Chandran Nair talks about Consumptionomics

It’s now a few weeks since we returned from the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, and some of the sessions and speakers are still floating in and out of my rather erratic brain.  Chandran Nair’s session on Consumptionomics is one of the ‘stickiest’ ones …

Chandran Nair is a brave man.  He is very upfront about a few things: he is NOT an author, NOT a writer, NOT an economist, and he strenuously denies it when people suggest he might have a “greenies” interest in the environment. And when we don’t even get through the Chair’s introduction to the Michael King Memorial Lecture without a Shouty Man’s heckling from the balcony, he is serene and forthright about how very unpopular his message is.

To really understand the message, as with many non-fiction speakers, you need to read the book, and I thoroughly recommend finding it and doing just this.  In the meantime, however, here’s my attempt to summarise what will probably (for me at least) turn out to be 2012’s most unsettling and thought-provoking Festival session.  (So don’t go shooting the messenger!)

In essence, these are the main points:

  • The current narrative of economics is from the West, and as such is heavily weighted towards Western ways of thinking – individualistic, consumer-driven, reliant on democratic models.
  • Most of us have a “pedigree of denial”, and dwell within “a climate of lying and denying” (purposeful or not)
  • The 2008-2009 crisis was the trigger: Asians were told that they were the new environmental and consumeristic ‘bad guys’ and that the responsible thing for them to do was to spend their way up and out of the crisis, but ALSO to use fewer resources while doing so – this is actually not possible.
  • We are seeing the dying pangs of the US and EU as global superpowers, leading to the rise of Asia as world leaders
  • BUT the painting of the 21st century as the “Asian century” is bad because it leads Asians to think that it is now “their turn” to have “all the things”, to “win at consumerism”, to have lots of stuff.
  • For Nair himself, the challenge of coming from Asia means that his message had to get more and more extreme in order to be heard, and he also decided that he’d never have a big audience anyway, so it didn’t matter …
  • His message is actually quite simple, if controversial: Bling is Out, and Less is More; Asia must reject the Western model (which promotes relentless consumerism, voodoo economics, and the constant ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ mantra); we need fewer human rights.  (You can see why his message might be seen as a little confrontational …)
  • The only way for this to work is to follow traditional Asian societal models – Asians cannot live like Westerners.  They must embrace the “restrain and restrict” message of societies like Singapore, and (even more contentious a suggestion) China.

This slightly dizzying summary in no way illustrates the nature or ‘feel’ of the session, with its already-mentioned Shouty Dude, myriad of business suits interspersed with a fair sprinkling of more alternative-looking types, and a really very challenging message, but will hopefully inspire those with a socially- or economically-enquiring mind to explore further!

Back in black – Dying and dyeing

Doris de PontBlack in fashion with Doris de Pont was a wonderful session, illustrated with a show of images from the book she curated.

Doris is a well-known designer and founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Journalist Josie McNaught chaired the session.

The big problem with black is it’s an ambiguous colour.

Doris talked about post-Treaty New Zealand, Queen Victoria in mourning, and the “interplay between dying and dyeing”. She showed an image of Victoria and her young family, six of the nine children dressed in black. But Prince Albert is in the photo too, so this puts paid to the idea that Victorian black was all about mourning her lost husband.

The Dyeing story is a fascinating one. When dyes were natural, a good dark black was difficult to achieve – and very expensive. Black was a “colour only affordable for the well-to-do”. It indicated status and wealth. Mauve was the first colour achieved with the new artificial dyes – it was years later that a good black was achieved.

CoverDoris had great historical images to illustrate her point that black was “the colour of loss, also the colour of gain”. This applied to Maori as well as Pakeha. She showed how the traditional funeral practice of wearing garlands of leaves met the practice of wearing black.

Airini Tonore (Donnelly) was used as an example – Doris showed a photo of her in stunning, highly decorative black clothing.

In the 20th century, black was also seen as sensible or daring. It was a popular choice for the flappers of the 1920s, but also for hard working housewives.

