“Soon is partly a novel about story-telling, about fiction and about art”: an interview with Charlotte Grimshaw

Jane interviewed New Zealand author Charlotte Grimshaw who will be speaking at the The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Steve Braunias will be talking with Charlotte and her father C.K. Stead about how power plays out in their fictional landscapes.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a New Zealand author of five books and two short story collections. She has been the recipient of many awards and also writes a monthly column for Metro.

Soon is her latest book, a follow on from the Night Book with Simon Lampton now on a summer break at the Prime Minister’s holiday home. He is negotiating the  fallout from his affair, tricky family machinations, corruption and a crumbling mental state. A parallel fantasy story told to the Prime Minister’s son by his wife Roza introduces an uncomfortable story about a character called “Soon” which has uncanny parallels to the dramas that are developing in the lives of the adults present.

When I finished Soon it felt like there was more to come.  Are you planning a third book in this series?

I’m now writing a sequel to Soon. Many people have said to me they want to know what happens next – particularly since the book ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger – so I decided I wanted to know too.

If there is to be a third book do you think we might hear more from Dr Lampton’s rather rebellious daughter, I found her quite intriguing and enjoyed the relationship she had with her father.

Of all the women in the novel, Dr Lampton’s rebellious daughter is the one whose personality is closest to mine. I’ve drawn on my own memories of being a teenager. It’s not a self-portrait, but I have a lot of sympathy for her struggles. She is bound to resurface somewhere, either in the next novel or in a subsequent one.

I was intrigued that I wanted Simon Lampton to succeed in his deception about Arthur Weeks’ death (even if it was accidental). Was it your intention for readers to have this sort of reaction?

I’m very pleased that you wanted Simon to succeed in his deception about Weeks’s death. I hope this means I’ve created a character for whom a reader can have empathy, as he gets himself into more and more trouble.

How did Roza’s fantasy story that she tells to her son Jonnie develop, was it something you planned or did it evolve as the novel was written?

Soon is partly a novel about story-telling, about fiction and about art. The fantasy story is a commentary and a satire on the main action, and Roza is, in comic terms, an anarchic artist. I had two statements in mind when I wrote the novel: 1) Ford’s line, “It is not intellectually good enough to be apolitical” and 2) The Woody Allen line, “The artist creates his own moral universe.”

The novel explores those ideas, which are not necessarily contradictory. As for the fantasy story, I had it all in my head, because I told my younger son a continuous Soon story from when he was three years old to when he turned ten, every day, often for up to an hour a day. It was exhausting, but rewarding. I have used only a fraction of seven years of Soon in the novel. The way the story started was exactly as it happens in the first chapter of the book. Having said all that I should add that the character of Roza is nothing like me. She is an entirely invented person, different from me in many many ways.

I would say in general that we love to hate our politicians. Certainly the ones we meet in The Night book and Soon are rather unpleasant.  Are they an indication of what you think about politicians?

I don’t hate politicians generally, although some are quite hateable as individuals. When I wrote The Night Book and Soon I partly had in mind the relationship between Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler. To put it briefly, Speer was a technocrat, and fairly apolitical, and he fell in with a group of politicians who led him very much astray.

We are always interested to know what part libraries have played in writers lives?

Libraries are vital and indispensable and should be preserved at all costs. I’ve used libraries since I was a child, and all my children have always had huge benefit from libraries.  Having said that, all writers wish people would buy their books rather than say they’re waiting for a copy at the library.

Do you believe that in order to write you need to read?  Is there anything you have read lately that you would recommend to our customers?

You can’t be a writer without reading all the time. In fact if anyone says they’re a writer but they don’t read much, you can tell straight away they won’t be any good. Lately I’ve reread The Untouchable by John Banville, Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and I’m about to read Canada by Richard Ford.

I see that you are speaking alongside your father at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival about how power plays out in your fiction. Does power come from money and status or is this too simplistic?

My book is about political power in New Zealand, which can be achieved without too much money, (unlike in the U.S., say.) My father’s book is more about money and power, in that it’s about banking.

Are you planning to go to any of the sessions at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and if so, what are you looking forward to?

I’ll be going to as many festival sessions as I can.

Best regards,

Thank you Charlotte for giving such interesting answers. We are getting to as many festival sessions as we can too, only days away now …

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.

Blue Smoke and all that jazz

Blue Smoke

I went to hear Chris Bourke speak about his new book  Blue Smoke: The lost dawn of New Zealand Popular Music 1918-1964 at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Blue Smoke is a comprehensive look at the Auckland music scene between 1918 when WW1 finished and 1964 when the Beatles arrived in New Zealand and changed the popular music scene forever.  The book, richly illustrated with photographs and memorabilia, captures a time when jazz was a happening thing, crooners and charmers filled the music halls, and the Maori Community Centre was the ‘jazziest, jumpingest place in the city’.

I know very little about music and this session was filled with people in leather jackets, tight t-shirts and vigorous hair who greeted the author enthusiastically and nodded knowingly when he spoke of this jazz trombonist and that jive pianist. I felt totally out of my depth.

However, I was in for a real education. Chris Bourke is former music editor of Rip It Up and Real Groove, and author of the Crowded House biography Something so strong.  He has a quiet, unassuming manner and his breadth of knowledge is astounding. What this man doesn’t know about music in New Zealand, isn’t worth knowing.

