Liz Jensen, creative writing consultant and author of eight acclaimed novels including the Hollywood-adapted The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, The Rapture and The Uninvited in conversation with JJ Marsh and Karen Pegg
The way you genre hop is a joy to many writers who resist being boxed. Did you set out with that determination or was it an organic development? Have you ever experienced external pressure to write more of the same but different?

The reason I switch genres is that a lot of writers find themselves writing the same book over and over again. I wanted to avoid that. I’m an impatient reader and an impatient writer, so I just kid myself that I’m not writing the same thing, even though I do have certain themes and preoccupations.

I thought I would carry on writing comedy, I wasn’t expecting to write a dark novel. But when I wrote The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, I realised I was breaking new ground. The novel has two first-person narrators, one a nine-year-old boy and the other an adult man.
As I was writing the adult character, a coma specialist, it struck me that he was the first real ‘grown-up’ character I had ever written, because in all my previous novels the adults had been children in disguise. He was really hard to write: I didn’t really know how to deal with him. But I liked the challenge.

I had moved into psychological suspense and I was enjoying it. When you write a book it’s constructed, just like an object. It’s a bit like building a ship. Every element has its place, and all the parts must fit together so it can sail. It’s a cliche but it’s true: writing is 99% perspiration and one percent inspiration. Craft is fundamental.
That said, I don’t plan everything out beforehand. I like to be surprised, so I often don’t know how my books are going to end. Though I am pretty sure my subconscious has an idea.

Photo credit Djbril Sy


Much of your work reaches beyond the boundaries of what we might expect. Not just a what if… but in that world of what if, another what if… is that a product of a restless imagination or do you push yourself to look over the next horizon?

Some readers say to me: ‘the way you see the world is so weird’. All I can say is, it’s not weird to me. I see the world the way I see it and put in my books that way. I like asking the question ‘what if…’ because it’s so fundamental. It forces you to take a situation to its logical conclusion. I’ve been thinking about climate change for the last ten years and writing about it in the last two books, in a tangential sort of way. We’re in an era of ”what if?” so of course that’s the question I ask.
I also think ”what if?” is brilliant if you’re constructing a character. What’s the worst situation I can put this person into? What if the only person capable of changing events is the one least likely or worst equipped to deal with it?

From the internal world of Louis Drax to the wide ranging potential dystopia of The Uninvited, you evoke entire landscapes of the mind or the future with great attention to detail. Would you describe your creative process?

My creative process. Hmm. I start with reading the newspapers. I need to get fired up about something. I’m very theme-based. Character is important too but I can’t come up with my characters until I know what my theme is going to be.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax is about buried memory.

There was a tragedy in my own family, long before I was born. It was all over the newspapers at the time and it scarred my mother psychologically for ever. Her father had died not long before, but in 1937 she lost two more members of her family in the space of four days, under very strange circumstances.

Her mother had taken her and her two brothers on a summer holiday in the Swiss Alps. The oldest brother, who was 19, had a row with his mother (my grandmother) and stormed off into the mountains. He was still missing four days later. By then the weather had turned so the search parties were called off but my grandmother was desperate, and she insisted on continuing alone. The next morning her body was found at the base of a cliff. The double mystery of uncle’s disappearance and my grandmother’s death were never solved. So my mother and her two remaining brothers were suddenly not only orphans, but bereft of a much-loved older brother who was never seen or heard of again.

Fast-forward 70 years, there I am writing a story about a small family going into the mountains, one member disappearing and the other falling off a cliff. The weird thing is I didn’t realise as I was writing The Ninth Life of Louis Drax that the inspiration came directly from that story which I’ d first heard as a six-year-old child. It’s so obvious, in retrospect.

Apart from that example, I don’t use my own life or family history in my novels. Mostly inspiration comes from the world around me. It can be a news story, an event or something as simple as a conversation. The book I’m trying to write now came out of a conversation I had with a glass-maker, ten years ago. Some things take a long time to gestate.

When I sit down to write, I wouldn’t describe it as a creative process because often it’s almost clerical. I enjoy rewriting possibly more than I enjoy writing. You’re applying your editing brain whereas actually writing something new can be like squeezing like blood out of a stone. If I’m working well I aim for a thousand words a day. Any more than that is a gift.
The book I’m writing at the moment I’m doing differently from the others. This time I’m not going for a gold standard chapter one. I’m writing fragments. I think of it as a patchwork quilt. I’m just doing these squares, I don’t know what order anything goes in, but I have great faith in my subconscious. Something in there is working on it. It’s what Stephen King calls the boys in the basement.

I’d like to say it gets easier, but I’ve abandoned quite a few novels over the years, two at the 60,000 word mark, because they simply weren’t working. Many writers have had this experience. You just have to keep faith with yourself.

You’ve experienced many different cultures. Do you see the influences of each on what you write?

Not all of them yet, but I’m waiting for Hong Kong to pop up, and Israel. After 30 years Taiwan appeared in The Uninvited in a key scene. I knew I wanted to do a global ghost story and when I went to Dubai to teach, I decided to incorporate it as a setting. I’ve set novels in France and Denmark because they’re countries I know well, whose languages I speak.


How far did the experience of journalism shape you as a writer?

My experience in radio was the most useful. Through the producing, interviewing and editing process I was learning all about dialogue and about how to shape a story. This was in the pre-digital era when you physically cut tape with a razor blade and shifted things around. So you were shaping something with your hands as well as your brain.

We met while we were guest tutors in Geneva and you’re now teaching at A Chapter Away. Participants enthuse about your inspiring teaching. Do you enjoy helping other writers develop?

Well that’s very gratifying to hear! I have always received a huge amount of support from other writers, and still do. The thing about teaching is that you are also learning. So it’s not entirely altruistic. I like mentoring too, which I do through a wonderful company called Gold Dust, set up by Jill Dawson. It’s very rewarding to go deep into someone’s work, one-on-one, having conversations and giving notes, and seeing someone’s work blossoming.

There’s a dark vein of humour pulsing through your books. Can you always see the funny side?

Yes. It’s a almost a duty. Some of the best jokes are told at funerals. We need laughter more than we ever needed it. These times are the darkest I can remember. Humour does a crucial job. Laughter helps us deal with the hardest things in life. Make no mistake: humour is deeply, deeply serious.

An adaptation of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax appears in cinemas worldwide from September.


Liz Jensen will be teaching a Speculative Fiction course at the Arvon Foundation in November and tutoring at the residential course A Chapter Away July 1st – 8th 2017. (


Padraig Rooney spent the best part of 40 years outside his native Ireland and lives in Switzerland. He has published three collections of poetry and won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Poetry Business Award, the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Listowel Poem Award. His work is anthologised in Scanning the Century: The Penguin Book of the Twentieth Century in Poetry (Viking), Haiku World and The Haiku Seasons (Kodansha), and his short stories appear in Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek).

padraig rooney

Image courtesy: Padraig Rooney

I’ve read The Gilded Chalet was inspired by a visit to Basel’s Paper Mill and Literary Museum. How did the Earls of Ulster’s journey kick off the idea to explore the relationship between Switzerland and writers?

Clio, muse of history, presides over The Gilded Chalet. In March 2008 there were a number of commemorations in Switzerland and elsewhere, marking the passage of the Earls of Ulster from the Low Countries to Rome in March 1708. They passed through Basel and along the road to Liestal and most likely through the St. Alban Gate, nearby the present Basel Paper Museum. I’m a poet, and I like the way images cohere unexpectedly, bringing together disparate times and events. I’m also an Ulsterman and the sad romance of the end of the old Gaelic order is touching in its political and linguistic ramifications, which the passage of the Earls represents in Irish history. I was brought up a mile from the border during the Troubles, my father was an Irish speaker, and so there was a certain allegiance to a now rather old-fashioned Gaelicism.

You’ve a passion for writers and their locations in a wider sense. What’s at the heart of your interest? The influence of location on their work, their perceptions of the place or is it driven by your own exploratory nature?

I think because I’ve travelled quite a bit myself, I tend to assume place is central to the experience of exile. It may not be. Many of the writers in The Gilded Chalet were exiled in one way or another, and in search of a home. In Irish literature the fashionable term for exiled writers is the diaspora. For Russians at the beginning of the last century, it was the émigré life of Berlin and Paris. Switzerland still seems to me to be a very multicultural place, where people from all over the world congregate and communicate in several languages. It’s not just one homogenous culture, which island nations tend to veer towards.

I left Ireland after graduating in 1976 and haven’t much lived there since. I’ve always been attracted to travel, the details of place, to negotiating the world in several languages—second nature to me now. I do like a good, detailed, particularised setting in fiction, rendered in a painterly way. When there’s a description of a meal, as a reader I want to know what’s on the menu. I like the particulars.

You cover a huge time period in The Gilded Chalet and provide insights into the writers’ private lives as much as their writing. How far was your intention to add a human level to some of our literary icons?

Gossip is an underrated activity. The danger with this kind of book is to make it overly academic—there are enough of those—so some ‘human level’ as you put it, alleviates the tedium of academe. Maybe even a low human level. Byron with his boys and Rousseau with his kids farmed off to the workhouse, present interesting opportunities to showcase canonical writers, warts and all. Nabokov couldn’t have afforded to spend 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel without the cash from the sales of Lolita and from Kubrick’s movie adaptation. The fact that John le Carré was recruited as a spy in Switzerland and is the son of a con man, is no minor matter as regards the direction his fiction has taken him. There are certain dangers in keeping literature in the province of academia, with its critical-reverential approach.

Humour, too, tends to pull down icons: that is a good thing. I wish more people would use humour against the pervasive business culture, executive culture, celebrity culture of our time. These are our new vulgarians for Mammon.

gilded chalet, Padraig Rooney cover image

Cover: The Gilded Chalet Padraig Rooney

When we met in Geneva, I’d just had a lively debate on the subject of academia and the dangers of educators getting stuck in ‘transmit’ mode. Yet you, as a head of an English Department, seem to actively seek the experience of learning, be it travel or researching other authors’ work. Do you make a conscious effort to keep ‘curious’?

Much of education these days is in ‘deliverology’ mode—to borrow a term recently used in the London Review of Books—a mode patented by Tony Blair. The ideology of business has in the past 40 years moved into areas traditionally regarded as hands-off—water, education, health, patenting seeds. The wonderful Noam Chomsky has been writing about this recently too with regard to the use of non-tenured faculty in American universities: the culture of temps. I give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s. Caesar is going to steal from you anyway, so you can short-change him now and again! I have to fight for my time and I’m curious by nature.

Much of The Gilded Chalet got written between six and eight in the morning, and then I went into homeroom. It used to be that academia or teaching were favourable occupations for writers but I think that’s no longer the case, and hasn’t been the case for several decades. There’s a lot of fluff talked about fostering creativity in schools. It’s the bottom line which increasingly rules; fluff comes cheap.

A poet, journalist, author and photographer have different constraints/freedoms. Can you hop easily between roles or are they strictly separate? Where do they blend?

The late writer W. G. Sebald pioneered a blend between those formerly distinct modes or genres, and good travel writing that partakes of journalism and a poetic sense. I find that I didn’t write much, if any, poetry while working on The Gilded Chalet. I just didn’t have enough energy. Poetry requires pressure from the poem—you can’t will it into being. Many bad poems come from merely being exercises of the intellect. Poetry is also about waiting, whereas prose can be got on with, a thousand words a day, until you have a draft. So, personally, I wasn’t able to hop easily between them.

padraig pic

You’re a border man. Growing up just on the border of Northern Ireland and now living in Basel, right on the hub of three countries, what effect does that have on a sense of identity?

The fashionable lit-crit jargon for that is liminality, but “a border man” sounds great to my ear. I love moving between the butter people and the olive people, from north to south, and back again. One of my uncles was a small-time smuggler across the Northern Ireland border, and my mother smuggled butter into the South all the time—it was considerably cheaper in the North, and she had five children. So the world of smuggling has a certain appeal in borderland, even in Switzerland.

The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan: “Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” I’m writing this in the week the Panama Papers have revealed how the rich and famous smuggle, steal and launder. It’s an imaginative terrain—John le Carré wrote a novel called The Tailor of Panama and Graham Greene tackled Panama somewhat in Getting to Know the General. The rich always sort things to their own advantage, that’s why they’re rich, and Switzerland is a good place for a poor little writer to observe that arrangement, that sleight of hand.

I sometimes miss, too, the particular language of the border counties, the accent and diction of my parents, surrounded as I am by Anglo-Americanism or globlish. I miss the linguistic pattering of my childhood: bits of Ulster Scots, Gaelic inflections in the English, countrified pronunciation. I sometimes hear the clichés and ready-made phrases of mid-Atlantic English as a vulgar tide, swamping everything.

If you could bring back three characters from The Gilded Chalet for a round-the-table discussion with yourself, who would you choose?

I’m not sure all three would work round the same table together, so perhaps individually. I’d like to have a coffee with Annemarie Schwarzenbach because I’m translating some of her journalism about 1937-8 New Deal America at the moment. She travelled to the American South at a time of labour unrest and segregation. We might talk about the death of the left, about the current state of American politics. I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov would be very chatty, with nothing off the cuff, but I’ve been a fan of his writing for a long time and would like to hear his rolling, preening accent in English. Finally, if I sat down with Anthony Burgess I could thank him for a kind review he gave of one of my short stories back in 1976. Late, but better late than never.


Edmund White described The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland”.

Read more:

Earlier this year, an article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? Yet as Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics & DNA, cameras & mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation. This is the third in the series of female crime writers on contemporary crime-writing.

Meet Sheila Bugler

Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer? (If you can give an example from your work, that’d be favourite.)

It hinders the sort of writing I like to do. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m not the sort of writer who enjoys research. I have a story in my head and I just want to crack on with it. Second (and possibly related to the first point), the police procedural side of crime fiction doesn’t interest me very much. I am more interested in the psychology and motivation of the characters I’m writing about.

Sheila All Things

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

Having said I’m not interested in the police procedural type of things, I have written a police procedural series! So, I have to do some research. However, this mainly focuses on the hierarchies and structures within the police force rather than the procedural side of things, which I tend to brush over as lightly as I can get away with.

