Spring Reading Series: Alan Hollinghurst

Keynes SCR: fresh paint, beige carpets begging for red wine spills, standing room only at the back. A suitably salubrious setting for Alan Hollinghurst, ‘one of the guiding sprits of the Creative Writing Department’, whose novels The Line of Beauty and The Stranger’s Child are set texts on Undergrad and MA courses at Kent.

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston & Alan Hollinghurst

Alex Preston cited Hollinghurst as ‘one of the greatest living prose stylists’, a title that foreshadowed the main point of debate for the evening. Laurence Norfolk famously complained that Hollinghurst ‘doesn’t do plot’. A fair comment? ‘Plot is the thing that interests me least in a book,’ he admitted, ‘but I concede that it has to be done’. In poetry, image and sound are what matter, skills which Hollinghurst, first published as a poet, continues to bring to his prose. Starting a novel is not about sharing a story but ‘establishing the detail, the atmosphere’ from which the book can grow. He begins each novel with a new notebook, ‘and anything germane to that book goes in it…building up a world.’ From there, narrative style and characters grow, and eventually, something of a plot. (Reassurance for those in the audience who struggle with narrative structure.)

This interest in the atmosphere of a book is reflected in Hollinghurst’s literary benchmarks, in the ‘intimate, domestic scale’ of Woolf or Henry James, where chronological elision piques the reader’s interest.  Time passing without extended commentary causes the reader ‘to scramble to work out what has happened’ and to follow the development of character and action more keenly. Hollinghurst also places great emphasis on the pattern of the prose itself, of ‘wanting sound and rhythm in a paragraph to matter’.  Is this his poet’s ear at work? ‘I know when words are not sitting right’, he said, but also admitted that he dreaded ‘poetical novels’. ‘Somehow there is a need for the novel to be more robust.’ While he would love to go back to poetry, ‘it wouldn’t have me’. Aside from his pastiche of Rupert Brooke in The Stranger’s Child – a novel that Preston described as ‘the biography of a poem’, Hollinghurst has been bereft of ‘poem-shaped ideas’ for some time.

Preston praised the authentic feel of The Stranger’s Child, and asked how much research matters, given that we are in a ‘literary culture obsessed with historical authenticity’. ‘Who wants to shed daylight on magic?’ Hollinghurst replied. The ‘act of imagining’ matters more than being able to explain ‘how everything in the room is made’. A shunning of the historical novel that wears its research on its sleeve, but an admission that the writer ‘has got to get things right’. Easy enough in the age of the Google search. ‘The etymology of words is important’ too, not only to ensure credible speech for characters, but perhaps to create that illusive web of atmosphere that holds Hollinghurst’s fictional worlds together.

When his ‘twenty minutes of fawning’ were over, Preston requested a reading of ‘the most beautiful paragraph’ of The Line of Beauty, which closes the first chapter (page 19 in the paperback: read it and see why). Hollinghurst consented, summoning in delicious tenor tones the cloistered communal gardens of Kensington, ‘the dingy glare of the London sky’ fading into ‘weak violet heights’, the cool accomplishment of other people’s lives where Thatcher’s darlings hold al fresco supper parties, the open windows backlit with success. Like Nick, ‘leaning out over the iron railing’, the audience was rapt, ‘swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista or vision of the night, and then held there’.

After the readings, questions from the floor about finishing – or even starting – a first novel, the financial implications of writing a long novel, Hollinghurst books as style guides and writing gay sex. And after the applause, the unfurling of audience members from islands of unspoiled carpet, where the dangers of red wine and enthusiastic dialogue were clearly far from over.

Next Wednesday, the School’s own Patricia Debney will be joined by Jane Monson for a final Spring Reading. 2nd April, 6pm in Keynes SCR.

See you there.


Alan Hollinghurst is the author of five novels, including the 2004 Man Booker winner The Line of Beauty. His latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, was published by Picador in 2011.


Spring Reading Series: Evie Wyld

Walking to the Eliot SCR on Wednesday: spring warmth, gloaming mist, blackbirds singing in the trees. Blackbirds, unseen, clattering and whupwhurring somewhere nearby. And no other sound but the song of blackbirds.

