Booker Prize-winner Pat Barker is among those appearing at the forthcoming Durham Book Festival. The Teesside-born author talks to Sarah Millington about being a successful writer
HEARING a highly acclaimed author, accustomed to interviews and TV appearances, admit to being nervous sounds odd, yet, while Pat Barker now takes the trappings of fame in her stride, it wasn’t always so. The Durham-based writer, who won the Booker Prize for The Ghost Road, the third novel in her Regeneration trilogy, will be at Durham Book Festival promoting her latest work, Noonday, next month. She is looking forward to it – but at the start of her career, it would have filled her with dread.
“When I was first published I was terribly nervous about doing events – to the point where I was nervous about three weeks before. I didn’t enjoy them,” says the 72-year-old. “Now I love meeting readers. In the end, you can’t go on being as nervous as when you started out. Writers tend to be introverted but I do think that introverted people can, in the end, make quite good speakers and readers of their own work.”
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There is no doubt that Pat will be well received at her appearance in Durham. Since her first novel, Union Street, set in Pat’s birthplace of Teesside, was published to critical acclaim in 1982, she has been beloved of the region – a status which was confirmed by her receiving the CBE in 2000. Born the illegitimate child of an unknown father to a mother who was in the Wrens, she was brought up by her grandparents, who ran a fish and chip shop and lived in modest circumstances. She has remained in the North-East, having settled in Durham with her late husband, university professor David Barker, and brought up her two children here. While she doesn’t bear the accent, she identifies herself strongly with the region.
“When I won the Booker I was standing at the taxi rank at King’s Cross and a lot of people there were from the North,” says Pat. “A guy came up and shook my hand – he’d seen me on television the night before. Northern patriotism is very powerful and it’s certainly something I share.”
Described as “direct, blunt and plainspoken”, Pat’s writing largely focuses on the First World War. Noonday marks a departure in which characters from the previous two instalments of her Life Class trilogy are transported to the Second World War. Renowned for her historical detail, Pat evokes the themes of memory, trauma, survival and redemption. In her latest novel, she highlights how those caught up in the Blitz were overshadowed by their experiences of World War One.
“There was this very bitter disillusionment with the memory that they were fighting to end war,” says Pat. “In the end, the suffering was so intense that ending the war seemed to be the only thing worth fighting for. I think that generation felt that it had failed. They felt quite guilty and responsible – the way they would have put it was that they dropped the catch, and because of that, the next generation was suffering – and yet that’s not how we think of them. I think in their own estimation they saw themselves as failures, and that interested me.”
Pat attributes her fascination with war to being “a war baby” and seeing how people’s behaviour – notably her mother’s – changed under altered circumstances. She also feels that the theme has never been more current.
“It’s a fact that as a species, we keep doing that to ourselves,” she says. “I’m hugely interested in what’s happening in Syria and Iraq. In Noonday, you have women, children and older men being bombed in their own homes. This is happening as we speak. It certainly isn’t something that used to happen in history and doesn’t happen now.”
More instinctive than cerebral, it took Pat a while to find her voice and it was only after three failed attempts that she got her fourth novel published. It was a lesson in perseverance which gave her a clear sense of purpose. “In the end, I just wrote the book that I felt I wanted to write,” she says of Union Street. “I think it’s practice. You may have several ideas – go for the one that keeps you awake at night.
“You’re not going to find your own voice on the page until you’re actually at the page and writing. The more you write, the greater your chances that you will stumble into something and be so immersed that you’re not aware of time passing. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to write about your own life and your own circumstances.”
As a historical novelist, one of the challenges Pat faces is providing enough factual detail while not allowing this to overtake the narrative. “It is a tricky balance to get right,” she admits. “I can always tell when somebody isn’t experienced at writing historical fiction because they tend to give you chunks of their research and while you’re ploughing through this you’ve lost sight of the characters and the story. The thing to do is to try to keep the characters and their experiences in the foreground.”
Surprisingly, far from being omnipotent as a writer, Pat feels it is the characters who determine a novel’s fate – if they speak to her, it will work; if not it won’t. She is hopeful for her latest project – a retelling of the story of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem, The Iliad, from the point of view of a slave girl. “Fortunately for me, the girl seems at the moment to have a very powerful voice,” says Pat. “I’m hoping that that will continue. You can plan as much as you like but until you actually start writing, you have no idea whether it’s going to have life and whether those characters you have thought of are going to start speaking.”
As far as the future goes, Pat plans to keep writing for as long as she keeps being inspired. Beyond that, there is no set agenda. “So far, by the end of one book, I’ve had what I think is a very promising idea for the next book. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m retired,” she laughs. “I don’t tell myself that I’m going to go on until I drop or that I’m going to retire in x number of years because life is so uncertain and in the end, everything is determined by your health. At the moment I feel fine about it. I think I will know when the time comes to hang up my pen.”
- Noonday by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
- Pat will give a talk on Noonday as part of Durham Book Festival at the Town Hall from noon to 1pm on October 10. The festival runs from October 6-17 and other participants include Vince Cable, Mary Portas and Simon Armitage. For a full programme, visit www.durhambookfestival.com Tickets are available from www.galadurham.co.uk or by calling 03000-266-600.