If I do need to do some ‘technical’ research, there are plenty of great resources (including TV crime series).

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

 I would love to but – again – I suspect my dislike of research would make it tricky for me to get that right. I have a vague idea for a novels set in the 80s (my wild teenage years). I may get around to that some day.


In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

I’m not sure we are tied to the formula of a ‘happy ending’, especially when you look at the more noir end of the crime fiction spectrum. Without wanting to give too much away, neither of my last two novels (The Waiting Game and All Things Nice) have happy endings. I am currently writing a stand-alone crime novel and am playing around the idea of a seriously dark and unhappy ending for this one too.

I am a huge fan of female American crime writers like Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott and – most recently – Robin Wasserman. None of these authors write novels with traditional happy endings.

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

No, especially if ‘British’ includes fiction from the all the UK nations (ie, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland and England). Crime fiction from Northern Ireland, for example, is very often interwoven with that country’s difficult history. I have just read A Savage Hunger by Claire Macgowan and the book is as much a commentary on the Troubles and its after-effects as it is a crime novel. Likewise, writers such as Anthony Quinn, Adrian McKinty and many other Northern Irish crime writers write novels that are very politically engaged.


In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I apply the same rules to my writing as I do in life. I would never deliberately try to offend someone. On the other hand, I am not particularly prudish and I do have a bit of a sweary mouth – I’m sure some of that comes through in my writing. If it does, that’s because I believe there are times when a swear word is the only possible option!

Finally, writing a series featuring the same main character, would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I write a series of crime novels featuring second-generation Irish detective, Ellen Kelly. I’ve grown very fond of Ellen as the series has progressed and it would certainly make me sad to kill her off. But I would do it, if I thought it made sense.

As for the Annie Wilkes effect… well, if I ever reach Stephen King’s levels of fame I’ll worry about that then.


Find out more about Sheila’s books on her website.

And read the Bookmuse review of All Things Nice here






Peter Jukes is a British author, screenwriter, playwright, literary critic and blogger. He has written for both The Independent and the New Statesman on themes as diverse as nationalism, art in the computer age, and apocalyptic religion. Jukes is also a regular drama writer for TV and radio, having started award-winning shows like Waking the Dead and the acclaimed Lenny Henry drama Bad Faith.

For his live Twitter coverage of the phone hacking trial in London, Peter was named the best reporter on social media by the Press Club, and his blog nominated one of the three best news websites by the Press Club this year.

New Book: Beyond Contempt: The Inside Story of the Phone Hacking Trial
Press Gazette’s UK Reporter of the Year on Social Media

Author, screenwriter, playwright, critic, blogger, and Twitter journalist – where are you most comfortable?

Somewhere in the spaces in between, probably with a guitar in my hand. I think we’re all probably more eclectic than modern professions allow us to be, but my fiction has always been driven by research, and my drama background certainly helped with the theatrics of the Old Bailey.

Why did you decide to devote seven months of your life to live-tweet the phone hacking trial?

As my haphazard career amply shows, I’m more of an improviser and adventurer than long term planner, and the hacking trial coverage was completely unexpected. I’d originally planned only to cover the opening the of the trial, and had no idea that the whole thing could be live tweeted, or that my coverage would attract so many followers wishing to fund me for the duration.

You’ve written about the Murdoch empire before – is the chief reason that it’s a fascinating story?

I’ve spent my whole adult life with Murdoch as a major figure, and his impact on Britain combines my interest in culture, politics and business. He’s an iconic if polarising figure, and his successes and failures tell us so much about the modern world – from the Freudian dynamics of rich dynasties, to the future of newspapers and digital media.

Conventional reportage versus new media. What are the pros and cons?

New media tends to be more narrowcast, and focused on a group of aficionados who want all the gory detail. It requires the audience to tune in and out, and forces them to make editorial decisions. It’s more interactive and direct, especially for British courts which don’t allow cameras. But the downside is apparent in my book about the hacking trial, Beyond Contempt. Rarely did a day go by without one of the defence barristers making some point about ‘prejudicial tweets’. In real time, with so many reporting restrictions, it’s hard to avoid pitfalls. And the level of vitriol and prejudice on Twitter would never pass muster in a printed newspaper.

How were you viewed by broadcast and press journalists covering the trial?

At first I think I was treated with a mixture of pity and bewilderment. Why would anyone want to tweet out such a long and controversial trial? Most the reporters were, however, extremely helpful and supportive, pointing out potential dangers, and retweeting me a lot. I have some residual guilt that – because many news agencies were following me – I might have put some other court reporters temporarily out of a job.

My own gripe with the way the trial was covered would be about the verdicts. The three major newspaper groups immediately went for the same line – £100 million wasted on one guilty verdict – overlooking the fact there were actually 6 convictions for phone hacking, and vast bulk of that cost was the corporate defence. I don’t blame the reporters at the trial though for this spin, but editorial agenda of their editors and a defensive mind-set in much of Fleet Street.

Tell us why you opted to crowd-fund the live tweets.

Because I couldn’t afford to stay the duration. I was broke. People offered to pay. It was completely improvised and accidental. There was a demand. I had the ability to meet it. Though I think my followers might have been a bit paranoid in this regard, many truly believed that only an independent blogger could cover a big media trial because – from the BBC to News UK – most news organisations could be seen to have a vested interest in the result.

Can you give an example of the kind of thing you were not allowed to report at the time?

My book covers much of the legal argument, fascinating and often extremely contentious which could only be reported after the trial – this ranged from sudden discoveries of thousands of emails, to how much of the Brooks’ love letter to Coulson we could report, to constant complaints about prejudice in the rest of the press. With many trials still pending, there are a dozen or so names we still have to redact when writing about the hacking trial. It’s a minefield, and one false step can blow up a trial.

As Nick Davies says, there’s never been a trial like it. Newspapers, celebrities, politicians and politics, tragedy and farce. Were there any laughs?

It wasn’t just Nick who said this – everyone, particularly the lawyers, knew this was a trial of century in terms of cost, number of high profile defendants, and length – it was officially the longest concluded trial in British criminal history. But fortunately, there were a lot of laughs. The judge, Mr Justice Saunders, has a keen wit. Sienna Miller and Rebekah Brooks had us rolling in the line – especially a Brooks comment about Tony Blair (more in my book – a whole chapter of which is called Commedia dell’Arte). And ranging from lesbian soft porn to Pizza deliveries, Charlie Brooks’ appearance was a comic masterpiece.

Do you feel justice has been done?

How long have you got? I feel that, in terms of the evidence the jury, they could not be sure Rebekah Brooks knew about phone hacking. Another jury might have gone another way, but the corporate defences were brilliantly mounted, and the burden proof for a criminal trial is very high. That said, I never particularly wanted people to go to prison – I wanted the truth to come out – and on that standard, the trial has seen transparency and accountability. Daylight is the great cleanser, and the mere fact the trial went ahead should prevent excessive privacy intrusions in the future. I also hold the higher ups more accountable than the foot soldiers for the toxic culture that developed among sections of Fleet Street. With the CPS still considering corporate charges, this might be the most effective way of ensuring these practices never become endemic again.

Where do you stand on the various options for press regulation?