After the late 40s and 50s though, it virtually disappeared. Hollywood and Elizabeth II both promoted a more optimistic colour palette. Easy care synthetic fabrics and washing machines helped too. Black retained its role as a colour of formal occasions and uniform. Doris pointed out how it is the colour of both traditional authority and its antithesis:

law, church, politics, business, beatnik, biker, rocker, punk, gang, the school uniform …

Doris looked at the black singlet as “shorthand for Kiwi blokeness” – Fred Dagg – but also the colour of our villains – Bruno Lawrence in Wild Horses, Jake the Muss, fetish wear in Angel Mine.

And the All Blacks? Doris says the New Zealand Natives rugby team who went on tour in 1888-9 were the first to wear black.

In the fashion arena, commentators on NZ designers have touted: “New Zealanders have a darker outlook, less showy offy and more intellectual”, and “edgy gothic sartorial wit”.

The session finished with a 2011 design by Shona Taiwhiao that brings together so many elements of black – loss, status, authority, haute couture, a sense of belonging, the fashionable and the sensible.

Some image of black in fashion from the Christchurch City Libraries collection:

Photo  Photo

My “find” of the “fest”

Photo: Charlotte Wood
Charlotte Wood at AWRF 2012

You learn a lot at a festival – and not just about the authors either. For starters you learn which of your colleagues can pack away two Eggs Benedict at breakfast and who is the really fleet-of-foot team mate who gets lost in a crowded room if you take your eyes off her for even a second. But it is also true that you discover a whole slew of writers you’d never even heard of  before. My reading “find” of this Auckland Writers and Readers Festival has to be Charlotte Wood.

Charlotte Wood is a rising star of Australian fiction. I attended the festival event “An Hour with Charlotte Wood” having read only one of her books: Animal People. Suffice it to say that I will now be reading all her novels. She is one very observant, highly intelligent lady. What I noticed in particular is that she thinks carefully before answering any question put to her. She does not do glib.

Animal People takes one of the characters (Stephen) from her previous novel The Children and follows him over a single day in his life. Wood found using this twenty-four hour time span a useful device which she likened to a  “mini ticking bomb”. Stephen is like a 39 year old adolescent. You know the type, you will have dated them, you may even have married one. He has family issues – it’s not that he is estranged from his family, but he is evasive. The big question for Stephen is:

How do you remain an adult with your family? The problem in families is that we all remember events differently and your memory can be what you become but it can also be completely wrong.Cover: Animal People

Stephen has an awful day in which he sets out to break-up with his lovely girlfriend. His whole day degenerates into a series of  “trapped and escaping” events. He seems to be in some kind of crisis:

He’s having a meltdown – an internal collapse that no-one else can see.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like fun to you, but in Wood’s hands it is. She is so perceptive and so humourous. I left the event and quickly bought The Children, stood in the long signing queue and gushed when I got to her: “You are my find of the fest. I loved Animal People and I want to love this book too!”

“No pressure then” she said, signing with a flourish and a smile.

The Politics of Prizes

A beaming Sam Elworthy was the enthusiastic host for “The  Politics of Prizes”. On the panel: birthday girl Stella RimingtonJenny Pattrick of Denniston Rose fame and “literary super-judge” New Zealander Stephen Stratford.

The panellists presumably accept the value of prizes as there was no discussion regarding the rationale behind prize giving, or the impact of elevating some titles over others. The discussion instead focused on the mechanics behind prizes such as The Man Booker and the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

The perfect short-list size?  The consensus was that 5 titles gave enough scope.

The qualities desirable in a judge? Stephen Stratford likes common sense judges from a variety of backgrounds and careers. “Academics are terrible judges”, he said, as they worry too much about their reputation. Stella Rimington quoted the Man Booker mandate “to appeal to average, intelligent readers” and the judges likewise she felt should be average, intelligent readers outside of the established literary milieu.

