Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not The Booker winner Michael Stewart on staring into the abyss and on that other prize...

This is a picture of the excellent Yorkshire writer Michael Stewart. A handsome man but very stern isn't it? Aggressive. Not the sort of man whose pint you'd want to spill at 11pm in a dive on the rough side of town. Looks like the leader of the Inter-City Firm or some other notorious football hooligan crew. Looks like a man who would shiv you as soon as look at you.

It is, fortunately, a completely misleading photo. In person Michael is gregarious, thoughtful, entertaining company. It's not in his character, or in his looks that any darkness resides - but it is there in his imagination.

Michael's debut novel King Crow has just won the prestigious 2011 Not The Booker Prize run every year by The Guardian newspaper (some would argue that it is more prestigious than the Booker itself). And it's a fair bet that he was looking much more smiley and upbeat then.

King Crow is the story of a quiet lad from Salford who likes to spend his time in his own world where he draws the birds he sees around him. Despite himself however he is drawn into a murkier world, one populated  by drug-dealers with all their menace and violence. This is a poetic book. Poetic in its descriptions of birds and nature. And bleakly, blackly poetic in its depictions of mental squalor and casual violence too.

Mainly, however, it's a good read. Gripping and thought-provoking - which is certainly not something you can say about every winner of that Man Booker thing everyone keeps banging on about.

Hello Michael - can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words?

Michael Stewart is a... 50 words you say? Why 50 words? Seems an arbitary figure but I'll have a go. Right. Michael Stewart is a... It's definitely 50 words? Not 49? Not 51? It has to be exactly 50 words right? Ok, here goes then, Michael Stewart is a...

Why should I read King Crow?

You shouldn't... but you will.

Where did the story come from?

I read an article in a magazine about circling ravens in Scotland leading a farmer to a dead body. I thought, what a great way into a story. (how wrong I was)

How did you feel on hearing you'd won Not The Booker?

I thought I've not won the Booker - I've won Not The Booker. (Those italics are important.)

What next? Are you working on another book?

I'm working on another novel called Cafe Assassin. It's about a man who comes out of 22 years of incarceration to get revenge on the man who put him in there. It's a sort of modern take on Wuthering Heights - only not as good.

You also write radio plays and for theatre...

I love the immediacy of drama. And it is relatively quick. I don't know how some novelists go straight from one book to another (I know lots do). I need a break, a different pace of working. When I finished King Crow, I couldn't hink about writing another novel. All I wanted to do was write scripts and short fiction. Which I did. But once I got that out of my system I was ready for another marathon.

Who, in life or writing, do you admire and why?

I have a picture of Samuel Beckett above my desk. He is staring into the abyss. That's a writer.

What do you think about Julian Barnes winning the Booker? Do prizes matter?

I'm happy for Julian Barnes and I'm looking forward to reading his book, but I thought the fracas about the non-inclusion of Alan Hollinghurst was hilarious. There's a tremendous sense of entitlementin mainstream literature.. Just because you have won the Booker in the past, it doesn't mean you have a right to be on the list in perpetuity. The Booker is really about the six main publishers. It costs them a lot of money to enter their authors. Is the public aware of how this excludes indies? Do prizes matter? If you win a prize it's an important prize and validates your genius, if someone else wins it's corrupt and elitest and not worth the paper the cheque is written on. We are all in the business of selling books. Anything that helps achieve that is a good thing. But on a personal level, triumph and disaster are both imposters.

Where do you see yourself in in five years time? Ten?

I've just won the Man Booker for the fourth time. Aim high - why not?

Recommend something...

Hunger by Knut Hamson. It's where the modern novel starts.

And, finally, tell me something I don't know...

Taushiro, a language of native Peru, is spoken in the region of the Tigre River, Aucayacu River, which is a tributary of the Ahuaruna River. It is known as a language isolate, which means it has no demonstrable relationship with any other language. In 2008, a study conducted on the Taushiro language concluded that only one person speaks the language fluently.

And so the interview ends - and Taushiro there's a foreign rights deal that it's not really worth getting....
  The award-winning King Crow is published by Bluemoose. You know what to do.

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