Q&A with Alison Light, longlisted for 'Common People'
How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
It has certainly put a spring in my step! I am delighted and feel honoured to be chosen and to be in such excellent company; excited, but also a bit queasy, not wanting to tempt fate with too much trumpet-blowing - even though I don’t believe in fate.
What research did you do for writing your book?
A great deal. Trying to find out about my family, I had almost nothing to go on. I began as an armchair traveler on the internet poring over the censuses which date back to 1841, watching whole streets and villages come to life, but I soon had to visit a dozen or so record offices up and down the country to study the local records. The parish registers of births, marriage and burials before 1837 are kept there - Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s ‘Vicar General’ set up the whole process of registration - so some, as with the Lights, go back to 1538. I soon found I was mimicking the journeys that I discovered my ancestors had made, going from place to place for work (though I was only able to cross the Atlantic in my mind!). I needed to familiarize myself with these places - many of which, like the worst slums - had disappeared and to feel my way into lives quite alien to me. Again most of the books and materials - maps, newspapers, records of churches, workhouses and asylums, the directories of businesses etc., - were also kept locally. I also haunted villages and graveyards, taking photographs, which gave me much food for thought, especially when I found nothing there. And I had to read myself into the records of the royal navy and come back to my own home town, trying to see it anew, as if I hadn’t grown up there.
How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?
Non-fiction is in fine fettle -as the current longlist shows! The best non-fiction writing can be as deeply involving and as carefully composed as any fiction. Our labels are only shorthands. I still remember how being allowed into the nonfiction section of the public library as a child was a rite of passage - all those worlds waiting for me - and that sense of growing up, being able to reflect and learn, which is an excitement and a pleasure. Unfortunately publishers and booksellers are more and more under pressure to go for rapid sales, for tried and tested authors, bestsellers and blockbusters. But non-fiction can speak to as many people and make a profound difference to a life, though it may circulate more slowly and move circuitously through time.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
Well, I have so many! But after twenty years I have recently gone back to Vladmir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory which is a superb example of the art of nonfiction. It is a lyrical, precise, multi-layered book full of love and anger, conjuring the lost worlds of his youth in pre-revolutionary Russia in St Petersburg and on the country estate. The feeling of exile, though, would touch anyone; we have all lost our childhoods. Nabokov loathes Freud, which is refreshing, and he is wonderfully scathing about sexual interpretations of our inner lives; being a supreme artist, he shapes and works his material until it takes on a new and often startling form. He’s also very funny and able to be ruthlessly honest, scornful and dismissive about people and politics - he doesn’t care whether the reader likes him. His prose shimmers and gleams. In the final section he remembers the many parks and beaches over the years where he and his wife watched his son play: time seems to dissolve entirely as we read, like a mist lifting before our eyes. Quite magical. Read it with his short novel, Pnin!
What are you working on next?
Oh Lord. I need to let this book come out first and then to let the dust settle. I have a number of ideas but I want to give them room to breathe and see what might grow. It is a great luxury to be fallow and this is a time to be savoured.
Alison Light is the author of Common People (Fig Tree)