Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Fiction

From Wuhan-400, the deadly virus invented by Dean Koontz in 1981, to the plague unleashed in Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake, novelists have long been fascinated by pandemics

According to an online conspiracy theory, the American author Dean Koontz predicted the coronavirus outbreak in 1981. His novel The Eyes of Darkness made reference to a killer virus called Wuhan-400 eerily predicting the Chinese city where Covid-19 would emerge. But the similarities end there: Wuhan-400 is described as having a killrate of 100%, developed in labs outside the city as the perfect biological weapon. An account with more similarities, also credited by some as predicting coronavirus, is found in the 2011 film Contagion, about a global pandemic that jumps from animals to humans and spreads arbitrarily around the globe.

But when it comes to our suffering, we want something more than arbitrariness. We want it to mean something. This is evident in our stories about illness and disease, from contemporary science fiction all the way back to Homers Iliad. Even malign actors are more reassuring than blind happenstance. Angry gods are better than no gods at all.

In Homers Iliad, the Greeks disrespect one of Apollos priests. The god manifests his displeasure by firing his arrows of contagion into their camp. The plague lasts nine days, brief by modern epidemiological standards. When the Greeks make amends and sacrifice sheep and goats to Apollo, the plague is cured.

Seven centuries later a plague struck Periclean Athens, killing a quarter of the citys population and setting the city-state on a path to military defeat at the hands of Sparta. Thucydides, the Athenian historian, has a simple explanation for the epidemic: Apollo. The Spartans had cannily supplicated the god and he in return had promised victory. Soon afterwards, Spartas enemies started dying of the plague. Hindsight suggests that Athens, under siege its population swollen with refugees, everyone living in unsanitary conditions was at risk of contagion in a way the Spartan army, free to roam the countryside outside, clearly wasnt. But this thought doesnt occur to Thucydides. It can only be the god.

Between then and now there have been prodigious advances in medical science. We understand contagious disease vastly better, and have a greater arsenal of medicine and hygiene to fight it. But in one respect we havent advanced at all. We still tend to see agency in our pandemics.

Disease has no agency. Bacteria and viruses spread blindly where they can, their pathways facilitated by our globalised world. We, meanwhile, bring to the struggle our ever-improving drugs and hygiene. With Covid-19, experts insist, your two best bets are: wash your hands often, touch your face never. But people do not warm to the existential arbitrariness of this. Just as the Peloponnesian plague was seen as evidence that the gods were angry with Athens, so HIV was seen by a deluded minority as Gods judgment on homosexuals. Of course, HIV spreads wherever it can and cares nothing for your morals or sexual orientation.

This attribution of agency is clearest in the many imaginary plagues science-fiction writers have inflicted on humanity. In place of gods we have aliens, like those in Alice Sheldons chilling and brilliant short story The Screwfly Solution (1977). A new disease provokes men to begin murdering women en masse. At the storys end we discover an alien species had introduced a brain infection so that the human race will destroy itself and the aliens can inherit the emptied planet. Its a story about what we now call toxic masculinity and it says: its not gods we have angered, but goddesses.

A scene from The Andromeda Strain (1970), directed by Robert Wise. Photograph: Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Sometimes the alien plague is less picky. In HP Lovecrafts The Colour Out of Space (1927; recently filmed, starring Nicolas Cage) an alien infection arrives via meteorite, wastes the land and drives people mad. In Michael Crichtons The Andromeda Strain (1969) potentially world-ending contagion falls from outer space. This bug repeatedly mutates as Earths scientists try to combat it. Were doomed or would be, if it werent for the tales germus ex machina ending, in which the alien spontaneously mutates into a benign form.

If its not aliens behind our world-threatening plague, then it is probably that other SF stalwart, the mad scientist. Dozens of zombie franchises start with a rogue scientist infecting the population with a genetically engineered bioweapon virus. In Frank Herberts The White Plague (1982) a geneticist, pushed into insanity by the murder of his family, creates a pathogen that kills all humanitys females. A cure is eventually found, but not before the worlds population balance has been shifted to leave thousands of men to every woman.

In Joanna Russs feminist masterpiece The Female Man (1975), Whileaway, a gender-specific virus has wiped out all the men, creating an effective utopia for women left behind, procreating by parthenogenesis and living in harmony. By the novels end it is hinted that the man-destroying plague was actually engineered by a female scientist. Never mind the antibacterial handwash: it is patriarchy that we need to scrub out.

So characteristic is assigning agency to pandemics in todays culture that a video game such as Plague Inc (Ndemic Creations 2012) styles its players not as doctors attempting to stop the spread of a pandemic, but as the sickness itself. The players mission is to help their plagues spread and exterminate the human race. In HG Wellss seminal War of the Worlds (1898) and in its various modern retellings, including Independence Day (1996), the virus is on our side, destroying alien invaders that lack our acquired immunity.

One of the most striking twists on this conceit is Greg Bears novel Blood Music (1985). A scientist, angry at being sacked by his lab, smuggles a virus out into the world in his own body. It infects everybody, becomes self-aware, and assimilates everybody and everything to itself: human beings and their infrastructure melt down into a planetwide sea of hyperintelligent grey goo. It sounds unpleasant, but its actually a liberation: the accumulation of concentrated consciousness, our own included, punches through a transcendent new realm. The plague becomes a kind of secular Rapture.

The mad scientists of Channel 4s Utopia hope their germ will wipe out humanity. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

If on some level we still think of contagion as the gods anger, these stories become about how we have angered the god about, in other words, our guilt. When Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver planned their reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, they decided an agent, a neuroenhancer spliced into simian flu, would both raise the apes level of intelligence and prove fatal to humans. The resulting movie trilogy (2011-17) was more than just a commercial hit; it proved an eloquent articulation of broader environmental concerns. The few surviving humans move through the films lush rejuvenated forestscapes, compelled to confront avatars of humanitys generational contempt for the natural world.

The plague that has destroyed us has uplifted these animals, given them wisdom, and they are angry with us why wouldnt they be? Its a common genre trope. The scientist in Alistair MacLeans The Satan Bug (1965) is an environmental fundamentalist who hopes his germ will wipe out humanity. The mad scientists from Channel 4s TV drama Utopia (201314) and Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake trilogy are both driven by the same animus.

Having invested ourselves with the crown of all creation, coronavirus arrives to puncture our hubris. Think of the computer intelligence Agent Smith inThe Matrix (1999), played with sneering panache by Hugo Weaving: humans, he tells Laurence Fishburnes Morpheus, are incapable of developing a natural equilibrium with their environment: You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. In this telling, we are the virus.

Read more:

This week the novelist received the Olof Palme prize for achievement in the spirit of the assassinated Swedish statesman. He reflects on how a lack of leadership today has allowed us to sleepwalk into Brexit

A range of emotions, not all of them beautiful, passed through my head at the moment when I was offered the Olof Palme prize.

I am not a hero. I am a fraud. I am being offered a medal for another mans gallantry. Decline.

I am not a frontline advocate for truth or human rights. I have not suffered for my writing. I have been handsomely rewarded for it.

Neither did I feel myself the equal of any of the three writers who have preceded me at this rostrum: Vclav Havel, whom I briefly knew and revered, and the intrepid Roberto Saviano, both of whom in separate ways became martyrs to their work. And Carsten Jensen, writer on world conflict and sharer of its anguish.

If I wanted further proof of my inadequacy, I had only to listen to Daniel Ellsbergs moving speech at this same rostrum just a year ago. Why didnt I ever copy secret documents and stop a war?

It was only when I set out to explore the life and work of Olof Palme, and entered his spell, and discovered that same affinity with him that Ellsberg had so eloquently described, that it seemed just possible I might not be quite such a bad fit after all.

Reading and thinking about Palme makes you wonder who you are. And who you might have been, but werent. And where your moral courage went when it was needed. You ask yourself what power drove him golden boy, aristocratic family, brilliant scion of the best schools and the best cavalry regiment to embrace from the outset of his career the cause of the exploited, the deprived, the undervalued and the unheard?

Was there, somewhere in his early life, as there is in the lives of other men and women of his calibre, some defining moment of inner anger and silent purpose? As a child he was sickly, and partly educated at home. He has the feel of a loner. Did his school peers get under his skin: their sense of entitlement, their contempt for the lower orders, their noise, their vulgarity and artlessness? Mine did. And no one is easier to hate than a contemptible version of oneself.

Graham Greene remarked that a novelist needed a chip of ice in his heart. Was there a chip of ice in Palmes heart? He may not have been a novelist, but there was art in him, and a bit of the actor. He knew that you cant make great causes stick without political power. And for political power, you definitely need a chip or two of ice.

Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The United States did not take lightly in those days, any more than it does now, being held to account by a nation it dismisses as tin-pot. And Sweden was a particularly irritating tin-pot nation, because it was European, articulate, cultured, rich, and white. But Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice, the one that refuses to be categorised, the one that shouldnt be in the room at all. It brought out the best in him.

And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.

Its a long time since my post box contained estate agents brochures for deep shelters in the Nevada desert. You entered by way of a tumbledown shack, designed to look like an abandoned outside loo. An elevator swept you 200ft underground to a luxury apartment where you could hold out till Armageddon was safely over and normal services were resumed. And when the all clear was sounded and you came up the escalator, the only people left would be your rich friends and the Swiss.

So why isnt the threat of nuclear war today as present or terrifying to us as it was in Palmes day? Is it simply that the nuclear threat is so ubiquitous, so diffuse and irrational? North Korea? Isis? Iran? Russia? China? Or todays White House with its born-again evangelists dreaming of the Rapture? Better to invest our existential fears in things we understand: bushfires, melting icebergs, and the uncomfortable truths of Greta Thunberg.

But the cold war was anything but irrational. It was two players facing each other across a nuclear chessboard. And for all their clever spying, neither knew the first thing about the other.

