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'What I love is writing about places that are deeply familiar to me'

  • Published at 03:40 pm November 13th, 2017
  • Last updated at 08:41 pm November 14th, 2017
'What I love is writing about places that are deeply familiar to me'
He’s written four novels: London and the South-East (which won the Betty Trask Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), The Innocent, Spring, and most recently, All That Man Is, which was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and won the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize. In 2013 he was selected by Granta as one of the best twenty British novelists under forty. Currently residing in Budapest, Hungary, David Szalay is headed our way to join us at the Dhaka Lit Fest. Before that, we got in touch with him for a quick interview.

You’ve travelled a lot, and lived in different places. Is it necessary for someone to have visited/lived in a place to be able to write effectively about it?

It is quite important for me to know the places I write about – everything I imagine, I imagine happening in a specific place, and evoking those places is, for me, very much part of the pleasure of writing. Sometimes the sense of place is even the first thing, and everything else follows from that. Most of the various European locations that appear in All That Man Is are personally familiar to me – that’s why I chose them. London, Budapest, Croatia, the French Alps, Belgium – these are all places I have been to many times, if I haven’t actually lived in them, and that I know well. There are, however, one or two places in the book that I have never even visited, and writing about those places was a somewhat different exercise – it had its own satisfactions, but ultimately what I love is writing about places that are deeply familiar to me. In a way I don’t see the point of writing, or trying to write, about places that I don’t know.

What made you decide to break away from the traditional novel format for All that Man is?

That’s a complicated question without a single answer, really. It was something I came to gradually. The first of the segments of the book to be written – part three in the book’s final order, originally it was called “Europa” – was written as a stand-alone piece at a time when I had somewhat lost interest in writing a new novel as such. I was happy with how “Europa” had turned out, and I found I had really enjoyed doing something of that rather odd length (about 15,000 words) so I started to think about writing other pieces of similar length, and then about how they could be presented so as to work together to create a larger, coherent whole. I then had the idea of a series of stories with progressively older male protagonists. That was how I arrived at the form of the book as it ended up.
Sometimes the sense of place is even the first thing, and everything else follows from that

What’re you currently reading/planning to read?

I have just finished reading The Sparsholt Affair, the new novel by Alan Hollinghurst, which was wonderful. Just at the moment I’m reading The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, a sort late modernist work, that after being fantastically engaging for 50 pages or so is starting to try my patience slightly. I’m not even sure if I can be bothered to finish it. I now have my eye on Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor.

What’s a book you wish you had written?

There isn’t really one: it’s just not a specific feeling that I’ve ever had. I admire the achievements of other people, or course, and certainly envy their success, but I don’t wish I’d written their actual books. To me that feels creepily almost like wishing you were someone else.

What are you looking forward to at the DLF?

Most of all I’m looking forward to seeing the city and Bangladesh, which I have never visited before. I have heard wonderful things about the DLF itself. And it’s always quite fun to dig out the summer clothes again – the T-shirts and linen trousers – just as winter in arriving in Europe.