out.

Elena Dedukhina: How does the author of a novel, which has become the centre of attraction for millions of readers all over the world, feel about the time when her works were rejected with the words, “This is brilliant. We’re not going to publish it”?

Audrey Niffenegger: I understood why my work was rejected; it didn’t remind agents and editors of other books that were already published, so it was harder to convince anyone that it was worth publishing. There’s a certain amount of circular reasoning in the publishing industry.


Elena Dedukhina: According to your own words you don’t have “that level of optimism and romance” that people can find in your book ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. Does it mean that you create the world which you would like to have around yourself (optimistic and romantic), but unfortunately can not, and that is your way to compensate its absence (or lack of it) creating a dream world on paper, in your book?

Audrey Niffenegger: No. I like my world just fine, though I could do with fewer Republicans in the White House right now. I originally meant the book to be much darker than it turned out to be. But I got in there and tried to steer it that way, and it was just too bleak. I felt that these characters would not behave in the ways I was trying to make them behave, and the logic of the book called for some lightness in the midst of the inevitable loss and waiting. It was a question of balance, of letting the book follow its own rules and tendencies.

Elena Dedukhina: What about your new work?

Audrey Niffenegger: The book I’m working on now, Her Fearful Symmetry, is about what people are afraid of, and how they cope with that. It’s also a ghost story.


Elena Dedukhina: You’re an American writer. Do you have any explanation to the fact that quite a lot of American writers are becoming keener and keener on going to Europe in search of their inspiration? Your next work is going to be set up in England too...

Audrey Niffenegger: It could be because we all grow up reading Austin and Conan Doyle and the Brontes and Oscar Wilde and Martin Amis etc etc, so Britain starts to be the place where literature happens. That’s how it was for me; I expected to be disappointed when I went to the UK for the first time, because I had all these notions about how it would be. But, in fact, it was better, both familiar and different.

Her Fearful Symmetry is set in London’s Highgate Cemetery because I needed a cemetery for the book, and Highgate is my favorite. But I could probably have made it work using Graceland Cemetery here in Chicago. Once I was allowed to spend time at Highgate I fell in love with it; the history and the place itself are quite unique and interesting.

Elena Dedukhina: As soon as your novel had come out, the film rights were bought by J.Aniston and Brad Pitt’s Production Company. Yet, it has not been made into film so far. Do you feel some kind of frustration not having a film version of your novel up to now? After all you said quite truthfully that when you had been writing the novel the movie had been there in your head.

Audrey Niffenegger: No, I’m more than willing to wait. I’d rather have no movie than a bad movie. So they can take their time, it’s fine. The movie that’s in my head won’t be the movie that gets made, anyway.


Elena Dedukhina: You admire work of Donna Tartt (Secret History) which I admire myself so much that once the book came out I read it 5 times during the same year. But Donna Tartt writes very slowly, and between her books there is approximately 7 years time. What is the best option for you as a writer – to be as good as one of your favourite writers and write slowly but surely, or be as much prolific as possible in order not to give your readers any chance to forget your name? How important is it for you (once to become a household name) to stay that way as long as possible?

Audrey Niffenegger: Donna Tartt is a good role model. She’s slow, and she writes what she wants to write. I believe she actually spends about ten years on each of her books.

I honestly do not care about being a “household name”. It was never a goal of mine in the first place. It’s nice to have readers, and I hope that when I finally get around to publishing Her fearful Symmetry there will be some people who want to read it. Because I am also a visual artist, I spend time painting and drawing as well as writing. And then there is teaching, and traveling. . .I don’t think I will ever qualify as prolific.


Elena Dedukhina: How much the initial idea and the narration of ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ changed from the time of the novel’s conception and its final scenes?

Audrey Niffenegger: At the very beginning it was written in third person, but I rapidly abandoned that. The order of the scenes changed quite a lot, it was originally structured thematically, but early readers deemed it too chaotic and impossible to follow.


Elena Dedukhina: Your first picture book ‘The Three Incestuous Sisters’ (not translated into Russian yet, alas), took you 14 years to make 10 copies which were sold at fabulous price, yet it didn’t make you as famous as ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. What do you think of it? Are there any feelings of regret? Is there any possibility that one day you adapt that illustrated book for the general reader as a literary book?

Audrey Niffenegger: I won’t change the Sisters into another kind of book, but there are some people who are working on turning it into a ballet, which I think would be wonderful. I never expected the Sisters to make me famous, and I am very pleased to have a trade edition published so that more then ten people can have a copy.


Elena Dedukhina: Where did your interest in taxidermy spring from?

Audrey Niffenegger: That’s a difficult question to answer. I am fond of memento mori generally, and there’s something about taxidermy that is fascinating (here is a creature one couldn’t encounter in the real world because it would run away or hide) and perverse (what strange things we humans do to nature). I don’t collect anything exotic or endangered. Most of my collection is battered or just forlorn. Being surrounded by these creatures reminds me to live wisely in the time allotted.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Knizhnaya Vitrina 2006

INTERVIEW WITH GREGORY NORMINTON

Published in the Book Review newspaper KNIZHNAYA VITRINA in October 2006

Elena Dedukhina: What does the term ‘historical novelist’ mean to you? Is it a reputation or a label?

