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Comment from the book world in January 2015


'I break the rules'

28 December 2015

‘Growing up in Zimbabwe was a great adventure, but I didn't see it as such. I spent my entire childhood in Africa. I couldn't have written The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books, which are set in Botswana, without the affection that gave me.

If I'm working at full tilt, I'll write 3,000 to 4,000 words in a day. It just comes to me. I break the rules: you're only supposed to write one book a year or every two years. (this year he has published six.)

No I Ladies' Detective Agency is my biggest-selling series - it's been published in 46 languages. I think people like the character of Mma Ramotse. I knew that for some people (writing from a black woman's perspective) could be an issue. But it's positive, not social realism. And women write books about men all the time, and nobody makes a fuss about that. Why should they make a fuss about a man writing about women?'

Alexander McCall Smith in the Sunday Telegraph's Stella



'A poem is like a little miracle'

14 December 2015

‘I wrote poetry first. Little children love poetry if you let them, and devices like rhyme, alliteration, lists and repetition are how we all learned language. I've written poems as long as I've been able to write - obviously, since long before blogging existed. It's about language for me, and the play of light, if you will, on an idea or a feeling or something so inchoate you can only make it flesh in the form of a poem. It's like gathering smoke together and giving it embodiment in the form of words. A poem is like a little miracle; it's a phenomenon that can't be understood or paraphrased. It occurs. And it might take a long time at your desk to bring it out, to make it occur.

As a child I also read humorous essays, memoirs, all sorts of things. When I was 15 we read Charles Lamb's ‘A Dissertation Upon a Roast pig' in school and I nearly made myself sick laughing. By then I understood that an essay is just a discussion of some subject, and that you could be both serious and amusing at the same time. I never thought an ‘essay' was only some boring thing you had to write for school. And I was beginning to read serious literary criticism. Reading books about books! What could be better? So poetry and essays feel equally natural to me. I also used to write stories...'

Katy Evans-Bush, the author of the Baroque in Hackney blog, talking about her collection of essays Forgive the Language: Essays on Poets and Poetry at




A master’s take on Ancient Rome

30 November 2015

‘I wouldn't have gone back to the period, if I hadn't felt it had something to say to us. You have a double benefit (when you write a historical novel): you re-create that world for the reader, yet at the same time it's a commentary on our own time: whatever you select to write is inevitably trying to hold up a mirror to our own age, whether consciously or unconsciously. I do feel there are certain laws of politics that have held good for millennia: everything ends in failure; the very qualities that bring you to the top bring you down; and the electorate are fickle and will turn on you...

(The Romans) lived on the edge without conscience. You could conquer the world, raise armies, ford rivers. It's staggering really.'

Robert Harris, author of Dictator, Pompeii and many other historical novels, in the Bookseller


'Short stories are nearer poetry than anything.'

23 November 2015

‘Short story is a terrible term, I much prefer the French term conte. I looked up the word "short" in the OED, and it is almost always used pejoratively. Short stories are nearer poetry than anything. They are like a conversation, a dialogue. And besides, some of them are quite long.'

Jane Gardam, whose 10th short story collection The Stories recently won the Charleston-Chichester Award for a Lifetime's Excellence in Short Fiction.


Are biographers ultimately responsible to their subject?

15 November 2015

‘It is a mark of the importance that still attaches itself to biography as an art form that practically every example of it that appears in a publisher's catalogue tends to cause offence to someone...

All this raises the associated questions: who is the biographer writing for, and to whom is he or she ultimately responsible? If the answer to the first question hangs tantalisingly out of reach, the second's answer is "the subject". The difficulty here is that life-writers who believe that their sole duty is to the person they happen to be writing about are almost guaranteed to upset the keeper of the flame. Sonia Orwell, for example, went to her grave in 1980 convinced that she had betrayed her husband's memory by allowing Bernard Crick to write his first, pioneering biography Orwell: A Life. Posterity, alternatively, would probably maintain that Crick's view was just as valid as Sonia's, even if Crick lacked the substantial advantage of being married to him.'

D J Taylor in the Independent on Sunday.


Becoming a writer, the hard way

8 November 2015

‘I just thought: Wow, there is so much to learn here (a forensic laboratory). And I said: "I will do anything you will let me to be useful if you just let me hang around."

I didn't set out to work there for six years. I honestly was so dumb, I thought when I got there I would do this for a few months and then write this great novel. Well, I wrote one and nobody wanted it. I wrote a second and nobody wanted it. I wrote the third and nobody wanted it. And then I went back to the newspaper to see if I could get a job. I thought, you've really failed. Like usual. Loser, loser, loser.

Nobody was writing about that sort of stuff back then. I kept being told, nobody wants to read about laboratories or morgues. And a woman who does it? No thank you! Wow. Well, I guess that turned out not to be true.'

Patricia Cornwell, whose latest book is Depraved Heart, in the Observer magazine.


'I had yet to live an interesting life'

2 November 2015

'I remember telling myself that I had yet to live an interesting life. What could this twenty-something woman who'd lived only in Massachusetts write about? Weren't there enough poems singing the praises of New England leaves? I decided to stop writing. I needed to go out and extend the margins of my world before I'd know anything worthy of a poem. And so I joined the Peace Corps, traveled the desert, took care of children during the famine, and stayed in West African brothels. And even then, I didn't believe I could write.

As a young writer, I had dreamed of changing the world, now I believed the only way I could return to writing was to have absolutely no expectations. And so it was that a Thursday night workshop held in an eccentric woman's living room allowed me to begin my journey back to writing. I went on to obtain an MFA in Creative Writing. The journey took ten years. Ten years of not writing in order to begin again.' Susan Rich on her website


Downton and late-life success

26 October 2015

‘The whole thing is so surprising, you could never make it work as a film. I was told today by friends who'd been to the Writers' Guild that there was a huge cheer when I'd won. Not because they knew me but because I had disproved the idea prevalent in Hollywood that if you've got it, by your mid-thirties it will have begun to manifest itself. I became the honorary president of the last-chance saloon...

Downton has been a big thing for me. It's been a worldwide sensation to a degree that is unknown in most careers. I consider myself lucky to have had one; I would be astonished if there was another.'

Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey, in the Sunday Times

‘I feel as if I've been on the road for about 30 years...'

19 October 2015

‘I feel as if I've been on the road for about 30 years flogging around reading and going to schools and colleges. I can't count the number of times I've been on Wakefield station at six in the morning in order to go off and give a reading. It's something that I chose to do and see as part and parcel of the task of being a poet. But I was slightly thinking I would like to slow down a bit...

I think I've always written out of a sense of wonder. Someone in a review once said that I had a child's eye - which maybe sounds a bit disparaging, but I took it as a huge compliment. I have worried that there might come a time when the world starts looking regular, ordinary, completely understandable and that might mean the end of the poems - when I'm not astonished by ordinary things any more. Or, God forbid, if I start thinking of myself as being wise.'

Simon Armitage in the Sunday Times

'Treat every story like a crime scene.'

11 October 2015

'Read voraciously and read forensically, whether it's stories you admire or stories you detest. There is a lesson in every one, tricks to steal, potholes to avoid. Treat every story like a crime scene. Take it to pieces. How many adverbs are there? How much does the narrator know? How long are the sentences? How detailed is the description of the physical world..? Because those are precisely the questions you have to answer when you're writing yourself, and if you can't read with that kind of focus it will be impossible to write with that kind of focus.'

Mark Haddon, nominated for the 2015 BBC Short Story Award for Bunny.

I'd like to be the Puccini of fiction.

5 October 2015

‘Just because a book is classified by that dreaded term "women's commercial fiction" doesn't mean that it can't take a look at societal issues or address things which are going on in the world, whether it's extremes in wealth or opportunity, or what happens when you're working for a company that puts you on a zero hours contract. If I can make people think while also being accessible, and possibly make them laugh and cry a bit at the same time, then, frankly, I don't care what they call me. I'd like to be the Puccini of fiction. I'm unembarrassed by the joy of making people feel something...

... after seven books that didn't sell terribly well, you really do start to question whether yours are the books people actually want to read. And then Me Before You was such a success that people turned to the backlist - having those sales suddenly take off made me feel vindicated.'

Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You and After You in the Observer


Crime writers challenged by forensic science

20 September 2015

‘When you have a new development in forensic science, as a crime writer your first thought is how do I work my way around that?

Because these new developments do make for a slightly more complicated environment for us to be working in. If you look back 20 years even, what was available in terms of evidential analysis was really quite low level. The writer had a lot of leeway and could leave forensic traces that were never going to be picked up on.

If you're going to use the forensic stuff you have to get it right. Readers are very sophisticated and very well informed. If you get it wrong it's not just the experts who will haul you over the coals, it's the readers.'

Val McDermid, whose latest book is Splinter the Silence, in the Sunday Telegraph