It isn’t often you encounter a totally unique new voice in the literary landscape and it’s even more impressive when that voice finds its way onto the most prestigious shortlists around (the Man Booker, the Orange Prize), which that’s exactly what Esi Edugyan has done with her second novel, Half Blood Blues. The Canadian author has gracefully sidestepped literary clichés like ‘the pram in the hall’ (she’s a new mum) and ‘write what you know’ (Half Blood Blues concerns a black German jazz musician living in Nazi-occupied Paris).
Half Blood Blues is a mystery story, a work of historical fiction and a love letter to jazz, which vibrates through every line of this astonishing novel. Esi is that rare thing, a writer who can accurately capture and convey the magic of sound through language and I wanted to find out more about how she came to write one of the most memorable novels I’ve read in years.
Writing about music is notoriously difficult – even so-called music journalists cheat by saying “it sounds like this crossed with this” – but it feels like you almost created a whole new language in order to describe the sound and feel of jazz in Half Blood Blues and it’s incredibly powerful and moving. Did that take a lot of effort, or was it a natural expression of how you respond to music, and jazz in particular?
Thank you! Part of the challenge in writing fiction - any aspect of fiction - is finding a way to capture and reflect the experience of being in the world. Music journalists have a different task - one of locating a piece of music in its context, discussing its structure, its meanings, etc. In fiction, the challenge (for me, at least) is to find a way to show the experience of the music. I wouldn't wish to claim that it came easily to me. That would be to deny the long, long hours of revising. But the angle of approach is not so very different when describing sounds as when describing any of the other senses - sights, smells, textures. You stare at the thing a long time until it comes clear.
How does it feel being nominated for the Booker and the Orange Prize for this novel? Does this kind of critical acclaim matter to you as a writer, both practically (sales etc.) and emotionally?
It's always lovely being recognized for the work, and a tremendous honour to be included in the company of such extraordinary writers. And I consider myself incredibly lucky. But it's important to keep it in perspective - so many wonderful novels are overlooked each year. The encouragement, I suppose, is the most meaningful part of it.
Once you’ve finished writing a novel and it’s been published and is out there in the public domain do you still feel connected to it, or is it like it doesn’t really belong to you anymore?
I still feel very connected to it. But the novel changes, too, as readers bring their own perspectives to bear. That's perhaps the most curious, most unexpected part of the process.
The characters in Half Blood Blues have their stories revealed in glimpses and fragments, and we don’t end up knowing exactly what happened to everyone in the book and why. Was that a challenge – knowing what to hold back to encourage readers to fill in the gaps themselves?
Certainly I'd like the novel to feel like life, with its uncertainties as well as its defining moments. But what you are describing perhaps is closer to a natural aspect of the writing itself. A novel goes through so many drafts, so many shifts, both large and small, that stories inevitably begin to pull apart and thin out in places, and layer themselves more thickly in others. Proportioning becomes part of the process. At a certain point it begins to feel in balance, and that's when I try to step back.
When you’re writing about people in another place, another time (and mostly, another gender) is that a daunting prospect, compared to writing about ‘what you know’? Did you relish that, or were you worried about not getting their voices and stories right? And how did you get Louis Armstrong’s voice to sound so real?!
There is a difference to my mind between authenticity and rightness. Certain facts need to be respected, of course. But characters themselves are, at their most fully realized, particular individuals - and like any of us, are capable of being so wholly themselves that what they do and say needs to be consistent and make sense only with their particular life experiences. I enjoyed the freedom from my own immediate surroundings, in the writing of this book. But there is so much of myself in it - in each of the characters - that when I look at it now it doesn't feel nearly as removed from me as it appears to be. There's some of me in Sid and in Chip, in Hiero and in Delilah. And even, I suppose, in Louis.
What initially drew you to this particular period in history and these people’s stories? And why did you choose to make Sid’s voice the main one, rather than Hiero’s?
I was living in Germany and came across a reference to black Germans born after WWI. I began to wonder what their experiences must have been like in the Nazi era. Sid's voice, from the very beginning, seemed like the right one. Part of this novel's concern is with the stories that have been lost to history, the stories of people like Hiero, black Germans, largely absent from the historical record. I didn't want to presume to speak in an absent voice, telling a missing story.
Could you tell us a bit about how your background and career, and how you came to be a writer? Did you always ‘know’ that’s what you wanted to do? Do you find the process of sitting down and writing a novel easy or challenging?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of 13, and grew up with books and reading avidly. Every novel is a challenge, and is unique to itself. No two books present the same challenges.
I’m loathe to ask you how you ‘juggle’ your writing career with having a baby, because it feels like no-one ever seems to ask male authors those kind of questions, but it would be great to know how the 'pram in the hall' has altered your approach to writing, if at all?
It's still so new to me, and things have been so busy, that I haven't yet had time to find a routine. You do what you must, what you can, when you can. And maybe it goes on like that for many years. But then, it seemed like life was like that before, as well. I would say that everything shifted dramatically with the birth of my daughter, and I'm a different person. That is likely to be the biggest change in my writing - that sort of change in myself.
QUICK FIRE ROUND!
What have you read recently that you would recommend? Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer.
What’s the book you re-read when you’re feeling blue? Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
What book would you hand down to your daughter? Anything by Roald Dahl.
Who is your role model or inspiration, personally or as a writer? My mother-in-law - the most positive person I know. Not an answer you get often, I'd imagine!