At the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre this evening the six shortlisted authors for the Man Booker Prize read sections of their novels and answered questions from able presenter Mark Lawson. It was excellent to see Lawson chairing the event as in some past years the reading has been run by less knowledgeable people who didn't actively engage the authors. Jim Crace arrived fashionably late (due to traffic he complained) and just in time to read a section of his novel. Bulawayo spoke beautifully of the sense of seeing American culture from an outsider's perspective and the way in which imagination can't be suppressed no matter where you are writing. Catton explained the incredibly ambitious structure she laid out for her novel based on astrological signs and ever decreasing lengths moving through the sections of the novel. Crace remarked on how it's only in recent times that historical fiction has felt obligated to remain true to fact and how he is enthused by inventing historical information as he sees fit. This seems particularly fair in the way he writes historical fiction which doesn't specifically demarcate itself from any particular date or location. Lahiri spoke of the way she felt growing up in America with an Indian family that she felt a strong connection to both cultures, but at the same time not belonging to either. Ozeki talked about her hesitation of including a character called Ruth who is much like herself in the novel when she began it in 2006, but after significant world events felt it fair to include those events using her own name and personal perspective. Toibin talked about how the politics in Ireland has changed so that he didn't feel any great danger of negative retaliation or censorship because of the re-imagination of religious subject matter he uses in his novella. He remarked though that he's received some very angry messages from feverish religious Americans which he's printed and saved for posterity.
When Lawson opened the floor up to questions I was able to get the second question in from the audience. I asked Eleanor Catton about a male character who featured in the section she read (I won't say who to avoid spoilers). He's a really fascinating character who I wish we had more of in the book but he only appears very late on. She replied that she felt the reason she made him so interesting was that he'd been talked about quite a lot earlier on in the book so she felt he needed to make a grand impressionable entrance. After several more questions (including an embarrassing one where the audience member got Ruth's name wrong) the event ended and the authors signed copies. Sadly as my copy of The Luminaries is a Kindle version I couldn't get Eleanor to sign it, but I had my copies of Harvest, We Need New Names and A Tale for the Time Being signed. All three authors were very engaging and nice to talk to as they were signing my books. I must say that Lahiri seemed rather bored by the whole proceedings. Maybe she just has a subdued personality or maybe she feels rather passive towards the hoopla of book events given all the awards and attention she's received.
As to who will win the Booker, I think it's really open although Crace does have the best chance. But I think Catton's book is so strong it might well win and I hope it does. Responding to Lawson's final question about what winning the prize would mean to them most authors agreed with the sentiment that just being shortlisted and alongside such great authors was winning enough. All fair enough. Equally, just having a prize in order to get excited about books and discuss various reactions to them seems to me a justified reason for it all.
The reading was streamed live and can be viewed here (my question is at 1:21:50):