The Canadian Press (Thien) and Martin Figura (Szalay)
London calling: Thien and Szalay react to their Booker nominations
For the first time since 2011, two authors with ties to Canada have landed on the six-member Man Booker Prize short list
Madeleine Thien, whose latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a generational saga of those shaped and shattered by Mao's Cultural Revolution, has been named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
The Vancouver-born, Montreal-based Ms. Thien is joined on the six-person short list by David Szalay, a Montreal-born, British-raised author nominated for his book, All That Man Is, a novel-in-stories about men navigating modern Europe.
This marks the first time since 2011, when Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) and Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) were both finalists, that two Canadian writers have been short-listed for the Booker, one of the world's foremost literary awards.
The nominees were announced on Tuesday. The winner, who will be named on Oct. 25 in London, receives £50,000 ($87,000).
Long considered one of Canada's most talented young writers, Ms. Thien, 42, published her first book, a collection of short stories called Simple Recipes, in 2001; it won a handful of prizes, including the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her debut novel, Certainty, was published in 2006, and won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award; it was followed, in 2011, by Dogs at the Perimeter, which explored the legacy of the Cambodian genocide.
Mr. Szalay, also 42, is the author of three previous novels: London and the South-East (2008), Innocent (2009) and Spring (2011). He currently lives in Hungary.
The other finalists include two Americans – Paul Beatty for his razor-sharp satire on race, The Sellout, and Ottessa Moshfegh for her wonderfully eerie novel, Eileen, about a lonely young woman – and two British authors – Deborah Levy, who was a finalist in 2012, for Hot Milk and Graeme Macrae Burnet for his historical crime novel His Bloody Project.
Q&A: Madeleine Thien on China, the origins of an expansive story and how life imitates her art
I imagine this will call havoc with your fall plans.
Actually, I'm not going to do all the Booker events. I'm just going to do the last one in London. I think it's going to be fine. It's going to be a lot of back-and-forth, but it'll be good.
It's a good problem to have.
It's a beautiful problem to have.
Every author, I imagine, hopes for the best with every book they publish. But as you finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, did you feel this one might be different?
I knew it had been different for me in the artistic process. But I didn't allow myself to think about what that would mean when the book came out. It's my fourth book, and none of the books have ever been nominated for any of the major Canadian prizes, so I didn't have those kinds of parameters around what it would look like when the book came out. I think I've been lucky, in a strange way.
You said the artistic process was different. How so?
I felt very free. I think a lot of the difficult psychological work had been done with Dogs at the Perimeter. For me, those two books are so interconnected. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing had more space, the canvas was bigger, there was more space to explore what I couldn't explore in that very intense genocide in Cambodia, because it was only four years, whereas this goes over 60 years.
When did you start thinking about this novel?
I started thinking about it when I was 14 or 15, and watching the 1989 demonstrations. They went on for a bit more than six weeks, and it was the beginning of 24-hour news, so I was just so fixated on watching what was unfolding in real time. And also understanding, even at that age, how much I wasn't understanding. So I feel, in a way, it's been a process that's been that long.
I imagine you don't have a Chinese publisher.
No. It won't for the foreseeable future. It's not possible for a novel that confronts 1989 to be published in China right now.
Have you received messages from people who live there but have read it in other languages?
Yes, I have. That's because my stepmom is from mainland China. She's a musician and a writer, and so she has a wonderful circle of friends, and her family as well, who love this book so much. But, you know, it's a complex story, but I didn't actually know that this was my stepmom's history until after I'd finished the book, which is kind of crazy.
That reminds me of another example of life imitating art: Last year, City University of Hong Kong, where you taught, shut down its MFA program. In the novel, the students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music are suddenly forbidden to play certain music. One is literature, one is music, but in both cases students are being denied access to art.
One of the fascinating parts about China, and I think about many totalitarian regimes, is they actually understand the power of art and literature. They know that it becomes in rooted in people, and it gives them this imaginative freedom to then refocus the lens on their own society. And I think only in this are the Chinese government and I in alignment. We both believe that literature really makes the self, and has these repercussions in society that are impossible to map.
Over the next couple of months, you have quite a platform at your disposal. Are you going to use this nomination as a megaphone?