My main feeling has always been that most the problems stem from concentration of ownership in the British press and media, and that where monopoly power accumulates, abuses will always follow. The fact that Rebekah Brooks was close personal friends with three successive prime ministers is just one example of the problem.

Despite its famed first amendment, the US actually has much more stringent laws governing press and media ownership: that’s the reason Murdoch is a US citizen (he had to be to buy the Fox network) and wasn’t allowed both newspapers and TV stations in the same city. But until we have better trust-busting laws, I think some kind of quick and cheap system of arbitration and redress needs to be instituted to protect the public from the more feral side of the press (the rich can always sue) IPSO promises this – but is still heavily indebted to the three main newspaper proprietors.

Beyond Contempt is out now. What can we expect?

Thrills, scoops, all the humour, legal manoeuvres, court gossip – dodgy hearts, burst appendices; me getting harried by Louise Mensch and Guido Fawkes, attempts to investigate my finances by the Daily Mail: and of course a running commentary (verboten during the trial) of how different lawyers, defendants, and witnesses fared under pressure.

What are you working on next?

I’ve been out to Ukraine to cover the role of social media both in the Euromaidan uprising and then in the war in the Donbas region. There’s also the up and coming panel in the murder of private detective Daniel Morgan in 1987: this is the deadly heart of the phone hacking scandal, and the corrupt collusion between police and press, the cradle where the ‘dark arts’ were born.

Who should play you in the film?

Neil Pearson from Between the Lines, Drop the Dead Donkey, and Waterloo Road has just recorded a play about my coverage of the trial, and played me (an odd experience). It will be broadcast on October 10th on BBC Radio Four. I hear George Clooney is unavailable because he’s directing the film of Nick’s book Hack Attack. So, given the more comic mishaps during the trial, perhaps Rowan Atkinson.


By JJ Marsh

First published in Words with JAM magazine

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter, librettist and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). He is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His first novel, Narcopolis, (Faber & Faber, 2012), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013. He currently lives in Berlin.

Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible. And Fleurs du Mal. I was introduced to those poems at the age of fourteen by an uncle who was obsessed by Baudelaire. It changed my life. It made me a poet and a writer and a reader.

Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?

These days? (shrugs) Today I wrote on the train from Paris. I write wherever I wake up, if the laptop is to hand.

Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?

My father. He’s a writer and a journalist. He wrote books and edited a newspaper and a magazine. So I grew up watching him work. As a boy, I fell asleep to the sound of a typewriter. I still find that a comforting sound.

What’s the relationship between your writing and your music? Do you find one influences the other?

Often. I like to work on two or three things at the same time. So when I’m stuck on one I move over to the other. And it often bleeds in between. But the last thing I’d want to do is find out how that bleed happens. If something’s working, you really shouldn’t mess with it.

And as a performance poet, it strikes me you’re a sound person.

A sound person? Very nice to hear that for a change. There are many people in the world who’d strenuously disagree with you. But yes, if we’re talking ears.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

That first Bridget Jones book.

You liked it?

Loved it. Great fun. I shouldn’t admit it, but since we’re old friends …

The structure of Narcopolis reminds me of Celtic storytelling – tangents and stories within stories – where does that come from?

Interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that before. I think it comes from the East, a lot of the Arabian stories and Indian folk tales. They begin one place and go somewhere completely different. But I just found that an interesting way to write. It keeps me interested as I don’t know it’s going to end up.

Where did the name Dimple come from?

I knew someone with that name. And Dimple was a well-known Indian actress in the 70s, a continuing influence on girls’ names. India has endless dimples.
Now that I think of it, the Bollywood Dimple didn’t have dimples, unless in places invisible to the untrained eye.

Which book has impressed you most this year?

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. By far. And a book of erotic short fiction by an Indian woman writer. Long overdue that this should happen in India, but beautifully crafted and very literary. It’s called A Pleasant Kind of Heavy.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

When I was working on Narcopolis, I would work till very late at night, go to bed, wake up and start on it again, without really thinking. I found that when you’re in that oneiric, half-oneiric state, still slightly in the dream, very interesting things would happen. I’d come up with things I’d never have thought of later in the day. I was astonished about how much I remembered from that time, 25 years earlier, when I had no idea I would write a novel, when I was not exactly in the clearest of mental states. I was also surprised how unhealthy it was, the process of remembering.

A negative experience?

Absolutely. It was the opposite of cathartic.

And the latest project?

A new novel, but I’m going to set that aside, because I think it’s a good idea. And I’m working on a collection of short, travel, fictionalised memoir pieces.

Can you say anything about the novel?

I think it’s better if I don’t. Just silly superstition, but you know …

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

I wish I could overuse the words ‘The End’. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.

By JJ Marshauthor, reader, Triskelite, journalist, Nuancer, reviewer and blogger. Likes: pugs, Werner Herzog and anchovies. Dislikes: meat, chocolate and institutionalised sexism. The Beatrice Stubbs Boxset is out now.

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, USA. She studied at Harvard University, worked in New York City for 10 years in publishing and advertising, left for England in 1977 to enter St Martin’s School of Art, later returning to finish her degree at Harvard. Her first novel, How I Live Now (2004) won several awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Orange First Novel Prize and became a 2013 film.
She went on to write further award-winning books such as What I Was (2007), The Bride’s Farewell (2009),Vamoose (Puffin, 2010), There Is No Dog (2011) and Picture Me Gone (2013)
Meg Rosoff lives in North London. She is also the author of Meet Wild Boars (2005), a picture book, and co-author of a book of non-fiction, London Guide: Your Passport to Great Travel (1995).

Who or what had the biggest impact on your creative life?

A miserable 15 years in advertising that made me think anything in the world would be better than selling crap to people who don’t want it.

Where do you write? What’s in your writing space and why?

I write a lot in bed. Not because I’m channelling Barbara Cartland but because sitting up at a desk makes my back hurt. Also I love my bed. In my writing space is my MacBook. Two lurchers. Coffee.

You’re difficult to categorise, a trait I particularly appreciate in a writer. Is that deliberate?

Deliberately difficult? No, it’s just my default position. If I could be James Patterson I would.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

In life or in literature? “Has anyone fed the dogs?” recurs a lot.

Which writers do you enjoy or re-read?  

I love Hilary Mantel, Saul Bellow, Yeats, Shirley Hazzard, Thor Heyerdahl. I also reread early mountain climbing books a lot (Annapurna, The Ascent of Everest).

Why do you write?

Because I’m good at it and can make a living doing it. If I found a million pounds in a paper bag tomorrow, I’d give it up and lie in a hammock.

What makes you laugh?

My friend, Andy Stanton.

Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

Pony books from the 1950s.

You have made a case for age-grading books – will you tell us why?

Before I was a writer, I had no clue what to buy for the kids I knew. I didn’t want a second career reading middle grade fiction, so some clue was helpful if I couldn’t find a knowledgeable bookseller.

Which book should be better known?

A Wrinkle in Time is the great American children’s book. It’s not nearly well-known enough here. I also love Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton.

When are you at your most creative?

Completely unpredictably.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

I’ve just finished a novel with a slightly older protagonist. It’s called Jonathan Unleashed about a young guy working in NYC whose dogs are trying to sort out his life.

