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Allan Jenkins interview

Allan Jenkins interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2017 longlist

Allan Jenkins tells us many of the names on the 2017 longlist are his writing heroes and that Plot 29 is more true than the book he thought he’d write.   

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

I am a features journalist and magazine editor, much of my working life has been spent in long-form non-fiction. Many of the names on this list are my writing heroes: Anne Applebaum, Christopher de Bellaigue, Simon Schama, Jenny Uglow and more. I have long bought books off these lists. So how to compare, say, the history of the Jews with the history of two small foster children in the Sixties; the life of Lear with my brother's life? I hope Plot 29 deserves its place.

What inspired you to write this book?

It was to be more simple: a man grows food and flowers because a kindly old man took him in as a child and showed him how. I was aware of the debt I owed. Aware, too, of the love for a brother born less lucky than me who had recently died and of the flowers we grew and why I grow them still. I was not aware of the enormity and nature of the hole he had left. The plot allowed me to tell our story. It gave me shelter. It is not the book I thought I would write. It is more real, more raw, more true than that. It was urgent from the first page. At its heart is a reflection on nature and nurture, a lament for a loved one with leaves.

Could you talk about your book’s central motif of digging?

I nurture small plants from seed like when I was small and needed someone to care for me. I offer protection from predators. The book has two strands: a year in the life of a small piece of land and a year investigating my past: who was my father, the mystery of my mother, the tragedy of my brother. I sow new life and dig deep into my childhood. I unearth family secrets and shame, organic potatoes and carrots. I tear out my rotting foundations and hold them to light. I find peace and tears among peas. I delve into who I am.

What are you working on next? 

I am writing a book about morning, a manifesto for dawn. I make the case for getting up early if you can, maybe when everything around you wakes. I travel to the Arctic Circle for the summer solstice to discover if dawn can exist when the sun never sets. I return later in the year when it is dark. I migrate with birds. I talk to neuroscientists about sleep, ornithologists about song, philosophers, priests, painters, fishermen about light. I watch sunrise over cities and mountains and seas. I get up at dawn, I listen, I look and I write.

Allan Jenkins


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