John le Carr at a pro-EU rally, Parliament Square, London, in October 2019. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

I try to imagine how it was for Palme in those times: the shuttle diplomacy, the tireless reasoning with people locked into their positions and scared of their superiors. I was the lowest form of spy life, but even I got wind of contingency plans for outright nuclear war. If you are in Berlin or Bonn when the Russian tanks sweep over you, be sure to destroy your files first. First? What was second? And I doubt whether your chances would have been much rosier in Stockholm.

In Berlin, in August 1961, I look on as coils of Russian barbed wire are unrolled across the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, otherwise known as Checkpoint Charlie. Intermittently, in the days that follow, I watch the Wall go up, one concrete block at a time. Do I lift a finger? No one did. And maybe that was the worst part of it: the oppressive sense of your own irrelevance.

But Palme refused to be irrelevant. He would make himself heard if it killed him, and perhaps in the end it did.

Its October 1962 and Cuban crisis time. I am a junior diplomat at the British embassy in Bonn and I have just moved into a new hiring beside the river Rhine. German decorators are painting the walls. Its a sunny autumn and I think I must have been on leave because I am sitting in the garden writing.

The blare of the builders transistor radio is drowned by the din of passing barges, until suddenly it is belting out the news of Kennedys ultimatum to Khrushchev: Turn back your missiles, Mr Chairman, or your country and mine will be at war or words to that effect. The painters politely excuse themselves, wash their brushes, and go home to be with their families at worlds end. I drive to the embassy in case theres work to be done. There isnt. So I drive home again and continue writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Richard Burton in the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). Photograph: Collectin Christophel/Alamy

So what was Palme doing while the Soviet fleet continued on its way to Cuba and the world waited dry-mouthed to see who blinked first? Until I knew better, I pictured him sitting head in hands in some lonely place, despairing. I am a failed peacemaker. My mediations have been in vain. If the world ends, its all my fault.

But he had no time for that stuff. He was in Stockholm, pressing for educational reform, bumping up Swedens international aid budget and picking up the pieces after Stig Wennerstrm, a senior Swedish air force officer, was exposed as a Soviet spy. And thats something thats too easy to forget about Palme the diplomat for world peace and nuclear disarmament: he had a country to run.

Spying? Palme? Theres been a lot of talk about it. As a young intern in Swedish intelligence, he had acquired an early taste for the black arts and it stayed with him for the rest of his political life. And who can blame him? When youre defending yourself on half a dozen home fronts; when youre sitting out the night on tedious committees; when a far right mob of hooligans is burning your effigy in the street and chucking darts at pictures of your face, what greater relief than to settle down comfortably with your spies and give yourself over to the consolations of intrigue?

And I am not at all surprised that in the midst of excoriating the Americans for the Vietnam war, Palme the pragmatist was reading secret American intelligence reports. After all, he had a country to protect.

Palme never saw the cold war end, but he experienced its worst years. And by the close of his life they had left their mark: testiness, distraction, impatience, battle fatigue. You only have to look at the last photographs to read the signs. You only have to hear the barely controlled anger breaking through his voice when he reads his statement on the bombing of Hanoi. I hear nervous advisers begging him not to use the forbidden G-word, genocide.

They wore you out, those American nuclear warriors. I have a particularly unpleasant memory and maybe so had Palme of the US governments twenty-something defence analysts who lived on rock music and Coca-Cola while they calculated to the last half-million or so how many of us would be turned to ash in a first strike.

It was their air of superiority that got to me, the we know better than you do about how youre going to die. I just couldnt warm to them. Did Palme have business with their Russian counterparts? I guess they were much the same.

And sometimes it was the sheer decency and good manners of Washingtons top warriors that wore you down. Good family men, I remember. Really decent people: touch football with their kids on Saturdays, church on Sundays. I met a few. And so, Im sure, did Palme. Well, theyd concede, they did do insomnia a bit. A nervous breakdown here and there, the odd broken marriage. And kids traumatised by what they picked up from the table talk, but that was just parental carelessness.

And Palme the determined non-combatant walked among them. Politely. Lawyer to lawyer. Man to man. And be sure never to mention the G-word, genocide.

As I continue to read and think my way through Palmes life, my sense of kinship becomes possessive. I want a Palme for my country, which in my lifetime hasnt produced a single statesman of his stamp. I want him now. Im not just a remainer. Im a European through and through, and the rats have taken over the ship, I want to tell him. Its breaking my heart and I want it to break yours. We need your voice to wake us from our sleepwalk, and save us from this wanton act of political and economic self-harm. But youre too late.

If Johnson and his Brexiteers had their way, it would be declared St Brexits Day. Church bells across the land would peal out the gladsome tidings from every tower. And good men of England would pause their stride and doff their caps in memory of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Trafalgar, and mourn the loss of our great British empire. Empires dont die just because theyre dead.

We Brits are all nationalists now. Or so Johnson would have us believe. But to be a nationalist you need enemies and the shabbiest trick in the Brexiteers box was to make an enemy of Europe. Take back control! they cried, with the unspoken subtext: and hand it to Donald Trump, along with our foreign policy, our economic policy, our health service and, if they can get away with it, our BBC.

So Boris Johnson with our blessing has taken his place beside two other accomplished liars of our time: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. If Palme were trying to get the truth out of them, which of the three would he turn to? Or none of the above?

One day somebody will explain to me why it is that, at a time when science has never been wiser, or the truth more stark, or human knowledge more available, populists and liars are in such pressing demand.

But dont blame the Tories for their great victory. It was Jeremy Corbyns Labour party, with its un-policy on Brexit, its antisemitism and student-level Marxism-Leninism that alienated traditional Labour voters and left them nowhere to go. They looked to the left and didnt recognise their leader. They looked to the centre and there was nobody there. They were sick of Brexit and sick of politics, and probably as sick of Johnsons voice as I was. So they pinched their noses and voted for the least worst option. And actually, who can blame them?

Palme hated war, but I dont know how much of it he actually saw. A little goes a long way. Or it did for me.

My first cautious glimpse came when I visited Cambodia shortly before the American defeat. Forty years earlier, Palme had toured Southeast Asia and seen for himself the disastrous effect of French, British and American colonialism. By the time I got there, the disaster was wholly American-owned.

Phnom Penh is encircled. The taxi driver charges $30 to take you to the frontline. You want shooting? he asks. Yes, please, I want shooting. He parks, you walk the rest of the way. You get shot at and return to your taxi. On the road back through town to the hotel, children sit on the pavement selling bottles of petrol siphoned from abandoned cars.

At the edge of Phnom Penh an artillery battery is providing covering fire for an infantry attack against the invisible jungle enemy. Deafened by gunfire, children huddle round the guns, each waiting for his father to come back. They know that if he doesnt, his commanding officer will pocket his pay instead of reporting him dead.

Im in Sidon, South Lebanon, house guest of the Palestinian chief of fighters, Salah Tamari. He takes me on a tour of the childrens hospital. A boy with his legs blown off gives me the thumbs up. Another dreams of going to university in Havana once hes got his eyesight back. Palme had three sons, I had four. Maybe we had the same nightmares.

Which reminds me. As things stand, one of the first acts of Johnsons post-Brexit government will be to deny child refugees the right to be reunited with their parents in Britain.

How would Palme have responded to todays Orwellian lie machines that would have made Joseph Goebbels blush as they wear down our decency, our common sense, and drive us to question incontestable truths?

The last splinters of Jamal Khashoggi have, we assume, been swept under the carpet of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The culprits have freely confessed that they acted on impulse. They just went a bit wild, the way boys do. The Crown Prince is shocked. The rest is fake news. No bone saw, no screams, no Khashoggi lookalike walking out of the consulate wearing the wrong shoes.

So heres a question. If Palme were Swedens prime minister today, and Sweden had a fat arms deal running with Saudi Arabia, which way would he jump? Would he take a sensible, relaxed British view and say, look here, for heavens sake, lets stop moaning and get on with the next shipment, theyre Arabs and theyve got a war to feed? Or would he as I want to believe tell his arms industry: whatever it costs, just bloody well stop.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley: Smiley and I have history together. Sixty years of it. Photograph: BBC

I dont know whether Palme read me youd be amazed how many people havent. What I do know is that, quite soon after I began reading my way through his life, and the causes that inspired him, it seemed to me that every book I had written was some sort of unconscious footstep along his path.

My leading character, and the one I am best known for, is George Smiley. Smiley was recruited to the Secret Service in his early youth, as I was, and for all his earnest excursions into 17th-century German literature, at heart he knew no other world than the secret one. Throughout his long professional life he was besieged by moral doubt. When I was asked to draw a picture of him, I drew a lonely man carrying his horse uphill an image that might have won a weary smile of recognition from Palme.

Smiley and I have history together. Sixty years of it. When I took a new direction, Smiley followed me. And sometimes Smiley knew the way better than I did and I followed him, which is what happens when you invent a character who is smarter than you are.

Here is Smiley in 1979, when the cold war looked as though it would last forever. With exemplary tradecraft, he has lured his Soviet adversary, codename Karla, across the Berlin Wall. He has done this by exploiting a character defect, as we liked to call it, in this otherwise impenetrable communist diehard. The character defect in question is love: a fathers love for his mentally sick daughter. In defiance of every rule in the KGB handbook, Karla has spirited his beloved daughter to a Swiss sanatorium under a false name, and Smiley has used this knowledge to blackmail him. And now here Karla comes, Soviet zealot, loving father, defector, across the Glienicke Bridge from East to West Berlin.

George, you won, says Peter Guillam, Smileys loyal disciple.

Did I? Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did, Smiley replies.

Palme would have shared his self-disgust.

When the cold war ended and the western world was still congratulating itself, Smiley felt betrayed, and so did I. And Palme would have felt betrayed, if he had lived long enough. Where was the promised peace we had all been waiting for? Where was the Great Vision? The reconciliation? The nuclear disarmament treaty that Palme had been tirelessly working for? Where was the Marshall Plan that would pull battered nations off their knees? And above all, where was the voice of hope and renewal? Is it too fanciful to imagine that, had he lived, Palme might have supplied that voice?

