Howard’s Way

Last Thursday was the 26 Annual Speech at the British Library.  
(What’s 26?)

Past speakers have been Phil Collins (no, not that one) and Oona King. This year the speech was given by a slightly-more-hoarse-than-usual Howard Jacobson. Hoarse on account of his recent whirlwind of post Booker-winning interviews. In the twenty-seventh year of his career, he’s a man who, in Allison Pearson’s words, ‘flirts dangerously with language…’ and ‘makes love with sentences’.

Despite having had about two hours sleep in the last week, the man was funny, eloquent and utterly inspiring. He spoke on a range of issues – from his winning book The Finkler Question (which only took him a year to write), to religion, the notion of ‘plot’, and to the joys of jealousy. Throughout his whole speech, there were countless gems of utter wisdom – I haven’t heard a speaker as mind-blowingly eloquent since Stephen Fry. So here are just a few Jacobson gems from the night:

“I’m not interested in plot. But this is a story. Our being in this room, talking to each other.”

like to find comedy where it should not be. The taste of death in the
laughter. Squeeze the laughter out of desperation. That’s the best kind
of laugh.’

“We are all thin-skinned. Otherwise we would not be writers.”

“Giving compliments that you have a gift for writing can actually give you that gift.”

“Without Thou shalt not commit adultery adultery’s not worth committing.”

“If you’re involved in language, the Judeo-Christian god is important. He spoke some good words.”

“I like to take myself where I wouldn’t normally go. This is the stuff of our humanity. Sex, belief, death. As a fiction writer I’m committed to uncertainty. I question everything.”

“Characters. I don’t know who they are until they come into the book. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Reading another writer reminds you that your own words get stale.”

“That’s what comedy is – it’s the sheer accuracy of the description. Finding exactly the right word. The best comedy is verbal.”

“If sentence 1 isn’t right, I can’t write sentence 2.”

“I am the sum of their different natures. Mother was quiet and read books. Father was an entertainer and never read a book in his life.”

This last one reminded me of something I’ve always wondered about children of divorce. If your parents didn’t get on, or were incompatible for whatever reason – but you’re made up of half of both of them – surely that means that you’re fundamentally unbalanced in some way? Or at least, full of conflicting personality traits…?! Conversely, are the people who’s parents stay together more harmonious beings? Jacobson’s comment that ‘we are our parent’s battleground’ would support that idea in a way. ‘They’re so different,’ he said of his own ‘But at the same time, I want to be each of them.’

After the talk, Mr Jacobson was signing copies of The Finkler Question. I asked him what one bit of advice he would give to someone writing a book now?

His answer was, instead of getting bogged down with detail, just start writing without any regard for the plot – just ‘relax it, let it go, set it free’. Which, when you’re so often taught to think about plotting, structure and planning, is quite a refreshing, liberating thought.

Above all, he says, ‘your touch must be light’. If you don’t force it, your characters will go where you don’t exist – have thoughts you never would have had. Then, you’ve gone beyond the writing, and you’ve let the characters take over, take on a life of their own. 

On a less serious note, here is a more furry way to decide the next Booker Prize winner: The Bunny Booker.


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