Siân Hughes, author, Pearl - “A novel has to have a life of its own”

ByMajid Maqbool
Sep 22, 2023 06:19 PM IST

Debut novel longlisted for 2023 Booker Prize sees tenfold increase in sales and third re-print; author discusses inspiration, loss, and future plans.

How did it feel to be longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize with your debut novel? There’s been a tenfold sales increase and it’s going for its third re-print since the announcement.

Author Sian Hughes (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Sian Hughes (Courtesy the publisher)

It feels surreal, to be honest. Writing happens silently, alone, and so does reading, so when a writer hears that other people are reading and thinking about their words, it is always an odd feeling – that two private worlds have collided. I always feel honoured people have given my book their time and attention, and when I heard the Booker judges had chosen it I felt hugely grateful for their thoughtfulness. For any debut novelist it must be a surprise – no one knows with a first novel if it will be successful, and there are no readers already out there who know that writer or have a loyalty to their work. Being longlisted for the Booker prize is the ultimate acceptance into the world of novelists, and I feel very happy to be a part of that world, as I have spent my whole life reading novels and feel a great deal of affection towards my favourite books and writers.

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How did the novel come to be based and named after a medieval poem, Pearl, of the same name?

The medieval poem Pearl is a wonderfully complex and emotionally direct piece of work. Everything about it is beautifully made. It takes absolutely heartbreaking loss and creates a work of such beauty in response to it. When I learned that it was written in the same part of the country where I belong, I felt even more connected to it, and for as long as I can remember the project of this book has been to respond to the poem in some way. I never attempted to translate it, and I am no expert in its ancient language, but it struck a powerful chord with me, and its images have been part of my imaginary landscape for most of my life.

When you lose a parent, like you have and like Marianne has in the novel, how does it change your outlook towards life and how does one come to terms with such a loss?

It was the death of my mother that brought this book to life. I had moved back to my home village in her last illness, and living on there after her death I felt as if the whole landscape belonged to her, or was connected to some memory of her. Every hedgerow, every field, held a story for me. When I decided to set the novel in my home village and to bring in my mother’s stories she used to tell me there, that was when the book came together for me. Many of the songs in the book are the ones she taught me. I wanted the act of missing someone to be a real, physical presence in the book, something that would be linked by smell and taste and touch to theeveryday world. I have no idea if this feeling is one shared by other people in their loss, but some people have told me that the way Marianne still wants to share her day-to-day life with her missing mother – turning to tell her something she would find interesting, or to show her something she would like – that this is a common feeling, and one that does not go away.

212pp, ₹449; The Indigo Press
212pp, ₹449; The Indigo Press

How has your love and writing of poetry shaped this novel? Did the brevity and economy of words in poetry – making each word count, conveying more in lesser words – help in writing a novel like this or does it impede the free flow of the narrative structure demanded by a novel?

That is a very good question, and you have exactly summed up the good and the bad things about thinking like a poet when you want to write a novel. For a long time I obsessed about structure while writing this book – counting everything, trying to make the book fit into a perfect pattern of some kind, trying to control the imagery as you might in a poem. Which was a terrible idea, basically! A novel has to have a life of its own, and as a poet I had to learn to let go a little and allow the characters to find their own way. In the end I took advice from a writer of detective fiction who suggested I wrote the different sections of the book in any random order, then tried to put them back together. That was liberating. It broke my poet’s bad habit of obsession over the structure, but it allowed me to bring a poet’s attention to detail to each section and try to make it stand alone as a piece of writing.

You have said that you’re planning to write a sequel. Why do you think the novel and the characters in it needed a sequel?

I don’t think the characters need a sequel, but a few years after I finished writing Pearl I started wondering what might happen to them next. These characters are very dear to me. I suppose I don’t want to let them go. I had always planned to write another two books, inspired by two of the other poems in the same manuscript as Pearl, called Patience and Purity, but I had not planned to use the same characters. Then, I found myself imagining Marianne living on a canal boat, and I realised there was a connection to the poem Patience, which is a retelling of Jonah and the Whale, and a kind of meditation on feeling homesick. Patience is a surprisingly funny poem, though its main themes are poverty and endurance, and its funny moments linked up in my mind with the eccentric world of house boats, one I accidentally know quite a lot about. There is a character in the first novel called Pearl – Marianne’s daughter is called Susannah Pearl, as Pearl is a variant on her grandmother’s name, Margaret, and I found I had a person in the second book who really needs to be named Patience, and this sealed the idea for me.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist based in Kashmir.

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