What Does it Mean to be a Writer?

For the Financial Times

Q&A with author Edward Docx

‘What does it mean to be a writer? To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience’

Edward Docx was born in England in 1972. He is the eldest of seven children. He read English Literature at Cambridge. His work has won the Geoffrey Faber Prize and been longlisted for the Man Booker. He lives in south London with his wife and children.

Who is your perfect reader?
In my experience, readers of fiction tend to be intelligent and insightful people.

What books are currently on your bedside table?
The Radetzky March (Roth), Libra (DeLillo), The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky), Paw Patrol 1000 Stickers.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?
Between Sauron and Emmanuelle Béart.

Where do you write best?

In conversation with other people about writing.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
Contribute.

What is your current favourite word?
Diaphanous.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?
“The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio. I love the vitality of the narrative; it’s a scene caught in the midst of a very human drama — almost as if that single painting is an entire film.

How do you relax?
Go-Karting with my brothers and sisters. Making paella.

When do you feel most free?
In conversation with people who are not.

What book do you wish you’d written?
Of recent times — Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. Of previous times — Anna Karenina. Of ancient times — Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
The Isle of Skye.

What does it mean to be a writer?
To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience.

Do you have a writing routine?

Read more:

The Guardian Interview

by Anita Sethi

For The Guardian: Full article here.

When Edward Docx was 13 years old, his grandmother lay on her deathbed at the family home in Greater Manchester and made a startling revelation to his mother, Lila – they weren’t related by blood.

Docx’s mum was dumbfounded but, as if that were not enough, there was another bombshell – Lila’s grandfather was in fact her biological father.

The woman Docx knew as his grandmother, Manwar, nicknamed “Mano”, explained to Lila that her real mother – now dead – had been a Russian chorus dancer with whom Lila’s real father, Ralph Partridge Snr, had had a short relationship.

Ralph Snr gave the child born from the brief affair to his grownup son by his first marriage, Ralph Jnr, who was already married to Mano. They brought up Lila as their own.

These sesimic revelations took place behind closed doors, and Docx only gradually found out the truth. So, why does he think Lila’s biological father decided to give her away?

“Her real father lied because he had an affair and Lila was the child of that affair – simple as that. But he also took responsibility in a way by making sure that my mother was brought up well and went to university – my mother had a really good education as a biochemist, which was paid for by her real father. That created loads of weird cross-currents and semi-dysfunctional relationships.

“But lots of things remain unclear, and me and my brothers and sisters talk about it all the time to this day. I would have loved to have talked to her [Manwar] about all this.”

The woman Docx thought of as his grandmother had her own complex story, one that began in India and ended in England.

“She was born in Hyderabad, the 13th child of a Brahmin family. She left her family for Ralph Jnr without their blessing and, when she married him, she was cut off by her family.”

He pauses. “So that was who I thought was my grandmother …”

The gulf between who we think we are and who we turn out to be was at the heart of Docx’s novel Self-Help, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and is a subject in his powerful new book, Let Go My Hand.

“My mum thought she was half-Indian and that was my inheritance until I was 13. It raises a very interesting question about nature versus nurture. Whatever the truth of my DNA, I had a major cultural reversal. Presumably, my DNA is a quarter Russian. But I didn’t think that at all. I thought I was a quarter Indian and loved being a quarter Indian and dreamed of going to India when I was growing up and finding my grandma’s house and even going to see her relatives and saying: ‘I know you fell out, but here I am.’ I got to the age of 13 thinking all these things …”
How did the family deal with having their identity so suddenly rocked to the core? “Looking back, my mum handled it with an exuberance – she started dressing in long Russian dresses and bought all these Russian icons and put them all over the house, she bought maps of the Soviet Union, and we had to listen to endless romantic Russian composers.”

She also searched for traces of her real mother, scouring libraries for any references or photographs of her.

“She embraced her Russian heritage, and I sort of embraced it because my mum did. I started to go to Russia to learn more. I read all of the Russians – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Bulgakov – long before I could really understand them. I realise now I did that in boyish support of my mum.”

The oldest of seven children, Docx grew up in an “eccentric, bohemian” family who lived in a ramshackle house, “slightly on the edge but never quite – no carpets, no curtains, ragged furniture, prehistoric plumbing, everything threadbare and ancient and cobwebbed and broken-down. You don’t realise as a kid what’s going on, but later in life you look back and realise: ‘Wow, that was quite odd.’”
Now a father of four, Docx has long challenged concepts of what constitutes a “normal family”. Initially, the discovery of long-buried secret identities in his family made him question everything about himself, but now he is at peace with it.

“A lot of people feel trapped in an identity. When I thought my mum was part-Indian and she was actually part-Russian, it made me feel less hidebound or delineated. A surprising number of writers sit obliquely to the cultures that they write about.”

Was it liberating? “Totally – now I never feel trapped by identity.”

Lila has also found peace, he says. “My mother has stopped her questing and settled into a happy retirement with my father. They drive around Europe all year attending the concerts of their friends and visiting vineyards and places of historical interest. They are seldom home now.”

Docx has been aware of the power of stories from an early age – both those that we are told and those that we tell ourselves. Manwar was a great storyteller, he says.

“I used to sit with her when I was little and listen to stories of India – amazing stories of running away from tigers and being bitten by a snake and her childhood in the 20s and 30s – incredibly rich and exciting stories. I would listen to her for hours. I don’t even know if she made them up; I have no idea.”

Q and A

Q&A with author Edward Docx
‘What does it mean to be a writer? To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience’
Small Talk – Books

Full article here for the FT.

Edward Docx was born in England in 1972. He is the eldest of seven children. He read English Literature at Cambridge. His work has won the Geoffrey Faber Prize and been longlisted for the Man Booker. He lives in south London.

Who is your perfect reader?
In my experience, readers of fiction tend to be intelligent and insightful people.

What books are currently on your bedside table?
The Radetzky March (Roth), Libra (DeLillo), The Brothers Karamazov(Dostoyevsky), Paw Patrol 1000 Stickers.
Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?
Between Sauron and Emmanuelle Béart.

Where do you write best?
In conversation with other people about writing.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
Contribute.

What is your current favourite word?
Diaphanous.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?
“The Cardsharps” by Caravaggio. I love the vitality of the narrative; it’s a scene caught in the midst of a very human drama — almost as if that single painting is an entire film.

How do you relax?
Go-Karting with my brothers and sisters. Making paella.

When do you feel most free?
In conversation with people who are not.

What book do you wish you’d written?
Of recent times — Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. Of previous times — Anna Karenina. Of ancient times — Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
The Isle of Skye.

What does it mean to be a writer?
To give precise and enduring expression to the human experience.

Do you have a writing routine?
Greet-the-dawn yoga. Swim. Jogging. Spinach smoothie. Meditation. Write three words. Reiki. Pilates. Ayahuasca. Three more words. Triathlon. Lunch (legumes). Aikido. Decathlon. Six-word afternoon writing-sprint. Intense tantric healing. Dinner.

Edward Docx’s ‘Let Go My Hand’ is published by Picador

From Russia With Love

 

Written for The Guardian:

 

In the weeks before our lives changed for ever, my grandfather disappeared and my grandmother became seriously ill. We drove the length of the country through snow and ice to fetch her. Already much reduced by arthritis, she could walk only with great difficulty. She would be staying in the room we called the music room, because she could not negotiate the stairs and because there was a log fire by which she could sit.

My grandmother was perpetually cold. It was the task of the children to fetch fresh wood from the log pile and then to keep her company through the endless winter evenings, talking of tigers, of elephants and the Raj. I was 13, my brothers and sisters all younger; we did not realise that she had come to our Cheshire home to die.

As a child, you consider your world to be the only possible world; and as we understood things then, my mother’s family story was interesting, though without secrets. My grandfather – a man who had given his entire life to building a fine career in the army: the subcontinent, the second world war, Berlin, Africa, Hong Kong – had met my grandmother in India. My grandfather’s family was an old English one – soldiers all, and proud of it.

My grandmother, meanwhile, was a Brahmin, a wealthy and high-caste Indian (also proud of it) from near Hyderabad. She had fallen in love with her soldier and married him against the wishes of her family. When they left India for postwar Germany, she was cut off. She carried with her only her multicoloured saris and her jewellery. She never returned.

Death bed confession is inspiration for new Edward Docx novel

Taken from The Ham and High:

A death bed confession about his origins led author Edward Docx to the idea for his new novel, Bridget Galton writes

Edward Docx didn’t know his publishers were entering him for the Booker Prize until the longlist was announced.

Now, the 34-year-old’s second novel, Self Help, is rubbing literary shoulders with a Booker “dozen”, including four debut novelists and established writers Ian McEwan and AN Wilson.

On the morning we meet at Troika in Primrose Hill, his phone has been ringing constantly with friends offering congratulations and journalists seeking quotes.

Considerately (and unegotistically), he switches it off to spend a couple of hours talking about writing, family, Heath swimming and… book prizes.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s more than nice, it’s amazing,” says the former arts editor, from Belsize Park Gardens. “It’s way beyond anything I had hoped for. If I was lucky I expected to get reviews.

“The problem is these prizes are so arbitrary. All 13 books are on the list because they are good novels. Once you get to a certain level it’s a test of whether people like it.”

Each publishing house submits two novels by an author from the British Isles or Commonwealth for the annual prize. This year, judges had to whittle down 110 books to a longlist of 13, reduced to six by September 6.

Docx (pronounced dox) has the surprised air of a man emerging from three years living in his own head, to find the rest of the world shouting in his ear.

Booker Prize: Edward Docx – a Lothario to love

 

 

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.