As the Hay festival kicks off, with world-class authors being interviewed on stage all week, we invited writers to follow the example of Nadine Gordimer – one of the star billings this year – and ask themselves questions journalists never ask . . .

William Boyd

Are the names of the characters in your novels important?

Extremely. I spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get the names “right” – even for the most minor walk-on characters. If you christen a character correctly, he or she, I believe, already starts to live on the page. You don’t have to go the whole Dickensian-Vonneguttian hog, but a little unusualness about the right name works wonders. Characters called perfectly nice and normal names like “Martin Foster” or “Sally Thomas” will always struggle a bit to claim your attention.

What about the titles of your novels?

I couldn’t publish a novel if I wasn’t happy about the title. The title is a kind of benediction on the whole enterprise. To send a book out into the world with a title I wasn’t happy with seems inconceivable to me. Sometimes the right title comes almost immediately; sometimes you’re still sweating at it as the 11th hour comes and goes. It’s a vitally important omen – for me, the novelist. I don’t think it matters particularly to the reader.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?

Many, I’m sure. In my case I think being a novelist prevented me from ever learning to drive – natural indolence coupled with an absence of need. I also have a sneaking suspicion that eczema is the novelist’s disease – or some kind of similar skin problem. Any suggestions, Dr Freud? Also there is the career-long advantage/disadvantage that you don’t have to worry about waking up with a hangover.

What’s your favourite fruit?

The raspberry.

Jacqueline Wilson

Why do you write for children rather than for adults?

I’ve been very focused from six or seven years old – I always wanted to write realistic but imaginative children’s books, the sort I desperately wanted to read when I was growing up in the 1950s and could rarely find.

You seem to have a lot of time for children, and chat to each one at long signing sessions. Don’t you ever get sick of kids?

There are occasional children who are pert or demanding and irritating – but I always try hard to be friendly. Mostly, the children I meet are delightful, and it’s a joy to talk to them. It’s easy to be warm and welcoming – because I know that at the end of the day I return to a serene and child-free adult home.

Are you interested in anything that isn’t child-oriented?

Of course I am. I collect antiquarian books, and have a vast library; I love art and know my way around most of the major art galleries; I have a passion for unlikely things like Doctor Who, Queen, films of the 50s, dancing, medieval saints, designer clothes, highboard diving . . . but don’t ever expect me to go on Mastermind!

Ian Rankin

How many people have you done away with over the course of your career?

You mean the body count in my books? I’ve no idea. I think it’s quite low – one or two corpses per tome, and each book represents a year in the life of Edinburgh.

Ever dispatched someone and then regretted it?

Often. The prospective member of the Scottish parliament in Set In Darkness – I liked him, but the narrative didn’t. Then there was the old priest Rebus used to hang out with – he died of natural causes, but it came as a bit of a shock.

Have you ever been in trouble with the police?

Back when I was writing the first Rebus, they did add me to their files for a short time. I’d gone into a police station to ask a few questions, and it turned out Knots and Crosses bore some similarities to a case that was ongoing back then.

Why do you never write about sex?

I find it embarrassing.

More embarrassing than violence?

God, yes.

So when were you last involved in a real-life punch-up?

I’m usually the one holding the jackets.

If you were going to commit the perfect murder, how would you go about it?

Pick a victim whose absence from the world is going to cause as few ripples as possible.

You’ve obviously given this some thought.

Keep bugging me with questions and you’ll find out.

Ian Rankin, thank you.

Rose Tremain

Are you a member of the Cornish aristocracy?

Alas, no. No Manderleys for me and nor for Jon Tremain, my first husband, who gifted his nice name to me. I used to be somebody known as Rosie Thomson. Rosie was fond of black eyeliner and white boots. Her paternal great-grandfather was William Thomson, archbishop of York. Her maternal great-grandmother was a chambermaid.

What was the name of your first typewriter?

Larry. It was a secondhand, industrial strength Adler, bought for eight quid in a blighted alley off Tottenham Court Road. It weighed a lot more than a mouth organ and made a rather more repetitive noise. Now, Larry Adler lives in soundless retirement in my attic.

What d’you want to be when you grow up?

A café singer in Paris, circa 1958, friend of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand. And I’d like to be kissed at least once by Simone de Beauvoir (but not by Sartre).

Aside from cocoa, what is your favourite bedtime drink?

A wicked concoction Richard Holmes and I have titled the Norfolk Slammer. We were given the recipe by a barman in Les Halles and have passed it on to a few carefully selected friends from mid-Wales, Somerset and Bengal.

No, but seriously . . .

My favourite line of poetry is: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”.

Chang-rae Lee

Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job, like data entry or working in a factory?