Here is Smiley in 1990, one year after the Wall came down and four years after Palmes death: One day, history may tell us who really won. If a democratic Russia emerges why, then Russia will have been the winner. And if the West chokes on its own materialism, then the West may still turn out to be the loser.

I see Palme nodding.

And here is Smiley in great age he was always older than me, a father figure still hunting for the answer to a question that has haunted him all his life: did I compromise my humanity to the point where I lost it altogether?

We were not pitiless, Peter, he insists to his same disciple. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. But we did not know it then.

But in my imagination I hear Palme vigorously object: That is an unsound, self-serving argument that could equally well apply to any monstrous act perpetrated in the name of democracy.

I see a sharp, swift face. Restless eyes, sometimes hooded. Smiles real and forced. A face that struggles for forbearance in the presence of lesser minds, vulnerable, watchful, and precious in the way we imagine young poets to be. The precise voice barely falters even when its owner is on fire. I feel an unbearable impatience burning in him, caused by seeing and feeling more clearly and faster than anybody else in the room.

Le Carr in 1965. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto/Allstar

I would have been nervous to engage him in argument because he would have made rings round me even when I was right. But I never met him. I can only hear him and watch him and read him. The rest is catch-up.

The last speech of his life was to the United Nations in 1985: an unsuccessful appeal to ban the use of nuclear weapons under international law. Thirty years on, the Swedish government voted for just such a ban. Now called upon to reaffirm their vote, they have postponed their decision under American pressure. The issue is back on the table. We shall see.

How would Palme wish to be remembered? Well, by this for a start. For his life, not his death. For his humanism, courage, and the breadth and completeness of his humanist vision. As the voice of truth in a world hell-bent on distorting it. By the inspiring, inventive enterprises undertaken yearly by young people in his name.

Is there anything I would like to add to his epitaph? A line by May Sarton that he would have enjoyed: One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

And how would I like to be remembered? As the man who won the 2019 Olof Palme prize will do me just fine.

David Cornwell, January 2020. This speech was given at the Olof Palme prize ceremony in Stockholm on 30 January.

Read more:

Complete with quills, country dancing and rag curls, a country hotel is wooing dedicated Janeites to visit their favourite fictional world

Jane Austen fans are a devoted bunch. True Janeites tend to travel widely to celebrate their favourite author, most often to Bath for the Jane Austen festival. But on the other side of the world sits Governors House, a picturesque, yellow Georgian-style mansion in Hyde Park, Vermont. The house, along with its owner Suzanne Boden, draws Janeites from all over the globe who come not only to celebrate their favourite author, but to live as a character in her world.

Boden had the idea to start hosting Austen weekends at her home 11 years ago. I was outside hanging tablecloths on the clothesline, she says, against the backdrop of Governors House, and I was listening to some music through the window, which happened to be Mozart. From the back of the house, you cant see anything thats modern because of the trees. And I thought: I could be Jane Austen! And someone else might want to come and be Austen, too.

Others did. For more than a decade, Boden, who also offers the occasional Downton Abbey experience, has been hosting in-character weekends where attendees who range in age from seven to 80 get the pleasure of living life through the eyes and words of Austen.

Its an escape, says Boden, who encourages guests to eschew modern technology and leave their phones behind. Its about going back in time. Its a chance to dress up. Most of all, its a chance to be with, and interact with, other Austen fans, who always have a lot to say. Its unusual if someone goes home without a long list of book recommendations or film recommendations from new friends. People come for all sorts of reasons: One woman clearly thought it was going to be like the movie Austenland and shed meet her husband here.

Although guests dont typically find partners at the rate Austens characters do, they do gain new skills: learning to write with a quill pen and fold paper the way the author did, before envelopes existed. They get English country dancing lessons and indulge in afternoon tea. No lunch is served, because, as Boden points out, lunch wasnt invented in Austens time (neither was afternoon tea, but an exception is made). Other weekend activities include sewing reticules (a small purse-like bag used in Austens time to carry gloves, a fan, and perhaps even love notes), horse-drawn carriage rides and archery.

A recent weekend dedicated to Emma at Governors House drew Janeites from as far away as Texas. On a Friday night, attendees nibbled lemon squares and sipped tea as they watched a short lecture titled Bared Bosoms and Padded Calves (on the fashions of Regency England).

Two women in Regency costume walking dogs through Bath during the citys annual Jane Austen festival. Photograph: Alamy

There are 79 regional groups in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) across the US and Canada. When asked why so many Americans love Austen, Boden is incredulous. Everybody loves Jane Austen! She gets right to the heart of things, she says. On the surface, it looks like a little romance, but there are so many layers in her works, which have been translated into well, how many languages are there in the world? Although its very British, she doesnt mention anything going on politically so it could be set anywhere.

Over a breakfast of tea, blueberry muffins and baked eggs, guests discuss favourite books, adaptations, characters and their shared love for spotting inaccuracies in period films (I heard theres a shocking lack of hairpins in the new Little Women!). Everyone agrees that Henry from Mansfield Park was one of her best male creations, for being sweet, competent and witty. But he was never witty in a mean way, or at someone elses expense, says Lena Ruth Yasutake, a 36-year-old teacher from Connecticut. She runs a Regency clothing business called Cassandras Closet (a subtle nod to Austen) with her sister-in-law Anna, who has also joined the party: she had her hair in rag curlers yesterday night and has an Austenesque hairstyle ready for breakfast. Lenas her devotion to Austen has been hard-won: I pushed through my dyslexia to finish Emma because I loved the story so much. It was my gateway drug into Austen.

Everybody loves Jane Austen! … Women take a turn through the grounds of Governors House

The women here tend to come in groups: Vermont bookstore owner Kim Crady-Smith has brought her sister, her niece and a friend, who sit alongside three childhood friends from Dallas, all in their 70s. Ann, who urged her friends Charlene and Mary to join her, has attended other Austen weekends before, and, as a result, ended up joining the Dallas chapter of JASNA. The Dallas meetings arent as much fun as Bodens weekends, Ann says: After experiencing this, its hard to settle for less!

Janeites delight in Austens words and stories, but what most bonds the Americans is a bit more complex. Anglophilia is strong throughout the US; its presence is reflected in Americans appetite for British television and film, football, music and more. The enthusiasm for Austen reflects a wider desire to journey into a world that feels foreign and familiar all at once.

At the end of Bodens weekends, she gives guests a quiz over Sunday brunch. Throughout the weekend, she drops hints and breadcrumbs of information that are answers to Sundays quiz. What happens if you fail the quiz? Boden doesnt miss a beat: If you flunk, you get the greatest prize of all: you get to reread the novel.

Read more:

Kept in a private collection for more than a century, the 1813 letter to the authors sister Cassandra details her thoughts on dentists, fashion and daily life

Caps with large full bows of very narrow ribbon one over the right temple, perhaps, and another at the left ear were the height of fashion in 1813 at least according to Jane Austen, who informs her sister Cassandra of the latest trend in a rare letter that will be auctioned at Bonhams in New York next month.

Letters from Austen seldom come up for auction, because Cassandra and other members of the novelists family destroyed the majority of them in the 1840s. Of the estimated 3,000 missives written by Austen, only around 161 survive, of which around 95 are to Cassandra.

Austen to her sister Cassandra, from 16 September 1813. Photograph: Bonhams

The letter, dated 16 September 1813 and written shortly after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, runs to four pages. Dealing with everything from a trip to the dentist with her nieces to her mothers health (Austen is hopeful she is no longer in need of leeches), it is a gem, according to Kathryn Sutherland, an Austen scholar and trustee of Jane Austens House Museum.

Bonhams, which will auction the letter on 23 October, said it is full of lively detail, wit and charm, vividly echoing the world [Austen] deftly portrayed in her novels and written at the height of [her] literary powers.

The poor Girls & their Teeth! writes Austen at one point. Lizzys were filed & lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams. The dentist, she adds, must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief she would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it.

She also mentions a visit to a Mrs T. This is Fanny Tilson, the wife of Henry Austens business partner, James Tilson, who had given birth to at least 11 children by that point. Austen finds her as affectionate & pleasing as ever, but notes to her sister that from her appearance I suspect her to be in the family way. Poor Woman!

With just a few words, the novelist conjures up for her sister an image of her situation: We are now all four of us young Ladies sitting round the Circular Table in the inner room writing our Letters, while the two Brothers are having a comfortable coze in the room adjoining. This use of coze predates the words first recorded appearance in print in Austens own novel Mansfield Park, in 1814.

Austen also takes a deep dive into the world of headgear. My cap is come home, and I like it very much, she informs Cassandra. Fanny has one also; hers is white sarsenet and lace, of a different shape from mine, more fit for morning carriage wear, which is what it is intended for, and is in shape exceedingly like our own satin and lace of last winter; shaped around the face exactly like it, with pipes and more fulness, and a round crown inserted behind. My cap has a peak in front. Large full bows of very narrow ribbon (old twopenny) are the thing. One over the right temple, perhaps, and another at the left ear.

Bonhams believes the letter, which has been in a private collection since 1909, will fetch between 65,000 to 97,000 at auction. Sutherland said that because of specific domestic details within it, it would have by far the greatest resonance inside the collection held by Jane Austens House Museum in the cottage where Austen lived and wrote.

Earlier this year, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign to help it raise the 35,000 it needed to buy a snippet of a letter written by Austen in 1814. More than 250 donors raised 10,000 in a public campaign in six weeks and it is on display at the museum.

Sutherland said it was particularly sad that publicly funded organisations like Jane Austens House Museum were unable to compete with international commercial buyers, because so few Austen letters are retained for public benefit in British institutions.