Wild Card: What kind of dog best represents your personality?

A big hairy Briard. “Protective, Obedient, Loyal, Faithful, Fearless, Intelligent.”
Except obedient.

by JJ Marsh

Louise O’ Neill is from Clonakilty, in west Cork. After graduating with a BA in English Studies at Trinity College Dublin, she completed a post-grad in Fashion Buying at DIT. After a year in New York working for Kate Lanphear, Senior Style Director of ELLE magazine, she returned home to Ireland to write her first novel. Only Ever Yours won the first Bookseller YA Prize in 2015. From hanging out on set with A-list celebrities to spending most of her days in pyjamas while she writes, Louise has never been happier.
Photo by Paddy Feen

By JJ Marsh

I want to tackle some chunky subjects with Louise, but so as not to overload her and keep this entertaining, I’ll chuck in a random lightener* every now and then. Now let’s talk to herself.

Congratulations on winning the Bookseller’s YA Prize. Did you set out to write fiction for young adults?

Thank you! I was thrilled to win, especially in its inaugural year.

I first came to YA fiction as a reader in my twenties. The YA market as it exists today wasn’t anywhere near as extensive or as popular when I was a teenager, I went straight from Narnia to reading Margaret Atwood and Jeffrey Eugenides (with a brief detour to the magical land of Sweet Valley). In my final year of university, I took a module in children’s literature – as you can imagine, my parents were delighted at the thought they were funding my efforts to analyse the subtext in picture books – and that was my first real introduction to how powerful and subversive fiction for young adults could be.

That being said, I didn’t necessarily intend to write for young adults. The voice of the main character, Frieda, came to me as a sixteen year old girl’s, and I wrote the story the way I felt it should be written. It was only when I started approaching agents that it became clear that Only Ever Yours was going to be targeted at the Young Adult market. Of course, very often there is a crossover where adults pick up a YA novel, and I have definitely seen that with my novel – so much so that my publisher has decided to re-publish it and re-position it for the adult market. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

By all accounts, this was your third attempt at writing fiction after abandoning two others at the 10K words mark. Why did it work this time?

When I tried writing before there was always something to distract me. University, a boyfriend, trying to build my career. When I left my internship at ELLE in New York in 2011 to return to Ireland, I had made the decision that I was going to take a year out to attempt writing my first novel. A long term relationship had broken up, I was living back at home with my parents, and I had a rather desperate feeling that it was either going to be now or never. I knew I would never have the luxury of this much time and space, unencumbered by responsibilities. I could be, and I was, completely obsessive about this book, giving it 100% of my energy and focus. I’m aware that for other people that this isn’t possible because of children to feed and mortgages to pay. I know how incredibly lucky I was to have the emotional (and fiscal!) support of my parents.

An observer might see elements of your background as affecting your fiction: a Catholic education, an all-girls school, media pressure on teenagers of both genders, competition and cruelty, an eating disorder and working in the New York fashion industry all as formative factors – but in your opinion, is there a dominant authorial experience driving Only Ever Yours?

You’re correct in saying that a myriad of my personal life experiences have affected and shaped this novel. I think the most dominant of these would probably be my experience of the ‘Beauty Myth’, as coined by Naomi Wolf. (The basic premise of The Beauty Myth, as outlined by Wikipedia, is that as women have gained increased social power and prominence, expected adherence to standards of physical beauty has grown stronger for women.)
I was very focussed on my appearance for a long time. When I admit that, I often fear that people will think I’m vain or self-obsessed but I think it’s important to understand that women are often told that our very value as human beings is directly linked to how attractive we are to men. I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to look like the models I saw in my magazines. I would look at the fashion editorials and want their bodies, their hair, their faces, and of course, their clothes. I felt like a bottomless pit of need – a need for validation and approval from other people, usually connected to whether or not they thought I was attractive. It’s an exhausting way to live.

It was as I got older and read more and began to understand exactly the sort of pressure that this ‘Beauty Myth’ exerts on women, I could more clearly see how our culture constantly reinforces the idea that women have some sort of responsibility to be beautiful. That became a central theme in Only Ever Yours.

*Summer barbecue and you’re in charge of the cocktails. What are we drinking?

Grey Goose vodka and soda water with freshly squeezed lime juice. I try to pretend this is relatively healthy – I am just doing my best to avoid scurvy, one cocktail at a time.

You’re vocal, and very funny, on the subject of feminism. One comment struck me – you call your friends on casual comments which compound gender inequality. Why pick up on all those ‘only a joke, love’ comments?

Photo by Miki Barlok

I know some of my friends roll their eyes at me at times, in a ‘here she goes again’ type of way. But it’s never just a joke. As a feminist living in a first world country, I often hear people tell me that I should be grateful for how much better it is for women here than in other countries, as if I should be sending out thank you cards every time I’m allowed to vote. (Don’t worry, I ask my dad which way I should vote beforehand. My little lady brain can’t handle the pressure otherwise.)

Leaving some of the bigger issues aside, such as the fact that women still don’t earn as much as men for doing the exact same job, casual sexism, mildly sexist jokes, comments such as ‘Don’t be such a girl’, all of these add up to an environment in which being female is seen as inferior, as less than. That is never acceptable. The more you point out sexism, the more others notice it too – and we need as many people as possible to be aware of how inherently patriarchal our world is if we ever want to enact real change.

*If you had the choice of any fictional character, who would you be?

This is so difficult! Jo March from Little Women has always been a role model for any bookish child, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter is a badass, and Susan Pevensie from the Narnia series as I still think it’s incredibly unfair that C.S Lewis dismissed her once she became interested in makeup and fashion.

I found it significant that the ‘designer’ girls in the book have no parents whereas I get the impression your family is extremely important to you. Was that a deliberate decision to leave those girls adrift?

That’s an interesting observation. Yes, my family is extremely important to me as anyone who follows me on Twitter will recognise. They have been an unwavering source of support and understanding, which has anchored me in ways that I will be eternally grateful for. Home, both mine and my grandparents’ house, was a safe haven, in a way that school never was. This is why I set the entire narrative of the book within the confines of the school, I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, a sense that the girls couldn’t escape. They didn’t have a family that they could ‘retreat’ to. One of the biggest blessings in family life is a sense that you are loved unconditionally – and those girls have never experienced that.

When I reviewed your book, I compared it to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Many differences between the two, but there’s a sense in both that cruelty and competition between young girls will last long into the future. How can we, all of us, change that?

Firstly, thank you so much for comparing my novel to Ishiguro. I can die happy now.

That sense of competition has lessened as I’ve gotten older. Many of my female friendships now are supportive and loving and I cherish that sense of sisterhood. This is the example that we need to set for younger women. If you have a daughter, don’t bitch about other women behind their backs, don’t tear down other women based on their looks, don’t be cruel. Obviously, I’m not going to like every woman that I meet and I may have valid reasons for criticising their behaviour at times, but there are ways to do that which are not toxic. We also need more positive representations of female friendship on TV, in movies, in literature.

You’ve another book on the way. Can we get a tiny teaser as to what it’s about?

My second novel is called Asking For It and it’s going to be published by Quercus on September the 3rd.
It’s about a girl named Emma, beautiful, manipulative, demanding. She wakes up the morning after a party on her front porch with no memory of how she got there. It’s only when she sees photos on social media that she realises that she’s been assaulted.
The book deals with issues of rape culture, victim blaming, and consent, and has been inciting very strong reactions from all those who have read it so far.
I’m hoping it will start a conversation about the idea of the ‘perfect victim’ and how we as a society actually support rape culture, unknowingly or otherwise.

*A woman’s best friend is:

  • A small dog with a huge personality
  • A great gang of mates
  • A laptop and an idea

I’m lucky enough to have all of the above and I love all of them. However, I think a woman’s best friend should be herself. That sounds trite but women need to learn to treat themselves with as much compassion and understanding as they would their closest friends. You’re stuck with yourself for a lifetime, may as well start liking yourself as soon as you can.

Since this interview was printed, Asking For It has been published to passionate reviews.

Interview first published in Words with JAM

A writer and journalist born in Trinidad and raised in Essex, Jonathan did an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and receiving the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary. Followed by a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing, which comprised Randall, or The Painted Grape, and a critical essay, Beyond Ekphrasis: The Role and Function of Artworks in the Novels of Don DeLillo. He currently teaches undergraduate modules on Creative Writing and The Writing of Journalism, and is a regular columnist for The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. Jonathan’s debut novel, Randall, or The Painted Grape, was published on 19 June 2014 by Galley Beggar Press.


Who or what had the biggest impact on your creative life?

Hard question! Parents? School? A particular author? A particular book? I don’t think I can pinpoint one person or thing that has influenced me more than anything else. Different things have had different impacts at different times. In terms of this novel, Randall, I suppose the Creative Writing degrees I did at UEA in Norwich, where I wrote it, had a huge influence. The people there, the sense of having a goal, the feeling of being part of a community all pushed me to make it the book it is.

Augusto Boal described internal oppressors as The Cop in the Head. How do you silence the reviewer to leave the writer in peace?

Oh boy, that cop. They’re useful, of course, but you need to keep them at bay for huge stretches of your writing time. I use two things that I know other writers hate: music, and alcohol. A glass of wine, or two, when writing late at night, banishes the usual inhibitions – that any particular set of words you happen to get down on screen look useless, the moment you see them – and lets me get the scene done. Not all the time, and not during the day, but it can give you that extra burst of energy you need at the end of a tiring day, and make the process of first-drafting more fun that is often otherwise is.

Music I use during the day when I’m writing. Particular types of music, particular albums – and usually one album on repeat, so that it sinks into my unconscious, and I can listen without hearing. I love the rhythm of it, it helps the rhythm of the writing – frees the Dancer in the Head, that the Cop in the Head wants to shut down. Just nodding along to something, sat in my chair, helps me get out of myself, and into that imaginative space where the novel is taking place. (Thinking about it, walking is a great help to writing, and the rhythm of music is perhaps the closest you can get to that while sat in your chair.)

Do you have tropes, phrases or words that you most overuse?

Ask my editors! I think Sam and Elly at Galley Beggars pointed out a preponderance of my characters to “sit themselves” in chairs, rather than just sit, and I know I’m always having them look at each other, and smile. Just stupid behavioural descriptors like that.

Short stories or novels – where do you feel most freedom?

Novels, I suppose. Stories, which I don’t write that many, are usually built around one idea, one moment, one trick I want to try to pull off, and so the writing of them is usually targeted at that goal. They’re something I want to try, or get out of my system. Novels are more explorative. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or I’m always keen to find a way to subvert or derail what I do think is going to happen.

What makes you laugh?

Happy people. Stupid people. Smart people. Clumsy people. Puns, screwball back-and-forth, intellectual slapstick. So many different kinds of laughter. Laughter is a cultural manifestation. I’m not sure I want to think too hard about what I laugh at.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the state of British literature?

Hum. Well, it keeps going, doesn’t it? There are loads of great writers out there, and they’re getting published, in some form or other, so to that extent I’m optimistic. What I’m pessimistic about is the ability of British publishing, and of publishing in general, to serve British literature. I don’t like reading stuff digitally, and I have all sorts of sentimental attachment to books. Like most people, if I don’t have a book to hand, I’d rather be browsing Twitter or reading some online journalism than reading a book on a tablet or phone. Holding a book-as-object in your hand makes reading a whole-body thing. I just don’t see people reading books on buses and trains like they used to, and I don’t really blame them. Nobody’s yet written the story I’d prefer to read onscreen than on the page, and the culture seems to be conspiring against the page, so that makes me sad.

Where do you write? What’s on your desk and why?

At my desk. On it: monitor, keyboard, dictionaries, thesaurus, useful books etc – I love looking stuff up when I’m writing, love building up a pile of mess that I can then clear away to nothing – also Post-it notes, water, coffee, a screwdriver, rubber bands, all sorts of crap. This is the desk that I work my day job at, too, so it’s far from the monkish ideal.

Confess a guilty reading pleasure.

Haven’t got one. You won’t find me reading a book that I’d feel guilty about reading. Either that means I don’t read crap, or it’s not crap if I’m reading it, right?

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?

I really thought I’d love Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, or at least envy it. It was tackling the same art world that Randall is set in, and I’d heard great things about the zippy, muscular prose style. (I love Don DeLillo, and got the impression that was the kind of thing we were talking.) But I found it overwritten, in a very American way: forceful, but wilfully slapdash at the same time, like a cool kid who very much wants to look like they think they’re not being looked at while they groove away in the corner of the disco.

Your fascination with book design – where does that come from?

From beautiful books – and then from the beginnings of an understanding of how books are more than objects, they are a technology, and they exist to serve a market. Why do Penguin have NINE different editions of Frankenstein across their adult and children’s imprints? Why does Morrissey insist on being a Penguin Classic then have such a large font and wide spacing (roughly 25% fewer words per page than my Penguin Classic Moby Dick!). When a publisher reissues an author’s back catalogue in a new design, what are they trying to do? Books are texts wrapped in their own advertisements. I love what they look like, and what they tell us about ourselves as readers.

What are the benefits of publishing with a small press like Galley Beggar?

Attention and focus. Immediacy of response. Delicious home-cooked food. Being able to look your editor in the eye without feeling they have a great machine behind them that will skew their reply.

Would you share what you’re working on next?

I have a novel and a YA novel, both in rough first draft, and I’m toying with which to run. Probably the novel: it’s about the pop music industry, in the way that Randall is about the art world – as with the book design thing, I’m fascinated by the way technology has driven the art form (pop/rock music) that I grew up thinking was somehow naturally, instinctively, authentically creative.
Money’s no object – which artwork would you buy?

A big 17th Century oil painting, something by Poussin or Claude. Something as far removed from any piece of art I’d actually be likely to every own. Something that would totally dominate any room it was hung in. A landscape or Classical scene, that I would lose myself in – those Mediterranean hills shading into the distance, the high, feathery trees, the people in their important configurations.

Read the Bookmuse review of Randall.


Photograph by Ivara Esege

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. Translated into thirty languages, she is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award), and Half of a Yellow Sun, (Orange Prize winner, National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, New York Times Notable Book, and People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year); and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, published to critical acclaim in 2009. Her latest novel Americanah, published 2013, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction; and was named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Chimamanda visited Switzerland as part of her two-week European tour. We met in Zürich’s Old Town and had a chat over a pot of peppermint tea.

Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my Top Shelf Books. I’m struck by its balance. The breadth and generosity of your narrative, and how the characters never become polemical devices. You say many of these stories come from your family history and in particular, your father. How are you able to maintain such a clear-eyed perspective?

I start off thinking of my characters as human. That period of our history has haunted me for a very long time. I’ve been close to obsessed by it. I took a while before I could write it. I’d written poems, I’d written short stories, I’d written a play at the age of sixteen, called For Love of Biafra, which was terrible. But it goes to show how long my interest in that period had lasted.

When I finally felt emotionally ready to write the novel, I didn’t want to romanticise the war, or the cause, or the humanity of the people who were involved. I kept reminding myself it was about the people. I spent so much time reading about the period and finding out lots of interesting little titbits, many of which were political, all of which I wanted in the book. So revising took quite a while, as I had to take out all those things which simply showed off my research.

I’m still reading Americanah. I wanted to finish it before this interview but found it a book I could not rush. I keep stopping to think. Once again, such clarity in observation, but I was surprised by the amount of wit and humour pervading the book. So the absurdities surrounding cultural perceptions, miscommunications and misunderstandings make you laugh as well as cry?

Yes. I spoke to a reader this week, who mentioned a character as ‘that racist Kimberley’. And I said, ‘What? I like her very much!’ The reason I say this is the miscommunications and misunderstandings can be hostile and malicious, but many of them are not. Many come from people who don’t know what they’re doing. And there’s something about it that’s funny, if sad. Even things that annoy me can make me laugh.

A woman came up to me yesterday and said, ‘Chimamanda, can you pronounce this word for me? It’s from South Africa’.

Your writing transports the reader. What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

What you see, what you smell, what you hear, just being there.

I noted the detail you used in your TED talk on feminism – the parking-space finders in Lagos.

Yes, the truth is sometimes in the smallest things.

I’d like to know more about how you choose to tell your story. In Americanah in particular, your jumping narrative makes me think of a mix of fireside storytelling, with meandering tangets, juxtaposed with fast flickering images, contrasted with slow, painful detail such as Obinze’s deportation.

Interesting question. I don’t know if I choose. It’s very hard for me to talk about how I work. I sometimes have to invent answers to questions on my writing process as I don’t really plan. When I start a book, I have a vague idea of what I want to do. And if it’s going well, it often becomes something else.

You’re right to observe that in sections like Obinze’s deportation, I pause. It’s an emotional pause. Because it’s important to me, that’s where I feel emotionally involved. In writing that scene, researching and talking to people, it made me very sad.

That vague idea. Theme, character, where do you start?

It’s character and story. But it’s unformed; a nebulous procession of images in my head. With Americanah, I had all these observations I’d made and conversations with other people I wanted to put into the book, but I didn’t know if Ifemelu would go back to Nigeria. I thought it might be a book about longing, about the home you had left behind. As the book progressed, she really wanted to go back, so she did.

With Half of a Yellow Sun, I started the novel obviously wanting the characters to be changed by the war. As I approached the end, I imagined something bad would happen to Baby. But Baby refused to have something bad happen to her. It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding strange. When it’s going well, the characters take over.

Books and writing feature as powerful portals in your novels.

Yes, and that is me. It’s easy to assume that books are important to everybody but they’re not. I know many intelligent people for whom books are irrelevant. This is me making a case for reading, for books.

What kind of books made an impact on you?

Growing up I read a lot of crime, most of which was bad. Do you know James Hadley Chase? You do? (laughs) He’s incredibly popular in Nigeria, but when I went abroad, no one had heard of him. I think I read every single James Hadley Chase book that was published. Recently, I got bored of what is termed ‘serious fiction’ and went back to the books I loved when I was younger. I tried to read James Hadley Chase and it was unbearable! It was so bad! But I discovered PD James and really, really like her. I don’t like violence and prefer the detective kind of thing.

It seems you naturally gravitated towards writing from being a passionate reader. I know you read Enid Blyton books as a child. I recognised the ginger beer.

I loved them!

Me too. You know, my cousin Marcus played Julian in the 1970s TV series of The Famous Five.

Really? I watched that in Nigeria! (sings the theme tune) “We are The Famous Five! Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog…” That’s hilarious!

Now Half of a Yellow Sun is a film, and there are rumours of interest in adapting Americanah. I spoke to David Mitchell about Cloud Atlas. He said he had almost no influence on the film adaptation and didn’t want to. He felt an adaptation should be a new creative vision, a story told in a different voice. What’s your view?

Very similar to his. I stayed away. I chose to stay away and it’s not even the wanting to hear the story from another voice, which by the way I did enjoy, but Half of a Yellow Sun means so much to me. Everything in that book matters to me. Film-making is such a different thing. It would involve making decisions not necessarily based on the integrity of the book. I worried it would break my heart. I thought I’d lose my mind if I were involved.

They asked if I wanted to write the script and I said no. I had a few conversations with the director [Biyi Bandele], who’s a friend of mine, which was calming. In one conversation, he talked about making the story about the sisters, and not Ugwu. I thought, no! Ugwu is the soul of this book. In many ways, Ugwu is me. For him to be something on the side was almost unbearable. He said, yes, I understand, but for film…

And I remember very clearly thinking this is why I cannot be involved.

Having seen the film, of course he is right. Making the sisters the focus works, perfectly. I just couldn’t have done it.

Are you impressed with it?

I think it’s beautiful. And very well acted. It’s filmed in Nigeria, which was important to me. The art of it, capturing Nigeria in beautiful images. There’s something very nostalgic about it that I love.

As an expat, I’m often seen as the mouthpiece of my country. A Brit must be able to justify Britain. You’ve mentioned not only being seen as a representative of your country but the entire continent. In the light of current events, is it an opportunity or a burden to focus attention on Nigerian issues?

Is there a third option? (laughs) I’m ambivalent about this. Sometimes when there are things I feel very strongly about, I’m grateful I have this voice. And there are times like now, when what’s happening is headline news. As often happens with headline news, it’s simplified and there’s no context. So I get 200 emails from news organisations all over the world wanting ‘Chimamanda to come and talk about girls-education-in-Nigeria’.

I’m from southern Nigeria. You’ve lived there so you know that the north and the south are quite different. And for an Igbo person, the education of women is not the problem; it’s the education of men. Men are dropping out of school in Igboland but women are much more educated. So for me to go and talk about girls’ education… it’s not even a lack of nuance, it’s just there’s not enough space for diverse stories. The thinking is that, after those girls were abducted, every Nigerian must have a story to tell about their own experience. And I don’t.

The dangers of the single story? [Chimamanda’s TED talk 2009]

Yes. They want me to focus on this one thing. And while I care very much about this one thing that’s bad, there are other things. So they’ll end up with a very lopsided view of this place where I come from and it’s a place I happen to love.

Also I don’t like to feel defensive. At times I do feel that way with
people who don’t know many stories about where I come from. An emotional defensiveness comes in. It’s strange.

And what are you working on next?

I can’t tell you.

