Alexandra Pringle: ‘I don’t like writing that is showing off’
Bloomsbury’s Editor-in-Chief’s authors include Abdulrazak Gurnah, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett and George Saunders, among many others
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, you are in conversation with Abdulrazak Gurnah, Howard Jacobson, Charlie Redmayne, Milee Ashwarya, and Hemali Sodhi on three different panels. What are you most excited to discuss with these writers, agents and publishers?
With Abdulrazak Gurnah, I look forward to discussing the journeys of his life and work – how he grew up in Zanzibar with the sea all around him, watching boats come and go, plying their trade; how he left as a teenager and arrived in a cold and unwelcoming Britain; how he found his voice and began to write the magnificent body of work for which he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. With Howard Jacobson I look forward to discussing his childhood in Manchester, his sense of his identity as a Jew, his relationship with his family, in particular his mother, his travels and his growth as a writer. I look forward to hearing what inspired him to write his touching and fascinating memoir Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings.
With Charlie Redmayne, Milee Ashwarya and Hemali Sodhi I look forward to discussing the publishing landscape, how it has changed, and how it will fare in the future. I am interested in the differences between publishing in India and the UK, and in finding out whether the shifts in the cultural landscape in the UK are also true of India. And perhaps most of all hearing my publishing colleagues’ journeys in the book world.
How often do you visit India and which places have you enjoyed exploring so far?
I first came to India 30 years ago and fell completely in love with it. I was with the artist Gillian Ayres who was the British representative at the Indian Triennale. She had spent time at the Jaipur Art School producing large spectacular paintings on which she had stuck paper kites she had pulled from the trees. On that trip, I travelled from Delhi to Jaipur, to Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Udaipur.
From then on, I travelled to India regularly. Early in my Bloomsbury years, I went to Mumbai and Delhi with Manil Suri whose first novel The Death of Vishnu we had published. I have had holidays in Goa and Kerala. I have attended literary festivals in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Jaipur.
10 years ago, Bloomsbury India was set up and I was thrilled that I could be part of that. From then on, I have been to India at least once a year, often more. I hired the wonderful editors Diya Kar Hazra and Faiza Khan to look after the trade publishing programme in Delhi. And every year, I have gone to the Jaipur Literature Festival – one of the highlights of my year.
When was the last time you fought for a writer to be published because you saw promise in their work when no one else did?
That would be telling! It is very important that an editor works closely with colleagues but of course it’s impossible to always see eye to eye, and it’s important not to point the finger of blame. However, the book that pretty much no-one loved apart from me and Chiki Sarkar, who worked with me back then, was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. No one, not my colleagues, not the press, not the trade, not anyone, was interested in it in the UK. It began to take off in our international markets – Australia, India, South Africa, Ireland – and finally four years after it was first published – it went to No 1 in Britain and stayed there for many months.
What are the tropes in contemporary writing that make you cringe?
I don’t think I have any. What I don’t like is when a writer is mimicking another writer’s voice. I also don’t like writing that is showing off. Authenticity is everything. And I love subtlety in writing.
What advice do you offer authors who are petrified of making public appearances at literature festivals, and prefer to be known only through their books?
I would advise them to take their courage into both hands, to remember that it’s only for a short while and will be over soon, to realize that it will really help the fortunes of their books. Also, there is great pleasure to be had, being part of a literary community, making friends with other authors – and just having fun!
Please pick out three of the most fulfilling moments you’ve had during your journey in the world of publishing.
Please, could I have four? The first debut novel I published was Lucy Ellmann’s Sweet Desserts. I was working at Virago and commissioned the book on nothing – just an instinct, an admiration of her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and a liking for her. When it was published it won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and that was a wonderful moment.
When I was working as a literary agent, I met a young woman at a creative writing conference in a university in Upstate New York. A very shy young student had written a beautiful story, a small jewel, about a boy flying a kite on a roof in Pakistan. That young woman was Kamila Shamsie. We have worked together for nearly three decades and when she won the Women’s Prize for Home Fire in 2018, I was ecstatically happy.
Last year, I was in an online meeting, and it flashed up on my screen that Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I was so overcome that I burst into tears. I have been publishing Gurnah for over two decades. He always had an audience, had admiring reviews, but I had felt that his true importance hadn’t yet been recognized properly. This was an unbelievably fulfilling moment.
And the Tuesday I was set to walk out of my office for the last time. It was a very emotional moment for me. Just as I was about to close down my computer I saw an email that said that Madeline Miller’s Circe has sold one million copies. The Song of Achilles had already sold well over a million copies, but I had been cheering on Circe, saying to colleagues “Watch her! The goddess and sorceress Circe will do the same as Achilles!” And she has! I walked into the evening filled with joy.
Please tell us about the Silk Road Slippers Book Club that you have started recently. How did it get this name, and what kind of books do you plan to read?
Silk Road Slippers is a small company set up by the editor Faiza Khan, the historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, the journalist Nesrine Malik, and me. We decided to travel together and apart, buy beautiful things and sell them on Instagram and a website. We believe that objects tell stories, that beauty is an essential part of life, and decided that bringing treasures back from antique lands would be a wonderful thing to do. We think of ourselves as travellers on the Silk Road, hence the name. Our logo is drawn from my mother’s family trademark of the 1920s. My mother’s family, the Afriats, were ancient pre-Babylonian Jews whose caravans travelled from Timbuktu to Mogador (Essaouira) in Morocco, their camels carrying gum Arabic, ostrich feathers and spices. In the 1920s they were importing indigo from Pondicherry and cotton from Manchester to make the blue cloth of the Tuareg.
So, what we do is all about stories, and we are bookish people. It seemed natural to start a book club, one where we discuss books that look beyond the shores of Britain. Our first choice was Kamila Shamsie’s wonderful new novel, Best of Friends, and our second was the newly republished Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan, her hilarious and fascinating account of travelling all over the world as the wife of a diplomat – a trailing spouse. It’s an online book club so everyone can join from all around the world and we will read new books and classics, books that expand your knowledge and appreciation of far-flung places, books that entertain and delight us.
How has your creative process changed after you started living on a houseboat?
It is impossible not to be profoundly affected by the beauty of river life, the changing tides, the shifting light. I moved onto the boat around the time I started at Bloomsbury as Editor-in-Chief. Then followed the most productive and creative years of my life. I am very led by my instinct and the river definitely helps that. It is fluid and mysterious and inspirational. I believe that it has helped me profoundly and creatively through these years.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am excited to be attending four literary festivals in South Asia at the beginning of this year. In January I will be at the Dhaka Festival. Then on to the Jaipur Literature Festival, to the Mathrubhumi Festival of Letters in Kerala and later in February to the Lahore Literature Festival. I will be talking to writers on stage, contributing to panels – and of course buying wonderful things for Silk Road Slippers!
I have just become an Advisor to the Bradford Literature Festival, which I am really excited about. This festival is more diverse and engaged than any other festival in the UK. It happens in June, and I hugely look forward to being a part of that.
And finally, Silk Road Slippers is to run writing masterclasses in Marrakech, starting next November. It is yet to be announced, but we have two extraordinary star authors lined up – and Faiza, Alex, Nesrine and I will all be teaching, helping people find their voice, refining their writing and helping them navigate the choppy waters of the literary world. So, I will be back in my ancestral land and continuing to step out on the Silk Road.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.