If the present owners had consulted privately with us of course we would have been happy to try to reach a mutually fair accommodation, but auction house prices do not sit well with what public institutions can in most cases afford to offer, she said.

Read more:

The Irish novelist on her searing new novel, scandal, regrets, religion and… football

In May 2017, I watched Edna OBrien read from a work-in-progress before a predominantly young audience at a publishing event in London. As the veteran Irish novelist arranged herself at a small table lit by a single lamp, I wondered how many of those present were aware of her literary lineage or even knew who she was. She waited for silence to settle before speaking quietly at first, but with an intensity of purpose that belied her advancing years. I was a girl once, she began, but not any more.

I can still recall the rapt silence that attended her every word and hung in the air for a long moment after her reading ended. Then came the applause, heartfelt and sustained. It was an exercise in almost primal storytelling: stark, dramatic and pitch-perfect in its execution. A lesson from a master.

OBriens new novel, Girl, opens with that same haunting sentence, matter of fact and regretful. What follows is a contemporary story as raw and transfixing as the most visceral Greek tragedy, a story of abduction, rape and imprisonment recounted in often unflinching detail by Maryam, the young Nigerian girl of the title. It is, as the American novelist Richard Ford attests, a work of profound empathy and grace, its narrative leavened by deftly wrought moments of maternal intimacy that possess a quiet but almost luminous intensity.

OBrien is 88. Girl is her 19th novel and she has intimated that it may be her last. It may yet prove to be her most powerful.

The idea for the novel came from a newspaper report about a girl who was found wandering in Sambisa Forest in Nigeria. Every day the newspapers are full of novels waiting to be written, but this small item resonated in my inner mind, she recalls. The girl had escaped her captors, but she had lost her mind and she was carrying a baby. I could not have written this novel if the violence and injustice done to this young woman and many others hadnt been moulded on to my self and my soul.

In 2016 and 2017, OBrien made two trips to Nigeria, where she met several young women who had escaped captivity, having been among the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram jihadists in the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. You hear these terrible stories and you absorb them, she says. They haunt me still. I wake sometimes thinking of the girls and the horrors they experienced.

Girl is unlike any of the novels that preceded it in OBriens 60-year career, the style spare and restrained, the terrain unfamiliar, a world away from the landscape and discontents of her native Ireland. It was new territory for me, emotionally, geographically, culturally, she says. I had to discard the things that have fortified my writing for 60 years landscape, lyricism, love. I had to put all those things aside and just dive in as if this was the first book I had ever written.

Edna OBrien in the street where she lived in 1964. Photograph: Getty

I meet OBrien at her modest terraced house on a quiet, well-to-do street in Chelsea. In older age, she remains glamorous, dressed today in a pleated top and three-quarter length skirt. Her eyes are alert and alive, especially when she laughs, but she is very pale and very thin.

I have not been in great health this past year, she says, when I ask her how she is doing. I want and hope to get better. Right now, I am conserving my energy for the things that are most important to me, and writing is very high on that list.

She makes tea in her homely ground-floor kitchen, handing me the cups and ushering me up the stairs ahead of her while she follows slowly and tentatively, pausing for breath at the turn of the stairs. We settle in the first-floor living room, which is also a work space. The wall behind her is lined floor to ceiling with books, including several novels by the mostly male big-hitters she admires: Roth, Pinter, Beckett, Joyce the first three of whom she befriended, the fourth whom she admires more than any other writer.

It is unmistakably a writers room, a retreat of sorts, but also a place of hard graft. A desk in the corner by the fireplace is cluttered with manuscripts and writing pads. While researching Girl, she tells me, she amassed four boxes of notebooks and 16 boxes of research material. She picks up an early draft of the novel from the low table between us. Im a perfectionist, she says, opening it at a page decorated with handwritten notes and corrections. I work so hard to get things right, changing lines and words right up to the end. Its exhausting, but absolutely necessary.

Her editor, Lee Brackstone, who has recently departed Faber, describes her as an artist who adheres to the now old-fashioned belief that it should be difficult by necessity to make great work. It is, he adds, almost masochistic with Edna: if shes feeling the pain, shes making the art. That inevitably takes its toll.

I ask her if this novel was more exhausting than the others. She nods. I dont want to sound self-pitying about it, but it was the hardest and the most painful. Im not exactly in the prime of youth. There was a point where I was faced with a long table filled with pages and pages of writing, hundreds of pages. You ask yourself, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Has she found a satisfactory answer? Its what I chose to do, she replies without hesitation, but, more than that, its my life. Writing is my breathing.

Grace Molony and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in Chichester festival theatres 2017 production of Edna OBriens The Country Girls. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

In a recent BBC documentary, she described her state of mind on departing for Nigeria as fearful and fearless. She also confessed to having smuggled 15,000 into the country, wads of cash concealed in her sleeves and her underwear. I worked out that I would need roughly that much to give to people who could help me to arrange things. And, sure enough, it all got spent.

There, she met and interviewed doctors, aid workers, a trauma specialist and local journalists. She undertook often arduous journeys overland to visit camps for displaced persons, some of whom followed her around, pleading to be rescued. At one point, she stayed in a convent, which, she says laughing, is one place I never expected to be. And, through her contacts, she met the girls Rebecca, Abigail, Hope, Patience, Fatime, Amina and Hadya whose survivors stories she absorbed and then transformed into the novels single, soul-searing narrative.

They each spoke to me in a similar way, she tells me, which was understated, reserved, guarded. They are so young and shy and protective of their modesty, even after all that has happened to them, the brutal horror of what they went through. There is shame, too, alas. It was heartbreaking and I found myself crying a lot.

All of this, I venture, would have been physically and emotionally demanding for a much younger writer, never mind one in her late 80s. She nods and falls silent for a time. It still is emotionally demanding, even to think about it. It was not just a new country for me, but a new everything. I thought I was in the Tower of Babel when I arrived in Abuja airport the noise, the chaos. There were times when it felt like I was on a constant knife edge. And, as I say this, I feel almost mortified, because the girls I have written about are not on a knife edge, they are in hell. Their trauma continues and will stay with them for ever. At least I was able to come home.

If Girl was written out of a mixture of fierce anger and deep empathy, it was also, one suspects, driven by a keen awareness of OBriens own encroaching mortality. Is it something she finds herself dwelling on? Well, Im aware of it Id have to be, wouldnt I? Id be Pollyanna if I werent, she shoots back, laughing. But its not that I think of it every day; its more that I want to do the things that I must do. And I want to go out as someone who kept to the truth. I cant bear phoneys. I want integrity.

Edna OBrien in 1970, when she was famous and fabulously scandalous: Photograph: Keystone/Getty Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Truth-telling of a kind was what fired her early books The Country Girls (1960), Girl With Green Eyes (1962), Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) and fuelled her reputation for scandal in her homeland. The novels articulated what, until then, had remained relatively unspoken in staunchly Catholic Ireland: female sexual desire, active and acted upon. It was expressed gleefully by her young female protagonists, whose determination to enjoy themselves was, in itself, an instinctive act of rebellion against parochialism and patriarchy. The authorities responded by banning her books, the clergy by denouncing her from the pulpit. In her home town of Tuamgraney, County Clare, which she recently described as not a town at all, but a hill with some pubs, the local postmistress told her mother that, should her daughter dare to return, she should be kicked naked through the streets.

Those early novels had other less seismic, but more abiding, reverberations. Looking at The Country Girls now, it is not so shocking, says Irish novelist Anne Enright, but what endures is the way she portrays the friendship between the two girls. When I first read it at 16, what really chimed with me was their adventurousness, their defiant spirit. Female friendship had not been written about in that way in an Irish context until she came along.

The raw material for her early books was her own young life, which, as described in her wonderfully evocative 2012 memoir, Country Girl, was both fearful and transportive. She was raised in a once-grand house, the youngest child of a beleaguered mother and a sometimes tyrannical father. He was too fond of the drink, she tells me, but sadly for us, he was one of those unfortunate men who the drink did not agree with. She grew up in fear of his rages, often retreating as a child to the surrounding fields to daydream and to write imaginary stories in which, she recalled later, the words ran away with me.

As she got older, she became her mothers protector, her loyalty repaid by a fierce maternal love that turned to a suffocating possessiveness. When she rebelled, it was with a defiance that shocked the family and made her the talk of the parish. Having been sent to Dublin to train as a pharmacist, she met and fell for an older man, Ernest Gbler, an Irish writer of Czech-Jewish origin. She was 22 and he was 38, darkly handsome, divorced and the father of a young son. He was also an aspiring author, with a house in the country, a library and a classical music collection. This was culture! she told Alan Yentob recently. This was real culture!

Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Caine in Zee And Co, the 1972 film based on OBriens novel of the same name. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex

In 1958, in the hope of furthering his writing career, Gbler relocated the family to London, where OBrien found herself marooned in the drab outer suburbs of London with their two young children. It was there, in the hours between dropping off Carlo and Sasha at school and picking them up again, that she began writing, in a burst of feverish creativity. The words poured out on to the page, she says. It was the first and only time that happened. In Country Girl, she remembers writing in floods of tears, but they were good tears. They touched on feelings I did not know I had. They were feelings that at least one generation of young Irish women connected with deeply. As novelist Eimear McBride later put it: The Country Girls is not the novel that broke the mould, it is the one that made it OBrien gave voice to a previously muzzled generation of Irish women.

Her suddenly unleashed creativity unwittingly incensed Gbler, who appeared at breakfast one morning with a manuscript copy of the novel in his hand. He told her: You can write and I will never forgive you. Their marriage was dissolved in 1964 and, against the odds, OBrien was granted custody of the children after a three-year legal battle in which supposedly scandalous passages from her fourth novel, August Is a Wicked Month, were used as evidence of her wayward character.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when she was famous and fashionably scandalous, her regular house parties in Chelsea drew the likes of Marlon Brando, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum to her door. (According to her memoir, she succumbed only to the latters advances: We danced all the way up to the bedroom… with all the shyness of besotted strangers in syrupy songs.) For all that, though, she never remarried. I ask her if the trauma of that first, ill-fated union had hardened her against tying the knot again. She nods. I suppose I was always hooked on this idea of love, by which I mean deep love. I didnt have one-night flings, I just didnt. Not out of morality, but more my own conviction that love is so serious. Of course, its carnal and its many other things, but its such a unity. I suppose I got that from my religion very early on.