He narrowed the field to speak about Auckland in the 1950s and 60s when jazz permeated local culture through films and jukeboxes. Local artists played at venues such as the Crystal Palace, the Orange Ballroom and the Hi Diddle Griddle to bohemians, cool cats and the smart set. People filled the halls and danced the night away in spite of the pubs being closed at 6pm and Prime Minister Walter Nash wanting ‘everyone to be in bed by eight’.

Chris Bourke at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2012Artists such as Mavis Rivers, Johnny Cooper, Walter Smith and Rush Munro were legends. Ray Paparoa, the ‘Maori Elvis’, emerged on the scene in his teens. The drummer in his band was just 12 years old.

The Maori Community Centre was set up in 1949 as a meeting place for Maori coming to the city for work. It was the place where “the lights were dim, the music was real cool, and there were no restrictions.” Howard Morrison, Johnny Devlin and Ray Colombus cut their musical teeth in the talent quests there. In 1950, Ruru Karaitiana’s ‘Blue Smoke’, became the first pop song to be written and produced in New Zealand. It was a hit. The album Kiwi Nostalgia gives you the flavour of some of these artists.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session. Chris Bourke played excerpts from old music recordings that set my toe tapping. My father-in-law is a mad keen jazz fan. He and his brothers are always swapping recordings they find through friends or online. I now understand what the fascination is. I’m going to buy him this book for his birthday.

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!

The soup kitchen? Men Adrift

This session featuring Charlotte Wood , A.D. Miller and Roddy Doyle felt, to use a culinary simile, a little like a canny cook was boiling up the chicken bones from last night’s roast dinner to extract every last bit of flavour to make stock for the soup pot.

These three tasty authors have been kept pretty busy with their individual sessions and a variety of panel presentations but the festival programmers perhaps wanted even more bangs for their buck. The sometimes tenuous theme for discussion was on the “lost” men at the centre of each of these authors’ stories.

The session, while both interesting and entertaining was a flavoursome but thin consommé rather than the hearty broth maybe intended. Thematic cohesion proved a little elusive although some interesting audience questions on the definition of modern masculinity and fictional templates of manhood helped pull the session into more shape.

Notable moments included Roddy Doyle’s observation that five-aside football is the male equivalents of the female book club and the question posed in one of his short stories from Bullfighting “Is a bad relationship better than none?”

AD Miller captured the female vote when he said “women have a tougher time than men and I doesn’t have much time for men whinging about how terrible their lot in life is.”

Well said my man!

Three fantastic authors but a theme that seemed slightly adrift.

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.

Tweet tweet revolution

Tweeting the revolution
Top tweeps

This session saw tweeple out in force. Panellists Toby Manhire @toby_etc and Vaughn Davis @vaughndavis were chaired by Russell Brown @publicaddress. All three absolutely know their stuff when it comes to social media.

Russell referred to the article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, 4 October 2010. The premises in this article are:

  • The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like the strong activism of the past.
  • The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.
  • Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Toby argued that the Arab Spring and the activism that arose in it proved Gladwell “mostly wrong”.

Would the revolution have happened without the tools Russell asked. Vaughn reckoned if there was social media involved in The Lord of the rings, Frodo would the ring a lot faster.

Tweeting the revolutionI liked that Vaughn then mentioned one of my own bug bears, an obsession with the tools themselves. He reckons we should see Facebook and Twitter and the like not as ‘tools’ but as “spaces where people live their lives”. There are always people who are better connected than others, but it’s worth remembering that they have the power to connect with their own communities and the wider world.

The team discussed the difference between what happened in Egypt and what is happening in Syria. Egypt had a lot of bloggers, and consequently it’s not surprising there was 10o times more social media chatter.

The strand of social media activism are mobilisation and dissemination.

Toby talked about the closure of the internet in Egypt leading to 25% more people on the street. Activists were smart, they rode in taxis and talked on phones about meetings and protests. Taxi drivers listened in to their conversations and spread the word.

Kony 2012 was the first big example of slactivism. A 30 minute video from the Hidden Children organisation went viral. Oprah and other key social media people shared it, until “people started to unpick it a bit”. The concept of “Defeat the bad guy by making him famous” seemed to appeal. As Toby observes, “This wasn’t all made up … A lie can get a long way around the world, it can circumnavigate it a couple of times”.

Vaughn said it is native to social media to be human in public … “We all put ourselves in the story”.

There are 150 -200,000 Kiwis on Twitter, therefore it is not a representative group. They (the government) “can’t help but listen to us”. An example is the blackout protest and the consequent dropping of changes to copyright law. Yet as Vaughn says:

Decisions about social media are being made by people who don’t know what it is … It’s odd for a white guy to feel colonised.

The team talked about a potential ban on maliciously impersonating people. This is a form of political speech, as the parody Twitter @DrBrash indicates. Anonymity on the internet can be an excuse to be evil, possibly a troll, but is also a license to speak truth.

Incidents such as the London Riots and bombings have revealed citizen journalists are the ones who disseminate information in real time, and sometimes traditional media just acts as an aggregator. The #eqnz hashtag users after the Christchurch earthquakes proved to be a self-regulating group – false rumours would arise, but the community would then collectively correct them. On the other hand, there was some terrible reportage from mainstream media of unverified information.

At the end of the session I met people I follow on Twitter – @jduvalsmith @nzdodo @moatatamaira and  @annagconnell –  a little piece of serendipity.

Useful resources related to this session:

  • Kony – Toby Manhire links to resources that explain Kony 2012.
  • The wisdom of crowds – a seminal work by James Surowiecki subtitled Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations.
  • Tweet this book! by Vaughn Davis

Donna @ChristchurchLib

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.