Congratulations on taking home the East Midlands Book Award 2014. A well deserved win. How important are book prizes to authors?
Writers spend years locked away in isolation, chipping away at the rock face, determined to craft the very best story they can. Any event that celebrates that kind of effort has got to be a good thing, but I am also well aware that prize giving in any creative arena is rather like comparing apples and pears.
Book prizes certainly play a role in bringing authors to the attention of readers, encouraging them to pick up a book they might otherwise have overlooked. It’s important that we highlight the value of storytelling in an increasingly fragmented, technology-driven society. You don’t need a power supply to read a book, nor to share a story by the fireside.
What does winning the EMBA mean to you personally?
To have been considered for the EMBA at all was quite something. The prize celebrates the outstanding writing talent we have here in the East Midlands. Last year’s winner, Jon McGregor, is author of one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things. I was genuinely stunned when Anne Zouroudi, another wonderful writer, announced Under The Jewelled Sky as this year’s winner. The other six titles on the shortlist were all excellent, so it was a great honour and a very humbling experience.
India and the character’s relationships with the country play a vital role within Under the Jewelled Sky, and it also plays a prominent part in your 2012 novel, The Secret Children. What is it about India that spurred your own passionate love affair with the country?
My mother was born in Assam in 1928 and came to the UK in the 1960s where she met and married my father, a strapping great Viking of a man. Her background and heritage were a world away and she suffered a terrible sense of displacement and loss. Mixed marriages were a rarity back then and we had no family to speak of outside of our small unit.
By the time I first visited India with my mother I was well into my thirties. It was as though I had finally found the part of me that had always been missing. India is a cherished part of my family history, even though that history has caused untold heartache. My own affair with India has its ups and downs, which I have written about in several articles.
Although Under the Jewelled Sky is primarily a love story, it also tackles issues of racial discrimination, domestic violence and political unrest. It is evident that the novel is thoroughly researched and written with a real want for change, do you consider yourself a political activist?
I lack the diplomacy to be a political activist. The bad things that go on in India make me want to charge through the streets and throw bricks through windows, so I expect I would achieve nothing other than to cause more trouble and end up in jail. It is better for me to remain a writer, because through the power of story it is possible to influence people’s thinking by showing them a perspective they may not have considered.
India is the world’s biggest democracy and one of its fastest-growing economies, yet its people continue to struggle with appalling social problems. We all know the stories. We’ve all seen the news. I place my faith in the young people of India who are educated in the principles of human rights. They must stand by those rights and oust the generation who cling on to power through corruption and unacceptable doctrine.
You have a real talent for portraying vivid, almost tangible characters. Are any of their characteristics based on people you know? Or are they all a product of your imagination?
All the characters in my stories come from my imagination – even the ones who are informed by people I know or have met just briefly. Little things can leave a big impression, the way somebody drinks their tea or uses a particular phrase. Sometimes characters arrive in my head fully-formed, other times they remain hazy and I have to wait patiently and think about them a great deal. I try not to impose too much upon my characters. It is better to allow them to take shape in their own time and to let them be their own people.
Before publishing The Secret Children and Under the Jewelled Sky, you wrote a series of British comedy novels. How did you make the transition from comedy to historical fiction?
Comedy and tragedy live side by side. I wrote the Housewife books (starting with Housewife Down, Pan MacMillan 2005) while in the throes of raising a family, so they reflected a certain juncture in my life and they were great fun to write. I had written the beginnings of The Secret Children some years before, but the time wasn’t right for me to start tackling such a huge story. It was finally published in 2012 and has been translated into several languages.
And the winner is...
Under They Jewelled Sky took almost three years to complete and would probably have taken me longer had I not been on a deadline. These stories absorb me completely and steal my life away. Months fly by and I’m still working on the same few chapters, living with the characters and waiting to see what happens.
Now that you’ve bagged yourself the EMBA, what can we expect from you next?
I am taking my time on the new novel. Life seems to be full of distractions lately and a whole raft of friends have turned 50 this year. We’re the 1964 baby boomers. I am five or six chapters into the draft, which usually means that I am somewhere close to putting it all in the bin and starting again. Things will start dropping into place soon after that and I shall retreat into my dark writing corner and keep chipping away at the rock face until the book is finished.