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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Edward Docx is thirty five. He grew up in Cheshire and London. Ed worked for five years on the national newspapers in the UK, first as a staff journalist and then contributing as a freelance writer across most of the main titles. His first novel, The Calligrapher, was highly praised and translated into seven languages. His second novel, Self Help, was long-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. At present, he is working on his third novel pretty much full time. Ed continues to live in London with prolonged visits to Rome whenever he can get away with it.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Self Help?
Edward Docx: For me, thus far at least, it has never really been one idea. Rather a cluster of ideas that gradually coalesce into the beginnings of a novel. I take it from there.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
ED: About eighteen months to write. About a year to edit into final form.
MT: What did it mean to you to be longlisted for the 2007 Booker prize?
ED: It meant a tremendous amount in terms of people getting to hear of my work. It meant a tremendous amount in terms of being recognized as someone attempting to write decent fiction. For both of which I feel extremely grateful, honoured and delighted. But it also meant nothing at all in terms of the actual process of sitting down to do the work.
MT: Do you read the critics Ed? Have you been pleased with the response to your work? Have you learned anything from it?
ED: I do. Not all – just those that I come across or that are sent to me. ‘Pleased’ is not really the right word here. I’m glad and heartened and engaged when a critic pays enough attention to the work to say something insightful – be that positive or negative – about the actual writing, the real business of the novel. Indeed, for those senior writers whose work he has assessed, it is, I imagine, something of a privilege to be in the ingenious hands of great critic like, say, James Wood. We can all - writers and readers - learn a great deal from evaluation of this calibre - cf. The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. Conversely, there seems to be a small but persistent amount of criticism which seeks to judge the novel largely on the subjective likeability of its personnel – an approach which seems to me wholly misguided and impoverished by comparison. Likewise reviews of the jacket, the author or the press release.
MT: St Petersburg is almost a character in your book -- do you know the city well?
ED: I do. I have visited many times, I take an interest in the place and I’ve one or two good friends there.
MT: What were the biggest challenges in writing Self Help? How did you overcome them?
ED: Everything. Carrying on despite.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
ED: Longhand sketches. On to the computer. Edit from there. Build it up slowly.
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
ED: Pretty much what everyone else does. Probably listen to more Bob Dylan than most.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
ED: I see myself as an eager but embarrassingly substandard pupil on a creative writing course run by Tolstoy and Jane Austen. Tolstoy doesn’t come into the classes much but when he does he is usually much too depressed about the general poverty of the work. Austen is too polite to say anything.
MT: What are you working on now?
ED: A short story. Another novel.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
ED: Too many to list here. But, off the top of my head, Austen for elegance, subtlety and the art of how to emotionally choreograph a room. Philip Roth for sheer visceral energy. Zola for character. Coetzee for the human animal. Nabokov for style. Pat Barker for fearlessness. Martin Amis for his sentences. Donne for wit. Scott Fitzgerald for resonance. Yeats for poetry. Bulgakov for hilarious outrage. Franzen, Hollinghurst and Alice Munro for how to do it in a contemporary context. Steinbeck for compassion. A page or two of the Marquis de Sade to banish the sanctimonious. Tolstoy, Dickens and Dostoyevsky for all the above and everything else.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
ED: Writing novels is first and foremost about stamina. If you are writing a decent book, then you are writing it for years of your life. And if you are writing more than one, then you will be writing them for the whole of your life. There are hundreds of other parts to the job – understanding character, story, pace, style, time, place, voice, dialogue, metaphor, cadence, point of view, tone, euphony, imagery et cetera... But by far the most useful attribute for the novelist is stamina. The main difference between those who make it and those who do not is that those who make it keep trying. Talent and skill are only of relevance once you have something substantial in front of you to be talented and skilful with. In short, keep going.
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