What are the challenges of being a judge or chair? Stella Rimington said the recruitment process for the panel “was like joining MI5, someone sidles up to you and says “pssst, do you want to be a judge?” ” Stephen Stratford aims to be in a compatible group and found it frustrating that initially there is so much secrecy about the panellists. He had to hide mountains of submitted books around his house so no one would twig he was a judge. Ok if your house is big but Elizabeth Smither has such a wee house that she eventually stopped letting any one through the front door! The role of Chairman both Rimington andStratford agreed is to keep an eye on factions,  prejudice and to ensure no single voice dominates the discussion.

What are the impact of prizes on sales? Stratford rearranged a few feathers when he declared that from the point of view of small town and mall-based booksellers there was very little. “WOFT” (Waste of F***ing Time) was the delightful phrase a “friendly, local bookseller” chum of his used but Stratford also acknowledged the situation may be different in “brainy book shops”

Rimington talked about the publicity machine surrounding the Booker prize and its need to generate controversy and therefore column inches. The 2011 Man Booker long-list, short-list and eventual winner Julian Barnes’s Sense of an ending were the highest selling titles of any previous year.

A one-eyed but highly entertaining look into the world of prize-giving.

Jeffrey Eugenides: the interview

On the day that I was down to chat to Jeffrey Eugenides, he had already been interviewed by Kim Hill early that morning, been a participant in the session The Future of the Novel, signed about a gazillion copies of his book and somehow lost his assistant.

Even though I bet all he wanted by that stage was a beer and a burger, he was easy to chat to – forthcoming and attentive, the perfect gentleman. But it does go some way toward explaining why (in the photograph that was taken when we’d finally worked out where he was next expected to be), the poor man looks quite curdled by it all!

In fact, he looked a lot like the Talking Heads quote in the front of his book The Marriage Plot:

And you may ask yourself, Well how did I get here?
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself,
This is not my beautiful wife

On with the interview:

Christchurch Library users love your books! One of the questions I have been asked recently is: “If I loved Middlesex, will I like The Marriage Plot?” Do you think this new book will appeal to your existing fans or will it attract a whole new readership?

Well, my books tend to be not very like each other. So each time I write a book, sometimes I change my style – the way I write the book – so if someone is looking for Middlesex 2 they might be disappointed. But if they like my writing and my sensibility, the reading experience my books have provided them, I would think that they will also like this book. In some ways I think it is my best book, so I hope that they would like it, but sometimes people have a huge affection for Middlesex and it might be more difficult for them to love this book.

One of the differences between the two books is that Middlesex has a huge cast of characters and The Marriage Plot has a focus on only three main characters. Did that change your writing a lot?

This book is very much about character and it is the first time I have gone deeply, deeply into the psychology of people. The canvas in Middlesex is broader – it’s more populated but the characterisation is not as searching. Whereas in The Marriage Plot, I’ve dug quite deeply into what these characters think and feel, the verisimilitude of those characters in other words.

Perhaps that’s why I ended up being able to identify with all the main female characters in the book in one way or another. Madeleine when I was younger, her mother now and even her sister, Allie, who appears about three quarters of the way through the book.

Well, I hope that means that it will be a relatively easy book for people to find some points of connection with – certainly that was one of my intentions.

Are you a re-reader of books?

If I have a book that I love, I read it many times so I can find out more about how it is put together. When I first read a book I’m just figuring out what the story is, taking in the book but when I read it the third and fourth time I start to see the architecture of it. This is very helpful for me as a writer.

CoverI’m not normally a re-reader of books, there is just so much other stuff out there that I want to get stuck into. But I did re-read parts of The Marriage Plot because I struggled to synthesize the literary aspects of the book (Madeleine’s research and readings) and the plot line at the same time. Have other people had a similar difficulty?

Well, I think there are two ways of reading the book. A certain kind of reader likes to read just for the story and another one can read it for the dual levels, the literary metatextual structure of the book, that the book is commenting in some ways on the traditional marriage plot. There is no right or wrong way to read a book, in my opinion.