So, for her, love is an almost sacred ideal?

Sacred with profanity, she replies, laughing.

It was that other great Irish romantic, WB Yeats, who described the creative life as a process of continuous self-reinvention Myself must I remake. As her run of late novels attests, OBrien seems to be living by that dictum. Where once she wrote about the interior lives of her female protagonists, since the mid-1990s she has looked outwards for her subject matter, at the state of things, politically and culturally. It was a typically bold move that followed a fallow period when her high lyrical style felt out of fashion with reviewers and audiences alike.

Literature is a volatile business, says her son, Carlo. You are dependent on your latest success. When the critical tide turned against her, she shifted her voice. It became less lyrical, but there was absolute fidelity to clarity, lucidity and directness. It is those virtues that are at the centre of her literary practice.

A 2014 protest demanding the release of the girls abducted from Chibok by Boko Haram. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

The shift occurred, OBrien tells me, as my conscience and my consciousness opened out a bit to what was happening around me. The first evidence of this change in style and subject matter came with 1994s The House of Splendid Isolation, the first of what might be called her state-of-the-nation novels. It remains an interestingly flawed book, almost postmodern in its fragmented narrative style, but the stylistic experimentation was all but overlooked in scathing reviews that took issue with her too-sympathetic portrayal of an Irish Republican gunman.

Someone in the Spectator said I did not deserve the gifts I had been given, she says, still sounding mortally offended. Though her writing had, as she puts it, deepened and darkened, she was doing what she had always done: writing against the received wisdoms that prevailed in her homeland.

In the south of Ireland, what you heard most often was that there was a war going on up there in the north and that they were all as bad as each other. I felt that was both untrue on the ground and untrue to history, to what will be written and said 50 years from now.

Controversy also stalked her 2002 novel, In the Forest, which drew on a real tragedy that had transfixed Ireland eight years before: the triple murder of a mother, child and priest by a mentally disturbed man. The pre-eminent Irish critic, Fintan OToole, described it as a novel too far, later writing that there is simply no artistic need for so close an intrusion into other peoples grief. When I broach that criticism now, she takes a deep breath and says: If Garca Mrquez or other writers write those sort of stories, they are not attacked in their own country for it; but I am and I always have been attacked. I partly think its to do with being a woman and with the assumption that I approach themes that I shouldnt.

OBrien remains an indomitable presence, the defiance and determination that drove her younger self still apparent despite her physical fragility. A few weeks after we speak, she sends me an email suggesting she is aware that, at 88, she may still provoke controversy with the publication of Girl.

The email reads: It has been suggested to me that as an outsider I am not eligible to write this story. I do not subscribe to that devious form of censorship. Theme and territory belong to all who aspire to tell it and the only criteria [sic] is the gravity in the telling. I was haunted by the plight of girls in north-east Nigeria, Chibok and others, thrust into servitude, their childhoods stolen, the leeching of hope day by day. I marvel at their magnificent fortitude. The world is crying out for such stories to be told and I intend to explore them while there is a writing bone left in my body.

Her life, though, like her work, has become pared down. Im no longer a habitue of the social whirl, she says, smiling. But I love real conversations, whether with a shepherd or Schopenhauer, I dont care. So long as one is lifted from ones own stew to other things and learning, always learning.

With her son Sasha Gbler at Cecconis restaurant in Mayfair, London, 2007. Photograph: Linda Brownlee/The Observer

When shes not writing, she says to my surprise, she watches football: I love football, all football. Of late, too, she has been transfixed by the HBO series Chernobyl: It was so meticulously plotted I kept thinking of the opening chapters of War and Peace.

I ask her if, despite her run-ins with the Irish clergy, she is spiritually inclined. I think so, yes. I have the necessity to think there is a God, but not the God I was breastfed on a more compassionate one. But, when faced with the horror we see on the nightly news, any sane person would wonder, where is God in this scenario? So I am very puzzled and divided by God. Thats honestly how I feel.

Though she has no plans to return to Ireland, she has a very lovely grave there. It is situated on a holy island on the River Shannon.

Its my mothers family grave, but, ironically, she herself is not buried there, because she wanted her grave to be in a village where people passing by would say a prayer for her. Whereas I want the birds, and the old monasteries that are ruined, and the lake and just the song of nature.

I ask her if she has any regrets. No, not really. I have been a bit foolish in my life, she says, chuckling, Im a bit of a deep thinker, but Ive been foolish with money, foolish in love. But, regrets are a waste of time. One moves on. One has to. In the moment, I am capable of real anger, because I am a passionate and furious creature as well as being a rather tender one. I am capable of Medea murder, she says, laughing, but I am not old and bitter.

The following day, the Man Booker prize longlist is announced. Mystifyingly, Girl is not on it. When we speak again, she is disappointed, but philosophical. All I will say is, Im not throwing in the towel yet. There will be other prizes.

There may also be other books. Though she suggested recently that Girl would be her final novel, she tells me there may be another, but that it exists at present only on the nascent horizon. Still engaged, still curious, still defiant, Edna OBrien may yet surprise us once again.

Edna OBrien will be appearing at the National Theatre to discuss Girl on 5 September

Girl by Edna OBrien is published by Faber (16.99). To order a copy for 14.95 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more:

The American crime writer on his love of everything big, why he doesnt rate Raymond Chandler, and reading all 55 of Ed McBains 87th Precinct novels

James Ellroy is a crime fiction writer, best known for books such as The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential and American Tabloid, which are often set in mid-20th-century Los Angeles. His preoccupation with crime began as a child when his mother was killed in LA in what remains an unsolved murder. His new novel, This Storm, is set in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and is a frenetic mix of intrigue, corruption and racism, featuring a cast of Nazis, communists, rogue cops and, of course, murder.

This Storm is the second part of your second LA Quartet. Why do you write in trilogies and quartets?
I love everything big. I love a big movie. I love big pieces of symphonic music. And I like large novels. Since my early childhood, I have always lived in the past. Most often the recent past of America, this historical past, its what I love, its what I am, its what I do. My intent with readers is to uproot them from their daily lives and force-feed large swathes of American history and more specifically Los Angeles history. Its a love of size and scope and density and big emotion, big police investigations, big conspiracies. Everything big.

How do you think your writing style has changed since your breakthrough novel, The Black Dahlia, in 1987?
It became much more terse. Two books after The Black Dahlia, with LA Confidential, I developed a truncated, clipped style with exposition cut down to the minimum. Then when I embarked on the Underworld USA trilogy, I expanded the text in the third person because I wanted to enhance the emotional content of the book. I went back to the truncated style in The Cold Six Thousand, and took it to such screaming extremes that many reviewers found the book incomprehensible. And then in my ensuing three novels, I have been more interested in enhancing the style of the book to fit a more wholesome view of humanity. I am always tailoring the language of a book to the immediate story I am telling.

The characters in This Storm are lurid, brash, vulgar. There is now an occupant of the White House who could fit that description. Whats your opinion of him?
I dont talk about politics in any circumstances. The current day in America has nothing to do with my books.

Youre highly successful, but do you feel that youve received the critical acclaim that you deserve?
Its funny because Ive been more critically acclaimed in Britain than I have here in my own country. Whats important to me with the new book is that it also complements the publication of the three volumes of Everyman Library in America and the UK. So you have the LA Quartet in one volume, and then the Underworld USA in two volumes. In effect Ive been canonised. And thats a gas.

There are a mixture of real and invented characters in This Storm. Do you approach writing them in a different way?
Theres a key to writing historical characters. What I learned early on is that its best not to show them in previously established historical contexts. Better to show them in intimate contexts, out of the spotlight, mingling with my invented characters, who are always the dominant men and women in my books. Thus I think I have created a highly charged and entertaining J Edgar Hoover and John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and others in the Underworld USA trilogy. And in the second LA Quartet, Perfidia and This Storm, the much misunderstood William H Parker, who would go on to become in the 1950s the chief of LA police department.

Do you ever have problems remembering all the different characters youve created while writing a novel?
No, because I write enormous outlines. The outline for This Storm is 450 pages. So everything is there on the page. Its a diagram for me to write these extremely complex densely structured books. And the viability of the outline is such that given that the overall dramatic arcs are already established before I write the first word of the texts, this allows me to know that the story is there, down to the most minute detail, so that I can live improvisationally within the individual scenes, as long as they dont diverge from the outline.

Youre not a fan of Raymond Chandler, one of the founding fathers of hard-boiled crime fiction. Why is that?
I dont like the books and I dont think he knew people well. I dont like the style, and the plots are slapdash. The writing enchanted me as a 17-year-old, when I read all seven of Chandlers novels. I tried to read them two years ago and ended up tossing them across the room.

You often introduce yourself as the white knight of the far right. Is there any significance to that, other than rhyme?
Its schtick, brother. Its schtick. It rhymes. Its part of my alliterative peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants schtick.

What are you reading at the moment?
Im reading the Israeli hitman novels of Daniel Silva. He has a character who is both an art restorer and a hitman for Israeli intelligence, a man named Gabriel Allon, and Ive read all 18 of the books. And if Im lucky a new one will be published in the next few weeks and I can read it on the airplane to Britain.

What was the last truly great book that you read?
I reread Compulsion by Meyer Levin, his novel of the Leopold and Loeb killings in Chicago in 1924. It was published in 1956. I read it in the early 70s the first time. Ive read it six or seven times. Its a very fine novel of 1924 Chicago, a very astute novel of affluent Jewish American life, and its a very deft portrayal of two psychopaths.