Gregory Norminton: The ‘historical novel’ is, more than anything, a marketing term. As such it is rather confining. I have written two novels set in the historical past: Arts and Wonders and Ghost Portrait. Though both touch on real events, the central characters are invented and their dilemmas apply equally to our own age. The Ship of Fools is a fantasy, or set of fantasies, inspired by the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel. Anybody hoping to learn about life in Medieval Flanders will find it a most frustrating read.

If the term ‘historical novel’ means anything, it is the fictionalised account of historical fact. I am not in that business. My current project is set in contemporary Britain, while a future novel (if I ever manage to write it) imagines a trip into outer space. My short stories include what marketing types would call ‘speculative’ and ‘historical’ fiction, as well as ‘horror’ and more conventionally ‘realistic’ narratives. The problem is that publishers need to define an author, to market a ‘product’ rather than facilitate the expression of an imagination. So labels are imposed and those who refuse them are kept in obscurity. Contemporary writers I most admire flit between genres and resolutely ignore that grim dictum (the ‘socialist realism’ of a narcissistic and confessional culture) only to write from direct experience.

Elena Dedukhina: You said in one of your interviews that ‘getting reviews for fiction is becoming increasingly difficult.’ Does it mean that the art of criticism is generally disappearing or that you personally lack attention towards your work?

Gregory Norminton:: The sale of a book is to a large degree determined by the number of reviews it receives. My third novel was barely reviewed and its sales have been dismal as a result, even though I consider it my best work. But this is not just a personal gripe. The majority of writers in Britain work in relative or total obscurity, and the sheer volume of books published annually ensures that only a minority will see their work reviewed. At the same time, there appears to be a growing trend for reviewing non-fiction over fiction. Newspapers are in the business of fact and interpretation; they are not over-concerned with works of the imagination.

The art of criticism is not dead, for all that. But it is increasingly confined to specialist publications. This means that fiction has a diminishing profile in the mainstream media and only a small number of titles (winners of literary awards or the beneficiaries of expensive marketing campaigns) find a readership. Perhaps the growth of online magazines, reader forums and (in the real world) reading groups will rescue us from this law of diminishing returns? I, for one, long to find ways of finding an audience without the costly mediation of marketing people.

Elena Dedukhina: In your first novel, The Ship of Fools, you offer your own interpretation of the famous Bosch painting, whereas in Ghost Portrait the narration itself offers such vivid descriptions of Nature (mainly) that one might assume you are a landscape painter at heart yourself.

Gregory Norminton:: I regard my first three novels as a kind of trilogy, with painting as the uniting theme. The Ship of Fools pays homage to Bosch and Bruegel: characters from their work are given life, so to speak, on the page. At the same time, as an affirmation of creative freedom, I wanted to go back to the prehistory of the novel and so Rabelais plays an important part, along with English writers such as Swift and Lawrence Sterne: experimenters who played with and invented a new form. Ghost Portrait was a very different enterprise. Like Arts and Wonders, it has painting and painters at its centre. Whereas The Ship of Fools is hermetic and ‘artificial’, an intertextual game, Ghost Portrait is a naturalistic work, an intimate portrayal of long dead people. It marks my return to England and to a tradition, present in art and music as well as literature, of celebrating the English landscape. It is a rural novel. It is about sight and perception. It is also about the sense of place: how one house can be many houses over time, experienced anew by each inhabitant. Fools sprang from books and paintings, Ghost Portrait from explorations of the North Downs – that narrow vein of chalk hills in the south-eastern county of Kent. Nathaniel Deller’s home is a composite of actual country houses; a close relative of William Stroud’s post-mill still stands in east Surrey. As for the revolutionary Diggers, they did indeed attempt to create a colony on an area of heath quite near my childhood home. I was, then, writing about landscapes that I knew intimately. For that reason Ghost Portrait is a very ‘personal’ novel, even if it set three centuries before my birth.

Elena Dedukhina: ‘Failure, though it doesn’t pay the bills, can be an effective tutor.’ You wrote this about the novel you abandoned for being ‘lacklustre and directionless’. Was this the first time such a thing has happened to you? What did you learn from that ‘tutor’? Have you any intention of going back to that unfinished work one day?

Gregory Norminton: I had been working on a comic novel set on an American campus at the height of the present Bush administration. It was going to be based, very loosely, on my own experience of living in Iowa City for six months between 2003 and 2004. I wanted to capture something of that (to me) very foreign country where in theory my own language is spoken. After working on the project for about nine months, however, it became quite obvious that, though I had a setting, I did not have a novel. Many minor characters had the stamp of life about them but there was a gaping hole where the central narrator ought to have been. To work successfully, over months and months, on a novel one has to really need to write it. I made the decision to abandon a project that somehow lacked that life force.

It was the first time I had met with such a failure. The experience was oddly bracing, for it taught me viscerally what I should have known about inspiration and compulsion. If you are trying to earn a living from fiction, the necessity to churn out material can be detrimental to good writing. By going astray, you become acquainted with the path you should follow.

All was not lost, mind you, from the abandoned work. I managed to rescue a section which, substantially reshaped, became a long short story called ‘In Refugium’. It has not yet found a publisher.

Elena Dedukhina: ‘Increasingly,’ you have written, ‘short stories are where my enthusiasm lies, both as reader and writer.’ Why?

Gregory Norminton: I wonder at the decline of the short story in Britain, for it seems to me the perfect narrative form for our age: a fictional package fully digestible in one sitting. The short story, by its brevity, allows us to be promiscuous readers. A good collection (in which each is piece is autonomous yet belongs with its neighbours) takes us through time and space. Yet the proverbial shopper will wrinkle his or her nose at a volume of stories and buy instead some breezeblock of a novel. Madness! It’s buying one story for the price of twelve.

Producing a novel consumes vast amounts of time and anxiety; so writing a short story can seem, at best, a sort of working holiday. Forget stamina: what’s required is precision and concision, the rice sculptor’s steady hand, if you will, and the clockmaker’s squint.

The status of the short story is a wretched one in Britain. Is this because our writers can’t manage the demands of the form? I don’t believe it. The truth is that we are no longer accustomed to reading stories. They have largely disappeared from newspapers and magazine. Until they return to mainstream culture, the passion for short stories will continue to wane; and readers may never discover the speculative fictions of Borges and Ballard, the dark confections of Poe and Angela Carter, or the luminous humanity of Katherine Mansfield.

For my favourites I choose Kipling, V.S. Pritchett (the closest we get to Chekhov?) and Samuel Beckett. Only in Kim does Kipling equal the genius of ‘They’ or ‘The Church that was in Antioch’. Kim of course is greater but only the stories approach perfection. As for Beckett, neither his Trilogy nor his late, negative-knotted exercises offer the compelling cadences and despairing comedy of ‘First Love’ and his three ‘novellas’.


Elena Dedukhina: What annoys you most in British contemporary literature? In American? In any other?

Gregory Norminton: I resent the distortions of hype, the banality of ‘relevance’ and the poison of sentimentality. I fear the relentless push of commercialism with its antipathy towards the unusual and the eccentric. I think the best writing in the USA comes from small, independent publishers. In the UK, the disappearance of independent bookshops is a cultural disaster. We also publish too few books in translation.

Elena Dedukhina: Could you name the authors and books you have recently read? How do you choose the books you think you ought to read?

Gregory Norminton: I am an avid reader, and a greedy accumulator of books. My reading is rarely planned or schematic: I just go where curiosity, or the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, leads me. Recently, having moved to Scotland, I have been reading contemporary Scottish writers such as James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy and the great, eccentric visionary Alasdair Gray, whose novel Lanark I cannot recommend too highly. I hope it is available in Russian translation. Fiction is not my only interest. I read books on natural history and the environment, works of history (often following particular obsessions: last year, the Soviet gulags, this year the disgraceful conduct of the West in the Middle East) and quite a lot of poetry. Perhaps I should be a more disciplined reader: I tend to have several books on the go at any one time.

Elena Dedukhina: Do you normally attend book festivals? What do they mean to you? Why do you think more and more readers each year flock to book fairs and festivals?

Gregory Norminton: I would love to attend more book festivals: it’s the frustrated actor in me. I really enjoy reading my own work. Unfortunately having a low profile in Britain means that I rarely get the opportunity. I do occasionally go as an audience member (living in Edinburgh enables me to attend the Book Festival in August) but must confess that, unless the writer has a real talent for reading her work, I often end up regretting the experience. On the other hand, festivals are proof of a literary appetite and testify to a strange public curiosity concerning the shape and sound of authors. People who attend such events want to make a connection with the frail or fallible human being who happens to have written a book. For the author who fills the tent or theatre, the size of the audience testifies to the health of his talent.

Elena Dedukhina: You took part in all kinds of projects for the television series, Planet Action. What does it mean to you?

Gregory Norminton: Planet Action is a six-part television series, broadcast around the world on the Animal Planet channel, in which seven volunteers travel to different, tropical locations to work on conservation projects with the WWF. A lifelong supporter of the WWF (a remarkable organisation I would urge everyone to join), I auditioned on a whim for a part in the series and, to my great surprise, was selected in May 2005. Eight weeks of sweating adventures followed: fitting satellite transmitters on leatherback turtles in Panama, studying coral reef ecology in Belize, restoring degraded forest in Borneo, creating an eco-tourist adventure to safeguard a patch of Malaysian jungle, building a tiger-proof paddock in Kelantan, and helping to save the dismally rare Irrawaddy dolphin in the Cambodian Mekong. As this list suggests, the whole experience was remarkable – a unique opportunity to see parts of our endangered planet and to do something to raise awareness of our ecological crisis. I have long been an environmentalist (show me another planet we can live on) but my experiences last year have strengthened my conviction that writers have a particular duty to address the greatest challenge of our time: learning to live in a sustainable way on a fragile and finite Earth.

Copyright © Elena Dedukhina 2006
Copyright © Gregory Norminton 2006