Would my reading of The Marriage Plot been enhanced had I more knowledge of the writers that Madeleine was studying in her Semiotics course?

I don’t think so. I know that some readers become somewhat intimidated in so-called Books About Books. In the case of The Marriage Plot, the reference to the books Madeleine is studying is really there to help the reader enter into that world. They are like the props in that world. You don’t have to know how the props are made or where they come from, you just need to use the props to help position yourself, as the reader, in a certain time and place. So I would say, do not worry about any of that. The books are just the furniture of the novel.

It took nine years to write this book. Madeleine must feel like a part of your family. Do you ever wonder what would happen to her next?

No, she does not live outside of the book for me and when I finish a story about any character, it is because their story is finished. I am not a writer of sequels.

Madeleine is a very reactive character. Almost all her decisions are made for her by the men in her life. I worry about her, I really do.

Yes this is a woman who thinks she can save a troubled man by loving him, she is in a way ensnared by her feelings to be good and helpful. But I do think she gets some degree of clarity about herself by the end of the novel.

The Marriage Plot is a great read and, I think, it has the best ending ever. Tell us a little bit more about how you got to this perfect ending.

I certainly didn’t build up to it, it really came to me right at the end. And I must say I am very pleased with it as well.

What’s the main difference, in your opinion between The Pulitzer Prize and The Man Booker Prize?

That’s easy, the Booker Prize we care about in America but the Pulitzer Prize is not particularly cared about in Britain.

If you could go back to university now, and study anything that you liked, what would it be?

Can I be young?

Yes I’ll let you be young!

Science and history – I would broaden my education.

How important have libraries been in your life?

We had a bookish home in my childhood. We had lots of books on our shelves and this had a fairly profound effect on me. But we did use the public libraries as well.

What’s Princeton Public Library like?

My daughter’s there all the time. It’s a beautiful place but libraries are not as quiet as they used to be. I miss that, I remember when they were church quiet, there was a sense of sanctity about them. That said, in Princeton, the library is the anchor of the community – people of all ages are going there all the time. I believe you can borrow e-books from libraries now, I am worried about that, how e-book use in the future will affect writers’ incomes and hence their ability to write.

Then out of the blue Jeffrey Eugenides asked me a question. He said:

Have you ever fasted?

A girl can only take this one of two ways: you look as if you need to (fast that is) or: I’m getting really hungry now. Time to end the interview methinks!

Change your brain

In Grade 1 at school in Toronto in the 1950’s, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was put in The Turtles reading group and only because calling them The Tortoises didn’t seem nice. Barbara had severe learning difficulties.

In fact the list of things that Barbara could not do was very long – no spatial awareness for starters:

I could not judge where my body was relative to other objects, in particular moving objects coming towards me. You can imagine how badly my school mates did not want me on their sports teams.

She also had serious kinaesthetic problems (she was dreadfully clumsy) and her conceptual learning (reading and counting) was severely impaired. She couldn’t tell the time, tie her own shoelaces or read a map. Learning to drive (eventually) sent shock waves through her Toronto community.

And look at her now. She is beautifully spoken, has written a book on her method of improving the neuro-plasticity of the brain, has started her own school and now has 35 branches of them. She is successful in getting her programme accepted into American and Canadian State Schools where there are specially equipped rooms called Arrowsmith Rooms with teachers whom she has personally trained in her methodology. The woman who changed her brain is her first book on her experiences and her methodology, it tells stories from 30 years of working with people who have followed her programme.

What did she have that enabled this epic turnabout to take place? A verbatim memory, a photographic visual memory and capital M Motivation . With these tools, she developed her own series of mental exercises to improve her brain. She is living proof that it works.

Question time at this session was fascinating. The auditorium was packed with concerned parents, medical personnel and actual sufferers of  a variety of cognitive ailments. There was still a forrest of hands waving for the mike when the session ended. One of the last questions she took asked if our schooling paid enough attention to students with learning problems. Her chilling answer was:

Education neglects the brain

The queue at her book signing was one of the longest at this Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Read her book – someone you know could benefit. It may even be you.

The haunting hour- Stella Rimington

Another packed house and a slightly queasy start with host Sean Plunket  promising the audience to get the goods from Stella Rimington but all without resorting to waterboarding. Boom, boom Mr Plunket.

Dame Stella – who celebrated her 77th birthday yesterday – affirmed first off that writing “spook” fiction was significantly more fun and less responsibility than living a life in espionage. The realities of the spy game bear very little resemblance to fictional representations and while her heroine Liz Carlyle has been shot at, nearly blown up and kidnapped, Rimington’s role as Director General of MI5 involved the infinitely lesser threat of death by boredom with an endless round of budget meetings and ministerial briefings.

Alternating between writing and intelligence questions, Sean Plunket asked about MI5’s relationship with the media under Stella Rimington’s stewardship. There was, she felt, no relationship between the secret service and the media prior to the 1980s, and the most frequent headline used in conjunction with intelligence news was “MI5 blunders”. To address this she developed  an “openness strategy” and while still keeping operational information under wraps, MI5 presented a more visible profile and point of contact to the press and public. Her reveal as Director General was part of this transition but overall she feels the service could still achieve greater transparency and as a result gain the public’s trust.

Dame Stella is still obliged to submit all her manuscripts for scrutiny and this is now her only connection to the “Ring of Secrecy”.  After being owned almost body and soul by the service she is now on the outside. This adjustment from being at the “centre of things” was both a “relief and grief”, and the process of re-establishing control of the shape and direction of her life was at the time challenging.

Two of her novels have been optioned for TV, asked who she’d like to see in the role of Liz Carlyle she confessed that she watched insufficient television to match faces to names. She was however scathing about the series “Spooks” which she finds overly violent and too neatly episodic.

She has recently agreed to write two more Carlyle thrillers but feels age may be against her. Her mortality was raised again in the context of the West’s war on terror. Rimington isn’t sure she’ll live to see the end of this cycle of terrorism but while she laments the “unjustified” war in Iraq, and the US’s heavy-handed,  militaristic response to the terrorist threat, she also believe terrorism in some form will remain a constant and ever-changing danger.

A calm, measured and informative hour delivered by a calm, measured and inspiring woman.

Bravo Maurice Gee

Maurice Gee is the first Honoured New Zealand Writer, a new Auckland Writers and Readers Festival award:

Conceived to celebrate New Zealand’s most accomplished writers, their body of work and the immense contribution they have made to the literary landscape of New Zealand.

Maurice GeeSo this could have easily been a worthy session, a bit of a literary pat on the back for one of our finest. It was far more.

Maurice Gee, ably assisted by publisher Geoff Walker,  overcame his nervousness and reluctance to appear in public. When he turned 70, his present to himself was to say no to any more public speaking – but he thought it would be mean-spirited and churlish to refuse this honour.

He talked about his themes:

I keep going back to the little town I grew up in.

The two leitmotifs in his work are the creek (danger) and the kitchen (his Mum there representing home and safety). He remembers a family walk that led to an encounter with a naked man cleaning himself in the creek: “I’ll never forget his black stare”. Apparently there were swagmen around Henderson in 1936. The other memory is an episode of bullying. A fat child was caught peeking in the girls’ changing room so a bit of mob justice is administered.

Writing was a natural thing in our family … It was no strange thing to write.

Gee talked about his mother’s writing career. He also had uncles who wrote, as well as an aunt and his grandfather. His dad was a carpenter who had at one time been a successful boxer. It was his dad that gave him the first book he ever enjoyed, a Chums annual from around 1917. It was a violent and savage thing.