What kind of reader were you as a child, and which books have stayed with you?
I was an early reader. My father taught me to read before I went to school. Ive always been a slow reader, a deliberate reader. It takes me longer than most people to read books. My early reading experience was going through stacks of Life magazine that my parents had in a closet. After my mothers death in the summer of 58, I started reading crime books. I remember reading John Creaseys Gideon of Scotland Yard books when I was 12 or 13. What I loved was the police novel, the detective novel, the spy novel, the novel of realistic intrigue. And thats what I still love.

What book might people be surprised to see on your shelves?
The baseball novels of Mark Harris. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. The early Philip Roth books, may he rest in peace. I have the autobiography of Elia Kazan, which Ive read a couple of times.

Who is your favourite literary anti-hero?
You know who I love, and I cant point to any one, are the psycho policemen in Joseph Wambaughs early novels. Theyre funny as shit. The books went through me like a jolt. This was the Los Angeles police department that I knew, that kicked my ass and deservedly so on three notable occasions.

Is there a particular novel that you repeatedly return to?
I can reread the Ed McBain 87th Precinct novels every several years. Ive read all 55 of them. I have them on a shelf in chronological order. The early ones are the best, the ones that Ed McBain, and thats a pseudonym for Evan Hunter, wrote between 1956 and 1972. He wrote very fast and very well.

Is there a book that you feel you should have read but havent?
Every once in a while I think I should read Crime and Punishment, especially since Joyce Carol Oates called me the American Dostoevsky. Its Russia, its the 19th century. Its not the stuff that I dig. I have a volume at home and every time I pick it up I go, Oh shit, I cant read this.

Youve got to read it
I know, I know. Youre chiding me, and others have, so one of these days Im going to pick the damn thing up.

James Ellroy is at Southbank Centres Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, on 27 May. Complete UK tour dates available at

This Storm by James Ellroy is published by Cornerstone (20). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more:

The satirical horror of Elliss debut Less Than Zero gives the novel its seductive force

TaB was introduced in 1963 as Coca-Colas first diet drink. It used zero-calorie saccharin instead of sugar, an innovation that was intended to inspire people to indulge in carbonated sweetness without worrying about packing on the pounds. Finally, pleasure could be enjoyed without guilt, risk or penalty. Forget water here was a soda to make life carefree. Drink TaB and you were released from mortal concern and responsibility, the ads suggested. More facetiously, commercials with skinny women sucking down TaB sold consumers the idea that drinking it would make you thin. TaB was less than zero, in this sense.

I remember first seeing TaB in movies in the 80s, when the drink rose to popularity. And it appears in Less Than Zero by the 21-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, with some frequency. Appropriately, within the first several pages, we hear that Muriel, a minor character, has been admitted to hospital with anorexia. TaBs nothingness seems central to the meaningless luxuries and woes of the 80s youth generation: immunity and ineffectuality are the highest privileges of the young, beautiful and rich. Less Than Zero harnesses that ineffectuality with minimalism, compressing ennui into dread, and then into horror. Thus, it succeeds in making something out of nothing.

The novels premise is simple: Clay, an 18-year-old college freshman, returns home to Los Angeles for the winter break. His ex-girlfriend, Blair, picks him up from the airport and drives him home, where he is greeted by no one but a new housekeeper and the ripped poster of Elvis Costello on his bedroom wall. This is not LA at large, but a very specific gated land of multimillion-dollar homes, pool boys, private chefs, Lamborghinis, flawless skin, smog and diamonds, designer clothes, and narcissism so rampant it is considered the status quo. During his few weeks at home, Clay reconnects with old friends, parties, drives around, fools around with a guy and a few girls, remembers things, gets manipulated into loaning money to a friend who has to turn tricks to pay off a debt, the usual rich-kid hijinks.

His parents split in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is Bret Easton Ellis in 1992. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

To say that the youths are badly behaved would be to insinuate that there are well-behaved adults chasing them with rulers. But the parents are absent, if not physically, then certainly psychically, and the attitudes of Clays mother and father, who have broken up, are not too far from their childrens aloof, corrupted and disconnected. Everybody gossips, fucks, drives drunk. These are not the kids in the 90s teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 trying to manage social lives and please their parents with good grades. This is a higher stratum, one of derangement brought on by wealth earned in a culture where nothing is sacred. Entertainment and its exploitative industry always push consciousness into a void of indifference. Only the alchemical measures of human experience seem to relate: sex and drugs. So it is in Less Than Zero, where everybodys mom or dad is a film executive or a movie star, and their children are left to fend for themselves, with expensive cars and credit cards at their disposal.

The emotional valence of Clays delivery is stark, a voice floating along with the smog and cigarette smoke. As the reader, I align myself with him, but Ellis still gets me to wonder whether Clay is on the inside or the outside of the nothingness. Clays is not a pragmatic soul, but has been silenced through the oppression of lovelessness in his upbringing and the culture in which his persona has developed. Teetering between two worlds New Hampshire, where he is a student, and Los Angeles he appears to have seen some light. Judgment cannot exist in a vacuum. For most of the novel, Clay harnesses the pacific patience of someone with nowhere better to be, no future, and no hope. But the velocity of his story running at high speed with silent anxiety, zooming down the freeway doing 100mph on downers listening to KNAC-FM gives the terse hollowness of the narration its driving force. How Ellis managed to give Clays voice the tension and weirdness that make this book unstoppable is beyond me as a writer. It is the calm one feels in the seconds before a car crash, just as you see the truck approaching and its too late to switch lanes. The impeccable timing, especially in scenes of dialogue, captures the banalities of Clays life in a way that both disgusts me and breaks my heart.

It is perhaps against the rules of the book, canned and sappy, to point out the utter lack of love in it, such is the cage around its heart. Italicised sections throughout the novel narrate more emotional times in Palm Springs before Clays grandmother dies, and even then, the world is flat, devoid of tenderness. The past is smoke in the desert. It might haunt you, but it has no bearing on the purposelessness of your current existence. Clay has two sisters, but they, too, are part of the system of drudgery and vanity. His dad takes Clay to dinners and treats him more like an underling or a frivolous employee than a beloved son. His mother is almost invisible in her blondness. She and Clay seem to have an understanding that superficial communication avoids the painful territories of alienation and misery. As it renders the progeny of cold Hollywood elites as hot-bodied consumers and posers in a pantomime version of their greedy, aloof parents snorting coke, doing lunch, getting drinks at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel Less Than Zero satirises a world that feels emblematic of the ills of 1985, but also intensely personal. The lens of the narrator feels close to the authors.

Perhaps that is my projection as a reader, one I make to explain how a voice so unaffected in its delivery could make my heart crash: I so badly want this world to be tethered to something real, to be the scratches on the prison walls, and for those marks to be rich with meaning. Expert satire functions this way; despite the straight read, we still identify and comprehend. It is not just a criticism of the world, but a full experience of it. With a little digging, I learn that Elliss parents split in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is. Not that it would change its impact, but the intimate knowledge of such a niche sphere of life raises the question.

Jami Gertz as Blair, Andrew McCarthy as Clay in the film adaptation of Less Than Zero. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

I can only imagine the alienation this literary prodigy felt in a world that commodified art as entertainment designed to make us slaves of fashion and attitudes, to work hard to buy the right cars, date the right people, imbibe non-nutritive soft drinks, zone out in front of the TV. Only a bright young person can look at the contemporary world and see where its going, unhinged from the static of the past. One political reading is to say the book functions as a condemnation of the evils of media. Los Angeles is a factory of illusion. It manufactures illusions, and creates an illusion around that making. Hollywood, which looks like shimmering magic from afar, is a complex system of egomaniacal executives responsible for feeding the masses narrative media, those box office hits we celebrate as the expressions of our cultural identity. Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Ellis would perhaps have experienced this culture first-hand.

Less Than Zero was published in 1985, the same year TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah, the US version of the Nintendo Entertainment System came out and the Unabomber killed his first victim. Life-insurance companies began screening for HIV. The CD-Rom was introduced. Ronald Reagan, a former actor deeply entrenched in corrupt Hollywood politics, was US president. The economic collapse of the middle class was romanticised in Hollywood for great profit, selling the trappings of suffering back to the people living the real deal with no exit strategy but their own eyes and ears fixed to their screens and radios. And to think, these were more innocent times! Decades later, with Trump in office, it seems that when there is an entertainer in the White House, our culture descends into indecency we lose track of what we mean by humanity.

The concept comes up only in the context of pain and death. Meanwhile, the division between art and entertainment becomes wonderfully clear. Entertainment is fodder for the masses, something to keep them busy and shopping while the world dies. Hollywood capitalises on misery by canning culture and feeding it to us spoonful by spoonful. Art, by contrast, is critical of the system of brainwashing, dehumanising, consumerism and greed. The difference between sincerity and satire is in the eye of the beholder. Someone with critical thinking can detect satire. Someone who is used to swallowing blindly whatever is served will never understand subtlety. I think this is why Less Than Zero was so controversial. The end of the book is the product of so much indifference. There is a dead kid in an alley who Clays friends make into a spectacle, a 12-year-old sex slave drugged and tied to a bed. Clay, initially running on the fumes of his habituated high-school patterns, begins to see his way out of the fog by the end of the novel. Its the shock of the dead kid or the 12-year-old, or its his self-disgust as a participant in passivity. The ambiguity is precise.

Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We value outgoingness, aplomb, direct attacks and celebrations. We favour straight arrows over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it functions with a delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness which readers often lack. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might think, Well, that was disturbing, and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as inappropriate and wrong. Such a reading does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing, nor the fact that these inappropriate scenes are actually a direct reflection of reality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in our world, out of shame or vanity.

