How to write a Man Booker novel: six shortlisted authors share their secrets

Madeleine Thien, David Szalay, Deborah Levy, Paul Beatty, Ottessa Moshfegh and Graeme Macrae Burnet reveal the inspirations behind the books competing for the UKs top literary prize

Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

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All her life, my mother wanted to see China. Born in Hong Kong, she went, as a young woman, to study in Melbourne, where she met my father and fell in love. They settled in Malaysia but, a decade later, emigrated to Canada; by then, they had two small children and my mother was six months pregnant with me. She was not yet 30 years old.

She arrived with little, and for the next 30 years would work multiple jobs to keep us all afloat. She told me she wanted to see the Three Gorges before the building of the massive hydroelectric dam, when the waters would rise by 175 metres, submerging nearly 1,500 villages. We planned our trip for 2003, but she died suddenly, at the age of 58, three months before we were due to depart.

I didnt cancel our trip. Speaking almost no Mandarin, I set out on the journey she had imagined, and travelled from Hong Kong to Shanghai, from Xian to Luoyang to Beijing. As I went, rumours of an epidemic, which would turn out to be Sars, shut the country down behind me. I felt my life had already been overturned by losing my mother and didnt realise, until years later, that this three-week solitary journey marked another tumultuous change.

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Madeleine Thien: To write a novel is to find many other ways of being alive. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

There was so much about China I didnt understand. And yet in the encounters I had, which ranged from comic to astounding to absurd to soul-shifting, I felt that there was much I could understand, but only if I was attentive, open and utterly myself. In more than a decade of returns to China, I learned a necessary lesson: how to absorb a place with humility, and in the process how to live with myself the ways I felt I had let my mother down, the failure to change her ending, all the complex, contradictory desires that I felt.

Do Not Say We Have Nothingbegins with a mother and daughter in the Vancouver where I grew up. From there it spirals out to a world of imagination interleaved with history. I wanted to write a novel about the conditions left behind by a century of political revolution, and about a present moment that is as intricate as a single lifetime. I immersed myself in the expressive worlds of music, the filial act of copying, survival in an age of destruction, in the effort to understand how a person tries to be free. Bachs Goldberg Variations played in my head and on the page, showing me how structural constraint limitations on freedom might provoke artistic creativity, individuality, resonance. To write a novel is to find many other ways of being alive. I wanted to bring to life not myself and not my mother, but the imaginary and forever incomplete world between us. This is my fourth book and the one, for reasons I dont think Ill ever know, in which I felt unafraid and free.

Published by Granta. To order a copy for 10.65 (RRP 12.99) ) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

David Szalay

All That Man Is

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I knew I didnt want to write a conventional novel. What I actually did want to write was of course harder to say.

As so often happens, I stumbled into it by chance. In the autumn of 2012, I wrote a 30-page story for Granta. It was called Europa and it was about a Hungarian prostitute and her male minders, one of whom is also her boyfriend, travelling to London for a week of high-end money-making. At the time I was disenchanted with the whole enterprise of writing fiction, and this simple, self-contained little tale was a way of feeling my way back to some sort of enthusiasm for it. In that respect, it certainly succeeded, because I found that by the spring of 2013 I had a definite appetite for writing more. Specifically, I had this idea of a book of stories that would speak to each other somehow, that would work together to express things that none of them would be able to express on their own. Such a book would need some kind of unifying scheme or structure.

The first idea was that it would be a book about Europe that each of the stories, like Europa, would be about a person or a group of people from one European country travelling, for some reason, to another European country. It would be a book about the extreme human fluidity of contemporary Europe. (This was, remember, three and a half years ago, and the word Brexit didnt even exist ) These ideas, of a Europe in motion, are of course there in All That Man Is, but it was quickly clear to me, as I pondered my unwritten book back in 2013, that the European theme was really just that a theme, not a structure. It was simply not strong enough to fuse the disparate stories (only one of which had then been written) into a single, unified, indivisible work. Something more was needed.

