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Archive by tag: Alex ClarkReturn
Jul 02, 2022

The author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation talks to fellow US writer about memoir v fiction, depicting tyrants and the power of fairytales

At 41, Ottessa Moshfegh has appeared on the Booker prize shortlist, for her debut novel Eileen, and the bestseller lists, with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, for which she is currently collaborating on a film adaptation. Her new novel, Lapvona, is set in the middle ages, and features a small community ruled over by a cruel feudal lord, Villiam. Carmen Maria Machado, 35, is the author of celebrated short story collection Her Body & Other Parties, which won the Shirley Jackson prize. Her memoir, In the Dream House, which described the abuse she suffered within a lesbian relationship, won the 2021 Rathbones Folio prize. This encounter was the first time the two US authors had met.

Carmen Maria Machado: I really love your work. When I was reading Lapvona, I was thinking there’s something so exciting to me about authors who are constantly shifting their mode. You never know what their next book is. I find that very exciting as a reader.

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May 31, 2022

Half of humanity disappears in this disturbing study of loss, grief and moral sacrifice

In Sandra Newman’s fifth novel, all human beings and foetuses with a Y chromosome disappear in an instant, leaving the XXs to celebrate, grieve or organise in a radically altered world. To create a work of fiction with such a stark premise – as Newman also did in her previous high-concept novel, The Heavens, a time-travelling tale set between a reconfigured present-day New York and 16th-century England – runs the risk of confronting the reader with a task of reimagining that is hard to see beyond.

But although it’s true that The Men never allows us to forget its dramatic first principle, numerous other strands and themes emerge: the long aftermath of trauma and coercive control; various manifestations of charisma and complicity; the insidious, dehumanising effects of a society in thrall to screen representations of reality. It is also a novel about the lengths to which we might all go to assuage individual loss and grief; if the world turned out to be a better place without your loved one, would you sacrifice the greater good to turn the clock back?

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May 17, 2022

The further chronicles of a Turkish-American student in the 1990s showcase a wonderfully idiosyncratic comic voice

Should one spend one’s brief time on Earth guided by hedonism and pleasure, or by morality and responsibility? The second instalment of Elif Batuman’s chronicle of Selin, a student of Russian literature at Harvard in the 1990s whose biography corresponds fairly closely to the writer’s own, takes as its title Søren Kierkegaard’s first book, which suggests that one must choose whether to live according to ethical or aesthetic principles. For Selin, now in her sophomore year and with an unsatisfactory, perplexing quasi-relationship with mathematics student Ivan apparently behind her, the real issue seems not so much how to make a choice between two starkly opposed systems, but how to start living at all.

Kierkegaard is not Selin’s only template: as in Batuman’s preceding novel, The Idiot, and her nonfiction book, The Possessed, works of literature exist, variously, as vast mansions in which to wander, marvelling at the ingenuity and beauty of the fixtures and fittings; unexpectedly capricious haunted houses, in which mirrored doors open on to dead-end corridors and distorted reflections; and, occasionally and disappointingly, arid thought experiments, destined to trap the reader in repetitive and unyielding arguments.

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Mar 19, 2022

The Booker-shortlisted author talks about Zimbabwe after Mugabe - and drawing on Orwell for her brilliant new political satire

On the day I talk over Zoom with NoViolet Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, she is relying on a generator to power her internet connection; when she has a tickle in her throat and excuses herself to fetch water, she returns laughing, having forgotten that there is none today, and relieved that her sister has furnished her with a bottle. Ahead of travelling to the US for the publication of her second novel, Glory, she is in Bulawayo, the home city that provides half of her pen name; the other half, NoViolet, links the Ndebele word for “with” to the name of her mother, who died when her daughter was 18 months old. It was an early loss that, she says, means her writing will always have a strong awareness of how personal lives intersect with larger historical and political forces. “Some of these things that we carry, we don’t sign up for. But we’re here and, you know, everything and anything can happen to us. It’s part of my story. But it also doesn’t define me or define who I am and where I’m going.”

