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?


Photograph by Kristofer Samuelsson

Photograph by Kristofer Samuelsson

David Nicholls trained as an actor before making the switch to writing. His TV credits include the third series of Cold Feet, Rescue Me, and I Saw You. He was co-writer for the film adaptation of Simpatico, which starred Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone. David’s bestselling first novel, Starter for Ten, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2004. David wrote the screenplay for the film version, released in 2006, starring James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Dominic Cooper. He also wrote And When Did you Last See Your Father (2007), with Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth and a much-praised modern adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008), with Gemma Arterton for the BBC.

His second novel, The Understudy was published in 2005. His next novel, One Day came out as a film in 2011 with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in the roles of Emma and Dexter. Again, David wrote the screenplay. More recently, he adapted Great Expectations for a feature film and wrote The 7.39, a BBC romantic drama.

He lives in North London with his partner Hannah and two children, Max and Romy.

Which was your favourite childhood book?

The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier.

Where do you write?

At home three days a week, the British Library the rest of the time.

Which was the book that changed your life?

Great Expectations.

What objects are on your desk, and why?

A radio, a pot of pens, unanswered letters.

Which book should be on the national curriculum?

Great Expectations. 

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

Terrific, a terrible word.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t?

I think Wuthering Heights is an insanely over-praised piece of nonsense.

What have you learned from writing?

Perseverance pays.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Tender is the Night.

What will be written on your gravestone?

Just the facts.

Which book/writer deserves to be better known?

A fine American novelist, John Williams. His book Stoner is a masterpiece.

Which pizza topping best represents your personality?

A slow, steady Margarita.



sharon oldsSharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events.

Olds’s candor has led to both high praise and condemnation. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life.

Olds’s latest book, Stag’s Leap (2012), includes poems that explore details of her recent divorce, and the book won both the Pulitzer Prize and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. In awarding the latter, Carol Ann Duffy, chair of the final judging panel, said: “This was the book of her career. There is a grace and chivalry in her grief that marks her out as being a world-class poet. I always say that poetry is the music of being human, and in this book she is really singing. Her journey from grief to healing is so beautifully executed.”

Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.


Which book most influenced you when growing up?

The Bible — the Psalms and Song of Solomon.

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

Window overlooking water, trees, sky (city or country); train, bus (window seat); any window overlooking anything.

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

4/4 time of church hymnal; music — classical and rock & roll; stories to tell.

The word I most think of while reading your poetry is fearless. What are you afraid of?

Everything. (I’m copying Adrienne Rich!)

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

Golden sweet amber bright etc.!!

So many reviewers compare your work to music. How do you perceive the relationship between words and sound?

I didn’t know that — I’m happy! I guess I perceive the relationship with my ears, body (dancing, walking), breathing, and eyes.

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

Supposed to but: the book of child martyrs I won as a choir prize (loudest voice).

What’s your view on the future of poetry?


Do you have a guilty reading pleasure?

For essential escape from my own mind, for mental travel, for emotion, for the study of guilt and fear and (someone else’s) (imaginary) danger, I read detective stories and murder mysteries (no horror).

Your legacy will be both poetry and poets – what do you learn from teaching?

How to listen, how to pay attention to 12 people at once, how to describe, what life is like now for the young, how poetry changes with the changing world.

Which work has impressed you most this year?

The advances the younger poets have made away from sentimentality and self-pity.

In a parallel universe, what job would you be doing?

If it’s right beside us, a mirror opposite, I would be writing poems backwards.

Would you share a line from a review you liked?

May I share a poem which contains a line from a review?

sharon olds poem

Jonathan Cape and A. A. Knopf/Random House – One Secret Thing)



Jeet Thayil 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?200px-Narcopolis

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.



Libby O is the author of Charlotte Aimes, The Great Alpine Adventure, released yesterday. Here, she talks about YA fiction, making use of multimedia and why she went indie.


Who is Charlotte Aimes and where did she come from?

Charlotte’s character sprang from numerous conversations with my daughter, AJ, over the past few years. (She’s now 14.) At the time, she wanted a story with a kick-butt girl protagonist who was ‘sort of like a Sherlock Holmes’. She kept telling me to write it, and I kept saying, ‘ok, soon’, because I was working on a bunch of other fiction projects at the time, and the character of Charlotte hadn’t really settled in my mind yet.

I finally started writing Charlotte when AJ was having a bit of difficulty getting motivated at school, and I had hit a brick wall with my other fiction projects. So we made a deal that I’d write a chapter while she did her homework. It was sort of a mutual cheer-squadding, if you like.


Charlotte Aimes Cover MEDIUMI’ve read The Great Alpine Adventure and it’s exciting, fast-paced fun. Was that how you felt as you wrote it?

As any writer will know, there are moments of excitement, but there are also long stretches of teeth-gnashing as you go through re-writing and editing over and over again. That said, I definitely enjoyed fleshing out the characters, because even though it’s an action-packed adventure story, it’s primarily character-driven. I enjoy writing dialogue, and I also enjoyed the fact that I had a target reader alongside me the whole way, with whom I could share the twists and turns and wins and flops.


How have you made Charlotte’s world discoverable through transmedia storytelling?

I took the advice of a digital publishing and branding colleague, which was: ‘the book comes first’. I concentrated on making the paperback (and digital) look and feel as delicious as possible, and worked on a few different channels for discoverability. I guess it’s not strictly transmedia storytelling, as I’m not trying to push the plot forwards on different platforms, but maybe it’s more an augmentation of the storyworld.

MakieCharlotte helps @libby_ol


My approach was to cut a trailer (which is on YouTube and also embedded in the Charlotte Aimes website) because video is a fast way to get a message across, and it’s a medium most teens understand and consume at a rate of knots. I experimented with a 3D printed version of Charlotte (‘Makie’ Charlotte), but I realised that I’d need a clone of myself in order to keep writing *and* do all the fun things you can do with stop-motion and so-on. But Makie Charlotte makes guest appearances occasionally in my Instagram and Tumblr, and she’s on the blooper reel.

I also decided to open up the Charlotte Aimes storyworld on a pop-up Tumblr (attached to my main Tumblr), which is designed to be a discrete, small project that provides a window onto the Aimes world. It’s a locked blog that needs an access code, because it will contain spoilers as it unfolds, and readers can get very crabby if they ‘happen upon’ spoilers. I decided to make the access code fairly easy to ‘discover’, though. (It’s on my main Tumblr or when you sign up for the mailing list.)

What appeals to you about writing YA fiction?

Interestingly, the YA category can quite happily cater to ‘older adult’ readers. That’s an aspect I really like. And, although I try to inject brain-food into my stories, I also shoot for the heart, and somehow this seems to speak to the teen reader experience. I’ve never considered myself a ‘YA’ writer per se, though: that’s a label that came after I looked at the market genre categories and, in fact, on some platforms (like Kobo) I don’t even have an option to categorise myself as YA because I don’t write supernatural, dystopia, paranormal, and so-on. I do think categories are useful in our search-engine-, marketing-driven world, but they’re also restrictive. Grey areas have a legitimate place.

 Why did you choose to publish Charlotte independently?

I like experiments, and there is so much fun software and tech to experiment with when you’re going indie. I also like Creative Commons licensing, and because I’ve worked in narrative media for my whole working life (I’ve published old-school zines, and edited and produced a number of other indie publications) it was almost a no-brainer to take the next step with my longer fiction. Daunting, of course, because it’s a lot of work that takes away from writing time, but I’m very lucky to have met and worked with some extremely generous indie writer/publishers who have shared their know-how and expertise along the way.

 Tell us about the reactions from your readership.

AJ reading in bed

AJ reading in bed

Seeing as it was released yesterday, I can’t be sure I actually *have* a readership at this stage. However, I built a Google sites website with a reader feedback form for my teen and adult Beta Readers, and that was really useful, because I asked pointed questions in order to gain insights into the kinds of things a reader might have noticed but might not necessarily think to say in a review.

Of course, the fact that AJ loves it is the most important feedback I could get. Partly because she’s a scorchingly tough critic, but also because Charlotte has been a labour of love, and hearing AJ giggling as she read the final manuscript into the wee hours on a school night was … well, at that point I wasn’t sure whether to scold her for staying up past bedtime, or just let myself be the proudest writer on the planet.

 Where’s Charlotte going next? And please tell me Mike and Lyla will be with her.

I have ideas brewing. I also have other fiction projects waiting for a home, including another completed novel. But I haven’t decided what to do with those yet, because they veer towards the adult literary genre, and therefore need a different approach. I’m currently reading Charlotte to my son, who’s nearly 12. He has given me some suggestions, but he thinks Charlotte 2.0 is not a priority, because Mike needs his own book. We’ll see which project calls the loudest.



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