In Conversation with Britain's Greatest Living Novelist
James Mullinger Meets Alan Hollinghurst
It is fair to say that Hollinghurst is not one to rush his work, but
the half decade between books more than pays off. The Wall Street
Journal has described him as “one of the best novelists at work today”
and his latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, lives up to the colossal
expectation. Spanning from WWII blitz blackouts to WhatsApp and
Grindr via political scandals and the legalization of homosexuality, it
is another masterpiece, epic in scope but minute in its details.
Hollinghurst’s debut, The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988, was the
first instance of what was called a “crossover novel.” As he said to
me the last time we met, “It was a book very much about gay life,
but which was read by all kinds of people.” He writes about sex with
more eloquence and beauty than almost any other writer, but it’s the
simmering underlying passions that drive so much of his work. As
Michael muses in the final part of The Sparsholt Affair, “the shimmer
of potential sex was more alluring than the fact of it.”
Over strong coffee in Hollinghurst’s stunning Victorian home
overlooking London’s Hampstead Heath, we discussed his latest
work and his creative process.
THE MARITIME EDIT: The Sparsholt Affair has received almost universally
glowing reviews, but how much do you care about reviews at
this stage of your career?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I have always been quite interested in reviews,
I think partly because I put out a book so rarely that I am interested
in how it is going to fare. But I have noticed this time that I am less
bothered by them. There have been a couple of unpleasant reviews
that I was advised not to read so I just didn’t. There is a simple magic
to not reading these reviews in that by not reading them you are not
bothered. You are not arguing about them in your head. There have
been a few lovely reviews that I have read, but I haven’t gone back to
them to dwell on or revel in them. I do feel a bit more detached from
the whole process now.
THE MARITIME EDIT: To get swept up in praise can make one complacent.
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: Yes. It was a difficult book to write. I had more
problems with it than I have had before. There were aspects that I
was unsure about, so when people did take to it I felt very relieved.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What were those concerns?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: When you are writing a book that covers
70 years, there is so much that you can’t put in. And unusually,
I did write some extra bits for this book that didn’t make the
final edit. Normally I am too cautious to do that.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What do you mean by cautious?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I don’t want to waste my energy and time
by writing something that might not be right.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do you think that you wrote those extra
bits to help guide you in the events that did make it in, kind
of like an actor giving their character a backstory?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I think that may be the case.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Were these explicit things about the
affair and scandal?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: No, they weren’t actually. They were
later and feature Evert Dax going to a book fair in Antwerp. It
was pointed out to me that it was slowing everything down. I
thought it was really rather good, but I can see that that was
not what the book was about and it was getting in the way.
I may release that separately as a kind of private bonus. It’s
funny, you know. When you get older you have more conviction
about how to do some things, but I find that it does sort of
become more of an effort.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Does it bother you that people bring up
the time between your novels?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: There is nothing I can do about it. At the
end of the book I always feel completely drained and welcome
a period, a year or more, of not writing a book.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What do you do at that point?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I usually try to spend some time on all
the other things I promised that I would write. I used to have a
very strong emotional reaction when I finished a book. There
was the moment of exhilaration, but then there was a strange
sense of loss. After spending all these years going to this other
place and messing around there, I couldn’t go there any longer.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What is your writing process like?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: When I am up and running I have quite
a good routine. I may even write four or five hundred words
in a day.
THE MARITIME EDIT: So it is always measured and considered?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: Yes. I have never surprised myself by suddenly
writing five thousand words in a day. I think I should feel extremely
suspicious of it if I did. Sometimes — and unexpectedly — something
just opens up. A lot of the most enjoyable things in writing are the
things that you hadn’t anticipated happening.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Do you enjoy book tours?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: Yes. It’s seven years since I was last in Toronto, so
I’m extra pleased at the thought of going back. I’ve always been very
happy in Canada — the warmth of welcome, interest, understanding.
But I’ve usually been too busy talking about myself to see the sights,
a melancholy visit to Niagara Falls notwithstanding. I’m hoping to get
back to the Art Gallery of Ontario to explore more painters, like Tom
Thomson and J.E.H. MacDonald, from the period that interests me
THE MARITIME EDIT: How has the industry changed? Ten years ago
everyone was saying that Kindles and iPads would take over the
printed form but it hasn’t happened. Quite the opposite. On London
and Canadian public transport and airplanes more people are holding
physical books and magazines than anything else.
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: People are proportionately feeling that e-books
aren’t there. I like the idea that the e-book has enhanced the prestige
of the physical book and publishers are putting more and more effort
into making them attractive.
THE MARITIME EDIT: Are you happiest when you are writing a book?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I actually find it somewhat stressful when I am
writing a book. When I was younger I used to get these real sorts of
highs from writing. I would go out for a walk in the evening and be in
an indescribable state. I suppose it was conceit.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You were on a high.
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: Yes, on a high. That was a magical time.
THE MARITIME EDIT: You have always seemed to be someone who is
fascinated by the environment that surrounds you, by architecture.
Does London still inspire you?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I do love London. I have been very worried about
what is happening to it at the moment, how it is being destroyed by
money. But I love walking around and noticing things.
THE MARITIME EDIT: What’s next?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: The tank is somewhat empty by the
time I finish a novel. It takes a long time for it to fill up again.
I have started a notebook on something that is very vague
in my mind. I start with little barely connected fragments
or ideas for scenes, and slowly the thing sort of takes shape
en masse and I discover what I’ve got. It is a very passive
experience this early in. Later on you have to assert yourself
and give the thing a shape and a direction. But that can be a
very happy thing actually. I just feel very suggestible, seeing
the potential in things, and how it shows its potential to you
as it all starts to light up.
THE MARITIME EDIT: When you are writing do you have traditions?
Do you need to be at a particular desk?
ALAN HOLLINGHURST: I have written in other places. I have
been in places like Yaddo, an artist colony in New York
State, which I love. It feels very good if you are up and
running and you have this uninterrupted time. I am like
everyone else — increasingly distractible. To be somewhere
where you are not allowed to be interrupted is really very
wonderful. I wrote the first four books entirely with a fountain
pen and large notebooks. For this last book I had all
kinds of handwritten notes, but the majority of the text I did
on an iMac, which was a huge transformation for me. I used
to be very precious about the importance of making marks
on paper. But there is something about having a full record
of what you have written and the changes that you’ve made
that has been obliterated by working on the computer.