An Interview With Julian Barnes
AbeBooks has numerous high profile bookloving customers around the world and Julian Barnes, one of the UK's leading novelists, is just one of the many writers that uses AbeBooks for work and pleasure.
A former lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary and a journalist, Julian has produced a stream of bestsellers since the early 1980s. The London-based writer has worked for the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman magazine and Sunday Times and The Observer newspapers, and was also the New Yorker's London correspondent for five years.
His latest novel, Arthur and George, was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. It is based on the true story of a British solicitor in the early 20th century, accused of maiming cattle, and saved by the intervention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Other acclaimed books by Julian include the satire on the theme park culture, England, England, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Flaubert's Parrot, which was awarded the Prix Médicis in France.
You mentioned AbeBooks in an article in The Guardian in November. Do you use AbeBooks for researching your books or simply for pleasure?
Both. In my younger days I spent a lot of time criss-crossing England in search of secondhand books (cathedral towns were always very good sources for some reason - perhaps the clergy read widely). Nowadays, I tend to sit at home and order from AbeBooks. I love the feel of the globe-wide sweep and the airmail parcel a few days later. I certainly got some books I needed for my last novel - obscure spiritualist items, for instance - through your web site. But I would be very sad if secondhand bookstores died out - the unexpected finds, the musty smell, the eccentrics who guard their stock.
Why did the story of George Edjali and his court case fascinate you and end up as the focal point of Arthur and George?
Well, it seemed a) a very unusual story (the animal mutilation, the miscarriage of justice, the racial aspect); and b) something that could still happen today, with very few changes. I assumed, when I read about it, that someone must have done a book on the case in the 100 years since it happened. But no one had - so partly I wrote the book so as to have something to read about the case.
What interests you more - the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes, or his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle?
Oh, Doyle - though the truth is that the case itself is what fascinated me, and Doyle came attached to the case, so there was no avoiding him. If it had been another writer - Kipling, say - or a sportsman, or a dentist, I would probably have been just as happy. But that said, I came to admire Doyle during the writing of the book - although (or perhaps because) he is in many respects the opposite of what I am as a writer.
Why is there an enduring fascination for so many people with both Holmes and Conan Doyle?
Though Doyle was not a great writer (as he would have been the first to admit) he was a very skilled professional novelist who created in Holmes a fictional archetype who still feeds something readers need. It is a fantasy, of course, but a compelling one: that a highly intelligent man, by pure deductive thought, a little cocaine and violin-playing, can rationally solve the most fiendish crimes which baffle the police. Fantasy, as I say, but compelling.
Many people tipped Arthur and George as the Booker Prize winner - but do literary awards mean anything to you?
Well, obviously, I would rather have won than not won. I try to keep it all in proportion, because I have seen writers who in my view have been driven crazy by prize-lust - the Booker, the Nobel - and could not understand when they were not rewarded. I think you should regard this side of literary life as a pure and comic lottery - unless and until you win, when it becomes an award based, for once, on pure merit, decided in all gravity by Olympian judges...
You have written many books since your debut novel, Metroland, was published in 1980 - looking back, which one do you believe is your best?
Hard to say, partly because I don't reread them, partly because the pleasure they have given me is often about other things (this one was my first, this one was the first to be translated, this one was the hardest to write). I'm very attached to Flaubert's Parrot, because it was probably the book with which I found my feet (as well as a lot more readers than I had before), and realised that there were interesting directions in which I thought I could push the novel. But if I thought I'd already written my best novel, I would have less incentive for writing other ones, so this is a qualified answer.
After many years of writing books, is there a particular moment that stands out as remarkable?
Once or twice, a couple have come up to me after a reading or signing and said something like, 'We met because of you' - that's to say, they were both reading one of my books (perhaps even the same one) at the time they met, and this shared interest was an early bond. I find this enormously touching - while at the same time warning that I can take no responsibility for their relationship further down the road.
What book is on your bedside table now?
A proof of John Updike's next novel Terrorist and the poems of Thomas Hardy.
What's your favourite bookshop in the world?
Powell's in Portland, Oregon.
Growing up, who were your favourite authors?
Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Voltaire, Flaubert, Waugh, Eliot (TS), Greene, Huxley, Auden. Writing seemed a boy thing then. Now I know better.
What authors do you admire from the latest generation of writers?
Lorrie Moore, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith.
Would you recommend being an author to anyone else?
Ha! I'm not a careers advisor, and if someone has to ask 'Should I be a writer?' maybe the fact of asking the question implies that they don't want to be one enough. But on the other hand, there are many ways of getting to become a writer, some all swagger and confidence, some all doubt and insecurity. I took the latter route. I still at times can't get over the fact that I've become a writer, and make my living at it. All I would say is, don't become a writer unless you are convinced that writing is the best way of describing and rendering the truth about the world; if you think there's a better way, try that instead.