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Interviewing a Booker Prize winner

9th June 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin

I still have a fondness for most of the literature I studied at school, but Graham Swift's Waterland was the one that really stayed with me. It was one of those rare books that opened my eyes to new horizons, made me realise the extraordinary journeys on which novels could take me. Swift became the first adult writer whose every book I borrowed from the library.

Image of Waterland paperbackMany years and countless masterful books later, Waterland remains my favourite novel, one of the few I make time to re-read every so often. And when I was lucky enough to meet Graham a few years ago, it was my battered paperback, complete with scrawled A-Level margin notes, that I asked him to sign. In the event of that dinner-party scenario, where I have to save one book in the event of a fire, that's the one I'd grab.

Swift's editor at Picador knows how much of a fan I am and so it was at least a year ago that he started hinting Graham had been working on something new, something really rather special. But he couldn't tell me any more: Graham was, for some reason, not happy with it yet, so it remained nothing more than a distant and tantalising possibility.

Swift was one of the twenty 'best young British novelists', as named by Granta magazine in their inaugural list in 1983, a list which has since been seen to recognise a golden generation of British literature. But unlike some of the other now-household names featured - people like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes - Swift has avoided the attendant celebrity limelight. No doubt it makes the jobs of those who publicise his books a little trickier, but, frankly, I wish more authors would just let their books speak for them.

So interviews and festival appearances have been relatively rare, but once I'd had the chance to read Wish You Were Here and discovered that it certainly is as special as had been suggested, I became only more determined that we secure an interview with him for the website. After some carefully worded email exchanges with his loyal publicist of almost thirty years, an email arrived one lunchtime - he'd said yes. And, it transpired, yes to Foyles and to no one else.

Now of course, I had to write some questions. I've prepared a fair few Q&As for all sorts of authors since I started working on the Foyles website, but this was a bit different: the author of my favourite book, a Booker Prize winner, a man more articulate that I shall ever hope to be. 'Did winning the Booker Prize change your life?' doesn't really cut it.

Most of our interviews don't go into as much detail: it's usually better to take an approach that results in something interesting for those not familiar with a particular book or author. But the opportunity, and perhaps requirement, here to go a little deeper was too good to miss. In the end, it took most of a Sunday (including the time I spent rewriting the questions to make them sound less pretentious).

My starting point was his previous novel, Tomorrow. I'd found myself disagreeing strongly with the reasoning of most reviewers who'd taken against it. It's one of those books that ought ideally to be read in a single sitting. Like Wish You Were Here, It's a book driven by an internal monologue:in this case, a middle-class mother lies in bed, sleepless, preparing for the day on which she and her husband will compromise the innocence of their children by revealing a long-held secret to them.

Jacket image for Wish You Were HereWhat struck me was that Wish You Were Here is similarly structured around the internal monologue of one character and in both cases Swift recreates the churning of the restless mind and the constant revisiting of the same thoughts. The efficacy of the writing in Wish You Were Here seems to me to have been developed in Tomorrow.

I get the chance to read the complete work of too few writers - a pity, as watching a writer's technique develop can be fascinating. But in Swift's case, this was something I felt I'd picked up on before. There are many stylistic touches in his debut novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, that appear, honed, in Waterland, a book published four years later.

Before long, more detailed impressions of rewarding those earlier books came flooding back and it became a matter of isolating particular issues that I thought might pique the interest of both Swift and those who would read the interview. The few interviews available online and his collection of non-fiction essays, Making an Elephant, helped here.

His responses have made for, in my opinion at least, the best interview we've had on our website. His answers are subtle and complex, evidence of the sharp nuances of his writing that are too often overlooked. Some of the questions based on my own impressions of his work resulted in answers that I didn't expect at all.

As for his new novel, I think it's a commandingly eloquent exploration of the universal through the personal, intimate and softly spoken yet resonant and momentous. I savoured every page and, to borrow the words of a colleague on her favourite book, I wish I hadn't read it, so I'd still have the pleasure of reading it for the first time ahead of me.

Click here to read the full interview with Graham.



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