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.
You make charts, notes, timetables. Other jobs carry on, other work keeps coming in, the window tightens. You read everywhere, all the time. You dream of nothing but words. One by one, all your own characters, all your own stories, abandon you for these others pacing through your mind. There are a few days of eye strain and neck ache, but just as many when you are reminded of your student summers, lying around on lawns under plane trees reading Lawrence and Eliot and Woolf and thinking, this can’t be right, I must be dreaming: what I am doing counts as work, but it comes more naturally than breathing.
By book 20, the task has formed a new reality: everything is a book, everywhere you see a young writer trying to tell a story, walking the tightrope that is creativity. There are falls, high-dives, triple jumps, and more than a few derring-do acts of bravura. There’s beauty and strangeness and decisions you think might have been made otherwise, but then you find a book that stops you in your tracks and displaces all your schedules and charts and plans for other work.
When you reach book 31, you think you are finished (in all senses), but ten more are sent and it starts over, and over, and over. Your patience is rewarded when you go back to the beginning and take up a story you’d initially set aside for its having shut you out, and find, this time, that it lets you in and makes you question every thought you’ve ever had about what can and can’t be done in a novel, and what you were going to do in your next.
Late spring, another email. This one thanks you for the list you’ve submitted and asks you to make your way to a light-filled, airy room in Clerkenwell. There, at a table stocked with rich, plump fruit cake and tea, you find a happy company of writers. Seated at its head is the wise and gentle author of that winter email, and her mastermind assistant, who has been instrumental in co-ordinating the gargantuan task in which you’ve been engrossed. The hours unfold into sometimes dreamy, sometimes heated discussions of those 40 boxed-up novels. There’s passion, the occasional challenging scurry, and hard-cast warm-hearted open-minded questions. What’s clear from the off is that your fellow judges, Ben Brooks and Vaseem Khan, have pored over every word with the same excited scrutiny as you.
That was the Betty Trask Prize.* The only really difficult part was deciding what to keep, what to lose. Here’s what I said to camera about the shortlist, for the awards ceremony at Southwark Cathedral.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s boxes landing on my doorstep. Now, ahead of time, I am limbering up with a stack of holiday reads. With a nod to Hemingway, here’s a principle I live by as a novelist: a writer should read far, far more than she writes. And when she’s done that, she should read some more.