Born Elizabeth Zandile Tshele in 1981, the year after Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe its first prime minister, Bulawayo has used her work to explore the importance of naming as an act of self-possession, so much so that her debut novel was entitled We Need New Names. She herself, she once said on stage, grew up with many names, and didn’t know she was called Elizabeth until her first day at school.

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Mar 09, 2022

The writer’s account of his tortured journey to adulthood is wildly lacking in proportion, and all the better for it

Can you die of not writing a novel, asks Howard Jacobson towards the end of this memoir of his tortured journey towards doing precisely that. The question is posed partly by his present self, who has turned out 16 of them and a clutch of nonfiction books besides, and partly by the grotesquely frustrated, shamefully underachieving, semi-employed polytechnic lecturer who somehow couldn’t kickstart himself into doing the thing – perhaps the only thing – he felt was worth doing. He was 40 before his first novel, Coming from Behind, was published, and it had taken a weird, alchemical alignment of circumstances and catalysts to get there, culminating in a disastrous honeymoon that made way for inspiration, “beckoning derisively, not with the elegantly shaped arms of the classical muses, reaching out through gold-edged clouds, but with the gnarled, crooked fingers – as though from some disreputable alley – of low, self-disgusted mirth”.

You will gather already that this is not a book filled with writerly confidences of the sort that might even be taken as exemplary or advisory. It is not concerned with the business of going calmly to your desk each morning and getting something down; of treating the enterprise as a job like any other, and of keeping a sense of proportion. The reverse, in fact. This is a book wildly lacking in proportion: melodramatic, simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-abasing, filled with fear, shame, anger, failure and the occasional triumph. There are many references to weeping. If you like that sort of thing – and, if you like Jacobson’s novels, you presumably do – it is utterly captivating. If you don’t, read something else, because it will enrage you.

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Feb 19, 2022

The writers discuss problems of representation, class, the culture wars and how fiction is a great way to ask difficult questions

Before Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie settle down to earnest conversation, they spar about Mishra’s recent renunciation of cricket, both as a player and as a spectator; Shamsie, a die-hard fan who has interviewed some of the sport’s greatest players, is mock-horrified to hear that Mishra, 53, now prefers tennis. Ten minutes on court, he contends, feels more rewarding than a whole day at the crease. “This is the real migration that has happened in Pankaj’s life!” laughs Shamsie. “It’s dramatic – he’s exiled himself.”

Sporting differences aside, the pair are united by a deep commitment to the power of fiction, a subject they interrogate during a wide-ranging conversation on a cold day in London. Shamsie, 48, is the author of seven novels, including Burnt Shadows and Home Fire, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Antigone that won the Women’s prize for fiction in 2018. Her new novel Best of Friends will be published in September.

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Jan 20, 2022

From nuclear meltdowns to Bob Dylan, associations come thick and fast in a therapist’s memoir about death of his father

As a therapist, Nick Blackburn is attuned to the use of story as decoy; when what we want to talk about is too painful, or obscured from our view, misdirection and displacement edge in to fill the gaps and silences. He is aware of the danger of being seduced by those compensatory stand-in stories, of being, in the words of psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller, captured by your patient’s delusion. “Your work as a clinician,” Blackburn quotes Miller as saying, “is not to understand what he says. It’s not to participate in his delusion. Your work as a clinician is to understand the particular way, the peculiar way he makes sense of things.”

But The Reactor is not a book about Blackburn’s attempts to understand what underlies his patients’ stories, rather a fragmentary unrolling of his own particular, peculiar way of making sense of the death of his father. Here is a man whom we meet only in glimpses, the details of whose biography and identity are less significant than his absence and the manner in which he is unavailable to both his son and the reader. This is not a memoir that attempts to piece together a mass of wayward strands and details of a life in order to provide a vaguely comforting sense of the person who once inhabited it. Instead, it is a reckoning with the reality that loss can be just as cataclysmic even when its terrain and contours are indistinct and may never come into perfect focus.