My ears were tuned to Wyld wavelength. Her novel All the Birds, Singing, echoes with caws, screeches and cacophonous onomatopoeic renderings from crows and kookaburras. Birds are ominous, stress-triggers, links between two parts of a narrative: a dangerous past in the outback and escape to the freezing fogs of isolated island life.

Wyld, Preston

Evie Wyld; Alex Preston

Evie Wyld was in conversation with Alex Preston, who she first met midnight skinny-dipping in a lake at a UEA conference. It’s a rapport that made for a dynamic and relaxed Q&A. Introducing Wyld as ‘one of the best young writers anywhere, full stop’, Preston asked how she had faced following up the success of her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Wyld said the pressure was slight; she spent over four years writing on All the Birds, Singing, reshaping the narrative structure and worrying about writing the same book twice. The two novels deal with similar place and matter, but as Wyld stated, she was ‘still interested in the same stuff’, and ended up tackling the same ideas in unique ways.

The structure of Wyld’s novels, which Preston referred to as ‘reflecting and refracting parallel narratives’, were a key topic for discussion. Having ‘confused readers’ with her first book, Wyld had intended to write a linear novel, but found that the story ‘told itself better if folded in on itself’. Following two narrative strands, All the Birds, Singing is written both backwards and forwards, producing one complete chronological account. The protagonist, Jake, lives in the present day on a sheep farm in an unnamed, imagined British island. Her past as a teenage arsonist, homeless prostitute and sheepshearer in Australia is revealed in reverse. To make matters more complicated, Wyld delivers alternative chapters of each narrative strand, writing the present in the past tense, and the past in the present. By placing these together, Wyld hoped to create a ‘third space’, just as colours resonate differently in juxtaposition. ‘I like the ambiguity of this’, she said, ‘of readers not being able to pinpoint where they are’.

Research for both novels came naturally. Wyld’s mother is a native Australian, and Wyld herself has lived there for periods. She expressed a ‘homesickness’ for Australia but an awareness that she doesn’t fit into the world of her ‘macho, hero uncles’ and their sugarcane farms, preferring the liberal cosmopolitanism of London, where she runs an independent bookshop. Writing about a place ‘where you are not’ comes easier to Wyld: ‘childhood memories are brighter’, she explained, and these are a ‘place to go to start on creative work’. When writing about the ‘reality in front of you’ it is ‘hard to let imagination take over’. Wyld found the contemporary UK sections of All the Birds, Singing much harder to write than those set in a recent Australian past.

Preston asked Wyld about her literary influences. Despite running a bookshop, Wyld considers herself ‘very badly read’, but cited Tim Winton as the first author who really made her ‘wonder what characters got up to next’. ‘My favourite book is always the last one I read’ – making the current star Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

Responding to recent comments by Hanif Kureishi on the value – or otherwise – of Creative Writing studies, Wyld was quick to defend her MA experience at Goldsmiths. In a dead-end job at the time, Wyld saw the course as an opportunity to ‘take a year out to write’ without the pressure of other work. She advised against the culture of ‘sentence to novel to agent to publisher’, a hothousing of novel-writing at university that leads to the expectation of publishing success. Instead, ‘coming to stuff like this’, hearing writers read and discuss their work, working on craft at sentence level and a diverse and challenging reading list were what ultimately made her a writer. (As Preston pointed out, All The Birds, Singing is already core reading at Kent.) And when publication comes, Wyld’s advice was rare and valuable: take notice of independent booksellers, promote in small bookshops, ‘because these are the people who hand-sell your books’.

What can we expect from Wyld next? In place of birds, a graphic memoir with sharks. ‘There is something interesting about our relationship with sharks’, Wyld claimed, speaking of them as the last object of universal fear: ‘people feel they are ugly, malevolent, coming for you, if they had legs it would be game over… Oh, I’m doing my shark thing again.’ Aside from the graphic novel with artist Joe Sumner, she is working on a ‘new normal novel’ based in the UK, an ‘imagined memoir’ about her Grandparents’ relationship. Wyld is aiming to keep this one linear. Whatever form the narrative takes, the novel will be anything but normal.

Next week, novelist and translator Maureen Freely. Wednesday 19th March, 6pm.

Until then.



Evie Wyld is included in Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists 2013. All the Birds, Singing was published by Jonathan Cape in 2013, was shortlisted for the Costa Award and has just been longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize.