The winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize, literature’s most famous accolade, is set to be announced. MA Creative Writing student John Hunter caught up with two of the shortlisted authors at the launch of Birmingham Literature Festival …

Tom McCarthy and I were chatting on the mezzanine floor of the REP Theatre, both there for the opening of the Birmingham Literature Festival; Tom in his capacity as guest speaker, myself as audience member.

The event was sponsored by The Institute of Creative and Critical Writing (ICCW) at Birmingham City University and, as a student, I had been generously extended an invitation.

As I quaffed my glass of red wine and Tom his more sedate glass of water we looked out over the constantly changing skyline of urban Birmingham and Tom confessed that it had been 25 years since he had last visited.

Shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize for his book Satin Island, Tom had come to read and take part in the evening’s discussion. The other guest was Sunjeev Sahota  shortlisted for his book The Year of the Runaways . Tom and Sunjeev are the only British writers on the list, in this the second year that the prize has been open to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English and published in the UK.

The main event took place downstairs in the packed Studio Theatre, of the Library of Birmingham. The stage was dressed with three Queen Anne armchairs, a coffee table and a bookcase, looking for all the world like a set from a J. B. Priestley play.

In his usual ebullient fashion, Dr Gregory Leadbetter, Director of the ICCW, and our host for the evening, welcomed the authors, introduced them, and invited them to read from their work.

Tom read section 7.6 a wonderfully humorous account of the frustration that occurs when a computer starts buffering. (Judging by the laughter, an experience many present could relate to.) We have faith that after the buffering we will be rewarded with the data we are seeking. Section 7.7 raises the doubt that maybe the buffering will never end; maybe we will never receive what it is we  seek. Tom’s seemingly casual style quickly transported us into his wonderfully bizarre corporate world, which for me had strong resonances with the works of J. G. Ballard and Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Tom’s is an novel of ideas and section 7.7 contained the notion that psychologically we humans need ‘buffering’. We need a gap between the physical sensations we receive and the time it takes us to process and make sense of them.

Sunjeev’s book on the other hand was more traditional in approach. His reading involved one of the book’s main protagonists, Tochi, and his meeting with a rather dodgy India Travel Agent who is prepared to help smuggled him part-way to the UK. Sunjeev’s rich description and revealing character reaction, humorously drove the tale forward. I was left with the enduring image of the seedy Travel Agent signing a receipt with a pen that was quietly leaking into his shirt pocket.

Sunjeev deflected Greg’s assertion that his book was topical because it dealt with immigration by suggesting that writers generally wrote about what they experienced. Immigration and travel had been a major part of his and his family’s life. He also added that if you try and write a book that’s topical you invariable end up out-of-date before the book’s finished.

Writing tips

The discussion then focussed on the art of writing, and the problems and difficulties writing engenders. For anyone who writes it is always salutary to realise that even those shortlisted for the Man Booker struggle with the same problems as the rest of us. Writers write; but writing requires effort.

Both authors were very eloquent on the value and necessity of reading to feed one’s writing.

Sunjeev reflected, “A library is a magic box. A house of imagination.”

Tom argued, “You need to read what you need to read, to finish your book.”

Sunjeev suggested that reading is the primary act of writing, “You can only write what you’ve read.”

On the question originality, neither author thought it important. Tom suggested, “Originality is hacking the archive.” (The ‘archive’ being the information stored in all computers all over the world.)

Sunjeev explained that while working on the third draft of his first book he realised that the structure wasn’t working so he scrapped the whole 60,000 words. The audience gasped!

How brave is that? I suspect that being brave enough to accept that those words were not working and being willing to throw them away is clearly the sort of heroic act that makes someone suitable to become a Man Booker shortlister.

On modern tools such as e-readers and audible books it was pleasing to learn that Sunjeev still prefers to hold a physical book in his hands and engage in the solitary pursuit of reading.

Neither author seemed particularly concerned about winning. Yes, it would generate more sales, but what they were both after – what I suspect most writers really want  –  was immortality: the guarantee of posterity.

Were the books on the shortlist similar? Sunjeev had heard one judge refer to them as six tales sharing a common dark theme and dwelling on grim and gloom. A veritable journey through the bleaker aspects of life.

At the conclusion of the event the authors willingly signed copies of their books and a long queue quickly formed. After the crowd had dispersed Tom, Greg and Sunjeev were standing around chatting. I listened as they discussed the relative merits of Chekov, Borges and Kafka. Tom spoke of Kafka as leading one towards a precipice, a feeling he did not get from Borges. Greg disagreed, finding that Borges opened up precipices for him. Sunjeev, who had been quietly reflecting for a moment or two, suddenly interjected: “Yes. Terrifying. That’s the right word. Kafka is terrifying,” nodding sagely and agreeing with a remark that Tom had made earlier.

I turned to go, leaving them to continue with their friendly disputation. I headed out into the night feeling enlivened and edified. The event had inspired me to keep putting words on paper aware that, even for these guys, it was a difficult task.  I was also aware of the rewards. I knew the two freshly signed books I carried were miniature universes waiting to be explored.  Recalling the earlier discussion on the value of reading I felt sure that immersing myself in them would enrich me even more. Who knows, they may well end up feeding into some future literary project of my own …

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