I’m going to play the mysterious one. (laughs)

Tell me about you instead. What do remember from your time in Nigeria?

(I show Chimamanda a photograph from my childhood – see left.

We talk about memories, how pictures can hint at stories, and families.)

I noticed the photography credit in my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. Is that your brother? 

Photograph by Okey Adichie

(laughs) Yes! We had the most hilarious time! This was taken at the house where I grew up. We were walking around and he had the camera and he was saying, I’m tired of this. And I would say, no, tell me what the lighting is like, and he’d say, I don’t know anything about lighting, leave me alone. It’s amazing we actually got this picture, which isn’t bad.

From what I’ve read, you sound like you have a very good relationship with your family.

I have, actually. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t because writers are supposed to be all ‘oh, what my father did to me, what my mother did to me’. I tease my writer friends and tell them certain conversations, I just can’t join in. My parents are lovely. We’re all really close, my parents, my siblings and me.

I’m the strange one.

If eloquent, funny, animated, articulate, observant and precise are strange, may there be much more strangeness to come.

By JJ Marsh


Never underwire a sports bra.

Never underwire a sports bra.

As often happens during your average week, something I see on the Wonderful Worldwide Web rattles my cage. This week, it was this: Why We Love Literary Agents – NOT

Let me set out my stall from the start. I’m an indie publisher. No agent, no publishing house, no reason to be defending the system. I have an agent for translation rights because that is a field beyond my ken

Authors love a good bout of agent bashing, and in some aspects, I understand why the frustrations at scaling the wall of recognition results in bitterness and bile. But there’s another side to the story. I write The Agent’s View column for Words with JAM magazine. I’ve interviewed, met, collaborated with and learned from many of these snaggle-toothed demons, and with one notable exception (not quoted below), found passion, energy, commitment, expertise and love. Yes, love. A real love for terrific stories and wonderful storytellers.

And here are a selection of quotes to show why I love good literary agents.

Shelley Power

How would you describe the author-agent relationship?

I think the author-agent relationship has to be somewhat intimate.  My authors are also my friends, I like them! The agent is the one consistent person in the life and career of an author when editors move on and change houses. I fulfil several roles: editor, business adviser, friend, agony aunt (occasionally) and increasingly, I find myself involved in marketing and publicity.

Hannah Westland (Previously RCW, now editor at Serpent’s Tail)

Why do writers need an agent? Why not work directly with a publisher?

Some small publishers prefer that. But I would say that an agent will put your interests first, by trying to sell your rights all over the world, getting you the best deal across various media. Whereas a publisher will put their own interests above yours.

Christian Dittus

The world of books is changing fast – what elements depress you and which make you optimistic?

Editorial savvy and instinct are increasingly being replaced by marketing considerations; it’s become rare that an editor acquires a book because he or she thinks that it’s a great book, or an important book, or both. And the imbalance between production (publishing) and distribution (bookselling) continues in the digital marketplace, where publishers – the providers of “content” – seem to be on the same fateful road as they were in the bricks-and-mortar trade, by giving e-booksellers (internet platforms; formerly: bookstore chains) ever more power, and an ever bigger piece of the revenue pie in the form of disproportionate discounts. With this practice they give away the very ground they stand on, they make it hard if not impossible for smaller publishers to compete, and they leave next to nothing to the authors.

On the other hand, new impulses and fresh ideas often come from small, independent houses, and fortunately there seems to be no end of start-up publishers with a vision; true, they often have more idealism than money, but that’s where innovation comes from. And every day a great book is being written or published, and every day hungry readers are out to discover great writing.

Laura Longrigg

Do authors sometimes have unrealistic expectations of an agent’s role? How do you see the agent/author relationship?  

Some authors think that once they have an agent, the job is done, they now will get a publisher.  That sadly isn’t always the case, however much you as the agent may be passionate about the author’s work, it is no use if you don’t find an editor who shares that passion and can actually persuade their colleagues to let them publish it.

Often the agent makes no money for months if not years in the early stages of a relationship with an author, so we can be working for nothing until a book gets sold and that means an agent has to be really passionate about an author’s work and can clearly see that the author has publishing potential, not just for one book but several, and not just in the UK but internationally. The relationship is therefore to my mind based on trust, shared hard work, and belief in the author’s work.

Svetlana Pironko

The world of books is changing fast – what elements get you down and which make you optimistic?

What gets me down is the general depreciation of intellectual property. How can we blame readers for forgetting that writing and publishing a book requires talent and represents a huge amount of work, often years of it?

I am all in favour of e-books, and it would be stupid to try to go against the tide anyway. But I hope that both publishers and readers will keep in mind that content is much more important than the support and will pay for it, pay writers for their work.

What makes me optimistic? There will always be writers and there will always be readers. At least, I hope so. Isn’t it part of what makes us human?

Jane Gregory

How will the role of agents change, do you think?

The role of the agent has been subtly changing for some time. We are there to represent and protect our authors, our role has changed in that we probably are needed more than ever to guide and manage an author’s career.

Jonny Geller

Are agents now doing the job of editors and editors doing the work of marketers?

That’s too simplistic. Agents have been moving towards the editorial side for over ten years. And in today’s climate, you can’t sell a book that isn’t at least 80% there. So the agent works with the author to get it to that stage. In the old days, agents had lunch with publishers, pitched an idea they were excited about and by mid afternoon, a deal was on the table. Now, months of work precede that pitch, including putting a marketing plan in place. After a sale, it’s the agent who continually lobbies to raise the author’s profile, organises the blurb, gets quotes for the jacket and so on. Put it this way, it’s like walking someone home. It used to be that the agent would take the author all the way to the gate. Now they have to come inside the house with you.

Nathan Bransford

Has the standard of editing declined?

No, I don’t believe so. I think there’s a bit of mythology surrounding past golden eras of books, that look shinier in retrospect because all the duds are out of print. Editors still edit.

Pete Morin (author) on his agent Christine Witthohn

I stumbled upon a literary agent who not only understood the changes that were coming, but embraced them, and encouraged me and several other of her authors to self-publish. Dumb luck.

Julia Churchill

How do you feel when you sign a new client?

Every agent knows the feeling and you can read it on our faces. An agent who’s just signed up someone extraordinary looks a bit different to the one who hasn’t got their new project. They’ll look like they’ve just come back from a spa-break or honeymoon – shoulders down, brow smooth and filled with trust in the world and the promise of great things to come. You know when you meet a friend you haven’t seen for a while – and you can tell in a second that they’re in love? It’s just like that.

And my all-time favourite agent for common sense, market savvy and generosity of spirit, Andrew Lownie

You’ve set up Thistle Publishing, your own imprint. How come?

Many agencies were dipping their toes in the market pushing reverted backlist titles or filling territorial gaps where books had not sold such as in America. I decided to be more ambitious and was influenced by your very own writers’ conference in Zurich last October where it was clear changes in the industry were being driven by authors, and agents would be left behind if they didn’t embrace the revolution taking place.

Andrew regularly shares articles on his website explaining what editors are seeking. Inside info that authors need to know.

So yes, I love literary agents, because they champion great stories and fight for their authors. And what better-trained eyes to find a diamond in the ash?

Next Page »