Working with Words: Alan Hollinghurst

Working with Words is a new Wheeler Centre web series, where we’ll talk to writers and publishing folk about their work – and other bookish things. This time, we talk to Booker Prize-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst.

Alan Hollinghurst shot to a new stratosphere of literary fame when he won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, his elegantly satirical social comedy about Thatcher’s Britain, in 2004. But he’d long had a devoted following among readers who’d been devouring his novels about gay life in the UK since his ‘sex-drenched’ debut The Swimming Pool Library. His latest book, The Stranger’s Child, traces the growing fame of an early-20th century poet across the generations, and in so doing dramatises the development of gay culture in Britain.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A poem in the Listener magazine in 1974. I had just won the Newdigate Poetry Prize at Oxford, and this felt like the beginning of a career as a poet; but it wasn’t to be, and I haven’t written a poem now for 25 years.

What’s the best part of your job?

Being self-reliant, free to invent, and master of my own time.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Having nothing to fall back on, getting stuck, rushing to meet deadlines.

What’s the best (or worst) advice about writing you’ve received?

The best advice: read, read, read.

Do you read your own reviews? If so, how do you approach them? If not, why?

I read all of them, unless particularly warned off by a kind friend: there’s no point in upsetting oneself by reading abuse. But I’m interested in how my books are received, and as I bring one out so rarely the interest (to me) is greater. As I get older I’m less vulnerable, and capable of reviewing my reviewers fairly objectively. I’ve been a reviewer myself for over 30 years, so I know what’s going on.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Other than temporary teaching jobs, the only permanent job I’ve had was as an editor on the Times Literary Supplement, which I did for 14 years before leaving to follow a freelance career. If I’d not been able to leave, I expect I would still be working in that field.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

Creativity can’t be induced out of nothing, but where it exists it can of course be nurtured. Writing is a craft whose techniques can be instilled and enhanced in a receptive student. We could all do with writing better.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I enjoy the virtuous feeling of supporting my (excellent) local independent bookshop, and paying full price; but after a few drinks in the evening I forget my principles and order books at huge discounts online. I also buy second-hand books heavily through abebooks.com, whose existence is one of the great transforming blessings of the internet era.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Probably a school anthology called Fifteen Poets: Chaucer to Arnold, which I read exhaustively in my adolescence, and which created tastes, particularly for Romantic and Victorian poetry, that have stayed with me ever since and I suspect have become subconscious models of form, rhythm and euphony to me in my own writing. I still have swathes of Tennyson by heart.

Alan Hollinghurst will be in conversation with Michael Williams at the Athenaeum Theatre at 7.30pm on Friday 2 March. Tickets are $20 or $10 concession. You can book your tickets online.

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