Last Friday evening, at the storied old Athenaeum theatre the Wheeler Centre hosted an interview with one of the glitteringest stars of Britlit, over here for various writers festivals and to promote his latest book, The Stranger’s Child.
Michael Williams, director of the Wheeler (see left) and interlocutor for the evening: Before he is even introduced, please give Alan Hollinghurst a big hand; you know why you’re here! And a big hand was had.
After introducing his guest, Williams, all sang froid and warm wit, prefaced his opening shot with the old scthick of explaining that he was going to start easy and work up to difficult. Noting that Hollinghurst began his writing career as a poet, Williams bowled a swing: What makes a great poem?
Hollinghurst drove for a boundary: An original sentiment set out in original words with great music. (He’s done this before, you think?)
The author was Mr Smoothie and spoke with impressive fluency and with a britishly appealing self-deprecation. He also enunciates the british “u” as in heterosex-u-al, rather than heterosex-shu-al.
If you’ve read the Paris Review interview with Hollinghurst, you’ll have experienced the first thrid or so of the evening. It was almost as if Hollinghurst had rehearsed his script with them for this live performance. Not that anyone is complaining; it was very good in the PR, and similarly well done in the flesh. It must become very hard for a writer to give fresh responses — the tension between trying to make the thoughts new and the desire to reuse the words already polished for display. He did go on to invent a funny and winning session. Why we demand authors do this kind of thing, I’m not quite sure; but it’s sort of fun to watch them try.
I haven’t had a poem-shaped thought for [decades].
I saw the huge prestige in writing poetry people couldn’t understand. (re: T.S. Eliot)
On writing novels: Each book I write is harder than the one before which is rather annoying. (He thinks it’s because he gives himself new technical challenges.)
He loves Ronald Firbank’s writing: Has anyone here read Firbank? (Silence; though Helen, my companion for the evening, had. Constant Gardener, who wasn’t there, has read all of Firbank and thinks he is an amazing writer: funny, ultra camp and totally out there.)
What he’s after in writing a book is: Formal shape combined with naturalness.
Williams recalls the notorious Brit tabloid headline after The Line of Beauty won the prize in 2004: GAY SEX WINS BOOKER; and asks Hollinghurst if he has trouble writing sex scenes. Alan Hollinghurst: I can’t wait to get on to it.
On Evelyn Waugh: I have deep problems with ‘Brideshead ‘ — it’s not funny; I miss the dry wit, the economy, the contempt for sentimental nonsense. ‘Brideshead’ is saturated with sentimental nonsense about England…
On giving his characters his own enthusiams; Nick Guest in Line of Beauty is writing a thesis on Henry James: That’s why I gave James his head.
On Henry James: To me he remains a supreme figure.
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CHeck back at the Wheeler website for the video of the interview, it should go up soon. And you can podcast it too.
Readings bookshop has a little videoclip of Hollinghust talking about Stranger’s Child, and recommending Alice Munro.