How did you find out you had won the Windham Campbell Prize?
Marking students’ work for the next day. I checked my emails, idly, and saw a message from the [prize]. The next day I phoned them back and they told me I’d won it. Of course it was wonderful but it was also almost embarrassing. I thought, “Am I deluded and have I made this up?” I was really hesitant to tell people in my family about it in case they thought I had had a fit of madness or something. It was actually the first prize I’d ever won. I won the Hawthornden in the same year which was marvellous. Then I won the Edgehill. There’s no more for me to win. That’s it now!
What do you like about the Windham Campbell in particular?
They don’t have the horrible knockout contest of longlist/shortlist. Just quietly announcing they had already been through all that process, but behind closed doors is, as far as the writers are concerned, bliss. Just to have it as a fait accompli is so sophisticated and grown-up, and so lovely for writers.
What did winning it mean to you, personally?
It was amazing for me, first of all in the way it made me feel valued, because however intelligent and rational you are about the mayhem of prizes, you can’t help feeling there must be some correlation between the fact that nobody’s given you any prizes and that you aren’t good enough. The more I learned about the way the Windham Campbell was judged—the closed-room discussions; the nominations by writers—the more it felt like a lovely thing to win. It was like somebody invisible saying: “We think you’re doing the right thing.” That was very, very precious to me.
Did it change the way you write?
The force with which one comes at writing, it has to come out of confidence. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be many days and hours when you feel like you don’t have confidence, when you’re struggling. The more that you get something back from your audience, primarily in terms of finding readers—but also in terms of things like prize-winning status—the more it solidifies that confidence in you. It just builds something in you that is better at overcoming the drippy anxiety attacks.
There’s a weird thing with prizes in that people suddenly know how muchmoney you have...
Yes, the Windham Campbell was an embarrassing amount of money. It was nakedly out there. What a marvellous thing: I was rich! I’ve spent it all—on renovating my cottage in Somerset. It staunched the flow of decay. I had a woodburning stove put in. And I gave some of it to my children. It was enabling in a very selfish, sybaritic way.
How do you cope with the pressure of fame created by a big prize win?
I’m so grateful that I got in on the last bus before social media became so much of a pressure. I’m of an age when I get forgiven for not doing it. I’ve always been able to somehow make a line between my privacy and my public presence. In terms of doing things like going to festivals and doing events, I like it. I’m quite a sociable person who likes to talk. For some reason, maybe because I came to writing late, I’m able to keep the room of writing separate.
Do prizes matter?
Yes! People buy the Booker shortlist. Readers really are guided— and how can they not be?—there are a ton of books coming out at any given moment. I genuinely am a little bit worried about a sense that there are two different things: one is writing well, and the other is addressing urgent issues—[the latter is] more likely to win prizes. It’s currentness versus literary merit. Of course, the best books have both.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m a third of the way through another novel, set in the 1960s. The central character is a housewife, who in a fit of madness runs off with a man who is almost young enough to be her son. He is everything that her life hadn’t been. The cultural fracture of the ‘60s is going to happen down the body of the woman. I’ve just done the anguishing thing of reading everything I’ve written so far. I’ll do a bit of work on a short story I’m revising, and then go back to it: the blank page, the unknown.
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