The generative experience of reading this book is that of staring at a portrait of the human world LA is its costume for long enough to see through the facade. The underbelly is always dark, but that darkness isnt whats so interesting. Its what the darkness is obscuring a blank place unmarred by romanticism and sentimentalism, the hard truth. It is invisible because it is true. One must detach from the mundane activities of life to see this blankness, this freedom. This is the beauty of Less Than Zero. The quiet transparency of existential terror is precisely what blew my mind. I am not horrified by a 12-year-old girl drugged and tied to a bed while getting gang-raped. Im horrified by the silence around it. If this book is an existential satire, its premise is that the world is hell disguised as paradise.

Less Than Zero is published by Picador Classics (8.99). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more:

Essays from Zadie Smith, Arnhem from Antony Beevor and novels from Julian Barnes, Sarah Perry, Pat Barker, Rachel Cusk and Bill Clinton. Place your book orders now


Peter Carey. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian


The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton). Eggers tells the story of a fellow San Franciscan and coffee enthusiast Mokhtar Alkhanshali, raised by Yemeni immigrant parents, who travelled to Yemen to learn about the origins of coffee making and is caught up in the civil war.

Writers Luck: A Memoir 1976-1991 by David Lodge (Harvill Secker). This second volume of autobiography covers the years of the British author and academics greatest success, with the publication of novels such as Nice Work.

Where the Past Begins: A Writers Memoir by Amy Tan (4th Estate). The author of The Joy Luck Club writes about her traumatic childhood and her complex relationship with her father.

The Growth Delusion by David Pilling (Bloomsbury). The story of our ill-judged obsession with GDP, and how we should be measuring societies.


A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey (Faber). The double Booker winner scrutinises Australian identity, indigenous and white, through the story of one womans involvement in a brutally punishing 1950s round-Australia motorsport race.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor (4th Estate). Spinoff tales about the characters from the Costa-winning Reservoir 13.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (Faber). This French bestseller, which won the Prix Goncourt, probes fault lines of class, race and gender through the tale of a nanny who is fatally attached to the family she serves.

Turning for Home by Barney Norris (Doubleday). The follow-up to the playwrights debut novel, the quietly brilliant Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, focuses on a family gathering.

The Unmapped Country by Ann Quin (And Other Stories). Rare stories and unpublished fragments from the radical 1960s writer.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld). Generations of a family suffer under a curse in a Ugandan epic spanning the last 250 years that blends oral storytelling, myth and folklore and has been described as the most important book to come out of Uganda for half a century.


Dont Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (Chatto). An interrogation of race, sexuality and social justice featuring a sequence imagining the afterlife of black men shot by the police.

Events and anniversaries

15 TS Eliot prize awarded.

30 Costa book of the year chosen from the winners of the five categories: novel, first novel, biography, poetry and childrens.


Zadie Smith. Photograph: Brian Dowling/Getty Images


Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton). Smith is as accomplished an essayist as she is a novelist; her subjects here range from Quentin Tarantino to Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch (Cape). An examination of everyday racism in Britain and why liberal attempts to be colour-blind have caused more problems than they have solved.

The Wifes Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam (4th Estate). A narrative of Ethiopia over the past century that centres on Edemariams remarkable and long-lived grandmother.

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane). In a follow-up to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist argues that our turbulent times require not despair but reason and Enlightenment values.


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (Cape). The cult American author, who died last year, was most celebrated for his only short story collection, Jesus Son; this posthumous collection, completed shortly before his death, sees him contemplating memories and mortality.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes (Cape). A man looks back on how, as a disaffected youth, he fell gloriously in love with a married older woman at the local tennis club; the book gradually darkens into the tragedy of a destroyed life.

The Melody by Jim Crace (Picador). From the author of Harvest, a fable about grief, myth, music and persecution, in which a widowed musician indavertently sparks a campaign of violence against the paupers scratching a living on the fringes of town.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Little, Brown). The Dry was one of the stand-out crime debuts of 2017; Australian author Harper follows it with a story of women hiking in the bush five go out, but only four come back.


The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson (Bloomsbury). YA debut about a girl caught between rival magical factions.

Events and anniversaries

1 Centenary of the birth of Muriel Spark.

2 Film adaptation of RC Sherriffs first world war play Journeys End.


Neil MacGregor. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian


Living With the Gods by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane). The book of the British Museum exhibition and BBC Radio 4 series from the author of A History of the World in 100 Objects.

Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh (Faber). The acclaimed classical music writer on the French impressionist composer.

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Square Peg). The journalist takes a trip back to Narnia and Wonderland, and gets reacquainted with some of the favourite characters of our collective childhoods.

Free Woman by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury). The prolific scholar and reviewer on the life and works of Doris Lessing.


Dead Mens Trousers by Irvine Welsh (Cape). The Trainspotting crew return; Renton is now an international jetsetter and Begbie a famous artist. But with Sick Boy and Spud trying their luck in the world of organ-harvesting, whos wearing dead mens trousers?

Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (Cape). Riffs on life and love in prose and comic strip form, from the author of The Time Travelers Wife and her graphic artist husband.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (Cape). A Somerset man is drowned and the village priest must investigate a medieval mystery from one of the UKs most exquisite stylists.

Upstate by James Wood (Cape). Why do some find life so much harder than others? The leading literary critic delves into depression and the meaning of existence in a novel about family relationships.

Almost Love by Louise ONeill (Riverrun). First adult novel from the author of the scorching YA book about rape culture Asking for It charts the abusive relationship between a young woman and an older man.


Anecdotal Evidence by Wendy Cope (Faber). In Copes first new collection since 2011, she engages with figures from Shakespeare to Eric Morecambe.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (Macmillan). Epic fantasy YA debut of magic and war, inspired by the history and myth of west Africa.

Events and anniversaries

Centenary of publication of Marie Stopes Married Love.

13 Macbeth begins an RSC season in which the new productions are all directed by women, including a musical about Joan Littlewood.

18 250th anniversary of the death of Laurence Sterne.

28 150th anniversary of the birth of Maxim Gorky.


Viv Albertine To Throw Away Unopened. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian


The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (Allen Lane). The bestselling author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is back with an exploration of the meaning of time.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton). The author of novels Hot Milk and Swimming Home also wrote Things I Dont Want to Know, a living autobiography on writing and womanhood. This short memoir is the second instalment.

To Throw Away Unopened by Viv Albertine (Faber Social). In her followup to the much-praised Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys., the former Slits guitarist uncovers truths about her family.

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose (Faber). Its always the mothers fault the renowned feminist critic on the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings.

Rosie by Rose Tremain (Chatto). The novelists first non-fiction book is a childhood memoir that casts a revealing light on the vanished world of 1940s and 1950s England.


Agency by William Gibson (Viking). The new novel from the colossus of SF switches between a world in which Hillary Clinton won the US election and London two centuries in the future, after most of the global population has perished.

Circe by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury). The Song of Achilles won the Orange prize in 2012; Millers follow-up stays in the world of Homers Odyssey to explore the story of the witch-goddess who turns Odysseuss men into pigs.

I Still Dream by James Smythe (Borough). A 17-year-old girl builds herself an AI system in her bedroom: as the decades pass, it grows with her. An investigation into artificial and human intelligence, which extends into the past and future.

Never Greener by Ruth Jones (Bantam). A debut novel about second chances from the actor and screenwriter best known for Gavin and Stacey.

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal (Viking). In the follow-up to My Name Is Leon, a young Irish woman in 70s Birmingham is caught up in whirlwind romance and tragedy.

Macbeth by Jo Nesb (Hogarth). The project to novelise Shakespeare continues, with the Norwegian crime writer imagining the antihero of the Scottish play as a drug addict turned cop.

Patient X by David Peace (Faber). The author of GB84 and The Damned Utd is here inspired by the life and stories of the great Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, best known for Rashomon.


Europa by Sean OBrien (Picador). The multi-prize-winning poet focuses on past and uncertain future entanglements between Britain and continental Europe.

Events and anniversaries

10-12 London book fair, with the Baltic countries as this years market focus.

20 Release of Mike Newells film Guernsey, set in the late 40s and based on the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

23 Womens prize for fiction shortlist.


Zora Neale Hurston Barracoon. Photograph: Little & Brown Publishing


Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston (HarperCollins). A previously unpublished work, in which the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God recounts the true story of the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade.

How to Change Your Mind: Exploring the New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (Allen Lane). The author celebrated for eat food, not too much, mostly plants takes a voyage to the frontiers of human consciousness.

Arnhem: The Last German Victory by Antony Beevor (Viking). The bestselling historian on the great airborne battle for the bridges in 1944.

Shapeshifters: On Medicine & Human Change by Gavin Francis (Profile). The GP and author of the bestselling Adventures in Human Being combines case studies with cultural observation as he examines how our minds and bodies undergo constant change.

Behold, America by Sarah Churchwell (Bloomsbury). A partial history of US rightwing isolationism and the America First movement.


Last Stories by William Trevor (Viking). One of the publishing events of the year: a posthumous collection of 10 final stories from the Irish master of the short form.

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey (Viking). The followup to Elizabeth Is Missing is the story of a 15-year-old-girl who goes missing, and comes back unharmed but changed.

Kudos by Rachel Cusk (Faber). A female writer travels round a turbulent Europe in the final volume of Cusks innovative trilogy about how we construct our own identities.

The Neighbourhood by Mario Vargas Llosa (Faber). The latest from the Peruvian Nobel laureate features two wealthy couples in 1990s Lima embroiled in political corruption and erotic intrigues.

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers (Sceptre). Six years after winning the Guardian first book award with his Iraq novel The Yellow Birds, the former soldier explores the violence of the American civil war.


The Colour of the Sun by David Almond (Hodder). The real and the imaginary blend for one Tyneside boy on one sunny day, in the new novel from the author of Skellig.

Events and anniversaries

75th anniversary of first publication (in the US) of TS Eliots Four Quartets.