After that he became an avid reader. He got into Zane Grey and “read 45 of his novels in an uncivilised gulp”. When he was 16, he met an old man called Ben Hart who asked “Do you like Charles Dickens?’  He thought it looked old-fashioned but gave it a try:

I fell in love with Dickens in Chapter Two … Ben handed out the novels one by one, mostly in order. Fellow feeling took the place of facile identification.

Gee’s novel Plumb saw him utilising the life of his grandfather the Reverend James Chappell:

Every novelist should have a remarkable grandfather.

The Reverend became an evolutionist, left “this great lying church”, was a pacifist and became a communist. Gee’s mother was the 11th of  his 15 children. He dragged the family to American in WWI and came back when the States entered the war.

Geoff Walker asked Maurice Gee why there are so many old people in his fiction:

Old people are full of years and full of experience … They have an abundance of stuff in there.  They present whole lives … yet they can be living intensely themselves in the present time … Past and present are flashing lights to each other.

His technique is to explore this “interleaving of past and present” … and then add “a little sharp bit at the end”.

When questioned about a perceived darkness in his work, Gee said:

I didn’t invent darkness and violence … You’ve got to be aware of the things that lurk. A violent act is a great peg to hang a story on. It creates behaviour and generates more story.

Maurice then mentioned the poem Childe Roland to the dark tower came by Robert Browning. He read it in 1948 and always wondered about the ending. He came to the conclusion that Roland had to fight the dark part of himself.

He paid tribute to his wife Margareta. Her diaries, and her research, has informed his work – even to the extent of using her diaries as a 16 year old to create the character of Ellie. He read from Prowlers – his feeling is that it is his best novel. He read an excerpt, acting the character of soil scientist with astonishing character, a diatribe against a pretty young relative and beauty under surfaces. It’s not every day you get to see a venerable older gentleman say: “Put on a brassiere, slut, before you come questing here again”. The reading ended with:

Here they come, the asteroids, the basalt moons.

Rachel Barrowman is working on a biography of Maurice, and he is also writing pieces of memoir himself:

I seem no longer to be able to write fiction … I can invent well enough but I seem to be inventing the same old thing … I quietly closed those exercise books … I have a sense of completion. I’d like to write a great big comic novel … I’m not a humorist.

His final words will resonate – they sum up the honesty and modesty of an extraordinary person:

I look back on 30 or so novels and think that’s ok.

Fiona Kidman – The Trouble with Fire

The Trouble with Fire

Friendship has meant a great deal to me over the years.

An Audience with Dame Fiona was a session I was looking forward to. I’m a great fan of Fiona Kidman. She made the decision to become a writer when she was 22 years old and hasn’t looked back. During her writing career she’s produced novels, short stories, plays, and poetry and has over 30 books to her name. Her stories are deceptively understated, real, evocative and moving. In the 1970s she was seen as a strong voice in the feminist movement and has fought relentlessly to improve opportunities for writers in New Zealand.

At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, she was in conversation with friend and book disributor, Carole Beu. The mood in the room was relaxed. The audience was mainly women. Many were of Dame Fiona’s generation, most younger. She was greeted like an old friend.

In my interview with the author, Fiona Kidman tells me of an experience she had in the early 70s when she was on book tour. It was early in her writing career. It was pouring with rain and she had to stand on a wooden crate in the mud to speak. She didn’t expect many people to turn up in such awful conditions but over 2,000 women came to see her talk that day. It was then she realised that women were desperate to hear the voice of their generation. Her sincere interest in people and the events that shape their lives has kept her writing voice current. She writes our stories and we love her for it.

The Trouble with Fire is Fiona Kidman’s most recent collection of short stories. A central theme of fire, real and metaphorical, runs through the work. Lady Anne Barker sets fire to large tracts of Canterbury tussock land in the title story while fire-spotter, Samson, in Extremes surveys the forest for flames not realising that “there’s a fire burning on the hearth at home”. His wife is playing away.

