"Being in a sense displaced, being away from home, has I think informed the whole book." - An interview with young novelist David Szalay, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Szalay discusses his work, his Hungarian roots and the experience of leaving London for Hungary.
What does it mean to you as a young English writer to have been included on the Man Booker Shortlist?
It's a big thing. It's very difficult, with so many books being published and competing for attention, to get your voice heard as a writer of fiction: this sort of recognition obviously helps enormously with that. And of course any kind of public acclaim is always welcome, and valuable.
Your second book was a historical novel with a Russian background. How did you end up moving to the stories of All that Man Is?
In fact The Innocent – my novel set in the USSR – was the first book I wrote, even though it was published second. Its origin lies in a work of non-fiction, a medical case-study published the Russian neurologist Luria called The Man With the Shattered World. I used that as the starting point for the novel, and many aspects of my book are directly modelled on the case Luria discusses. That was why I set my book in the Soviet Union, and in the past. Since then I have only written books set more or less in the present, and I think it unlikely that I will write another historical novel.
All That Man Is a novel about identity, meaning of personal and mental borders of men living in Europe now. You mentioned in an interview before that your initial plan was to write a novel about Europe but you changed your mind. Why? And how do you think Europe, our cultural/political/economical background shapes our lives and identity anyway?
I felt that a book "about Europe", in the sense I was considering it, was too vague and would not provide a strong enough structure. The structure I eventually found – of writing stories about progressively older male protagonists – was much stronger and more unified. Also, what I really found I wanted to write about was time, even more than place. It is still important to me, however, that the book somehow reflects contemporary Europe. I hope it does. And of course the nature of our continent at this moment affects all of our lives in ways that are pervasive, but perhaps not easy to summarise. I suppose one thing is that there is an unprecedented amount of movement around the continent – of people, goods, information. And as we have seen in the last year or two (since I finished my book), this has now reached such a scale that it is provoking widespread political reactions.
What motivates you as a writer? Are you a researcher, or do you write more from your own experience or inspiration?
I am not really a writer who likes working from research – which obviously I had to do in The Innocent. I prefer to write about my own world, the world I know from direct experience – somehow I feel that that is almost the whole point of writing, to address that immediate world of experience. In a way, of course, that was the theme of The Innocent, which is why the idea appealed to me, but actually writing that book required a mostly different approach.
Do you use your own life experiences as a resource, or do you collect stories from the world around you?
My writing is a complicated mixture of personal experience, stories I have heard about other people, and things I have simply made up – and virtually every page contains elements of all three. And they become so mixed up that I would say it is as impossible to separate them when the book is finished as it would be to separate the ingredients of a finished cake.
You've been living in Hungary for a while now. Has your Hungarian environment impacted on your writing?
In some direct ways – there are things in All That Man Is that are drawn directly from my experience of living in Hungary and among Hungarian people. More deeply, living in a country other than the one where I grew up has affected me as well – and this experience of being in a sense displaced, of being away from home, has I think informed the whole book.
You've said that you have strong childhood memories of Hungary. How did you feel moving back here as an adult?
Well I knew Hungary not just as a child but also as an adult, before I moved here. I have visited the country quite frequently throughout my life. The Hungary of my childhood memories, the Hungary of the 1970s and 80s, has largely disappeared. And even since the nineties the country has changed enormously. These have been decades of great instability for this country, I think, and I think also that it's important that the country finds a more stable sense of itself.
You moved from London, which is a huge and very commercial capital, to a small town in Hungary and now you live in Budapest. What differences in values or ways of thinking have you noticed? What do you miss about London? What would you miss about Hungary?
It was a pleasure to move from London, which as you say is a huge and frenetic city, to a quiet little town almost on the edge of Europe. I was tired of London, and in fact every time I go back there – which I do often – I find that I still am. I don't regret my decision to leave. The only thing I really miss about London are my friends, although it can of course be an invigorating place to visit. After a while I found life in Pécs a little bit too quiet and provincial though, and felt I had to move on. Budapest is a happy medium: I very much enjoy living here.
What are you reading at the moment?
I have recently finished The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim, and am now reading Transit by Rachel Cusk.
Do you keep up with any Hungarian literature?
I'm ashamed to say that I have very little knowledge of Hungarian literature – which unfortunately I have to read in translation. I am looking forward to make a better acquaintance with it - László Krasznahorkai and Péter Nádas have been highly recommended.
David Szalay is the author of three previous novels: Spring, The Innocent and London and the South-East, for which he was awarded the Betty Trask and Geoffrey Faber Memorial prizes. Raised in London, he has lived in Canada and Belgium, and is now based in Budapest. In 2013 he was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists.