From The Telegraph:
At 35, Edward Docx is the youngest hopeful on the Man Booker longlist. He tells Cassandra Jardine about the family secret that inspired his novel
On her deathbed, Edward Docx’s Indian grandmother made a shattering confession. Propped up on pillows at the family’s home in Cheshire, she began talking about the past to her daughter Lila, Edward’s mother. Many of the tales of tigers and elephants were familiar, as were the stories of her peripatetic life as the wife of a British Army officer.
But the narrative became increasingly strange as she drew towards her conclusion: “And so I am not really your mother,” she said. “You are not my daughter. And you are not half-Indian. You are half-Russian.”
Edward is explaining the impact this had on his family to me, leaning urgently forward in a Russian café in north London. “More or less everything my mother assumed to be true about herself – her roots, her heritage, her very nature – turned out not to be true,” he says, taking another sip from his cup of tea.
“My mother’s ‘grandfather’ was her real father. He had conducted a short relationship with a Russian woman, then asked his son to bring up their child. So the man whom my mother thought of as her father was in fact her half-brother.”
Aside from their explosive effect on his mother, the revelations had a huge impact on Edward, who was 13 at the time. “It started me questioning whether you can ever rely upon anything being true.” Thus began years of soul-searching. But, right now, he has reason to be grateful to his grandmother for undermining his trust in apparent reality.
Taking a similar parent-child revelation scene as his starting point, he wrote his second novel, Self Help, about an Anglo/Russian family. It has made him, at 35, the youngest of the 13 novelists on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.
It has meant an instant sales hike. Before the list was announced, reviewers had likened Docx to Julian Barnes, Martin Amis and even Charles Dickens. That was heady enough to guarantee him a continued income from writing, but this is far better. Inevitably, however, it comes with a sprinkling of envy from other writers who yearn to be considered for any prize, let alone the Big One.
Docx appears to be a man who almost courts envy. At the launch party for the book he swanned around like P Diddy or Tom Wolfe in a white suit. When he took to the stage it was not to entertain his guests with the usual display of gratitude and self-deprecation but to front a band playing numbers by Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. He carried it off with style but the chutzpah was extraordinary.
No doubt that’s why Docx eagerly makes light of his Booker inclusion.
“Writing is a stamina game,” he says. “Talent only accounts for two per cent; the rest is keeping your eyes and ears open so you can learn from people better than yourself.”
Despite this show of modesty, he stops short of describing himself as unworthy because he has worked at his writing in a way that most of those “who say they have a book inside them” have not. Does he ever suffer self-doubt? He thinks for a minute: “I suffer from not knowing that I’m doing the best I can.”
The apparently awesome confidence is aided, of course, by good looks. I could describe him but he does the job himself when introducing Gabriel, the son of a Russian mother in Self Help, a man with a Mediterranean complexion who wears jeans with a fine shirt “as though he has not been able to make up his mind who he really is”, has “liquid dark eyes” and black hair “kicked and kinked at the ends, not so much a style as a lack of one, stylishly passing itself off”.
After only a few minutes of Docx’s erudite literary small talk, it could also be said that, like Gabriel, he has “the figure of someone thin through restlessness, through exercise of the mind rather than the body”.
Those who have worked with him speak of him with awe. From his earliest post-Cambridge University days in advertising, and then in newspapers, he was a man with a plan at an age when others were just bumbling around having a good time.
“He’s a tremendous intellectual snob,” says a former colleague from his newspaper days. “When he gave a birthday party in his mid-twenties, it turned out not to be the usual drinks and dancing but a sit-down musical recital and poetry reading.”
His view of contemporary popular culture is scornful. In his interview with the pop group Steps, he mercilessly plied them with questions about politics and history, to hilarious effect. But such assurance makes him someone that others either love or hate – to paraphrase a Marmite advertisement on which he once worked – and cannot stop talking about. Men and women alike find him attractive; he used to have a reputation for being a Lothario.
“He played girls along, almost as an intellectual game,” says a former colleague.
“What can I say?” he says nervously. That is behind him now. On his ring finger he wears a wedding band and, although he refers to her still as his girlfriend – oops – in May he married Emma, his partner of six years, whom he describes with deliberate vagueness as “a consultant who sometimes works for the Government”. She read English too, so they can talk books, but above all he praises her with a rather un-English idealism as “a woman who fully inhabits herself”.
On paper, Docx appears more straightforward than he is. His father is a semi-retired endodontologist – “something to do with gums” – and his mother was a bacteriologist before full-time motherhood. Though brought up in Hale, Cheshire, and educated at St Bede’s, a private Catholic school (which put him off religion), he retains only a trace of a northern accent, thickly overlaid with London and international chic.
There are reasons why, perhaps, he always felt set apart even before the revelations when he was 13. For one, he has a name exclusive to his immediate family, probably derived from the Swiss town, Château D’Oex; for another, he is the eldest of seven children, a position of leadership in a family of actors, musicians, writers and publishers, which appears to be similar to the Fienneses (Ralph, Joseph, Martha, etc) in its ethos of high achievement. But mostly, he says, it comes from knowing, aged eight, that he wanted to write.
Through school and university he scribbled furiously. While in advertising with the agency BMP he hid his screen and worked on novels. Moving into journalism, via book reviewing, he devoted every spare minute to his own writing.
Success has come relatively young but it hasn’t been effortless. Rejection slips greeted his first two novels and book of short stories before a breakthrough in 2003 with The Calligrapher, the story of a serial seducer transcribing Donne’s poems, which was inspired by a tattoo he observed on Angelina Jolie.
It did well enough to allow him to write full-time but even if his books were languishing in the slushpile he wouldn’t have given up. “I write regardless of anyone, even myself. I feel slightly queasy if I don’t write, just as people who exercise feel depressed if they don’t. It seems crazy to me to go through life without examining experience.”
His juvenile stories now make him cringe but they were good enough to be read out in class. With puberty came the imagination-firing impact of his grandmother’s revelations. “It had the opposite effect to a nervous breakdown on my mother. It made her realise what’s important and what’s not.” She launched herself into a new future as a musical agent, filling the house with star performers from Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, trailing her large brood after her on holiday pilgrimages to the concert halls and composers’ birthplaces of Europe.
It’s not the language or the samovars that excite him about his Russian blood, and certainly not the contemporary spirit he describes as “Make money. Get power. Keep both”; it’s the single-mindedness of Russia’s gymnasts, ballet dancers and pianists, whose philosophy is “Do it properly or don’t do it at all”.
Applying the maxim to writing, he has pored over classic authors for insights. “Read Tolstoy for energy and Austen for how to animate a room without being clumsy,” he advises. “There are 20 things you have to master when you write: pace, plot, style, place, character, etc. You can’t just be good at two or three of them.”
His living heroes are Dylan and Martin Amis. But what of his Booker competitors? “I haven’t read any of them. It’s distracting.” On September 6 he will know whether his book has been chosen for the shortlist of six. “It would be a huge boon to be there but I have no expectations,” he says.
Meanwhile, he’s immersing himself in his new book. Set among conservationists in Brazil, again it tackles the nature of truth in an age in which, he feels, it is impossible to be sure of anything. Except this: whatever the Booker judges decide, Docx has been granted the literary novelist’s dearest wish – to be taken seriously.