Unplanned pregnancy is a topic touched on several times. Today, it’s hard to imagine how few choices women had only a generation before mine. As the author says, you either got married in a hurry if some chap would have you or you “went up north for a while”. Extremes is the story of two women who contact the Sisters Overseas Service (SOS) in Wellington for terminations and the decisions they make. Part Two follows the life of Joy Keats and the impact an unplanned pregnancy has on four generations of women connected to her.

Fiona KidmanFriendship is important to Fiona Kidman. She was born an only child and grew up without cousins. In the session, she spoke of three great friendships in her life. Her 28 year friendship with writer Lauris Edmond, her bond with Angela Carter, and her close attachment to Lois Minnit who was involved in SOS with her. Her oldest friendship is with a school friend she’s known for 66 years.

She keeps a folder full of interesting snippets from newspapers. Fiona Kidman connects deeply with people and it’s from her profound humanity that her stories flow.

Chatting with Andrew Miller about Snowdrops and life

Andrew Miller is the author of Snowdrops (his first novel) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011. He is also the only author – correction – the only person in Auckland who asked me:

How are things in Christchurch?

Congratulations Andrew on your Booker shortlisting! How has this recognition changed your writing and your life?

Well, it changed my life in a very concrete way. Because of the Booker thing, my book got lots more attention than it otherwise would have. As a result of that I’ve kind of rejigged my life a bit. I only work part time now, the rest of the time I’m trying to write another novel. When I was writing Snowdrops, I wasn’t at all sure that it would even be published, so to have it noted by the Booker people was beyond my expectations. My confidence has grown as a result.

Do you read reviews of your books?

The literary world is a new one for me and I must confess it is not always a very collegial one. I do read them though, I’m not strong enough not to I’m afraid. It’s a bit like looking at road carnage, even when you try not to.

I take it from what you’ve said that you want to continue with writing fiction

I like being a journalist. I think it has lots of overlaps with fiction. But in terms of writing books I am going to concentrate on fiction. I want to have another crack at fiction – it is very challenging but very rewarding. There are a few parts of my book which I did to the best of my abilities and of which I am proud.

Which parts would those be?

Interestingly enough (as I like to think of myself as a nice guy), they are the dark parts of the novel which expose the nastiness, the psychological torture the people in the book are capable of.

A.D. Miller and RobertaSnowdrops is one of those books that has polarised my bookclub into those readers who love it and those who are disappointed in it because they define it by what it is not – it’s not a murder mystery, it’s not a love story, it’s not a travel book, so they have thwarted expectations. What sort of book is it?

The title Snowdrops is supposed to symbolise psychological things rather than criminal acts. I think the narrator thinks it is a love story, but I hope the reader can see that it is not. What is it then? I guess it’s a character study, it is a portrait of moral decline.

How often do people confuse you and Nick, the book’s narrator?

Often. In fact I thought of having a disclaimer in the front for my mother-in -law, so that she didn’t get herself all wound up about the really racy bits!

One of the aspects of the book that I loved was that the narrator was writing this story to his fiancee who remains resolutely off stage. I hated at the end when he says: now I’ve told you all of this “it’s up to you what you do with it”. I felt that was a cop-out on his part and just absolved him from responsibility.

Well, he’s that kind of guy – always avoiding responsibility. There is a note of passive aggression towards the fiancee which crescendos at the end. What are his feelings towards her? What indeed is his motivation for telling her the story in the first place? I think she’d be mad to marry him after all of this.

Has the book been well received in Russia?

The Russian translation hasn’t come out yet. I have had some criticism from some people about how it’s an overly bleak portrait of Moscow, but those people haven’t been Russians.

Did you visit libraries in Russia?

I didn’t use the libraries a lot but I lived quite close to Lenin Library. They tend to be very disciplined places, presided over by formidable women.

Are libraries important in your life now, back in England?

Well, as you probably know, libraries are under enormous pressure in England at the moment. Certainly my children use them all the time. Libraries play different roles in our lives at different times, and that is perhaps their real strength. We never outgrow them.