Judging the Betty Trask Prize

On Judging the Betty Trask Prize

Imagine this. An email, late one winter afternoon, asks if you’d be happy to receive two large boxfuls of brand new debut novels, and if you’d read them in return for what, on any view, would be described as a fair fee. Finding no reason to refuse (who would?) you accept. The deliveries arrive and the readathon begins.

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On Epigraphs

On the first page of Silver and Salt there’s an epigraph taken from Browning. My novel began a long time ago, with a short story called the Glass-Bottomed Boat. When I wrote that story (a comic tale about a family holiday in Greece) I had no idea it would one day lose its comic thread, and grow into a novel. Partway through the auction for my first novel, when one of the bidders offered to buy two books rather than one, I was asked to produce a synopsis for a second novel overnight, and thought about The Glass Bottomed Boat.

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On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, according to David Mamet

My copy of David Mamet’s ‘Three Uses of the Knife’ is underlined in places, and certain pages are folded over. Sometimes when I go to take it down from the shelf, I feel like a cross-country skier reaching for wax. But rather than functioning as a piece of kit, it’s a book that answers questions about writing: it doesn’t so much tell you how it’s done, as why.

I like how he explains our need for stories: ‘Children jump around at the end of the day to expend the last of that day’s energy. The adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama – which is to say to order the universe into a comprehensible form.’

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On the return of a long-lost book

In her memoir, ‘What Language Do I Dream In?’ Elena Lappin recounts the tale of a novel being returned to her, years after she and her family had left behind their home in Prague.

I’ll leave you to read the story in its entirety (and if you’ve not already done so, would urge you to seek out the memoir) but I can tell you of my excitement on learning of Lappin’s ‘slim paperback with a shiny red, blue and white cover…’ slipping from its envelope, and my surprise at the twist borne by its blue-inked inscription, added to the title page by her brother. She says of the experience, ‘I was speechless.’

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On Finding Pennerton House

An early reader of Silver and Salt wrote to me yesterday: ‘I would like to go to Pennerton.’

‘So would I!’ I wrote back, explaining there was no such place. The sprawling country house in Kent, where much of the novel is set, is made of fragments of memories of houses I’ve visited in my life. One New Year in my 20’s, I sang a concert in London and took a train to Somerset. I walked in the Quantocks every day of the week I was there. Happening upon Alfoxton House, one-time home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, I found its gardens largely neglected.

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If You Wish to Make an Apple Pie

‘If you wish to make an apple pie, you must first create the universe.’

The first episode of Sagan’s series, Cosmos, aired in September 1980.  I came to it late, through the clip I’ve posted here which shows the work of John D. Boswell, a musician based in Washington. Almost all the samples and footage in A Glorious Dawn – Cosmos remixed (part of Boswell’s ‘Symphony of Science‘ project), are taken from Cosmos, and Stephen Hawking’s Universe (1987).  Shown the clip one winter afternoon in a friend’s living room, I asked, who was this man, and where could I see more of him? The episode that hooked me most was the first: Sagan re-creates, through digital wizardry, the library at Alexandria.

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