Sebastian Faulks has spoken of how male authors writing female characters is increasingly viewed with scepticism, while Richard Powers revealed the impact of the pandemic on his latest book, in a Hutchinson Heinemann showcase.
Ailah Ahmed, recently appointed publishing director at the imprint, described a "new chapter" in Hutchinson Heinemann's history as she introduced the virtual Literary Showcase on Tuesday (27th July) featuring authors Lauren Groff, Amor Towles, Faulks and Powers, who was recently announced as a Booker 2021 longlistee.
Faulks said of his upcoming historical novel Snow Country: "It's a book I've wanted to write for a long, long time. There's a book, Human Traces, which came out in 2005. It was about two young doctors, one English and one French, who set up a sanitorium in Austria where they tried to figure out what's wrong with human beings... it was a long, difficult book with lots of lectures about psychiatry and I always felt there was an easier book there. It's not a sequel... but it's a relation to Human Traces, like a first cousin, there is a family resemblance.
"It's a completely different story, mostly set in the 1930s, a very interesting time in Europe where the clouds are gathering in the way that we know about." He also warned against doing too much research, and that if a book was under-researched “it makes your imagination work harder”.
When asked about writing female characters by Ahmed (pictured right with the author), Faulks said: “I’ve always enjoyed writing female characters, though the political climate has changed from the time when you got tremendous and quite underserved praise for tackling female characters. Now there is a feeling of, ‘Are you sure? Really? What makes you think you can do this?’ But you plough on regardless.”
On the pandemic, the Birdsong author said: “Of course my life wasn’t massively changed in that I’ve been working from home for a long time. But one of the things I found quite annoying was young journalists saying it was an unprecedented plague—and, of course, it’s not unprecedented. In my lifetime there was polio and smallpox and then further back there was Spanish flu... Mark Twain said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme’. So to me the pandemic was a rhyme to Spanish flu and played into the period I was writing about.”
Powers revealed how lockdown and the pandemic had changed the nature of his book. Speaking from his home in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, he said: “When it came time to be cut off from the rest of humanity and forced into isolation for a year and a half, this was a good place to be. But with Bewilderment, a book that I wrote here, taking inspiration from my surroundings, I did go in a very different direction because of the pandemic [in terms of] the nature of the book’s composition. It became a much shorter book which focused on a couple of characters rather than a panoramic one like The Overstory. It’s my hope that this might make this book easier to sell to a wider variety of readers, even those who haven’t read The Overstory.
“I hope, with our slow steps back into social life, that both [readers] and bookstores are able to rally and return and reconstitute and bring books into a new season.”
Groff (pictured left) discussed Matrix, which is due out in September. She revealed how she was inspired by researching medieval French at college. She said: "Marie de France [12th-century poet] was fascinating to me and I kept her in my head for the last 20 years... I also want to interrogate power, female power and the way that the hierarchy that we have been handed down undermines us—and how we can push against this.”
Both Powers and Groff are hoping to visit the UK this year as part of their publicity tours. “I’m delighted to be coming to the UK in the fall. I spent almost a year in Cambridge when I was young, and Oxford, and can’t wait to come back,” Groff said.
Towles spoke about The Lincoln Highway, which takes place over 10 days in 1954 in New York and is set in a very different period to his previous books. “Why do I mix it up in this fashion? By taking my storytelling from one place and time to another, it allows me to re-tool almost every element of my craft. By making this shift, I have to re-tool the tone of my work, the language, the style and storytelling and ultimately the poetics.”
He spoke about how it was in the later stage of his life that he achieved his long-held ambition of writing fiction. “In the second half of my life, I’ve had the extraordinary satisfaction and luxury of being able to tell stories, with the help of the publishing houses and booksellers and readers, so thank you.”