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Interview: Bernardine Evaristo

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Bernardine Evaristo won the Book Prize in October (photograph by Jennie Scott)

‘My vision for my career is too precious to let loose among the naysayers. Don’t feed your dreams to the lions.’ Bernardine Evaristo on dreaming big and winning the Booker

Is it fair to say that you reached the pinnacle of your writing career when you won the Booker Prize in October for your eight novel, Girl, Woman, Other? How has that changed your experience of the world and how you write? Do you wake up in the morning, thinking, ‘I’ve won the Booker!’ Or do you take it in your stride and just keep on working?

I’d rather say that it’s been the pinnacle of my career thus far, as I have many career ambitions still bubbling away. Winning the Booker changed my career beyond recognition in totally positive ways. I feel very blessed. Until lockdown, it also meant I was incredibly busy with events, commissions and publicity, but then again, I’m always incredibly busy juggling multiple career commitments, including teaching at Brunel University London.

I haven’t started a new book yet, but I will do so soon. I was in something of a daze for a long time after winning the prize, and had many ‘pinch-myself’ moments. I’m not sure it will ever completely sink in. I just feel incredibly grateful to have received this honour at this stage in my career.

You’re the first black woman to win a Booker Prize in its 50-year history – an accolade you say is ‘bittersweet’, as you ‘shouldn't be the first’. What challenges and opportunities, do you think, face black authors in the coming decade?

I like to think that my win signals a breakthrough for black British writers, but we’ll see what happens over the next few years. We’ve had an unprecedented number of non-fiction books recently, but YA and adult novels are still few and far between. The publishing industry might pay more attention to experimental black writers in the future, considering the success of Girl, Woman, Other, as well as older ones. I was published by Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House for 20 years before I broke through. There’s something for the industry to learn from that, right.

As for the issue of representation, the literature sector needs to offer its own solutions to a culture that makes it hard for black writers to be published or work at senior level in publishing houses. To be honest, it really is quite simple: open the doors and bring us in, not as a philanthropic exercise, but because we will add all kinds of value to the industry. Essentially, we need to have several seats at the publishing table for serious and lasting change to take root, as opposed to some of the more tokenistic gestures. The prevailing white publishing culture won’t shift enough if we’re always the only person in the room offering a black or Asian perspective.

You said that 20 years ago, you ‘visualised’ winning this career-changing prize. And that, once long-listed, your ‘positive affirmation’ was to win. Can you talk about your experience of manifesting success, with any tips as to how it works and propels you...

In my thirties I went on several personal development courses in order to improve my life and progress my career. One of the most effective ones was called MindStore, where I learnt to set what would be considered unrealistic goals, as opposed to more easily-achievable ones. I picked up strategies I still use to this day such as meditation, writing positive affirmations and creative visualisations, ie, visualising the future you want for yourself as if you already have it. I’ve never written to win prizes, that would be wrong, but many years ago I did have the Booker Prize in my sights as a desirable goal because I knew it would be a gamechanger for my career. I wanted my writing to reach a wide readership. I told no-one about this because they would have said I was being ‘unrealistic’. In my experience people project their own limitations onto you when you dare to have big ambitions. It’s best to keep your goals to yourself, especially in the UK. If you’re not strong enough, it can weaken your resolve. I play my cards very close to my chest. My vision for my career is too precious to let loose among the naysayers. Don’t feed your dreams to the lions.

Why did you first start writing? What advice or encouragement would you whisper in the ear of the writer you were at 40? What would you tell the woman you were then not to do?

My first book was published in 1994, a poetry book called Island of Abraham. I was 34 at the time. Lara came out three years later. My first career was in professional theatre, as a writer, actor and producer, and I wrote poetry throughout my twenties, publishing in anthologies. The only advice I’d give my younger self is to keep doing what you’re doing. I wouldn’t change anything about my life because it’s led to me to where I am today. The road has sometimes been incredibly bumpy, but we learn and grow from the difficult times more than we do the good times. As a writer, I place a lot of value on my past experiences because they have deepened my understanding of human psychology, which then goes into the creation of my fictional characters.

You had an incredible 2019 – with huge success – and of course, coronavirus has skewed the path many of us thought we'd follow in 2020. How are you adapting and responding to this pandemic? Can you write yourself out of the anxiety of it?