When the writing isn’t going very well, I admit I often wish I did something mechanical and repetitive for a living, perhaps something entirely physical. Of course, when I do such labours in the garden or around the house, like digging or raking, I tend to be irritable, so perhaps I’m dreaming.

Do you believe in a deity?

I’d like to believe in a God, and admire people who do, but I suppose in the end I can’t say that I do. I don’t know if this makes me more or less optimistic about existence. I do know I believe in humanity, not its inherent goodness or fallibility or anything like that, but rather its unending and amazing variety and possibility.

Do you ever write naked?

Not quite naked, but on hot, humid summer days (my study is poorly air-conditioned) I have to strip down to my undershorts to work. But almost stripped, there’s a definite feeling of the elemental while I’m writing, a sense of physical exertion that’s a welcome counterpoint to the endless operations of endless thought.

Jonathan Coe

The subtitle of your event at Hay this year is “fiction and comedy”. Are the two things closely related, for you?

Very much so. When I was young, comedy was my greatest passion. So, after the usual childhood enthusiasms (Tolkien, Watership Down), the first books which grabbed my attention were comic ones: Kingsley Amis, up to a point, but more especially Spike Milligan. For a while I thought that Puckoon was the best novel ever written. Then in 1976 I discovered David Nobbs’s novel The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and realised that laughter could be harnessed to melancholy, and from then on my own path as a novelist was clear to me.

Is there a snobbery directed against comic writing in this country?

There’s snobbery about comedy in almost all areas of the British cultural establishment. The scandal is not so much that David Lodge has never won the Booker (although he probably should have done) but that Ronnie Barker never got a knighthood when so many dreary “serious” actors have. Alexei Sayle pointed out that good comic writers give you everything that a po-faced writer does, and on top of that they make it funny, so in all fairness they ought to get more recognition. But the reverse seems to be true.

Jeremy Paxman wrote recently that you have “always suffered the condescension of literary Britain”. Do you think he was particularly referring to the comic element in your novels?

I must say that I’d never noticed this until Mr Paxman pointed it out. Thanks, Jeremy! Now I shall be looking out for condescension everywhere I go, in a paranoid fashion. He might have been referring to the comedy in my books, I don’t know.

But now, with The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, you’re back to the funny stuff again?

Not just me – every British author seems to be at it. 2010 is turning out to be the year of the comic novel. Ian McEwan, Andrew O’Hagan, Nicola Barker, me – we’ve all put on our jester caps at the same time, for some reason. A reaction to desperate times, perhaps. And let’s not forget David Nobbs, who was such a great inspiration to me, and who’s still turning out fine novels in his mid-70s. Obstacles to Young Love is one of his best.

Finally, and on an entirely unrelated note, who would play you in a film of your life?

I’ve given this a great deal of thought. The trick, I’ve noticed, is to get yourself played by somebody extremely good-looking: Nick Hornby and Blake Morrison, for instance, have both managed to get themselves portrayed on screen by Colin Firth. But I intend to go one better than that, and I want to be played by Cate Blanchett. She was brilliant as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, and I think that bringing depth and dramatic tension to a life story as boring as mine would provide her with the ultimate career challenge.

Sarah Dunant

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

Apart from the ability to write: a thick skin, the capacity for despair (and recovery), and the resistance to the odd attack of envy.

Have you ever read or seen yourself as a character in a book or a movie?

Never knowingly portrayed, though those who know me well would say that Holly Hunter in Broadcast News comes close.

Do you believe in God?

Only when my characters do.

What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing novels set in the past?

Realising that for them their moment is the present and for them the future does not exist.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

The possibility that I short-changed my children by having so many other characters filling my head as they were growing up.

Has the dog ever eaten your manuscript?

Only when it was long overdue and I had spent the advance.

Antonia Fraser

Do you enjoy giving interviews?

John Banville

Who do you think you are?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Oh, yes? In that case, who do you think I am?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But perhaps you should care?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I see – so, what’s it like, then, up there in your ivory tower?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A mole?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

All right, but doesn’t even a mole have to venture up out of its hidey-hole and into the ordinary world sometimes?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

No ordinary world? Ha ha – what’s this place, then?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I don’t think I quite . . . ?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Would you believe I laughed when my editor warned me you were an awkward customer?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

All right, look, let’s start again. Who do you think you – ? Ow! By doze, id’s bleedig! . . . Has anybon god a hankie?

Margaret Atwood

Why are you such a pushover for everyone who wants you to do stuff for them?

I was the child who refused to eat her Easter rabbit-shaped cookie because I wanted to talk to it. I should just have learned early to bite the heads off quick. Otherwise the rabbits start telling you their tales, and then it’s game over.

Will you never learn?

Apparently not. I still seem to get into the merde, as a result of being too naïve. I think novelists are the people who don’t really know what people are talking about much of the time. That’s why they write novels – to try to find out.

Do you really go around in a corset, high heels, and a whip, subjugating men, as a 1989 cartoon depicted you?

Not any more. Too old for it. So are the men, poor things.

Barbara Trapido

Do you research your novels?

No. I rush straight in. I say to myself, “Now then, Bee, you are a stroppy adolescent/a Jesuit priest/a GP/a prep school master/a grieving mother/a Shakespeare scholar/a motherless two-year-old . . .” I’ll set about, yelling insults at myself into the glass, or wailing plaintively, or addressing a class of schoolboys. It’s all quite audial: I do the police in different voices. And spacial: I pace about; I do sitting down and standing up, making gestures, acting out the business of getting on and off trains.

How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

Lots. Fiction writers appear to divide into those who carry their childhoods with them and those who were born grown-up.

What about birth order?

Younger siblings are better at empathy and, having much less up-front power, they are better at developing subtle and devious stratagems as ways of holding their own. I like to think this makes us better at understanding the equally subtle and devious hearts and minds of our fictional characters.

How about health and the novel?

I think that being a serious child asthmatic and a chronic, five-star hay fever freak was probably a highly significant factor: in my day in my school, nobody else had these things. I not only had asthma but loose joints. Extreme double-jointedness. My thumbs can bend backwards. My elbows can turn inside out. Oddball, and very talkie. Exhibitionist. The converse of this showy-off gregariousness was repeated days off school in bed, often with secondary infections, so that I fell in love with solitude. The constant contradiction – introvert/extrovert – was much underlined by the drugs. Asthma drugs hyped you up, especially circa 1949; hay fever drugs doped you down. This is a pattern that still persists, even though the allergies have pretty well disappeared, and it feeds into my writing.

Andrew O’Hagan

What was the greatest thing you learned at school?

Typing. I have an O-Level in secretarial. I got an A.

Nothing else?

Smoking. And now I do both all day long.

Do you laugh at your own jokes?

All the time.

Isn’t that quite conceited?

Yes, but not as much as weeping at the death of your characters, which I also do.

Do you admire your own work?

Only retrospectively. I mean, I look at some of it and feel that nobody else would have done it.

What are books for?

They’re for replenishing the imagination.

And have you achieved anything?

Not much. But the attempts have been my own.

Are you proud?

My daughter is a brilliant person, and I’m proud of her. I’m also happy to have found the sentences for Maf the Dog. It wasn’t an obvious book for me to do, but it was the right one.


Because writers must find new ways to be personal. You deepen your concerns and open a new path for your readers that way. It might lead you back to where you started, but the journey is everything in writing.

Are you fun to go on holiday with?

No. I’m a nightmare. I wear my trousers rolled. I get bored. I’m like Blackpool out of season, without the illuminations.

Oh dear.

I know. I was thinking of taking up butterfly collecting, or perhaps devoting myself to vodka shots.

Jeanette Winterson

How do you feel about being interviewed?

I feel like a perfectly good potato put through a masher. Nothing comes out the way I expected, and my skin is off, and the solid, sane things get pulped and the whole thing is served up easy to swallow, but not for me. I am still somewhere at the bottom of the masher shouting “I AM A POTATO GET ME OUT OF HERE”.

Why do you think what you do matters?

Art and potatoes are pretty similar. Everyone needs slow-release energy and something to stabilise the gut. Art does that – it isn’t fast food, but it isn’t fancy food either. It’s the solid stuff of life. I once had lunch at Heston Blumenthall’s Fat Duck at Bray. I was very depressed because I am not a chocolate risotto kind of person. That night I dug up new potatoes from my garden with my hands, steamed them, covered them in olive oil and mint and chives, and ate nothing else. Then I felt better. The same thing happens to me with a book or a painting. It reminds me that life is good and solid, not about money and not about fad.

Have you ever found true love?

Yes, but then what do you do?

Sue Townsend

How many times a day do you think about death?

Do you think Jesus was wrong about his father?

Are you jealous of other writers?

What makes you cry?

What makes you laugh?

What are you ashamed of?

Why do you have a 9ft wooden giraffe in your workroom? Is it a pathetic attempt to turn yourself into a “character”?

Did you go off the music of John Adams when you heard that he sported a pudding-bowl hairstyle?

Are there benefits to be had from using a wheelchair?

What’s the loveliest thing you have ever seen?

Has your hearing improved since your sight failed?

Is your poor health your own fault?

. . . and finally

Roddy Doyle

Questions I can’t quite believe I was asked:

Is Roddy Doyle your real name?

Does your wife love you?

The internet says you have two children, yet you claim to have three?

How can you write accurately about the Dublin working class when you actually live in Los Angeles?

Are you friendly with any other Scottish writers? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds