Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists for this decade was announced a week ago. There is a Hungarian name on the list: David Szalay.
This is the fourth time that the London-based literary magazine Granta announces the names of twenty promising young British writers. It is definitely worth paying attention to their list since writers such as Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Iain Banks had been singled out in the past by the editors at an early stage of their career.
This year’s list came as a surprise to many and, as it has been pointed out, “is likely to generate an animated discussion about what it means to be British in the 21st century”. The list includes writers of Pakistani, Nigerian, Hungarian, Chinese, Australian and Jamaican origin; half of the novels excerpted in the Spring edition of Granta take place outside of Britain; and the majority of the writers are women. David Szalay is not the first Hungarian name ever on a Granta list: Tibor Fischer, whose parents left Hungary in 1956, was selected as one of the best young British novelists in 1993.
Who is David Szalay? The 39-year-old writer was born in Canada, and has lived in Beyrouth, London and Pécs. Before the Granta list, he was also selected as one of the best young British novelists by The New Yorker Magazine. He has three novels to his name: London and the South-East (2008), The Innocent (2009) and Spring (2011), all published by Jonathan Cape. This is the translation of a short interview Szalay gave to the local website of the city of Pécs in January this year.
You had quite a hectic childhood, didn’t you?
Yes. Although I was born in Montreal, I didn’t live there for long. We first moved to Beyrouth but had to leave Lebanon when the civil war broke out. So we moved on to London where we planned to stay for no longer than a few weeks or months, which finally became thirty years. So one could say I was brought up in London. And then I went on to study to Oxford.
Did you consciously want to become a writer?
I was quite young, about twelve, when I felt that this is what I want to do in life. I don’t really know where I got the idea. After graduation I didn’t find a publisher for my novel, so I quit writing for some time. Then I started to work for the BBC Radio where I wrote 45-minute-long radio dramas. These were actually my first publications.
So how did you finally become a novelist?
After five or six years, towards the end of my 20s, I gave it another try and finally managed to find a publisher for my first book, London and the South-East.
Which became quite a success.
Yes, I won two prizes, the Betty Trask Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize – both are awarded to young first-novel writers who are citizens of the British Commonwealth, and both come with quite a decent sum of money.
Why did you choose to settle in Pécs after that?
One of the reasons is that my Dad was born here. I like the city, and from the financial point of view, life here is more suitable for a writer. I have fond memories of my life in London, but every time I go back I realize that it is way too noisy and crowded. So I prefer to live here, and spend a few days in Slovenia now and again, in the middle of nowhere.
How different is the life of a Hungarian and a British writer?
Let me give you an example: I have a Hungarian friend who writes quite well, and would like to make a living as a writer, but I can see that it is very hard, because he has to self-publish his novel. In general, I think it is harder to live solely on your writing in Hungary. The biggest problem, however, is that the Hungarian language is understood by only a small community, whereas if you write in English, your novel can be sold all over the world – in Hungary as well.
You are a lover of a sport that is not very popular in Hungary.
Yes, I love the horse race, especially show-jumping. It is a very popular sport in England.
Can you find the time for it besides your writing?
Not really; I am working hard on a novel right now.
Interview by Márk Magyar
Review on David Szalay's Spring in The Guardian
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