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Dec 28, 2021

The impressive follow-up to A Little Life explores liberty and entropy across three time periods, from an alternative 19th-century New York to a totalitarian future

In the final section of Hanya Yanagihara’s tripartite novel, there is an episode that functions as a compressed emblem of the book’s intricately assembled themes and intensely anxious preoccupations. Having already been immersed in narratives set in the 19th and 20th centuries, the reader is now taken far into the 21st, an era in which pandemics sweep the globe in waves, each time altering the civic and political order. As a new virus threatens to take hold, a mother isolates her twin sons, survivors of an earlier sickness that has left them so immuno-compromised they can never again leave the house. After she herself succumbs, and they run out of food, they venture outside, and die.

The scientist who discovers their bodies wonders why they didn’t call for help, hypothesising that perhaps it was “because they wanted to see the world. I imagined them joining hands and walking out the door, down the steps, and into their backyard. There they’d stand, holding each other’s hands, smelling the air, and looking up at the treetops all around them, their mouths opening in wonder, their lives becoming glorious – for once – even as they ended.”

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Dec 10, 2021

These posthumous essays reveal a dedication to the proposition that ‘almost nothing in life is only what it seems’

There’s much to be said for idle thoughts in the right minds, and Jan Morris was particularly good at giving whimsy free rein. A writer of places and their people, she didn’t much care for the label “travel writer”, presumably because of its trivial and transactional connotations, and I doubt she would have been so grandiose as to style herself an “adventurer”. This book of brief essays, written in the last decade or so of her life and always designed to be published posthumously – “by the time you read it I shall be gone!” she writes cheerfully in her “pre-mortem” introduction – is filled with whimsy and, aside from decidedly light musings on matters such as sneezing, marmalade and hot-water bottles, she proves that being fanciful is not the enemy of seriousness.

Take her jeu d’esprit in the matter of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, that “burr in the heart of the monarchy, lovely but sly”. In Morris’s view, her death was marked in precisely, diametrically, the wrong way: “The nation mourned a martyr when it should have been celebrating a miscreant.” It would have been far better, the writer suggests, had Britain embraced her true nature while she was alive, given her the royal yacht Britannia, repainted it in bright colours and instructed her to tour the world’s ports, spreading glamour and cheer on behalf of the nation. Imagine, Morris asks us, Diana and hunky entourage arriving at some dusty and remote Mediterranean island at dawn, blasting rock’n’roll by way of reveille, and leading its bemused and bewitched inhabitants in a merry dance around the harbour until wine flows from the fountains and flowers rain down on the streets. It is, if nothing else, a rather more enticing vision of noblesse oblige than those to which we have become wearily accustomed.

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Jul 17, 2021

John Boyne talks about the online backlash to his recent YA book and how it inspired his new novel about social media

From the table in the garden where we sit chatting, I have a good view of John Boyne’s “ego room” – the light-filled, pale green annexe to which he comes, at 8.30 every morning, seven days a week, to write, and which is filled with global editions of the 21 books he has produced over the last two decades. Both the space and the name he’s given it are instructive, revealing: the tag humorously self-deprecating, the shelves a proud reminder of the work he’s created; at once sanctuary and display. And his backlist, which includes the bestselling YA novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, will soon be joined by a new novel for adults, The Echo Chamber.

At the beginning of 2019, the house, in a quiet suburb of south Dublin, won Ireland’s Celebrity Home of the Year; his “proudest achievement to date”, he jokes. A few months later, when he published his YA novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, seen through the eyes of a boy experiencing his sibling’s transition, his life took a different, significantly less pleasurable, direction. The online furore – which accused Boyne of misgendering and decentring the novel’s trans character, and of writing too far beyond his own experience – snowballed into newspaper commentary and calls for a boycott. Even more alarmingly, it also led to online harassment, in the form of a man who, over the course of 15 months, tweeted relentlessly and mendaciously about Boyne, publishing closeup pictures of his house and prompting the writer both to involve solicitors and to renew his home security.

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Jun 11, 2021

A hit in Australia, where she lives, Meg Mason’s novel Sorrow and Bliss tackles marriage and mental health with humour and heart. She discusses why she wrote it in secret

When Meg Mason took herself off to her shed to write her third book, a certain pragmatic confidence accompanied her. After all, she knew she could do it: there on her shelves were her memoir of having children in her 20s, Say It Again in a Nice Voice, and her 2017 novel You Be Mother. The New Zealander, now 43, had built up a career in journalism in the UK and Australia, where she lives, writing for outlets such as the Times, Vogue and the New Yorker, and felt comfortable with discipline and deadlines. If she sat there for a year, she figured, something “at least as good” as her previous work would emerge.

It did not, not even when there were 85,000 words of it. And it wasn’t just that “untitled Christmas novel” wasn’t coming together as she’d hoped, it was that “it was dreadful, it was awful, and I knew it, and I didn’t stop”. It probably still exists somewhere in Gmail, she says now, but “I couldn’t open it with a gun to my head”. Her feeling at the end of that year was overwhelmingly one of failure, of not “being equal” to the thing that she most wanted to do.

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Apr 29, 2021

An alienated youth travels to remote rural India, where his great-grandmother lived in 1929, in Sahota’s hushed and subtle third novel

It’s a decade since Sunjeev Sahota published his debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, a bravura piece of imaginative intensity that took the form of a journal written by a would-be suicide bomber, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, for his wife, a white British woman, and their child. The reader never discovered whether the planned explosion in a Sheffield shopping centre took place; that was peripheral to Sahota’s primary aim of exploring the cultural alienation and isolation that, in this instance, led his protagonist to radicalisation and violence.

The occasional narrator of Sahota’s third novel, China Room, is also alienated and isolated, though his response is to turn his violent unhappiness inward; at 18, he is in the throes of heroin addiction. His account of a summer spent in rural Punjab is interspersed with the more substantial third-person story of a young woman in 1929, whom we later learn was his great-grandmother.

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Apr 24, 2021

His Booker-nominated novel Reservoir 13 was a quiet portrait of rural life. Now he has taken on the peril of the Antarctic. He talks about discovering the thrill of page-turning tension

In 2004, the novelist and short-story writer Jon McGregor went to Antarctica. As is so often the way when fiction writers find themselves in unexpected places, the trip was part of an initiative – in this case, the writers and artists programme run by the British Antarctic Survey and supported by the Arts Council. There was no specific expectation or obligation to write about the experience; then again, why wouldn’t you?

But it was easier said than done. Over the intervening years, McGregor – who in 2004 was the author of a single novel, the impressive debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – has built up a striking body of work, including the novels Even the Dogs and Reservoir 13. The latter was an intricate, cyclical portrait of rural life that spawned a series of pieces for radio, The Reservoir Tapes, which themselves became a collection of short stories. Yet still the Antarctic box, an assortment of notes, ideas, photographs and sketches, sat there, resisting the translation to fiction.

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Apr 10, 2021

More than 15 years in the writing, Ross’ new novel This One Sky Day is a glorious achievement. So why did it take so long?

There is the difficult second novel, but for some writers there is also the far more difficult third novel. And so it was for Leone Ross, who in the 1990s published two well-received works of fiction, All the Blood Is Red and Orange Laughter. The first, a visceral group portrait of four women that moved between London and Jamaica, was longlisted for what is now the Women’s prize for fiction; the second, which tells the story of a man descending into madness in the tunnels of the New York subway as he reckons with the legacy of the civil rights movement and his upbringing, appeared on Wasafiri magazine’s list of its 25 most influential novels.

Then, although their author worked steadily and productively as an editor and as a teacher of creative writing, and although she continued to produce pieces of short fiction, the novels ceased to come. As Leone Ross prepares to publish This One Sky Day, a novel at least 15 years in the writing, I ask her what happened to keep her quiet for so long?

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Feb 26, 2021

The novelist talks about the heartache and hedonism that inspired her debut – and how writing helped her find a way out of the chaos of young adult life

Megan Nolan is weighing up how she feels about her relatives back home in Waterford, Ireland, reading her first novel, Acts of Desperation. She is not, she says, looking forward to it. I tell her that she might have to get used to it; I don’t live far from Waterford, and have noticed that she has already made the local newspaper (not to mention previews of 2021’s notable new voices in the Irish Times and the Observer). Anyway, what’s the problem? Everyone has been so supportive, she replies, “as soon as they heard that I was writing this book, and was having the book published, you know, everyone is so nice about it. And they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait to get it, and we’re going to have such a party when you get back.’ And then I just think: ‘Oh my God, they’re all going to buy it and be really moved that they’re buying it and then they’ll get home and have to read that.’”

“That”, she elaborates, is not exactly the sexual explicitness of Acts of Desperation’s depiction of a young woman’s life in Dublin, nor even its portrayal of prodigious boozing and partying, “but just that it’s so unhappy. You know, it’s quite a painful book to read. I just think, ‘I wish I could have given them a good experience.’”

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Feb 07, 2021

Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing

  • Read an exclusive extract from new essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean below

To think about Joan Didion, you have to confront two things before you get to the words: the pictures and the anecdotes. If you’re interested in certain aspects of the culture – American counterculture in the 1960s, California, female writers – the pictures are familiar, if not ingrained. There’s Didion in her long dress with long hair, smoking, leaning against her Corvette Stingray; standing up in its sunroof; lolling out of the driver’s window, in Julian Wasser’s 1968 shoot; inside, pictured with her daughter Quintana on her lap (her favourite of that day), or staring straight at the camera. Wasser remembers her as “a very easy person to talk to. No Hollywood affectations” – but the photographs themselves had such star quality that the fashion house Céline not only recreated one in its 2015 ad campaign, but also featured the then 80-year-old writer herself, in black sweater and enormous sunglasses.

And the stories: the parties at the same rented house, on Franklin Avenue, to which Janis Joplin might turn up, asking for a glass of brandy and Benedictine (musicians, Didion noted, never wanted ordinary drinks); the Malibu beach house she later lived in, where the carpenter was Harrison Ford; the first assignment the neophyte writer did for Vogue, a piece on self-respect that only came to her because the original journalist failed to deliver and they’d already put the strapline on the cover.

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Dec 31, 2020

We follow a young woman’s thoughts and feelings over a single day, in this perceptive depiction of power and agency

Rebecca Watson’s debut novel started life as a piece that was shortlisted for the White Review story prize in 2018; in it, we follow the narrator’s thoughts during her lunch break, as she ladles canteen soup into a takeaway cup, goes blank when a colleague asks her what she’s read recently and then repairs to the office loos to scratch – and try to stop herself scratching – the skin on her legs until they bleed and, eventually, scab over. Afterwards, she returns to her soup, and reads a corporate email about sexual harassment, which provokes a stream of thoughts and feelings that seem connected to the scratching.

The story was a glimpse into the two different systems of being that most people experience simultaneously most of the time: the scheduled, material, almost mechanical flow of time (here, a lunch break, a conversation, minutes spent at a desk); and the private, interior anarchy of emotion, sensation and semi-articulation that unfolds in each moment. It was rendered in daringly disrupted form: prose that fragmented into something more like poetry; sudden shifts in the typography; staccato repetitions and bracketed text; a narrative that appeared to split, like a peloton of cyclists separating to go either side of a roundabout, before reconfiguring, subtly altered.

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Oct 30, 2020

A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu

Kirabo is an inquisitive child. She has even more unanswered questions than other girls in the run-up to puberty, the greatest and most mysterious of which is: “Who is my mother?” In the small Ugandan village of Nattetta, nobody seems to want to tell her, least of all the grandparents who have loved and protected her throughout her life; fleeting visits from her father, Tom, who is busy making his mark in Kampala, yield no further insight. So Kirabo, already unsettled by her ability to depart her body and soar above her neighbourhood, decides to consult the village witch, Nsuuta.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, explored the complex effects of masculinity and its limitations on the relationship between fathers and sons; its canvas took in both the pre-colonial period and its long-lasting legacy. Vivid and ambitious, it suggested a writer unafraid to juxtapose past and present, the mythological and the modern - a scope that Makumbi reprises in her second novel. Here, she focuses on the origin myths of motherhood, the contested ground of women’s sexuality and the intersection between personal, public and political power, in a style that is frank, funny and direct. Beginning in 1975, in the middle of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, the story captures the surrealism of living in unpredictable and violent times, folding awareness of vast events into the minutiae of daily life.

