Linda Grant won the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction in 2000 with her novel When I Lived In Modern Times. Her seventh and latest offering, The Dark Circle, has been shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. Grant is also a writer for The Guardian. We caught up with her to talk about the inspiration behind her latest work and to get her advice on finding your voice as an author.
What about sanatorium life drew you to write a novel based there?
When I was a child the government rolled out a mass x-ray campaign in all Britain’s major cities. They sent out white mobile x-ray vans and for a period of a few weeks I used to see them on my way to school. Of course I very much wanted to be x-rayed myself but it wasn’t necessary. I’ve always remembered these ghostly boxes rumbling through the city even before I knew what tuberculosis was. Many years later I met an elderly woman who had been x-rayed as part of the medical for her university scholarship in 1949. She told me the story of how she had been sent to a sanatorium, the barbaric treatments she received, and waiting for the cure, hoping she’d survive long enough to get it. I thought it was an almost perfect scenario for a novel – people of very different types and backgrounds and classes pent up together just as the new post-war period was getting underway and they were held there, waiting.
I thought it was an almost perfect scenario for a novel – people of very different types and backgrounds and classes pent up together…
Is there a biographical element to your depiction of immigrant Jewish life?
Of course, though I didn’t grow up in London like Miriam and Lenny. But as characters they are very familiar to me, as of an older generation. They’re part of an East End that doesn’t exist any more and that’s why I felt I had to show them in later life.
Do you think that British (and worldwide) treatment of the Jewish community changed since the era in which “The Dark Circle” is set?
Yes, I think the language has changed. But I think that some of the same attitudes exist using a different language – instead of ‘the Jews’, they speak of ‘the Zionists’. Social media has ripped away a covering which used to protect us from the existence of all kids of racism, homophobia and misogyny. I think anti-semitism is alive and well, and takes the same forms as it used to – conspiracy theories, accusation of wealth, holocaust denial. I see it on Twitter every day.
Social media has ripped away a covering which used to protect us from the existence of all kids of racism, homophobia and misogyny.
In the context of “The Dark Circle”, what do you feel stories about the past can tell us about our society today?
When I write I ‘m never really thinking about what the story can tell us, I’m more interested in stories and storytelling themselves. I’ve been fascinated to see how many readers and reviewers think this novel has all kinds of contemporary resonances, but for me, it’s really a story about struggle, survival, and rebellion against authority.
In the novel, love is portrayed both as an essential for life, but also as dangerous. Does this reflect your own views?
Love is always dangerous! It requires incredible risks and so many don’t take them. I think the love between brother and sister in my novel is extremely powerful, particularly as the consequences for both of them are so life-changing.
You mentioned in a Guardian interview that it took you years to find your voice. Do you have any advice for young minority writers who are looking for theirs?
The great advice for any writer is to read read read. But unfortunately the effect of that can be to have your head permanently occupied by the voices of others. What we see from a minority perspective is a national culture that we’ve played no part in forming and which can seem inaccessible. So when we try to write about it, it seems second hand. Yet when we try to write about what we know, it can seem too particular, not large enough. But only by creating literature can we change the dominant culture, so it’s a struggle, but it has to be done.
What we see from a minority perspective is a national culture that we’ve played no part in forming and which can seem inaccessible.
What role do you feel women-only prizes play in today’s literary world?
They bring to readers’ attention the huge scope of women’s fiction, which has so often been dismissed as small and domestic. They have launched careers, changed lives. All prizes have some restriction on them, none are open to all – there are limits of age, debut novel, country, etc. So a women’s prize is just part of that.
The Bailey’s Prize winner for 2017 will be announced on June 7th.