After the Booker

He had trouble publishing his explicit first book, but by 2004 he’d won the Booker prize. Alan Hollinghurst talks about living alone, the allure of the upper classes and why he’s not just a ‘gay writer’ any more

One line from Alan Hollinghurst’s new book, The Stranger’s Child, is lodged in my head as I arrive at his Hampstead flat. Daphne Sawle, a key figure in the book, whom we follow from a poetically inclined 16-year-old to a tough old boot of 83, is about to be interviewed by would-be biographer Paul Bryant. “He was only pretending to be a friend,” Daphne tells herself, “something no interviewer, probably, had ever been.”

Bryant duly writes his book and uncovers all sorts of secrets about Daphne’s tangled relationship with Cecil Valance, the Rupert Brooke figure at the centre of the novel, whose memory is fought over for decades after his death. I rather like Bryant – a “little wire-haired ratter”, according to Daphne – who becomes increasingly bombastic as the book proceeds. Hollinghurst is perhaps less enamoured of his character, and of biographers who confuse art with life. I ring the bell with trepidation.

Hollinghurst’s large flat, spread over three floors, overlooks the southern edge of Hampstead Heath. He lives alone – he generally has, though there have been “periods of experiment” with live-in partners – and the flat feels monastic. “I’m not at all easy to live with,” he says. “I wish I could integrate writing into ordinary social life, but I don’t seem to be able to. I could when I started. I suppose I had more energy then. Now I have to isolate myself for long periods. It’s all become more of a challenge. I find writing novels gets harder and harder, which is not what I thought would happen. I thought you’d learn how to do it.”

The carpets are beige – I feel an urge to remove my shoes; the walls white; each picture, each object, has its place; a cleaner is doing her weekly rounds – young, dark-haired, Spanish perhaps, the most beautiful cleaner you have ever seen. There is absolute silence, broken only by a loud burst of the overture to Swan Lake on Hollinghurst’s mobile phone when his mother calls. As well as Tchaikovsky’s lush ballet scores, he has an enduring love of Henry James – there is a bookcase of Jamesiana in his top-floor study. James became his art; forswore life to write perfect fictions. My immediate suspicion is that the pupil is taking the same course as the master, though I accept it is a large thesis to hang on beige furnishings.

The Stranger’s Child – the title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam – is Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, and his first since The Line Of Beauty won the Booker prize in 2004. His first four books, written over a span of almost 20 years, form a quartet that explore gay life in the UK, present and past. The Swimming-Pool Library, his sex-drenched first book, published in 1988, mapped the gay world before and after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality; The Folding Star (1994) was a disturbing study of pederastic desire; The Spell (1998) a sex-and-drugs-fuelled comedy of manners; The Line Of Beauty another dark comedy exposing the hypocrisy and cupidity of the 1980s.

Those four books seem like a set of themes and variations: hidden histories, young men’s rites of passage, the compulsion of desire, the fragility (perhaps even the impossibility) of love. He accepts that with The Stranger’s Child he has embarked on a new phase. “I did have a strong sense after The Line Of Beauty of having come to the end of what I rather pompously thought of as a sort of symphonic structure of four movements and coming back at the end to the time at which the first book was set. It did seem to seal something off. This is a book I would not have been able to write 10 years ago, a book about time and its workings, and memory and its failings.”

Did he worry about having to follow a Booker winner? “Not consciously. I’m quite good at shutting out those worries and expectations. But perhaps unconsciously I was. In a way, I was in this marvellous position that I could have done anything I wanted, and I meant to do something much smaller and quicker.” A cash-in book? He laughs. The seven-year gap since he won the Booker absolves him of that charge.

He initially set out to write short stories, but managed only one before another novel took root. “My first idea of it was that it would be a novel about the great war that didn’t actually have the great war in it. I thought it would be a two-part thing: the prewar section, and then you’d jump in again some time after the war and you’d pick up these people and see how their lives had been altered. But then when I added the idea of literary biography into the mix, I realised that I wanted to pursue it through further episodes.”

I wonder if, with the new novel done, he feels bereaved. “Normally, I do have a brief but acute sort of depression when I finish a book, which is to do with saying goodbye to this place you’ve been inhabiting. But I was so desperate to get this thing off that I seem to have escaped that.” He has a deep, drawly voice – so deep he used to be known as Basso Profundo when he worked at the Times Literary Supplement in the 80s – and a hesitant, donnish manner, but his brown eyes sparkle behind his glasses, and he laughs a great deal, managing to take himself very seriously and at the same time not in the least seriously.

One reason he was keen to finish the book was that he was running out of money. “I handed it in at the end of September, which was two years later than planned, so I had absolutely no money left. It was really getting quite hairy.” Winning the Booker netted £50,000, there were foreign rights, a TV adaptation, and then the advance for this book, but even a novelist as successful as Hollinghurst – producing on average a book every five years – is not earning a vast sum annually.

Many novelists do journalism to top up their earnings. Hollinghurst does the odd book review and literary essay, but he doesn’t do punditry. Isn’t he tempted? “No,” he says, “I don’t really have opinions. After The Line Of Beauty, I was always getting requests from newspapers, asking me what the election meant for Labour, that sort of thing. I said I didn’t have the faintest idea what the election meant for Labour. I just happened to have written a book that had a Tory politician in it.”

