Booker and Young Writer Ceremonies & Tracy Chevalier Book Club

This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!

(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)

I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.

The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.

I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.

It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.

Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.

Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.

Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.

Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.

Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.

Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th

Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?

19 responses

  1. It is lovely to read about the online events you attended! I also participated in the Booker live stream and I enjoyed it a lot – short enough to keep the viewers engaged, full of nice moments, and of course the suspense before finding out the winner 🙂

    How lucky to be invited to Tracy Chevalier’s event! I read her Vermeer novel while actually living in Delft, so that book has a special place in my heart.

    Regarding the Young Writer ceremony, you mentioned that in 2017 you were on the shadow panel – what does this role mean? It is an active role in choosing the winner?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I think I was invited to the Chevalier event simply because I’d read her latest novel via NetGalley and left a positive review there. Each year, five bloggers are chosen to be on a shadow panel (like the shadow cabinet of a government) and read the shortlist and choose their own winner — which, alas, has never corresponded to the actual winner, so tends to be like a kiss of death for whoever they choose 😉 I’ve also run a Wellcome Book Prize shadow panel for several years. It’s good fun. Being on an official prize judging panel is one of my life goals.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, it’s good to know that reviewing ARCs can open the door to such opportunities!

        Good luck with your goal! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good work with the predictions! I considered attending the Chevalier event but didn’t go in the end, so it’s great to see this write-up. I’ve long known about the pregnancy deadline on Girl and it fascinates me that this kind of limitation (which you would think would make things harder for a writer) somehow led Chevalier to produce something that I think is head and shoulders above anything else she’s ever written, although I have enjoyed a number of her other novels, especially A Single Thread. (I’m afraid I found Falling Angels really formulaic, but it is set in a period that I know a lot about as a historian and I’ve also written a novel set not long before, so it might be a case of knowing too much… in contrast I loved The Lady and the Unicorn even though it probably isn’t a better book).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She was a very natural and engaging speaker; it was so nice to meet her ‘in person’. I wasn’t all that impressed with Girl when I first read it, so I wonder what I’ll make of it these days. I’m loyal to Chevalier even though I’ve rated 4 of her books below 3 stars! She’s consistently readable, and was a good choice for my book club (as in, everyone actually read the book that time).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, I’ve weirdly read everything she’s written although she’s written several books I really haven’t liked and only one that I truly loved! I agree, she’s just so readable – I think she’s only ever written one book I found a bit of a slog (Remarkable Creatures).

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Remarkable Creatures was one of the duff ones for me (also Burning Bright and The Lady and the Unicorn; At the Edge of the Orchard is mediocre).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha I’d completely forgotten At the Edge of the Orchard existed! I agree it (and Burning Bright) were a bit rubbish.


  3. Yes, alas, once again the Young Writers’ Shadow Panel and the real judges did not agree. Still, the advantage there I suppose is that two different books get to be talked about more (although only one gets the money, sadly). But you know me, you can be sure that the two poetry books were my personal favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know Catherine Cho really appreciated the vote of confidence from readers. I think her book has been unjustly ignored this year, so I hope it was a boost.

      It’s a shame that things couldn’t proceed in person this year; it would have been lovely to meet you at the London Library. Perhaps next year! (They invite former shadow panellists back for events.)


      1. That would be fab – and I love the London Library too. I was very impressed with Catherine Cho’s book, although ‘like’ is perhaps the wrong word to use for it, as it was so frightening and raw.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done! I think the Young Writer Award was predictable, can’t comment on the Booker as I still haven’t read any of them. I watched both ceremonies online. I met Tracey Chevalier at a Vintage event some years ago – I was chatting to Kim and this nice, confident American lady came and joined in – I didn’t realise who she was at first! I am booked in for the Penguin Quiz! (I’m glad it’s midweek, not a Saturday – I wanted to take part in another book quiz this Sat – but it clashes with the Strictly semi-final!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She seems like a really lovely person, and she and I could talk about the D.C. area and being married to Englishmen 😉

      I’m not sure how the Penguin quiz will work for submitting answers and so on. It seems like it’s an individual rather than group affair. I hope all will be made clear! I saw Simon’s call for participants but it’s a busy time for online events so I thought I’d give it a miss.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have never read Chevalier, but have The Last Runaway in the 746.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a solid one! I’m amazed you made it through the 2000s without reading Girl with a Pearl Earring… 😉


  6. It’s interesting to think about how this kind of factor might affect us in our daily lives, not having as much time for something as we might have liked, turning into a positive rather than a negative. (Re: Chevalier) Even though I keep jotting down ideas, and bookmarking various options online, I’ve yet to really capitalize on the streaming of literary events (and should, I know). Just one, with Bernardine Evaristo earlier this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could have attended pretty much any literary festival in the world this year, if I’d wanted to, but I find it hard to fit the events in. These two winner ceremonies were only about 20 minutes each, and the Chevalier book club 40 minutes. I keep meaning to watch the Folkestone Autumn Reads events associated with Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature, which are only up on YouTube for a month afterwards. It’s been on my to-do list for weeks now…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I discovered Tracy Chevalier some years ago I went through a binge of reading all her books in a row. I didn’t like The Last Runaway so much, though, and I’ve not kept up with her. I’d like to read A Single Thread.

    Inferno is a brilliant book. I wonder why it hasn’t gotten more recognition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her books are variable, but always readable. A Single Thread was a very good one. It shares with The Last Runaway the focus on handicraft.

      I agree Inferno was terrific. At least this shortlisting brought it some more attention.

      Liked by 1 person

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