I’m not easily stressed, but I’ve had to work hard during this period to stay positive because the prognosis has been so relentlessly bleak. I pride myself on being able to talk myself out of the thoughts and things that might bring me down. Striving for positive solutions is my default mode, having worked on it for so long. We cannot always control what happens to us in this world, but we have agency over how we respond to it.

We’re all in a state of limbo, living kind of groundhog days – what do you love most about your own day-in, day-out writing routines, and what element of it all would you do away with, if you had a magic wand?

I wouldn’t do away with any of it. I wish I could live a more hermetically-sealed ‘self-isolating’ life with just myself and my husband, but I drive across London twice a week for a 24-hour shift to look after an ailing relative. When I’m at home, I love leaving it to go on walks or bike rides. As spring starts to emerge, I feel quite euphoric when I’m outside in the sunshine. My routine is to sit at my computer for much of the day and just get on with my administration and writing commissions. That remains the same as pre-Covid, but as my public events at home and abroad have been postponed or cancelled, I can take more time over each activity. So life is a little more relaxed in this sense. I do love the peaceful silence on the streets, but of course I detest the egregious virus behind it and what it’s done and doing to us.

The flip-side of success, of course, is rejection (as well as the daily, unrecognised, grind). After you won the Booker, you were commissioned to write a short story for a well-known publication – a story they went on to reject. You said this “put me in my place”. What has rejection, throughout your career, taught you and how do you deal with it?

It’s good to experience rejection in one’s career as a writer, especially at the start of it, otherwise writers are given a false impression that it’s going to be plain sailing for the rest of their careers. Many a writer has come unstuck when they discover otherwise. I’ve had plenty of rejections in my career, from the first manuscript I sent out in 1991 up to, as you say, very recently. Rejection can clarify and strengthen your resolve to achieve your goals, if you don’t let it crush you. Learning to deal with rejection is preparation for success, and if you can’t drag yourself up after a setback, then perhaps writing isn’t a career for you. All people in the arts expose themselves to rejection. Imagine an actor’s life? As creative people, we put our heart into our work and then we present it to the world and wait for the opinions of others to flow back to us – good, bad, indifferent, whatever. We develop bloody tough hides and learn to become unstoppable. I used to believe in bouncing-back from rejection as soon as possible. Now I believe in bouncing back in the act of falling, so that you never fall far enough to disappear into the hell of self-pity, self-flagellation, misery and despondency. This is some of what I’ve learnt about rejection.

What advice would you give to others who are struggling with the writing, publishing and promotion process? What motto would you print on a T-shirt to inspire us all?

‘Don’t let anyone hold you back, least of all yourself.’

What next? What other stories do you plan yet to tell? And when can we expect them?

There are so many stories brimming inside me. Every day I feel myself psyching up to get going on a new book, my ninth, but I have various other deadlines to complete first. In the meantime, I’ve published two new short stories in the past two months, with a third imminent. These are Star of the Season, published in Vogue UK in February and The White Man’s Liberation Front, published by The New Statesman this April.

I’ve published about 12 short stories in my life and I only write them when I’m commissioned. Yet when I do, I find the form incredibly satisfying. Instead of taking five years to write, like Girl, Woman, Other, I can sometimes knock one out in a few hours. The intensity of this very short writing process means the quality doesn’t suffer, at least I don’t think so. Other times, a short story can evolve over a month or even more.

The short form is where I explore ideas that can be delivered in some 2,000 words or so and I find the form incredibly liberating because I don’t have to sustain the complexities, architecture, deep characterisation and thematic depth of long-form fiction. It’s also a space for me to explore current ideas, often quite political.

Finally, do you have a favourite author when it comes to short stories? What would be your desert-island short story – if you could only read one ever again, which and why?

I guess the one I’d like to revisit is The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. Jacob Ross, originally from Grenada in the Caribbean, is a master storyteller and my favourite short story writer. Peepal Tree Press recently published his collected stories: Tell No-One About This. If you don’t know his work, you’re in for a treat.

Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin) by Bernardine Evaristo, is out now

Interview by Sophie Haydock @Words_by_Sophie

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