Friday, December 14, 2012

Q&A with writer Linda Grant

Linda Grant is the award-winning author of five novels and several works of non-fiction. She has written for The Guardian and other British publications, and lives in London.

Q: Your most recent novel, We Had It So Good, looks at a couple, Stephen and Andrea, over several decades of their lives, from the 1960s to the present. Why did you decide to focus on that time period, and why did you decide to make Stephen an American living in England?

A: I wanted to write a novel about my own generation looking at our whole lives from childhood to the present, the arc of a life, the way we make plans but it is the accidents and the decisions we don't take seriously that shape our destinies. Part of the reason for having Stephen as an American was to have one character who sees the country from the outside and who is thwarted the whole of his adult life in the desire to return home. Home is a powerful issue in most of our lives and this novel is partly about the homes we make or fail to make.

Q: Many of your books deal with Jewish characters, often British Jewish characters. How would you describe the British Jewish literary tradition?

A: This is a tricky question. The Jewish community in Britain is largely from the same immigrant stock as that of the United States, pogrom immigrants who failed for one reason or another, to make it to America. The US is a continent and a culture of immigration while Europe has, until the last few years, been a continent of nation states. In America is it is the common experience to come from somewhere else, not so in the UK. American Jews joined Poles and Italians and the Irish in defining what would become the national character. 

Jews have always been seen to be and feel ourselves to be outsiders. Of course from the point of view of a novelist this has can be very helpful, but the literary tradition in Britain has been characterised by marginalisation and even timidity on the one hand, and on the other a lack of interest from the wider community which turns to the US for the Jewish novel.

Q: Another of the themes in your books is emigration, or leaving one country and adjusting to another. Why have you chosen to highlight that issue in your work?

A: When I was in my mid-twenties I lived in Canada for several years and then returned. I probably had planned to always stay there, though I originally went as a graduate student, but it wasn't the right country for me. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants and I've never felt a strong attachment to any country. The act of leaving and arriving is more interesting to me.

Q: You have written both fiction and nonfiction. Do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?

A: Fiction every time, though it is much harder. Non-fiction is what I write when I'm on a break.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm about half way through a novel about something which happened when I was at university and the consequences. I've been thinking about it as a novel before I ever wrote a novel but didn't have the literary experience to know how to do it, which is odd given that parts of the novel really happened. But it was finding the necessary detachment from it which in the end, quite ironically, meant using a narrative voice and persona rather like my own. I put myself in it in order to fictionalise myself. 

It's bad luck to say too much about something that isn't finished yet, I don't even have a title, but it's certainly one of the most personal novels I have written in some ways. It covers some of the early parts of my life I've never written about and it recalls some of the people I once knew who came out in the Seventies, embraced gay culture for all it was worth and had absolutely no idea what fate would have in store for them. They couldn't have known.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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