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David Szalay: I didnt want to write a conventional novel. What I did want to write is hard to say. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

I found that something in a dreadful sonnet I had written a year or two previously. During my disenchantment with fiction, I had spent a while tinkering ineffectually with traditional verse forms, and one of the very worst poems I had written was a sonnet on the subject of the three ages of man. Happening to reread it one afternoon, I had one of those rare, clarifying moments that all creative artists are so grateful for those moments when the door that you have been battering yourself against for weeks or months just swings open of its own accord. The book would be a series of stories about progressively older male protagonists starting in adolescence and ending in retirement and their stories would embody the massively simple and seemingly timeless notion of life as three stages: youth, maturity and old age.

I then just wrote the stories. Initially there were seven, a nod, perhaps, to Shakespeare. Later I expanded the number to nine, first of all to smooth over a couple of jumps that seemed too abrupt I was very keen for time to sneak up on my men, as it does in life Ah! yet doth beauty like a dial-hand,/ Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived and also to achieve the pleasing symmetry of three stories for each of the three ages. All of the stories, with the exception of Europa, were conceived specifically to fit into their place in the structure of the book: this was not a collection of disparate material organised opportunistically into book-form; it was the form of a single book organising the material of reality into conformity with its conception.

Published by Vintage. To order a copy for 11.99 (RRP 14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Deborah Levy

Hot Milk

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I wanted to write a novel about hypochondria. This is a massive, daunting subject, and I did not know where it would take me. However, I knew from the start that I would call it Hot Milk, for the many queasy associations this title triggers. A mother and daughter would embark on a modern pilgrimage to seek a cure for a mysterious and undiagnosed illness. It would be set in an ideologically turbulent and fragile Europe but where? In the end I decided to land my characters in a fishing village in the semi-desert of southern Spain, a landscape I know well. Over the years, I had observed how the desert is never silent and never still the cries of small animals at night, the shrubs that vibrate with invisible insects, all of this had got under my skin.

I wanted to use this parched, vast terrain to write about a young woman in her 20s who is ashamed of her small life and of her own despair. She would be the main carer for her mother, who perhaps (this was not set in stone) uses her various aches and pains as a means to control her daughter and keep her by her side, way after she should have left home. The theme of hypochondria offered a rich menu to explore the ways in which the body speaks for us. Its a strange language, this grammar made from mysterious symptoms that apparently defy diagnosis. Its as if the hypochondriac wants to mess up the story a physician might offer her, a bid to not be pinned down to a single narrative. Likewise, its hard to pin down Hot Milk to a single storyline; there are multiple stories about the contemporary world within the main daughter-mother relationship.

Yet, I was very taken by a deceptively simple quote from Hlne Cixous: We live in a history not a story. The history of the daughter in Hot Milk, Sofia, is that she has witnessed how her mothers wishes and hopes for herself have been lost in the winds and storms of a world that is not arranged to her advantage.

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Deborah Levy: I wanted to write about hypochondria. But its a massive subject and I didnt know where it would take me. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Writer Pictures

Sofia fears this will be her fate, too. She wants to transcend this history, to make another plot. In this quest, it was important to me to honour and give value to the more radical dimensions of human experience the ways in which we are irrational, chaotic, superstitious, recklessly brave and hopelessly vulnerable.

Hot Milk is written in the first person from Sofias point of view. The novel is her anthropological gaze on everything. To my surprise, the Medusa myth and her monstrous gaze began to tiptoe lightly through my book. Hot Milk puts the Medusa to work to ask Sofia a question: what is so monstrous about a young woman, who constantly has to endure the violence of the ways in which she is societally gazed upon, returning that gaze full-on? What would it take to insert her subjectivity into the world, instead of looking away?

Published by Hamish Hamilton. To order a copy for 10.65 (RRP 12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Paul Beatty

The Sellout

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Its hard to say where the book came from. In some ways its an incantation, an attempt to recreate the spellbinding warmth of the Santa Ana winds, the weightless days spent bodysurfing at Santa Monica beach, the joy of chasing Butch the family dog around the backyard peach and lemon trees. Its racing home after school to drink ponche [fruit punch] and watch The Little Rascals on TV with the Chacon family. After which, me and the boys Jerry, Charlie and Billy, and sometimes Ronald Keaton, would beg the neighbourhood celebrity, Eddie Smith, founder of the Black Stuntmans Association (hes one of Clubber Langs cornermen in Rocky III), to fulfil his promise of putting us in the movies once we got our work permits.

Conversely, The Sellout is also a talisman, a vain effort to ward off and mollify the curse and contradictions of being working class and coloured in the mostly white Westside Los Angeles and, by extension, America. All the running we did from the police, the local bullies and stray dogs. The saccharine smell of angel dust [PCP]. The beatings. The fear. The local suicides. The Bobs Big Boy massacre, and despite the rising crime rate, the market value of my moms nondescript three-bedroom home skyrocketing during the housing boom because its West LA dammit! Its Ralph Nader, a hero of mine, pondering whether president-elect Barack Obama would be Uncle Sam or Uncle Tom. Two black American cabinet members, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, championing an obviously frivolous and unjust war.

But if I really think about it, the closest thing to a true genesis is a drive I make whenever I go home to LA. At a 100-mile round-trip, its a night-time cruise that usually starts by embarking north on Robertson to Sunset Boulevard, then west toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Hard to put into words how important this drive is for me. I leave drab art deco LA for the palatial beauty of Beverly Hills and the Palisades, the seascapes of Malibu and Zuma, and my childhood memories morph into imaginings of who I would be had I never left the city.

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Paul Beatty: The Sellout is a vain effort to mollify the curse and contradictions of being working-class and coloured in LA. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
The black, treasure hunting, surf bum I still hope to become, passing my metal detector over the sand looking for doubloons and jewellery left behind by Spanish tourists from the 18th and 21st centuries. Always smoothly paved, when the traffic is light, its as close as California gets to the autobahn, and speeding toward the stars, one hand on the wheel, the other trying to keep the jazz signal for KLON (now KKJZ) tuned in, is where I wrote this book. Thinking about the one good memory of my dad me age six, in his lap driving the Karmann Ghia along the coast and into the wind about what it means to call a city I dont really know home, and the countless hours of research Id have to do to figure that out, in addition to the mysteries of the LA transportation system, surf breaks, and what it means to be black. Recently, in a BBC interview,
George the Poet asked me if I was a pan-Africanist, and this book is me shrugging my shoulders in bewilderment, because Im not even a pan-Paul Beattyist.

Published by Oneworld. To order a copy for 10.65 (RRP 12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen

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Within a few weeks of moving to Los Angeles in the fall of 2011, I met a young film-maker who was in the middle of shooting a documentary about juveniles sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. One story he told me will be lodged in my mind and heart forever. It involved a boy whose father had sexually abused him for years, and whose mother had been complicit in the abuse. The boy killed his father, and will live the rest of his life in prison. A year later, when I set myself the task of writing a novel, that story resurfaced in me: why do we hurt the people we love? Why is denial so powerful? Can we ever escape the identity were born into? What does it mean to be free?

To be honest, the answers to these questions frightened me. I was scared to confront my optimism for fear that it would be shot down with painful truths such as There is no such thing as altruism, and Violence and trauma are basic elements of life on Earth, and There is no escaping who I am, and Ill only be truly free when Im dead. That fear was the flare that lit the path to discovering my narrator, Eileen Dunlop, and ways by which she could narrate through these complex and disturbing issues.

Eileen was to be my first novel, and I wanted it to appeal to a wide range of readers, from those literary types who had known me as a short-story writer, to travellers who might be browsing through the airport bookstore looking for a quick read on a flight. I decided to take a traditional novel structure and see what would arise if I followed certain narrative cues (plot points, you could say). I even bought a book called The 90 Day Novel to educate myself about the stylistic and structural conventions of mainstream fiction. I laughed at how simply the three-act structure of the novel was laid out, as though art could be made by plugging random variables into an algebraic formula.

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Ottessa Moshfegh: Why do we hurt the people we love? Why is denial so powerful? What does it mean to be free? These are the questions that frightened me.

I saw that the structure existed as a distillation of works over the past century, what weve come to understand as classics. The structure is very much like the three-act structure used as a template in Hollywood films. I liked the idea of a reading experience that played with a readers canned expectations. So I took the traditional form and said: Lets see what happens. I thought it would be an interesting creative experiment, sure, but I also knew it was the perfect architecture to house the larger question at hand: can you be free within the confines of a system? I discovered that I could not, but that limitations can sometimes lead to ingenuity.

So I invented Eileen. She is a single woman in her early 20s in a small town in coastal New England. She works at the juvenile prison and cares for her alcoholic father, a retired cop. I chose to set the book in 1964 because America was on the precipice of a great cultural transformation at that time, and I envisioned Eileens story as a transformation, too. I decided to make Eileens story run in tandem with the inspiring story of the young man in prison; his was not my story to tell, but Eileens felt very close to my own, at least emotionally. Lastly, I envisioned the book as a satire, which gave me permission to push the narrative into awkward extremes. Why did I not take a straightforward approach? When you look directly into the eyes of the beast, it attacks you. It is best to come around from the side. More is revealed to you that way.

Published by Vintage. To order a copy for 7.37 (RRP 8.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project

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On 3 June 1835, a French peasant named Pierre Rivire murdered his mother, sister and brother this act ostensibly carried out to free his father from what Rivire saw as his mothers tyranny. What made the case exceptional, however, was not the violence itself, but rather that Rivire then wrote an eloquent account of what he had done. In 1838, a Stornoway tenant farmer named Malcolm MacLeod strangled his wife Henrietta. A relative testified that he had a peculiar temper owing to some strange notions he had formed in his head; yet in a letter to his brother written from prison, MacLeod was capable of writing this: What can I say to you but I have a low eye and a trembling heart and a low hope that the Lord have mercy on me, a poor cursed man.

This idea of an individual capable of an act of terrible violence yet also able to write articulately about what they have done fascinates me, and was the initial spur for His Bloody Project. My research led me to the concept originating in 19th-century criminal psychology of mania without delirium or moral insanity, a condition whereby an individual might be seized by paroxysms of maniacal fury, yet at all other times appear to be fully in possession of their reason. My protagonist, Roddy Macrae, a 17-year-old crofter who kills three people in the tiny village of Culduie in 1869, began to form in my mind.

It was quite natural for me to set my story in the barren but stunning landscapes of Wester Ross. My mothers side of the family comes from there and I have been visiting the area all my life. The Scottish Highlands, however, is not the rural idyll imagined by the Victorians. It has a dark history of clan warfare and later of the brutal clearances, when crofters were forced off the land to make way for the more profitable ventures of sheep farming and gaming estates. An inventory of 25 regulations governing the lives of crofters in Lewis in 1881 brought home to me the draconian nature of the regimes under which the native population lived. The cropping of heather from the hills, taking fish from the burns, harvesting shellfish or even seaweed from the shore: all were outlawed. Thus, the feudal conditions under which Roddy Macrae lives form a backdrop to his crimes.

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Graeme Macrae Burnet: I was fascinated by the idea of an individual capable of terrible violence, and also writing articulately about it. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

But historical research and abstract ideas alone will not bring a novel to life. As a reader, I want to feel immersed in the milieu of a novel; I want to feel I am inside the head of the protagonist. And these are the challenges I set myself as a novelist, to evoke the setting of the book vividly and burrow deep into the psychology of my protagonist. The found document structure of His Bloody Project, in which readers are presented with a range of conflicting viewpoints on the events of the narrative, is an invitation to play detective; for readers to decide for themselves the truth of what has occurred. Or else to conclude that it is not possible to determine an objective truth about any event, either recent or historical.

Published by Saraband. To order a copy for 7.37 (RRP 8.99) go to <a href=”https://bookshop.theguardian.com/his-bloody-project.html?utm_source=editoriallink&utm_medium=merch&utm_campaign=article” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/22/how-to-write-a-man-booker-novel-six-shortlisted-authors-share-their-secrets-madeleine-thien-ottessa-moshfegh-

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