8 Rathbones Folio prize awarded.

22 Man Booker international prize ceremony.

24 Hay festival opens (continues until 3 June).


Bill Clinton The President Is Missing. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives by Mark Miodownik (Viking). The scientist and broadcaster discusses liquids in a book structured around a plane journey.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani (Verso). This influential voice on the British left looks at automation, machine learning, gene editing and asteroid mining to argue that communism is possible: the third disruption after agriculture and the industrial revolution.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (Canongate). Part memoir from the film-maker and part biography, incorporating interviews with his friends, subtitled a life in art.

Fallout: Disasters, Lies and the Legacy of the Nuclear Age by Fred Pearce (Granta). The science and environment journalist in a shocking book that considers seven decades of nuclear technology.


The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Century). The former president brings insider detail to a political thriller written with the mega-selling Patterson.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Cape). His first novel since 2012s Cats Table is set in London after the blitz, as two children are apparently abandoned and left in the care of an eccentric, possibly criminal figure.

Girl, Balancing and Other Stories by Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson). Dunmore became the posthumous winner of the Costa poetry prize for Inside the Wave; this collection of stories will be published a year after her death.

Crudo by Olivia Laing (Macmillan). Set in the febrile summer of 2017, an autobiographical fiction debut from the author of The Lonely City, about hitting 40 and finding intimacy in a world that seems to be spiralling out of control.

You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian (Cape). The debut collection from the author of 2017s most discussed short story, Cat Person, is expected to be published some time in the summer.


Blackbird, Bye Bye by Moniza Alvi (Bloodaxe). A collection unified by an engagement with birds that examines immigration, grief and art.

Events and anniversaries

6 Womens prize for fiction winner announced.

15 Film version of On Chesil Beach, self-adapted by Ian McEwan, starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle.


To find the novel Id written was one of my heros favourites and may now be chosen for his new book group is an honour like no other, writes Rupert Thomson

I spent most of 1997 living in a small ground-floor apartment in Rome. One morning the phone rang. It was Interview magazine, calling from New York. The man told me they had a great new idea for a series of interviews: they would be asking famous people to talk to people who were much less famous. I knew right away which role I would be occupying. So whos going to interview me? I asked.

David Bowie, the man said. I almost fell off my chair.

Between 1969 and 1984 I had been obsessed with Bowie. During those 15 years, I bought every album he released as soon as it came out. I knew the words of all his songs. I loved Bowies music so much that I decided I could never see him live for fear of being disappointed. What an idiot. In the meantime, his influence spread through all aspects of my life. The makeup, the showmanship, the androgyny he gave us permission to flirt with different identities, to be the people we wanted to be. If I hadnt endlessly listened to his classic 1973 album, Aladdin Sane, would I have flown to the US as soon as Id graduated from university? I doubt it. He wrote the soundtrack for that part of my life.

Why did you think of David Bowie? I asked the man from Interview magazine, when I had recovered from the shock.

Because he loved your book, The Insult, the man said.

I waited for the magazine to call again, as they had promised to, but the days went by, and then the weeks, and the phone didnt ring. The interview never took place. I never did meet, or even talk to, Bowie.

In my memoir, published in 2010, I mentioned him several times, including a vodka-drenched late-night viewing of the documentary about the famous last-ever Ziggy Stardust show at the Hammersmith Odeon. So I thought it might be a nice gesture to send him a copy and mailed a proof to the woman who managed Bowies New York office. Though I never heard back from him she assured me that Mr Bowie had received it. Did I jog his memory, I wonder? When, three years later, his list of 100 must-read books were revealed, I was thrilled and astonished to see that The Insult had made it on to the list.

Bowie gave us permission to be the people we wanted to be Rupert Thomson. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

The David Bowie Book Club, which Duncan Jones has just launched as a tribute to his fathers love of literature, seems like a thoughtful initiative as well as logical one, since the books will be chosen from that 2013 selection. It will be interesting to see what members of this new reading group make of seminal counterculture works such as Camille Paglias Sexual Personae and Greil Marcuss Mystery Train and classics such as Hubert Selby Jrs Last Exit to Brooklyn and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. And who knows, if the reading group lasts, perhaps The Insult will also, one day, be put before them.

In the 30 years I have been writing, I have received kind letters from an unexpectedly eclectic range of people, including Liv Ullmann, Tobias Wolff, John Cale, Samantha Morton, Philip Pullman, and Budgie, the drummer from Siouxsie and the Banshees (my first ever fan letter, written on dark-blue note-paper and postmarked West Berlin). But it always makes my day if someone bothers to let me know they love something I have written, no matter who they are. Every reader is equally valuable. Reading is, in that sense, a great leveller. And a book actually benefits from being read by a wide variety of people. It becomes richer and more strange. As the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote: A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.

Even so, to have had the seal of approval from a hero, to imagine his fingers turning the pages, his mind responding and reacting to the sentences, is not something I bargained for, or ever dared to imagine. Im not a writer who has had much luck with prizes, but as Lionel Shriver said to me the other day, when we were talking about not being celebrated: That Bowie accolade, though. No one can take that away from you. She paused. You can take that to your grave.

Read more:

The British author behind books including Man Booker winner The Remains of the Day takes the award for his novels of great emotional force

The English author Kazuo Ishiguro has been named winner of the 2017 Nobel prize in literature, praised by the Swedish Academy for his novels of great emotional force, which it said had uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.

With names including Margaret Atwood, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Haruki Murakami leading the odds at the bookmakers, Ishiguro was a surprise choice. But his blue-chip literary credentials return the award to more familiar territory after last years controversial selection of the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The author of novels including The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguros writing, said the Academy, is marked by a carefully restrained mode of expression, independent of whatever events are taking place.

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, the writer said it was amazing and totally unexpected news.

It comes at a time when the world is uncertain about its values, its leadership and its safety, Ishiguro said. I just hope that my receiving this huge honour will, even in a small way, encourage the forces for goodwill and peace at this time.

Ishiguros fellow Booker winner Salman Rushdie who is also regularly named as a potential Nobel laureate was one of the first to congratulate him. Many congratulations to my old friend Ish, whose work Ive loved and admired ever since I first read A Pale View of Hills, Rushdie said. And he plays the guitar and writes songs too! Roll over Bob Dylan.

According to the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, Ishiguros imaginative world has the great virtue and value of being simultaneously highly individual and deeply familiar a world of puzzlement, isolation, watchfulness, threat and wonder.

How does he do it? asked Motion. Among other means, by resting his stories on founding principles which combine a very fastidious kind of reserve with equally vivid indications of emotional intensity. Its a remarkable and fascinating combination, and wonderful to see it recognised by the Nobel prize-givers.

Ishiguro holds a press conference outside his London home after the win. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Permanent secretary of the academy Sara Danius spoke to Ishiguro about his win around an hour after the announcement: He was very charming, nice and well-versed, of course. He said he felt very grateful and honoured, and that this is the greatest award you can receive.

She described Ishiguros writing as a mix of the works of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix, and then you stir, but not too much, and then you have his writings.

Hes a writer of great integrity. He doesnt look to the side, hes developed an aesthetic universe all his own, she said. Danius named her favourite of Ishiguros novels as The Buried Giant, but called The Remains of the Day a true masterpiece [which] starts as a PG Wodehouse novel and ends as something Kafkaesque.

He is someone who is very interested in understanding the past, but he is not a Proustian writer, he is not out to redeem the past, he is exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place as an individual or as a society, she said, adding in the wake of last years uproar that she hoped the choice would make the world happy.

Thats not for me to judge. Weve just chosen what we think is an absolutely brilliant novelist, she said.

Ishiguros publisher at Faber & Faber, Stephen Page, said the win was absolutely extraordinary news.

Hes just an absolutely singular writer said Page, who received news of Ishiguros win while waiting for a flight at Dublin airport. He has an emotional force as well as an intellectual curiosity, that always finds enormous numbers of readers. His work is challenging at times, and stretching, but because of that emotional force, it so often resonates with readers. Hes a literary writer who is very widely read around the world.

Born in Japan, Ishiguros family moved to the UK when he was five. He studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, going on to publish his first novel, A Pale View of the Hills, in 1982. He has been a full time writer ever since. According to the Academy, the themes of memory, time and self-delusion weave through his work, particularly in The Remains of the Day, which won Ishiguro the Booker prize in 1989 and was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins as the duty-obsessed butler Stevens.

His more recent novels have taken a turn for the fantastical: Never Let Me Go is set in a dystopic version of England, while The Buried Giant, published two years ago, sees an elderly couple on a road trip through a strange and otherworldly English landscape. This novel explores, in a moving manner, how memory relates to oblivion, history to the present, and fantasy to reality, said the Swedish Academy. Apart from his eight books, which include the short story collection Nocturnes, Ishiguro has written scripts for film and television, and revealed on Thursday that he was also working on a graphic novel.

Im always working on a novel, but Im hoping to collaborate on comics – not superheroes, he said. But Im in discussions with people to work on a graphic novel, which excites me because its new for me and it reunited me with my childhood, reading manga.

Awarded since 1901, the 9m Swedish krona (832,000) Nobel prize is for the writing of an author who, in the words of Alfred Nobels bequest, shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction. Ishiguro becomes the 114th winner, following in the footsteps of writers including Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Mo Yan and Pablo Neruda.

The award is judged by the secretive members of the Swedish Academy, who last year plumped for the American musician Dylan for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition. He proved an elusive winner and was described as impolite and arrogant by academy member Per Wastberg after initially failing to acknowledge the honour.

Some members of the literary community were also less than impressed: This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush, said Hari Kunzru at the time. The choice of a writer who has won awards including the Man Booker prize should pour oil on at least some of the troubled waters ruffled by Dylans win, though Will Self reacted to Ishiguros win in characteristically lugubrious fashion.

Hes a good writer, Self said, and from what Ive witnessed a lovely man, but the singularity of his vision is ill-served by such crushing laurels, while I doubt the award will do little to reestablish the former centrality of the novel to our culture.

Read more: