Happy Sunday, and happy writing!
Happy Sunday, and happy writing!
The American short story writer George Saunders has won the Man Booker prize for his first full-length novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
The book is based around a real event: the night in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln buried his 11-year-old son Willie in a Washington cemetery. Imagining the boy trapped in the Bardo – a Tibetan Buddhist term for a kind of limbo – Saunders’ novel follows the fellow dead, also trapped in the graveyard and unwilling to accept death, who observe the boy as he desperately waits for his father to return.
Written almost entirely in dialogue, the novel also includes snippets of historical texts, biographies and letters, some of which contradict each other and others that Saunders, 58, created himself. In his review for the Guardian, fellow author Hari Kunzru praised Lincoln in the Bardo as “a tale of great formal daring”, adding: “[It] stands head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction, showing a writer who is expanding his universe outwards, and who clearly has many more pleasures to offer his readers.”
Accepting the prize, athe 58-yearold Texan-born author made an eloquent defence of the importance of culture. “If you haven’t noticed, we live in a strange time, so the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple,” he said. “Do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all, but just us on a different day.
“In the US we’re hearing a lot about the need to protect culture. Well this tonight is culture, it is international culture, it is compassionate culture, it is activist culture. It is a room full of believers in the word, in beauty and ambiguity and in trying to see the other person’s point of view, even when that is hard.”
The chair of judges, Lola Young, described the novel as “an extraordinary piece of work. Admitting that she initially felt challenged by its layout, which is reminiscent of a screenplay, the Labour peer said she was eventually “captivated” by work which she came to regard as unique.
“The challenge is actually part of its uniqueness. It is almost saying, ‘I dare you to engage with this kind of story, in this kind of way.’ It is incredibly rewarding.
“For us, it really stood out because of its innovation, its very different styling, the way it, almost paradoxically, brought to life these almost dead souls in this other world. There was this juxtaposition of the very personal tragedy of Abraham Lincoln and the death of his very young son next to his public life, as the person who really instigated the American civil war. You’ve got this individual death, very close and personal; you’ve got this much wider issue of the political scenario and the death of hundreds of thousands of young men; and then you’ve got this weird state across the cemetery, with these souls who are not quite ready to be fully dead, as it were, trying to work out some of the things that plagued them during their lives.”
The author of four collections of short stories, two novellas and a long body of journalism, the Texas-born Saunders came to writing relatively late, initially training as a geophysicist. After working as a tech writer, a field in which he was rewarded for brevity, he began writing short stories. His first collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline was published in 1996. He was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant and a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006, then won the inaugural Folio prize for his story collection, Tenth of December, in 2014.
Saunders is the second American in a row to win the Booker prize, after last year’s winner Paul Beatty. Saunders’ win falls four years after eligibility rules were changed to allow writers of any nationality writing in the English language and published in the UK. There has been fierce criticism of the rule change.
The judges took five hours to come to what Young called a “collegial”, yet unanimous choice. She denied any concerns about Saunders’ nationality, saying: “We don’t look at the nationality of the writer. Honestly it’s not an issue for us. We’re solely concerned with the book, what that book is telling us.”
The books losing out on the prize were 4321 by Paul Auster (US), Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK), Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan), History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) and Autumn by Ali Smith (UK).
With 144 novels submitted for the 2017 prize, Saunders’ novel was among a starry, 13-book longlist, a rarity in recent years as more debuts and less-established authors have been named as contenders. This year’s longlist included Arundhati Roy, a previous winner of the Booker, as well as authors who had also won the Pulitzer, the Costa, the Baileys, the Folio, the Impac and the Goldsmiths prizes.
The £50,000 win, announced at a black-tie dinner at the Guildhall in London, was yet another success for an independent publisher; released by Bloomsbury, Lincoln in the Bardo is the third win in a row for an independent, after two consecutive wins for Oneworld publications.
Sales for Saunders’ novel have trailed behind Smith’s in the UK, with Lincoln in the Bardo selling about 10,000 copies so far, compared with 50,000 of Autumn. Saunders can expect his sales to skyrocket; last year’s winner, The Sellout, has now sold more than 360,000 physical copies, with sales in the week after the prize announcement jumping by 658%.
Young’s fellow judges this year were the writer and critic Lila Azam Zanganeh, the novelist and poet Sarah Hall, the artist and author Tom Phillips, and the travel writer and novelist Colin Thubron. Saunders was presented with the award on Tuesday night by the Duchess of Cornwall.
The first true crime novel almost destroyed the man who wrote it. Howard Linskey, an author featured in CBS Reality’s new true crime TV series Written In Blood, finds out why.
The story of the first true crime novel is as famous as the crime that inspired it – and the man who completed the book never wrote another.
Truman Capote was already a literary star in 1959, when he read about the Clutter killings in the quiet town of Holcomb. Capote was famous for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s but he wanted to try something new – the first ‘non-fiction novel’ – and this felt like the ideal subject.
Herbert Clutter and his family were brutally murdered when two men broke into their farm one night, looking for money they thought was locked in a safe that did not in fact exist. Enraged, they resolved to leave no witnesses. Herbert’s throat was cut then he was blasted with a shotgun; his wife Bonnie, their fifteen-year-old son Kenyon and sixteen-year-old daughter Nancy were all gunned down before their killers fled.
Truman Capote left New York for the scene of the murders, travelling with none other than Harper Lee, his best friend since childhood and author of the recently completed, To Kill A Mockingbird, which would soon become a huge sensation. Capote and Lee arrived at a small town still reeling from the shock of the murders. The eccentric, effeminate, outspoken Capote must have stood out a mile in rural Kansas but he charmed the inhabitants of Holcomb and even the special investigator, Alvin Dewey, to get the inside information he was looking for. The one thing Capote lacked was any trace of the killers. It seemed the police trail had run cold.
Six weeks later, a former cell mate who knew of their plan to rob the safe, identified Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock as the Holcomb murderers. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to death by hanging, admitting their guilt along the way.
This is where the story of In Cold Blood takes a highly unusual turn. Despite the savage and brutal nature of the crimes, Capote decided it was necessary to get the killer’s version of events, because it would humanise them and make his book more vivid. He arranged to visit the convicted men and struck up an unlikely friendship with them, bonding with Perry Smith in particular, thanks in part to the murderer’s interest in art, music and books. He kept up a correspondence with Smith for five long years, while the death sentences were repeatedly appealed and his novel remained tantalisingly incomplete.
Capote realised he had placed himself in an impossible position by getting too close to the killers. In a bitter twist worthy of any crime story, he did not want Perry to hang, yet needed the sentences to be carried out if he was ever going to have an ending for his book. The mental torment on Capote began to grow.
“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.” – Perry Smith by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.
As one of ten crime authors asked to appear in CBS Reality’s new true crime series Written In Blood, which began on 3 September, I prefer to keep my distance from real-life killers. Mark Billingham, Peter James, Simon Kernick, Angela Clarke, Marnie Riches, RC Bridgestock, Luke Delaney, Elly Griffiths, Alex Marwood and myself have all written books influenced, in part or whole, by true crimes, ranging from the callous, so-called honour killing of Banaz Mahmod to the horrific James Bulger murder.
My episode covers the infamous Moors murderer, Ian Brady, who, with Myra Hindley, killed five children in the early sixties. My novel The Search features a fictional character, loosely based on Brady and in no way sympathetic to him. When young Susan Verity disappears, suspicion falls on Adrian Wicklow, who shares Brady’s sadistic desire to torment the police. My research on Brady was disturbing enough without actually having to sit down with the real killer, who ironically died, after 51 years in prison, just one week after The Search was published.
Even if I had been writing about the Moors murderers themselves, I could never imagine visiting Brady – let alone striking up a friendship with him – to gain insight into his awful crimes. Rightly or wrongly, Capote put himself through that very process to complete his novel, but it took a terrible toll on him.
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock eventually lost their final appeals and both men went to the gallows on 14 April 1965. They asked Capote to be there when they died and he reluctantly agreed, witnessing Hickock hang but running out of the room just before Perry was executed.
Truman finally had his ending, but the anguish that caused him and the six years it took to finish In Cold Blood drove Capote close to madness. He never finished another book. Instead, he was left with lifelong addictions to drink and drugs that directly contributed to his early demise from liver disease in 1984, aged just 59.
Two Hollywood films have been made about Capote’s obsession with the Clutter family murders and their killers. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman won a best actor Oscar playing him in Capote, while British actor, Toby Jones, earned rave reviews for his equally brilliant portrayal of Truman in Infamous.
The book was finally published in 1966 and was a huge success. In Cold Blood is still in print and considered something of a masterpiece. The first true crime novel has been translated into thirty languages and sold millions of copies. Whether Truman himself considered it all worth it in the end is debatable.
Written in Blood airs every Sunday at 10pm since 3 September, exclusively on CBS Reality. Howard Linskey’s episode on the Moors Murderers will be broadcast on 5 November.
Happy Sunday, and happy writing!
From a transgender teddy bear to a fearless girl pirate, children’s authors are tackling gender norms like never before, as debate rages about what it means to be a boy or girl.
Visitors at this week’s Frankfurt book fair, the world’s largest publishing event, will be faced with a string of books for young readers that defy stereotypes and navigate today’s hot-button issues of transsexuality and gender fluidity.
Stories with transgender lead characters in particular have broken one of the last “taboos” left in children’s writing, said literary expert Nicola Bardola.
“Some are watching this trend nervously, these kinds of books still make critics uncomfortable,” Swiss-born Bardola said, an author himself.
One of the most headline-grabbing recent titles has been “Introducing Tilly”, a tender story about Thomas the teddy bear who tells a friend: “I’ve always known that I’m a girl teddy, not a boy teddy.”
The picture book, aimed at children aged four and older, was written by Australian Jessica Walton who was inspired by her own father’s transition to a woman.
Translated into German last year as “Teddy Tilly”, Bardola called the book “a phenomenon”.
For a slightly older audience, there is US author Alex Gino’s award-winning “George”, which is about a transgender 10-year-old determined to play a female part in the school play.
The book has won widespread praise for its warm portrayal of a feisty heroine, but it has also stirred controversy.
A Kansas district last month decided not to purchase “George” for the area’s schools, deeming it inappropriate for young readers.
Gino, a self-described “genderqueer” – someone who refuses to be defined by a gender – promptly started a Twitter fundraising campaign to deliver copies to every school library in the district.
In just half an hour the money poured in.
“Sharing stories of trans people with children is key to trans acceptance. There is no age before which it is appropriate to be compassionate,” Gino told AFP.
In the young adult section, readers can find Meredith Russo’s “If I Was Your Girl”, which chronicles an American teen’s fresh start at a new school, burdened by the secret that she used to be a boy.
Children’s book expert Bardola said the trailblazing tales had triggered much earnest hand-wringing from critics wondering whether it was “appropriate” or “dangerous” to introduce young readers to such complex themes.
He said it reminded him of the stir caused in the 1980s when gay characters started appearing in young adult books.
“The debate is nearly identical. You can tell literary critics are unsure about these (transgender) themes,” he said.
“I think we can be a little more relaxed about it,” he added.
“These books should be judged by their literary quality and children should be given a chance to decide whether or not they want to read these stories.”
German literature critic Ralf Schweikert was more sceptical.
“If you want to talk about what it feels like to live in the wrong body, you are asking for a lot of self-reflection from young readers,” Schweikert told AFP.
For bookworms scouting for a more general take on the gender debate, there’s no shortage of new titles out to smash the patriarchy, reflecting a wider cultural discussion about the traditional roles pushed upon boys and girls.
“There are increasingly books for very young readers out there that deliberately challenge these gender stereotypes,” Schweikert told AFP.
He listed the German early-reading book series “Wild Wilma” as a standout example, about the buccaneering adventures of a girl sailing the high seas as captain of a pirate ship.
Bardola said stories that turned gender roles on their head had always been around but that such titles tended to peak every few years depending on the zeitgeist.
“Of course you can still find books for girls about ponies and princesses,” Schweikert said.
“But if you want to get away from those cliches, there’s a lot of good material out there right now.”
And more titles grappling with gender issues are on their way.
Scholastic, which published “George”, will next year be releasing the young adult novel “And She Was” by Jess Verdi, about a teen coming to terms with a parent’s transgender identity.
“And we’ve seen a number of trans or gender non-binary characters in other books we are publishing,” said Scholastic’s editorial director David Levithan.
Books, he added, that “show how gender diverse our real world can be”.
Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books they’ve read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Here are their recommendations for October 2017:
Click on the links above for a detailed synopsis of each book, or follow the following link to see what the Writer’s Bone crew had to say: http://www.writersbone.com/book-recommendations/2017/10/9/19-books-that-should-be-on-your-radar-october-2017
Happy Sunday, and happy writing!