I'd like to believe the novel is doing it. I almost feel the novel can do it better than I could as an activist, or as someone confronting it head-on.
How do you think this will affect what comes next?
I think if there is an effect, it's only the confidence that I should freely pursue what I want to pursue. Maybe this will be different, but in the past these things haven't really affected how I approach the writing itself.
Simple Recipes came out in 2001. How do you feel you've grown as an author since that collection was published?
I think, for me, the growth has been very deep. Simple Recipes and Do Not Say We Have Nothing probably have, in some ways, the most in common, on a surface level. But, for me, those 15 years – 15 years of living, losing my mom, heartbreak, love, everything – those 15 years are really embedded in the work. But I actually feel that the strongest work is still to come. That's my feeling. I have a different kind of confidence now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q&A: David Szalay on Budapest, the aging man idea and writing a novel in stories
As McClelland & Stewart has no doubt informed you, being short-listed for the Booker Prize automatically reactivates your Canadian passport. The same thing happened with Eleanor Catton, when she was nominated for The Luminaries – we were quick to embrace her as one of our own.
[Laughs] Actually, I am still a Canadian citizen and I do still have a Canadian passport, although, as you can hear from my voice, I didn't grow up there.
You were born in Montreal?
Yes. My mother was from Montreal. My mother is Canadian, my father is Hungarian. He left Hungary in the sixties and ended up in Montreal, and he met my mother there. When I was a kid we used to go twice a year – we used to go every summer and every Christmas, more or less. So, growing up, I spent most of my holidays in Canada. But not so much more recently, unfortunately. It's been a few years now since I got over there.
You currently live in Hungary, right?
I went to live in Hungary a few years ago. Actually, when I initially went there, I only intended to stay a few months, but in the end I ended up staying for several years now and counting. I like the quality of life in Hungary, and Budapest is a pleasant place to live.
All That Man Is is your fourth book; what was its origin?
I started out with just one story, which is now the third story in the book – about the Hungarians travelling to London. And then when I was just thinking about what I might do with that story, I thought it would be great to have a book which was made up a number of stories, but which had some sort of unifying structure. And, at some point quite soon after that, I hit on the idea of having stories about progressively older men. Then it was just a question of writing all the other stories.
It's been alternately described as a novel and a collection of linked stories. The cover copy for the Canadian edition simply calls it fiction. How do you see it?
It's tricky. I definitely see it as one thing. I would never call it a collection of stories. I don't really think of the stories in it as independent pieces. They are self-contained, but I very much think of them as being part of the larger structure, and they were conceived from the very beginning to be part of this larger structure. So I'm very adamant that it's a single book. It's a single work, rather than a collection of smaller, shorter works. But, then again, on some counts it doesn't quite tick all the boxes that a novel is normally supposed to. I'm happy to call it a novel. But it's a slightly new kind of novel.
While the novel is set in contemporary Europe, it's constantly in transit, skipping from city to city. What was it about the continent that you hoped to illuminate?
That was the other thing: When I was thinking about the unifying theme of the book, I also had an idea about travelling in Europe. That was actually the first idea I had, and it was superseded by the aging-man idea. I very much wanted to write a novel about contemporary Europe. There's never been anything quite like it before. The fluidity of movement within Europe is extraordinary, and I think people travel around the continent more than ever before in its history. Obviously, now there are various countervailing forces leading against that, but in a way those forces are themselves testament to just how fluid the whole situation has become.
At the same time, I imagine you wrote most of this before the current migrant crisis?
Yeah, the book was finished January, 2015 – more than a year and a half ago and before the refugee crisis last summer. The other big thing that's happened since then is Brexit. So those things are reactions to the fluidity of Europe and reactions to the ease of travel in Europe. There's clearly some kind of push-back against that. I hope that Europe can come through this without retreating back into national identities and maintain this great fluidity of travel – to work, for holidays, retirement, whatever. International travel between the countries of Europe is just part of life for virtually everyone here.
In a way, depending on what happens next, this book could become a document of the last days of that Europe.
Yeah. It could be a high-water mark of that phenomenon. Personally, I hope it isn't. But that's definitely a possibility.
This interview has been edited and condensed.