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Sep 26, 2020

As his third novel is published, the television presenter talks about growing older, Eurovision and resuming his talk show in a pandemic

Graham Norton is chipper as we chat in West Cork, where he spends much of his time when his eponymous BBC TV show is not on air, and to which he has repaired during lockdown. Despite the disappointing weather – Storm Ellen is about to wreak havoc on the west, and the following week will bring flooded roads and power outages across the area – and the daily waves of worse and worse news, he’s been quietly getting on with his other career, and the publication of his third novel, Home Stretch. “You know,” he says, “when I was rereading the proofs, it was in lockdown, Black Lives Matter and the world going to hell in a handcart, and I sort of thought, I’ve written an incredibly Pollyanna version of the world. But even if I have it’s a version of the world I like.”

It’s a lighthearted characterisation of his writing, but not entirely accurate. Although his novels are undoubtedly story-based, plot-driven and warmly entertaining – he described his first, Holding, as a “yarn” – they are not without darkness. His second, A Keeper, described the lengths that those in rural isolation will go to in the search for a partner, and Home Stretch is centred on the devastation visited on a small town after a fatal car crash. Beginning in 1987 and bringing us up to the present day, it focuses on an abiding theme of Irish life and literature – the relationship between those who remain and those who leave their families and communities – and also contains a vivid portrait of the evolution of gay life in Ireland.

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Sep 19, 2020

A sharp-eyed satirist of the banalities of office life in her novels The New Me and Jillian, the US author talks about the frustrations of work and finding success through writing about failure

Sometimes, writers chime with the times in ways more serendipitous than they could have imagined, let alone planned; and the results can be a mixture of blessing and curse. When Halle Butler named the woman she describes as “the villain” of her novel The New Me “Karen” and its protagonist “Millie”, she hadn’t any particular connotations in mind. “It’s very strange. Karen, and Millie the millennial, it’s like Caspar Goodwood or something,” she remarks wryly, referring to the wholesome suitor in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. “It’s almost too direct.” She pauses. “I mean, she is a little bit of a Karen.”

She is, in the sense that that frequently contentious shorthand sobriquet – seen by some as a way of simply mocking women, and by others as a way of exploding privilege and the abuse of power – denotes officiousness, self-importance, entitlement. But in The New Me, it also comes with a healthy side order of pathos. Karen is a receptionist at the designer furniture showroom at which Millie finds herself temping, but imagines herself to be on a corporate ladder that will eventually lead to her running the company. For now, she restricts herself to finding fault with the way Millie collates promotional junkmail and requests that she time her bathroom breaks to align with her lunch-hour, unaware that those higher up the food chain find her laughable. Millie, meanwhile, simply tries to get through the days: “I wake up ill. I feel trapped in a loop. I stare at the big pile of clothing on the floor. I eat some dry cereal. I wash my armpits. I go to work. I think things on the train. I ride the elevator. I walk to Karen’s desk. I am either calm or hollow, hard to say.”

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Sep 19, 2020

The novelist’s musings on his life, art and loved ones are humorous, grumpy and utterly compelling on grief

Inside Story is a deeply curious book, in both senses; it asks a lot of questions, and it often asks them oddly. It’s a second go, for a start: a partial autobiography that describes itself as a novel and which is built on the ruins of an abandoned project of a decade or more ago, a book called “Life” that died a death before it could see the light of day. It is a true story that clearly takes liberties – recasting historic conversations so that they read as little playscripts, slipping between real names and pseudonyms, darting back and forth in time. And, of course, there has already been a memoir, 2000’s Experience, which focused more directly on Amis’s parents, Kingsley and Hilly.

Related: Martin Amis: 'I was horrified that Trump got in. Now it’s looking scary'

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Aug 29, 2020

The Norwegian author’s powerful new novel, Unquiet, grew out of a series of conversations she recorded with the film director not long before his death

When Linn Ullmann’s father was well into his 80s, he began to refer to the life that he was now experiencing as “the epilogue”. Lying in bed in the mornings, he would tot up his ailments, allowing himself one per decade: if there were fewer than eight, he would get up; if there were more, he would stay put. But these strategies denoted realism rather than appeasement, and his determination to continue work remained largely unshaken.

Ullmann’s father was the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, and the work that he fixed on in his last years was a collaboration with his daughter, a book that would capture something of his life and thoughts as he approached the end. Recalling the beginnings of the project as she talks to me from Oslo, Ullmann emphasises the centrality of the creative process to Bergman’s life. “When it’s work, you know, then we know what we do. We’re working: good. We had so much fun discussing when we were going to write the book, how, what form it would take.” His preferred title, he joked, was “Laid & Slayed in Eldorado Valley”, a phrase that he’d always hoped to use for the name of a film.

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Aug 07, 2020

Ahead of her latest, unnerving novel Sisters, the youngest ever author shortlisted for the Booker discusses her fascination with horror, family and growing up on Harry Potter

Daisy Johnson and I are talking about compost. She never thought she’d write about the Fens, she explains, but she ended up revisiting her childhood landscape in her debut book, a short story collection that won the Edge Hill short story prize. She also didn’t anticipate reworking the Oedipus myth that had so enthralled her in her schooldays, but it formed the bedrock of her first novel, 2017’s Everything Under, which made her the youngest writer, at 27, to be shortlisted for the Booker prize. “Maybe it’s just time,” she ruminates, “and maybe the things I’m reading now will circle back in 10, 20 years … I sometimes think of ideas as a sort of composting and that they just need to compost for long enough, and then you can think about them and write about them.”

But the thing with compost, I say prosaically, is that you have to choose what to put in, when to add water and to turn the heap. Johnson likes that idea, and firmly says she’s not the kind of writer that turns away from reading fiction when she’s working on her own books, or steers clear of anything that feels too similar. She is, instead, a magpie, of the belief that “nothing is sacred, and I think we should take everything that we possibly can and make it of our own and send it out into the world”.

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Jul 03, 2020

The bestselling author’s new novel Utopia Avenue dives into London’s 60s music scene. He talks about writing cameos for Bowie and Zappa, world-building and not repeating his greatest hits

David Mitchell and I are talking – nerdily, greedily – about a moment in popular music when prog rock, folk rock, acid jazz and psychedelia all bubbled jauntily to the surface of the cultural pot. I’m telling him about how the guitarist and songwriter John Martyn ended his days in the small town near where I live in rural Kilkenny; he’s filling me in on how Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, Noel Redding, lived out his life in Clonakilty, the seaside town in County Cork where Mitchell lives with his wife Keiko and their two children. Redding, he says, continues to dominate conversation: “In people’s memories and anecdotes, he’s still walking the streets now.”

But neither of us was there for the heyday we’re remembering, and which provides the setting for Mitchell’s eighth novel, Utopia Avenue, its title the name of his invented four-piece band. In the late 1960s, both of us were just being born. So why the fascination with recreating this precise period?

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Mar 18, 2020

From Nora Ephron to Thomas Mann, here are 12 books to entertain, challenge and inspire if you’re confined at home due to Covid-19

If you are the type of person who is tormented by the thought of all the books out there still waiting to be read, you are likely, for the worst of reasons, to have some time on your hands. Nobody would choose these circumstances in which to tackle their to-be-read pile, but books have a distinct role to play in times of trouble. The best of them absorb our attention, enlarge our sympathies and understanding and provide not merely simple distraction but a more complex way of engaging with the world and our place in it. These books – individually brilliant and absorbing – also try, in very different ways, to examine how we function as human beings.

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