Hollinghurst’s hero, Henry James, had three distinct writing periods – early, middle and late. He even seems to have imagined them in capital letters. Does Hollinghurst think in those terms? “No,” he says firmly. “That would be insanely self-conscious and self-important. I’ve always felt I was going gropingly into the future.” Yet The Stranger’s Child, with its wider canvas, excavation of the past and rumination on whether we can ever really establish the truth, does mark a new chapter. It may not be Middle Hollinghurst, in the sense in which James would have understood it, but it is the work of a middle-aged writer, whereas the four earlier novels were the work of a younger man galvanised by his arrival in London and by exposure to a suddenly more assertive gay world after 10 years doing EngLit at Oxford in the 70s. If, as Schopenhauer said, the first 40 years of life supply the text and the next 30 the commentary on it, Hollinghurst, at 57, is now well into the latter.

I like to think his text phase was as exciting as his early novels might suggest, but he gets cagey when I ask if he was indeed “living the William Beckwith life” – Beckwith, the narrator of The Swimming-Pool Library, is a 25-year-old for whom any day without a new sexual partner is a day wasted – when he came to London in 1981. “Not entirely,” he replies, with something halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “But coming to London was a new phase. I didn’t have the capital to live the William Beckwith life, but I arrived with a feeling this was where I was going to be from now on.”

The great game that journalists – me, in fact, in Paul Bryant mode – play with Hollinghurst is trying to imagine to what degree the characters in his books are based on him. It’s absurdly reductive and he elegantly refuses to play along – all people really want to know, he once complained, is have I really fucked as many men as that? – but you can’t help it. Beckwith is a libidinous aesthete with a taste for beautiful young men, Wagner and the novels of early 20th-century gay writer Ronald Firbank (about whom Hollinghurst obsesses); in The Spell, the self-effacing, thirtysomething civil servant Alex Nichols discovers the drug ecstasy at about the same age Hollinghurst admits to having been captivated by it; in The Line Of Beauty, Nick Guest is an Oxford graduate writing a thesis about… you guessed it, Henry James.

Hollinghurst’s own life has to be pieced together from shards of fact; not unlike the way lives gradually, reluctantly reveal themselves in his books. He says he has been “incontrovertibly” gay since he was an undergraduate in the early 70s, but prefers not to say when he first realised he was gay. He was an only child, the son of a bank manager in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which one imagines in the 50s as a sleepy, conservative country town. Just such a town is the setting for one section of The Stranger’s Child; there is even a bank and a bank manager, who is married to Daphne’s daughter and has been psychologically damaged by the second world war. I ask whether there is anything of his own father in that portrait. “They are very unlike my own parents, I’m rather relieved to say, but I spent the first eight years of my life living in a house above a bank and playing in the bank after everyone had gone home, so it was a plunge into memory doing all that, and I rather enjoyed recreating it.”

In The Spell, Alex – who has “contracted the occasional ailment of the late developer, an aversion to his own past” – recalls his horror of the country town in which he’d grown up, with its “old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes [and] photos of fetes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of the newspaper office, which might almost have been the window of a museum”. He also tenderly recalls the solitary child’s “taste for lonely places”, playing hide and seek alone. “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother tells him. “It’s just hide.”

Hard though Hollinghurst tries to hide in public, he drops in clues about himself throughout his novels. He even appears in person at the end of The Spell, “a sympathetic-looking man with short grey hair and a darker goatee”, spotted by Alex when he goes cruising on Hampstead Heath. Another character in The Spell, an unappealing antique dealer called George, is said to have “a delight in artifice and a mania for honesty”. The same might be said for Hollinghurst.

Stroud might have been terminally inhibiting for the young Hollinghurst, but he escaped. At eight his “aspirational” parents took the curious decision to send him to prep school as a boarder. “Neither of my parents had been to boarding school, but they thought it was important,” he says vaguely. From there, he went to Canford public school in Dorset, also as a boarder, and it proved an artistic awakening. “Being in a beautiful and interesting old house made a profound impression on me at an early stage.” The decision to send him away was to be the making of the young aesthete, as well as the beginning of the remarkable voice.

The relationship with his parents is hard to fathom, and he is reluctant to speak about them – “I cringe from saying anything that might be used to make them into figures of curiosity or comedy,” he tells me later in an email. It has sometimes been implied that his father reacted badly to The Swimming-Pool Library – he has been quoted as saying, “I believe that what they are doing is against the law” – but Hollinghurst says the remark has been taken out of context. “All my father said to me was that he supposed Will was breaking the law by having an affair with Arthur [his young black lover], who was under the then legal age. It was an oblique but coolly clever way of dealing with what both my parents must have found a rather shocking book. But they were both from the start delighted by the book’s success, and movingly supportive of my freedom to write whatever I wanted.” His father died in 1991, three years before The Folding Star was published, but his mother, though frail at 92, is making steady headway with The Stranger’s Child and calling him with enthusiastic updates on her progress.

Hollinghurst enjoyed his time at Canford, and wrote enthusiastically about it in the old boys’ magazine, the Canfordian, a couple of years ago, recalling with affection two teachers who had opened his mind to poetry, painting and architecture. The critic Peter Parker, who was at school with him, says he “never thought of him as a boy – he always seemed old”. Parker recalls that Hollinghurst had a self-deprecating manner and even then his trademark bass voice, and that the poetry he wrote for the magazine Parker founded was mature and fully formed: “I am rather proud to have been his first publisher.”

Parker stresses that Canford was not Eton, yet there is a sense in which Hollinghurst’s parents’ decision to place their serious-minded son among a certain class of boys determined all that followed. I ask whether he accepts his books exhibit a fascination with upper-class life – a recurring milieu that some critics suggest limits his work – and when we will get his great mining novel. “Don’t count on it any time soon,” he says unabashed. “I’ve always felt rich people have more scope for behaving badly, or for behaving amusingly badly perhaps. Some of those issues were addressed in The Line Of Beauty: the interest in lovely old houses and possessions, inevitably entailing some sort of consideration of the people who live in them and own them. There are habits that I haven’t shaken off. Whenever I go to any place, I go and look at the church, and it’s an interest I put straight into my book. I probably do too much of it. There have been big Victorian country houses in my last three novels. I had to be careful this book wasn’t marketed as a Downton Abbey-type thing, and I hope it doesn’t trade in easy nostalgia and fantasy about the past; rather the opposite.”

Hollinghurst does indeed look tweedy and staid in the school photograph that accompanies his article in the Canfordian. He has described living his life in reverse: hemmed in in his teens and 20s, when he was at Oxford, living in a house with Andrew Motion and doing a thesis on three gay writers, EM Forster, Firbank and LP Hartley, working at a time when it was not possible to write openly about homosexuality; then flowering in his 30s after he came to London.

Though he always had a novel “on the go”, Hollinghurst initially saw himself as a poet. He published a well-received volume of poetry with the provocative title Confidential Chats With Boys in 1982, but says the muse deserted him in 1985 on the day he signed a contract for a book of poems with Faber. In any case, by then the novel that was to establish him was well under way.

He started writing The Swimming-Pool Library in 1984 and it appeared to general acclaim four years later. “It all looked rather dicey before it came out,” he recalls. “No one would buy the paperback rights. People didn’t quite know how to handle it.” Publishers feared that, as a book by a gay author, with a gay protagonist and lashings of gay sex, it might attract only a niche audience, but it did astonishingly well in hardback and suddenly the paperback rights were a hot property. “It changed my life,” he says. Having been deputy editor at the TLS, he went part-time in 1990 and left after The Folding Star was published in 1994.

One question he refuses to engage with is whether he is still pigeonholed as a gay writer. This was the canard that followed him on his promotional tour for The Line Of Beauty, when interviewers asked whether his gayness defined him as a writer and every news piece was headlined, “Gay writer wins Booker”. “I have a feeling it’s changed,” he says. “I spent 20 years politely answering the question, ‘How do you feel when people categorise you as a gay writer?’ and I’m not going to do it this time round. It’s no longer relevant.”

Can he imagine writing a book with no gay characters or gay themes? Pause. “I still slightly feel there are a lot of those around already, and I’m not sure my heart would be completely in it.” He has embarked on his next novel, and says it will “certainly have a gay strand in it, though the protagonists will all be more or less heterosexual.” The “more or less” is significant: sexuality in Hollinghurst’s world is fluid. “There’s a lot in The Stranger’s Child which is rather liminal,” he says. “There’s quite a lot of bisexuality. One of the ideas of the book is about the unknowability or uncategorisability of human behaviour, and I was rather tempted into those ambiguous sexual areas.”

He was never a writer of manifestos, but his early novels were to some extent conscious efforts to bring gay writing and gay life into the mainstream. That phase is now over. “With the first book, I was deliberately choosing the subject of the homosexual world and history. Now books come upon me in a more sly and roundabout way. Themes emerge in the process of writing.” But some of the old imperatives still assert themselves. “Sexual behaviour, sexual mores and sexual psychology are fascinating, and I will always write about them.” Hollinghurst’s mania for honesty means that intellect, the hankering for order and beauty, will always be subverted by the messy realities of desire.

• The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is published by Picador at £20. To order a copy for £16 (including UK mainland p&p) go to or call 0330 333 6846. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Writers in revolutionary mood at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Authors from 40 countries to attend literary event, with Alasdair Gray and AS Byatt among those unveiling new works

From the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, whose father was abducted in Cairo more than 20 years ago, to Longitude author Dava Sobel and her work on the uproar caused by Copernicus, this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, sponsored by the Guardian, is set to address the theme of revolution.

The festival, which unveils its 2011 programme on Thursday, takes place in Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh, from 13 to 29 August.

Authors including Matar, whose debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, China’s only Nobel laureate of literature, the exiled Gao Xingjian, and the Egyptian author and political commentator, Ahdaf Soueif, will be scrutinising revolution in the 21st century through a series of events which are being curated by BBC special correspondent Allan Little.

Revolutions past will also be explored, with the bestselling Sobel speaking about her book on the Copernican Revolution, Peter Ackroyd considering England’s tumultuous history and Melvyn Bragg talking about the huge changes the King James Bible brought about when it was first published 400 years ago.

“It’s how the world is feeling at the moment,” said director Nick Barley about the festival’s theme.

“It’s our response to the way the world is. These are very turbulent times… From Libya to China, India to Iran, the US 10 years after 9/11 and the recent controversies involving Twitter and WikiLeaks, audiences and authors in Charlotte Square Gardens will explore the power of the written word to provide a compelling commentary on the world around us.”

A stellar line-up of writers – 800 from 40 countries – will be speaking at the event. The author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, will be launching his latest novel, The Cat’s Table; AS Byatt will give a sneak preview of her re-imagining of Norse myth in Ragnarok; and US author Sapphire will unveil her follow-up to Push, which was turned into the Oscar-winning film Precious.

Alasdair Gray, most famous for his 1981 epic Lanark, will give a full-length world premiere performance of Fleck, his re-imagining of the Faust story. Author Will Self plays Fleck – the Faust character – alongside AL Kennedy, Ian Rankin and Scotland’s makar (national poet) Liz Lochhead.

Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond will chair an event with Fife-born Iain Banks; Sarah Brown will be talking about life in No 10 Downing Street; Ingrid Betancourt speaks about her kidnapping by the guerrilla group Farc in Colombia, and comedian and writer Alexei Sayle will reveal all about being raised by communist parents.

“We’ve also got Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA unit responsible for searching out Osama bin Laden,” said Barley.

“He resigned in 2004 because he thought George W Bush’s policies were too liberal: he’s a very hawkish American policymaker and it’s important we have a wide mix of views. He’s talking about revolution from an extreme right perspective.”

Four guest selectors, including Little, have been invited to curate individual strands of the programme.

The Time Traveller’s Wife author Audrey Niffenegger is looking at writing without boundaries through a series of events with genre-defying authors including Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, while broadcaster Joan Bakewell is outlining the ideas she believes will define the 21st century with speakers including Richard Holloway and Michael Symmons Roberts.

The new children’s laureate Julia Donaldson, best known as author of The Gruffalo,, who is exploring ways to engage children in reading.

The children’s programme, featuring Nick Sharratt as illustrator in residence, will look at classics such as The Canterbury Tales, Twelfth Night and Tarzan from new angles. Contributors include authors Jacqueline Wilson, Patrick Ness and Robert Muchamore, Gruffalo illustrator Axel Scheffler and Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon.

Tickets for all events go on sale on 26 June at 8.30am.

Visit for full coverage, and see Saturday’s Guardian Review for a pull-out supplement with all the Edinburgh highlights chosen by our critics © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

World Book Night 2011

It’s finally here!

As previously mentioned, I’m one of the 20,000 givers.  More info can be found below or by clicking the link to the original post

For the first time this year, there will be a World Book Night to follow a few days after World Book Day.  Notice of this inaugural event found its way into my email just before Christmas, as they were looking for volunteers to give away  one million books on March 5th. Naturally I applied to be a volunteer and I just found out that I’ve been successful!  Hooray!

The book I selected to give away 48 copies of is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.  Many reasons for this but particularly because it is set in Scotland and written by a Scottish author, plus we did plan to read this book with the book group a year or two ago and it got cancelled, not to mention that it’s a very short book (approx 150 pages) so lugging 48 of those around would be a lot easier!

I’ve designed some little labels to put inside each copy with the ID number written on it, and then the giver and location details will be written in pencil (I hate writing in books especially in ink!)  then from later today I will be giving them all away.    BBC2 Culture Show is running a World Book Night special evening tonight so don’t forget to tune in and watch (or catch up on the iplayer later if you are out giving away your books)

Happy World Book Night everyone!

Booker prize 2010: is Howard Jacobson a worthy winner?

Howard Jacobson has triumphed at the 2010 Man Booker prize with The Finkler Question, in a year in which the field remained wide open right up to the final moment. What do you make of the decision?

We have a winner! The 2010 Man Booker prize has gone to Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question.

This was a particularly chin-stroking year for Booker-watchers, in that, unlike in 2009, when Hilary Mantel was the runaway favourite, there’s been no clear forerunner. Opinion swung to and fro on today’s guess-the-winner thread – and although Ladbroke’s closed the book early on Tom McCarthy after a spate of dubious-looking bets, the field felt so wide open that no one really took that seriously as an indicator. I’ve vacillated in the last few weeks between each of the six contenders, and always found an argument against my choice: Donoghue seemed a more obvious Orange prize winner, Carey has won twice already, Tom McCarthy’s C would likely split the judges, and so on.

So the news that Jacobson had won didn’t come as a surprise, precisely – but it did make me happy. I thoroughly enjoyed The Finkler Question: its mad, sad blend of high-wire comedy and genuine, honest-to-goodness grief – and the questions it asks about both – made it a whip-smart pleasure to read. Admittedly, I – like quite a few others, if the comments on the books blogs are anything to go by – preferred his 2006 novel Kalooki Nights; it’s difficult to shake the faint sense that tonight’s prize is somewhat in the nature of a lifetime achievement award. But heck – what a lifetime; what a lot of achievement. Read Lindesay Irvine’s excellent profile of the great man, and tell me: what do you reckon? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Mario Vargas Llosa surprised and delighted by Nobel prize win

Peruvian-born Mario Vargas Llosa said he thought it was a joke when he received an early morning call to say he had won

Mario Vargas Llosa greeted his Nobel prize for literature with astonishment and delight today having long considered himself “too liberal” for the Swedish academy.

The 74-year-old Peruvian-born author thought it was a joke when he received a pre-dawn phone call in New York, where he is teaching a semester at Princeton University, with news that he had beaten hotly tipped writers from the US, Africa and Europe.

“For years I haven’t thought about the Nobel prize at all. They didn’t mention me in recent years so I didn’t expect it. It’s been a surprise, very nice, but a surprise. At first I thought it was a joke,” he told RPP Noticias.

The awarding committee said in a statement it chose Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”.

The one-time Peruvian presidential candidate has been a leading Latin American voice since his 1963 breakthrough novel The Time of the Hero. More than 30 novels, plays and essays have been translated into more than 30 languages. Masterpieces include Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) and The Feast of the Goat (2000).

He is South America’s first laureate since Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez won in 1982. Once close friends, the pair have sustained a famous feud since a punch-up in a Mexican cinema in 1976.

The academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, called the Peruvian a divinely gifted storyteller and worthy winner of the 10m kronor (£942,000) prize. “His books are often very complex in composition, having different perspectives, different voices and different time places. He is also doing it in a new way, he has helped evolve the art of the narration.”

