“I spent approximately ten years working on this book”: the authors shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize share the inspirations behind their novels.
The Sting of the Bee published by Hamish Hamilton.
In late 2017, I began writing The Bee Sting. Prior to that, I had spent 18 months working on a screenplay and was eager to return to the freedom and potential of writing a novel. However, I struggled to decide what to write about. I had three distinct ideas and began jotting down notes for each one, including scene outlines and character development. Looking back, I realize I was hesitant to start something new after being away from fiction for so long and wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it. However, notes alone cannot capture a novel’s unique voice, which is the most crucial element and can only be discovered through actual writing.
However, amidst the many notes, one particular character caught my attention. Her name was Cass Barnes, a 17-year-old aspiring poet. She had a scar on her arm, which I knew was from a drunken accident involving a glass table. Curiosity struck me as I wondered about her background – the Irish Midlands town she hailed from, her family and their struggles. Memories of my friends from that region surfaced, their tales of a bee getting caught in a bride’s veil, a failed car business, and nosy neighbors keeping tabs on everyone’s movements. These recollections intertwined with current events that I encountered through my daily news feed, such as the rise of extremism, the manipulation of young minds by technology, and the destruction of our planet. Together, they formed the narrative of the novel I was piecing together.
After writing for approximately three months about a marginalized teenage poet, I came to the realization that the story was not solely focused on Cass. It was impossible to fully understand her character without also exploring the experiences of her family members, including her younger brother and parents. Each family member faced their own struggles, and although it may not be obvious to them, the reader can see that all of their issues stem from their shared past. My goal was to give each family member a unique voice, which required a significant amount of time perfecting their speech patterns and rhythms. Dickie, the father, is slow and pensive, constantly doubting himself and his intelligence. In contrast, his wife Imelda is always on the go and overwhelmed by everything happening around her. She shares her story in a rapid and continuous manner, barely pausing for breath.
Cass and her family make many mistakes, and they’re not always good to each other or to themselves. But I came to love them, and, though it’s a novel about grief and trauma, working on it brought me a lot of happiness. All in, it took me five years: from the first draft, written in longhand in my tiny studio in Dublin, through the many revisions, mostly done at home. The title, The Bee Sting, was the last thing to arrive.
Western Lane (Picador)
The beginning of Western Lane evoked the sensation of being in a squash court, accompanied by a voice stating: “There were three of us.” I was aware of the trio of sisters on the court, as well as their father on the balcony giving them instructions. The absence of their mother was palpable to all. While it’s not often that I have such a distinct inspiration for a story, I had faith in it.
The novel follows a family coping with the death of their mother. After her passing, 11-year-old Gopi and her two older sisters spend their days training with their father at a local community sports center, which is known as the Western Lane. As I delved into Gopi’s world, I also read Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace and Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Both books feature a child who longs to connect with others or something beyond themselves or their familiar surroundings. I was struck by how these works captured the mysteries and unease of childhood, as well as its hopes. However, I believe that my childhood love for science fiction had the greatest influence on Western Lane. In fact, before writing the opening, I revisited some of my favorite science fiction books and stories, including a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “Because this moment simply is.” As I wrote Western Lane, this idea that a moment exists permanently in space became an integral part of its essence.
The process of writing a novel is inherently enigmatic to me. The three-year journey of creating Western Lane required meticulous attention, with countless weekends and evenings dedicated to revising and refining word choices, paragraphs, and plotlines. Surprisingly, I now realize that it was not in spite of, but rather because of this intense focus that my most vivid recollection of the writing process is one of tranquility and a sense of wonder and discovery as I uncovered the story before me.
Prophet Song (Oneworld)
In the late 1990s, I came across Hermann Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf and was struck by a passage that predicted the eventual destruction of Europe. The book’s main character, Harry Haller, observed the turmoil in Germany with a detached perspective, noting the country’s political divisions and the prevalence of racism and xenophobia in public discourse. I found myself contemplating the thrill of living in such tumultuous times, as the 90s felt uneventful and the idea of political unrest seemed far-fetched. According to political theorist Francis Fukuyama, this was a period when “history” had reached its conclusion.
In 2018, I revisited Steppenwolf just before starting to write Prophet Song and felt a sense of familiarity. The current events of Brexit, Trump, and rising nationalism in Europe came to mind. I also considered the crisis in Syria and the response of the western world towards its refugees. I pondered the idea that reality is no longer reliable, as false information has caused a decline in trust in conventional figures of power. I aimed to grasp the potential consequences of these developments.
According to philosopher George Santayana, a prophet is essentially a person with a vivid imagination, who is able to accurately portray the truth through their visions. The novel Prophet Song challenges traditional dystopian literature by subverting its typical format. Despite being set in the present, the story raises questions about the future through its unrelenting logic. The author spent four years crafting the novel, while also experiencing real-life situations that mirrored those depicted in the book, and coping with the lingering effects of Covid-19.
I realized that I didn’t want to write a political book. I learned that true literature is not about complaining, but about dealing with sorrow – things that are beyond our understanding and control. I attempted to give structure to the concepts of life and death, power and powerlessness, and how we navigate through life without full knowledge. I wanted to examine the idea of force, the struggles of making decisions and having free will, and to raise questions about human worth. The way the questions were presented was more significant than the answers, although I knew from the start that the book had to end with a question that only the reader could answer.
If You Outlast Me (Publisher: 4th Estate)
When I started writing If I Survive You, my goal was to accurately portray Jamaican Americans and showcase our presence in the world. Additionally, I wanted to delve into the complexities of family dynamics and how they can impact one’s sense of belonging and feeling of being an outsider. As a minority, I have often felt out of place and wonder if this is a common experience. Sometimes, I imagine what it would be like to live in a society that fully embraces and values my identity.
For children of immigrants, this feeling can be even more profound. The older generation understands why they left their home country and made the difficult decision to immigrate. They feel settled in their new country. However, for the younger generation who had no say in this decision, they may only feel a deep sense of hostility from their country of birth and a disconnect from their parents’ country of origin. These children often live in a state of limbo. Of course, this is a generalization as different immigrant groups have unique histories and reasons for immigrating, and their experiences in the adopted country can vary.
While the tone may seem serious and weighty, I do not intend to harm my readers. I believe that humor can serve as an approach to discussing these topics, potentially leaving readers feeling invigorated rather than disheartened after reading the book. As I am my own first reader, I also did not want to subject myself to brutalization.
I was uncertain whether the final product would be a full-length novel or a compilation of short stories. However, I was determined to have each “chapter” function independently while still contributing to the overall plot leading up to a climactic ending. This unique structure presented numerous technical obstacles, resembling a puzzle, and may have contributed to the book’s lengthy writing process of approximately ten years.
Study for Obedience (Granta)
A couple of years back, I attended an exhibition showcasing the artwork of Paula Rego, a renowned Portuguese painter. On display was a quote from the artist expressing her ability to challenge societal norms and portray women as both powerful and submissive.
I pondered how obedience, often associated with femininity and portrayed as submissive, could transform into a form of agency. This concept intrigued me and was apparent in Rego’s art, particularly in her depictions of domestic settings where we witness servants, wives, and daughters performing their usual tasks in ways that challenge the assumed power dynamic, and at times, even hint at the possibility of violence.
I was curious if I could replicate this dynamic through language, which led to the creation of Study for Obedience. My goal was to examine how systems of control can have negative effects on both the oppressor and the oppressed, while also considering a larger historical context. This is depicted through the narrator’s relationships with her brother, family, community, and societal expectations of gender roles, both secular and religious. Additionally, the narrator’s ties to the townspeople in the location her brother has settled in, which happens to be where her ancestors sought refuge, are also explored.
The challenges in the relationship between the narrator and the townspeople are both modern and historical. They revolve around the assimilation of outsiders and the narrator’s own social shortcomings, as well as the mistreatment of her ancestors by the townspeople and the resulting events. While exploring this history, I became intrigued by how certain experiences can be inherited and passed down through generations, particularly within the Jewish community. In the novel, this history is characterized by a constant feeling of impending disaster, rather than a specific traumatic event. It is a sense of repetition and ongoing calamities that seems to build upon one another. This repetition is both terrifying and absurd, and I hope that this tone is conveyed in the book.
This Other Eden (Hutchinson Heinemann)
“This Other Eden” is a work of art that is created through a process similar to a collage. It combines elements from my first two novels, various literary traditions that I find intriguing and often teach in my university classes, landscape, still life and portrait painting, and history – specifically the history of US chattel slavery and the ongoing presence of racism since the country’s inception. The plot and setting of the novel are inspired by events that occurred in the summer of 1912 on Malaga, an island located off the southern coast of Maine, where a community of mixed races was forced to leave their home. While the novel does not aim to accurately portray the families or individuals from Malaga, it was sparked by a few articles I read about a troubling incident and explores a fictional account of a similar community facing a fate that has been experienced by racially diverse settlements throughout the country.
The individuals residing on Apple Island, as mentioned in the book, were from various origins. Upon viewing a photograph of an elderly woman from Malaga, seated in a rocking chair with two young children on her lap, I associated her with a character who has a presence in my initial novel, Tinkers, despite not making an appearance – a grandmother raising her grandchildren, who were born to her daughter after she was raped by her father. This woman became known as Esther Honey, the leader of the island’s families, who I view as an Old Testament prophet. A young man who I initially linked to the 19th-century African American artist Charles Ethan Porter, who is depicted painting haystacks in a meadow on a fictional estate in Massachusetts in my second novel, Enon, was transformed into Ethan Honey, sent to the island to paint at the urging of a teacher/missionary, mostly due to his appearance as a white man. The character Zachary Hand to God Proverbs was first sketched after observing medieval religious ivory carvings at the Museum of Ontario and contemplating the idea of someone dedicating their time to carving similar scenes inside a hollow tree as an act of devotion.
For years, I have gathered various pieces and constantly rearranged them (sometimes using Post-It notes) until a cohesive literary universe emerges and becomes more defined and detailed. Eventually, fully realized characters with complex personalities start to come to life on the page.