For years many predicted Vargas Llosa would add the Nobel to his Cervantes prize but the man himself said his liberalism – which he defined as defending democracy and the free market – meant it was “completely impossible” he could win. “I have taken all the precautions necessary for them never to give it to me,” he joked to interviewers last year.

Bookies and literary critics seemed to agree. This year they tipped Cormac McCarthy, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Tomas Tranströmer, with Vargas Llosa a 25-1 outsider. “We’re breathing an enormous sigh of relief. We saw more money bet on the contest this year than in its entire history. We’ll send a crate of champagne to the winner because he’s helped us dodge a massive payout,” said David Williams, a Ladbrokes spokesman.

Born in 1936 to a middle-class couple of Spanish heritage, Vargas Llosa worked as a crime reporter for the Lima newspaper La Crónica at the age of 15 and four years later eloped with his aunt, Julia Urquidi, in 1955. He worked in Paris, London and Barcelona as an academic and journalist before returning to Peru in 1975.

Once a supporter of Fidel Castro, he upset leftist fans by denouncing the Cuban leader as a despot. His novels’ dissection of power, tyranny and identity, often told through multiple voices, bumped into reality when the author lost the 1990 presidential election to Alberto Fujimori, who is now in jail for corruption and human rights abuses.

Stung by the defeat, Vargas Llosa moved to Spain and acquired Spanish citizenship. He said part of the Nobel was thanks to support he had received in his adopted homeland. That did not deter rapture in Peru. “This is a great day, because the world has recognized the visionary intelligence of Mario Vargas Llosa and his libertarian and democratic ideals,” said President Alan García.

Vargas Llosa’s next novel, The Dream of the Celt, is inspired by Roger Casement, the Anglo-Irish consul who exposed human rights abuses in Belgian-run Congo at the turn of the 20th century. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Debut novelist Belinda Bauer wins Golden Dagger

Blacklands praised as ‘riveting psychological suspense’ that ‘demands a one-sitting read’

The debut novelist Belinda Bauer has taken one of crime writing’s most prestigious awards, carrying off the 2010 Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger with Blacklands.

Speaking at last Friday’s prize ceremony in London, Bauer said it was a “thrill” to be shortlisted for the £2,500 award alongside George Pelecanos, SJ Bolton and Karen Campbell.

“Blacklands is a small, simple book and I’m still stunned and delighted that it seems to have struck a chord with so many people,” she said.

Praised by the judges as a “riveting psychological suspense debut that demands a one-sitting read”, Blacklands tells the story of a game of cat and mouse between 12-year-old Steven and Arnold Avery, a serial killer and abuser of children who murdered Steven’s 11-year-old Uncle Billy almost 20 years before. Desperate to find where his uncle’s corpse is buried, Steven hits on the idea of writing to his murderer in jail, unleashing a chilling confrontation, as the killer realises that the letter-writer is a child.

Bauer joins a stellar roster of previous winners including Sara Paretsky, Henning Mankel, Patricia Cornwell and James Lee Burke.

Simon Conway won the The Steel Dagger, awarded to the thriller of the year, for A Loyal Spy, while Ryan David’s Acts of Violence carried off the John Creasey Dagger, which celebrates the best first book by a previously unpublished writer.

The awards are due to be broadcast on ITV3 at 9pm tomorrow. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Could Miles Franklin turn the Booker prize to crime?

Literary awards have been one of the last bastions of high culture, but in the week when the crime writer Peter Temple took Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin award, Alison Flood examines whether a detective novel could ever win the Booker

When the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple heard that one of his detective novels, The Broken Shore, had been longlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin award, he “thought it was a clerical error”. So when his latest novel, Truth, made this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist, Temple had little hope that this time Inspector Stephen Villani, the brooding head of the Victoria homicide squad, could bring off his greatest coup and go on to win Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.

“I read the other shortlisted authors, on the basis you should know who the people are who are going to beat you, and I was quite confident that at least three were going to beat me,” said the author, speaking from Australia. When the judges for the prize opened the envelope to read out his name, “Booker-style”, on Tuesday night, he was “absolutely humbled”.

Temple is the first crime novelist ever to win the Miles Franklin, setting him in a canon of former winners including Peter Carey, David Malouf and Patrick White.

“It is a very bold thing for the judges to do. They really are the custodians of Australia’s oldest literary prize, they decide who should be admitted to the contemporary canon. So to admit a crime novelist, they’ve put their lives on the line,” said Temple. “It’s a fairly small panel [of previous winners] but the writers are all of quite extraordinary talent and quality … I don’t know what on earth I’m doing there.”

Back on this side of the world, no crime novel has ever won the Man Booker prize, and the former chairman of the Booker judges John Sutherland isn’t expecting it to happen any time soon.

“The twice I’ve been on the Booker panel they weren’t submitted,” he said. “There’s a feeling that it’s like putting a donkey into the Grand National.”

According to Sutherland, the perception in the UK is that there are enough specialist awards for crime fiction. The barriers to genre writers are also higher. “They just don’t have quite the same class system in Australia, and perhaps they don’t have the same class distinctions in Australian letters,” he said.

Sutherland also worries that awarding a mainstream literary prize to a work of genre fiction, particularly one which is part of a series, would devalue its reputation. “There is a dilution effect,” he said. “Series have tended to inhabit the lower reaches of literature.”

But according to the bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin, attitudes towards genre fiction are slowly shifting in this country as well.

“Things are changing,” Rankin said. “The old canards are that crime fiction is plot-driven, thin on character, populist: a lesser calling. But that no longer holds true. Kate Atkinson’s last three novels have been crime. Ian McEwan’s Saturday is a crime story. William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller. Slowly, the barricades are tumbling. You can now study crime fiction in some universities and high schools. At least three PhDs on my own work are currently under way. A St Andrews lecturer has written a book about one of my novels. Thirty years back, ‘modern literature’ at St Andrews meant Milton.”

According to the crime writer Val McDermid, the chair of the Booker judges pointed to her novel A Place of Execution in 1999 as an example of great writing, but dismissed it as a contender for the prize “because ultimately it’s a genre novel”. “It made me feel cross more than anything – a good piece of fiction is a good piece of fiction, whether there’s a dead body in it or not,” she added. “I think perhaps in Australia there is slightly less of a literary snobbism than there is, still, in this country.”

According to Rankin, Ruth Rendell should have been regularly shortlisted for the Booker, while “in the USA, the likes of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are writing fiction that is Pulitzer-worthy, but I don’t see them winning it”.

Temple said the situation was similar in Australia. “The feeling is there is a very clear line of demarcation between the two things. With crime, romance, science fiction, we are considered to be writers within a formulaic genre, whereas literary writers are considered to be ‘moving freely’, as it were,” he said. “There has always been a feeling that literary fiction is improving, that you come away from reading it and you’re a better person for it. No one ever said that about reading a crime novel – although maybe you come away feeling happier.”

Although no crime novel has won the Booker in the past, Tom Rob Smith’s thriller Child 44 was longlisted in 2008 – and that year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, follows the story of a murderer. To add to the sense that attitudes might be softening in the UK as well as in Australia, the judges for this year’s Orange prize shortlisted Attica Locke’s thriller Black Water Rising.

Ion Trewin, who judged the Man Booker prize in 1974 and who, as administrator for the award, has sat in on many a judging session, said approaches to genre fiction have changed greatly over the years: Sarah Waters, for example, has been shortlisted twice for the Booker, “and if she’d been published 40 years ago she would never have been considered, people would have said she was just genre fiction”.

“In 1974, the idea of genre fiction of any kind being considered for a ‘literary’ prize was just unthinkable. When the Booker began in 1969, Rebecca West was one of the judges and she made it absolutely clear that as far as she was concerned this was a prize for literary fiction, and that this very much excluded anything thought of as a crime novel, thriller, or genre. If you’d said science fiction, she would probably have gone into orbit,” he said.

But John Sutherland’s experience of literary judging panels suggests this thawing in the attitude still has a long way to go.

“They’re very tolerant towards crime fiction until they come to the final judging,” he said, “when they start to ask ‘Is this really a serious contender?'” There may be a shift in the literary atmosphere, he continued, but “climate change is very slow, and this is no exception.”

For Morag Fraser, a Miles Franklin judge for the past six years, it is simply a question of quality. “Most crime novels that I have read (and I read one a week, often more) will never win the Miles Franklin or any other ‘literary’ prize because they do not work language hard enough, and they do not think originally and with sufficient depth and imagination,” she said. “They may gratify but they do not surprise the way great literature does.”

“In the case of Peter Temple’s Truth, the divide was so comprehensively crossed that we did not think much about the conventions of crime fiction except to note that Temple was able to observe them rather as a poet observes the 14-line convention of the sonnet or a musician the sonata form: as a useful disciplinary structure from which to expand, bend or depart.”

Former Pulitzer judge Catharine Stimpson, dean of the graduate school of arts and science at New York University, agreed, as well she might: in 2007, when Stimpson judged the Pulitzer, the panel awarded the prize to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. “All wonderful writing subverts and transcends generic boundaries, although it is always fun to play the genre game and to stick books into categories,” she said. “Amusing and historically interesting though this game might be, the vital distinction among texts is not the genre per se but the degree to which the writer either sticks rigidly to the formulae of the genre or to which the writer upends the formulae.”

John Banville, who won the Booker for his novel The Sea, and who writes crime fiction as Benjamin Black, was absolutely in agreement, saying that “there is only one distinction, and that is between good writing and writing which is … not good”.

“I see no reason why a so-called crime novel should not win the Man Booker prize,” said Banville. “I suppose an objection that might be raised is that crime fiction always has a prior commitment, as it were – there can be a non-crime novel that has a crime in it, but there cannot be a crime novel that has not a crime in it, and perhaps this could be a hindrance to a freely and purely imagined work of art. But as EM Forster among many others has pointed out, the novel’s requirement to have, for instance, a plot of some kind is already a burden.”

For the newly crowned Miles Franklin winner, Temple, crime was just “an excuse to write”. “It gives a sense of urgency, of narrative drive. My characters have a reason to get up in the morning. Ian McEwan, who I think is wonderful, his characters do not really have an urgent reason to get up in the morning,” said the author. “There is only one judgment for the value of a book, and that is what sort of emotional response it elicits in the reader. That’s down to the quality of the writing.”

His UK publisher Quercus is submitting Truth for this year’s Booker prize, raising the prospect that Temple could go on to complete a memorable double. “Just to make the Booker longlist would be a wonderful thing,” he said. But is he in with a genuine chance to be the first crime writer to take the Booker? “We shall see,” said Trewin. “I’ve said to the judges each year that there are no exclusions at all. If you consider a novel – whether it’s crime, romance or science fiction – is really fabulous in every particular, then judge it with the same criteria you’d use for a literary novel, and if you agree, you must include it … It would be great if a genre novel was to win the Booker one day and I hope that’s the next stage. It would be rather like having the first woman prime minister, and it will be terrific when it does happen.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Queen’s birthday honours list: the arts

Trio of Britain’s best-known poets get gongs

There is a little poets’ corner on the list of honourees, with a trio of Britain’s best-known writers in the genre receiving gongs. Wendy Cope – known for her witty touch and once voted by BBC Radio 4 listeners as their choice to follow Ted Hughes as poet laureate (she didn’t) – is awarded an OBE, while Simon Armitage, 47, the UK’s official millennium poet in 2000, and Michael Longley, 71, the influential poet and commentator on the arts from Belfast, both receive CBEs.

Paula Rego, the Portuguese-born painter famous for the often fantastical feel to her art, has been made a dame. “I was totally surprised by it,” she said. “What is it for? I don’t do anything but paint pictures.”

In drama, South African-born writer Ronald Harwood, 75, has a knighthood to add to his CBE. His best-known play is The Dresser, based on his experience as backstage helper to actor Sir Donald Wolfit. His screenplay for The Pianist won him an Oscar in 2003.

Television presenter Fred Dinenage is awarded an MBE after five decades on TV, taking in How, the children’s facts and trivia show, ITV’s World of Sport and many years as a regional TV news host in the Meridian region in southern England. He said the award had slipped his mind after the joy of seeing his daughter Caroline become Conservative MP for Gosport, in Hampshire, and make her maiden speech in the Commons.

“The funny thing is that I got wrapped up in the excitement of my daughter being elected. It’s been all-consuming, and so I forgot all about it until today,” he said.

Journalist Julian Pettifer, 74, who covered the Vietnam war, was a key reporter for Tonight, 24 and Panorama, all BBC flagship news programmes, and then became a leading light in conservation, is awarded an OBE. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Our very own Orange prize: the winners

Readers win honours in a ‘first paragraph’ competition judged by award co-founder and novelist Kate Mosse

There was a highly imaginative response to our competition to write the first paragraph of a fictional book called Just Ourselves. The contest was set and judged by Orange award co-founder Kate Mosse, and provides the first of this year’s Orange prizes for our winners.

Nigel McDowell, who takes the top prize, receives two tickets to the Orange prize for fiction awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall on 9 June, complete with accommodation in a luxury hotel. He will also get an HTC Desire Black Edition phone on Orange Pay As You Go and a complete set of the Orange award for new writers 2010 shortlist.

Two runners-up both receive a set of the Orange award for new writers 2010 shortlist.

Commenting on the entries, Mosse said: “In a high quality shortlist, Nigel McDowell’s story stood out for the clever balance between intrigue, suspense and quality of writing. I wanted to know who the narrator was, their relationship to the mother and daughter, and what had happened. It’s hard to build tension without sacrificing the beauty of language at the same time, and Nigel manages it. It also fits the brief of the story!”

“The two runners-up are Susanne Lee (wonderful description, full of colour) and Mike Morris (imaginative and bathetic way of seeing pregnancy from a male point of view).”

The winning entries, in full, are:

The winner: Nigel McDowell

‘… and here we are now. Me and you.’ She closed the book.’What was the point of that?’ asked her daughter, mouth outraged, eyes wide. Then answers her own question: ‘Nothing! That’s what the point was – nothing at all!’ Her daughter untangles herself; takes a while to shake some feeling back into her legs, feet, numb toes. Her mother takes a sip of cold coffee, regards her – because whatever she’s saying now, her daughter has sat with legs crossed, elbows on thighs, face in hands, and all eyes for three hours, all ears, rapt … listening to the story of how the world came to an end, words settling on her imagination like the shivering of fresh ash.

Runner-up: Susanne Lee

Ryo took Kari to Chungking Mansions. With its cramped elevators, discount travel agencies, Shanghainese tailors, money traders, counterfeit bag dealers, and African importers, it was unlike any building Kari ever set foot in. The smell of turmeric, ghee and coriander and rambutans permeated the corridors. Amid the bargaining and bickering in Chinese and Hindi-accented Cantonese, and Cantopop melodies, the vendors’ chant pulled her into a reality that was quintessentially Hong Kong: messy, sprawling and overflowing, qualities not unlike her life. That summer would send Kari’s life on a brand new trajectory; the next morning would find Ryo and Kari as lovers. They got off at the 11th floor and walked past guest houses and hostels. Behind a door with a hand-painted number was a joint in a delirious shade of chartreuse with flashing Christmas lights draped across the ceiling and a throbbing Bollywood beat pulsing.

Runner-up: Mike Morris

Baby makes three. Baby also makes lots of noise. Baby makes me tired. You too, though you told me, before you drifted off to catch up on your share of z’s, that sleep is the new awake, and anyway you’re used to it now. And we, half sleeping, half waking, now live in a permanent twilight zone of our own zip-fumbling making, that after the appropriate gestation period, when I watched your body bloom and blossom (your words), or swell and explode (mine), delivered unto us this bundle of boy who has taken up more space in our world – the world generally – than his tiny frame should allow for. I thought you’d leave after he was born. We’re no spring chickens. I thought you’d snaffled me to avoid the sperm donor, or the dreaded IVF of a too late yet loving relationship. You still don’t like the way I kiss. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Ian Thomson wins £10,000 Ondaatje prize

The Dead Yard, Ian Thomson’s book about the gritty underbelly of Jamaica, hailed for its candid portrait of a ‘corrupted Eden’

Ian Thomson’s investigation into the gritty underside of “corrupted Eden” Jamaica has won him the Ondaatje prize, which goes to the book which has best evoked the spirit of a place.

Thomson’s The Dead Yard sees the author walking the streets of Jamaica, describing its poverty, gang rule and police brutality, meeting its people and exploring how the country has changed since its independence in 1962. “‘You visitors are always getting it wrong,'” he is told by one Jamaican. “‘Either it’s golden beaches or guns, guns, guns, guns. Is there nothing in between?'”

Beating shortlisted titles including Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting’s “biography of an English acre” The Plot, Kachi A Ozumba’s novel of contemporary Nigeria The Shadow of a Smile and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, The Dead Yard “will be a revelation” for those “to whom Jamaica means only music, sunshine and cricket”, said judges Kathleen Jamie, Steve Jones and Penelope Lively in a statement.

“His candid portrait – vigorous, illuminating and sometimes shocking – allows Jamaica to speak for itself,” they said. “Thomson is a brave writer who takes himself into unexpected, sometimes edgy places. The island he describes is a place of verdant beauty; history-ridden, post-colonial with an undertow of disappointment and violence. This is the best kind of travel writing: stimulating, educative and evocative.”

Thomson, who has also written a book about Haiti, Bonjour Blanc, and whose Primo Levi biography won him the WH Heinemann award seven years ago, was announced winner of the £10,000 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize last night. He joins a roster of previous winners which includes Adam Nicolson, Graham Robb and Hisham Matar. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Stephen Fry to judge Guardian Hay festival’s Twitter competition

This year’s Guardian Hay festival will include an award, judged by Stephen Fry, for ‘the most beautiful tweet’ ever written

The host of literary heavyweights to descend on the Guardian Hay festival may be more used to reviewing substantial literary works, but messages of 140 characters or fewer are set to share the festival stage this year in the search to find the most beautiful tweet ever written.

The search for the winning tweet begins tomorrow and ends a week on Friday, and the tweets will be judged by the unofficial king of Twitter, actor and writer Stephen Fry.

“The definition of most beautiful tweet could fall into a number of different categories: it could prove the most eloquent; the most impassioned; the best demonstration of a clever pun or metaphor; the most evocative description of a place or emotion, or perhaps prove that brevity is conducive to levity, and be the wittiest tweet ever committed to the Twittersphere,” said the festival’s founder and director, Peter Florence.

Organisers have promised a diverse lineup at the 10-day festival this year, including playwright Tom Stoppard, novelists Zadie Smith, Martin Amis and Philip Pullman, and the former Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf. And while the inclusion of Twitter in one of the world’s foremost literature festivals – called the “Woodstock of the mind” by former US president Bill Clinton – might provoke some raised eyebrows, Florence said the competition was in keeping with the festival’s non-elitist approach.

“There are a lot of clever, inspiring and intuitive tweets from people taking a lot of care in their tweets. And when you do get a good one it does make you smile. Some people write great postcards,” said Florence.

“Good writing is good whatever format it’s in. Young people tend to do it more creatively. There’s room for some really stylish prose. We all have two or three people whose tweets we really look forward to. It’s a little jolly and a leveller. We can all write tweets but not all of us can write poems or novels.”

The social networking site commands a sizeable following with more than 50 million registered users worldwide. Fry, who has over one and a half million followers and who has tweeted on subjects ranging from aggravating theatre-goers to ruminations on early starts – “Whoever invented the breakfast meeting should be roundly spanked” – may have his work cut out. The site achieved a daily average high of 50m tweets in February.

Nominations for the most beautiful tweet must be posted on the Guardian Hay festival Twitter account, @hayfestival. A shortlist of the best tweets will also appear on the festival website, with the winner announced on 6 June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Pass notes 2,784: The Guardian Hay festival

The lowdown on the annual Hay literary festival, which starts this Thursday

Age: 22.

Appearance: The Woodstock of the mind.

I have absolutely no idea what that means. Me neither. But Bill Clinton said it, and he’s an ex-president and everything. Let’s just picture a bunch of naked hippies rolling in the mud, while smoking joints and holding flowers.

A-ha . . . Then hose off the mud, stick some clothes on them, age them by a few decades, confiscate most of the drugs and swap the flowers for bags-for-life full of slightly foxed first editions.

So it’s no Glastonbury? Well, there’s less music. And fewer tents. And smaller loudspeakers. And many, many, many more books. And it takes place on the edge of the Brecon Beacons national park, rather than on a farm in Somerset. Otherwise much of a muchness.

So what Clinton really meant was: “It’s a book festival in Wales”? To quote Bill again: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” There’s non-literary stuff, too – music, comedy, a circus, kids’ events, an informal spot-the-Miliband competition and so on.

Why are we writing about it today?

It starts on Thursday, and some big names will be turning up: Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis, Philip Pullman, Beth Orton . . . This newspaper sponsors the festival, though that shouldn’t influence our coverage in any way.

Perish the thought. I must say, the Guardian Hay festival sounds like the highlight of this year’s cultural scene.

Even the Independent has described it as a “smorgasbord of heterogeneity, a mixum-gatherum of creativity and gravitas”.

Will there be a lot of people? Perhaps if I go I can find someone who can explain that for me. More than 100,000 visitors are expected. They should all be “fairly gorgeous”, according to the organisers.

Really? So I might even get a sh–. A shining moment of intellectual stimulation? It’s practically guaranteed.

Do say: “Is that Bryson over there?”

Don’t say: “I love his bagless vacuum cleaners.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds