An Interview with Philip Hensher
Author of The Northern Clemency
PHILIP HENSHER: I started writing fiction in my mid-twenties - I suppose there were some short stories before that, but the first serious thing I wrote was my first published novel, Other Lulus. I've kept on at it since with serious application, and every time I publish a novel I like to go back to it at intervals since, thinking "Was this what I wanted to do? How could I do it better? How would I attempt it now?" I think my writing has gone through phases, but it's mostly been inflected by my desire to make a sort of independent music for each book. It's sometimes been hard to "hear" a book in advance. I do hope that I'm a better writer than I was five or ten years ago, and I hope to be a better writer in five or ten years time than I am now.
MF: You've been a Man Booker Prize judge (2001). You were longlisted for the prize in 2002 (THE MULBERRY EMPIRE) and shortlisted in 2008 (THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY). If you were asked to give advice to authors who are in the position of being either judge or nominees, what advice would yougive?
PHILIP HENSHER: You should take the opportunity of being a judge. It is fascinating to read through a year of what is interesting the English-language novel, and you will never get that opportunity independently, unless through implausible levels of personal effort. I adored that. There is no advice
MF: Is it more difficult to be a nominee or a judge for the Man Booker prize?
PHILIP HENSHER: Well, the judging was more work, but being a nominee takes more out of you
MF: For its scope and structure, THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY reminds me of a Victorian multiplot novel. It begins with a house party and a move from London and ends decades later. How difficult was it to decide where the story "ends?" Were you tempted to keep on?
PHILIP HENSHER: No, I knew exactly where the story ended and how, from a very early stage. It wasn't like a plot that could be endlessly multiplied. The characters reach a certain point of combination, or alignment; one character attains what he desires and it kills him; and a gesture of optimism is made. The other thing which made me end it in 1994 was that that was the year I
MF:The setting of THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY is a complete switch from THE MULBERY EMPIRE. What was the genesis of THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY?
PHILIP HENSHER: A few things happened to my family and to me - some children were born near me - a serious illness started suggesting thoughts of mortality - and I felt, quite suddenly, as if a relatively large stretch of time had passed in front of me and I was now middle-aged. Also, I wondered about the specific technical challenge of making characters grow older and
MF: The Northern Clemency is set, for the most part, in your old home turf of Sheffield. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
PHILIP HENSHER: Some is, some isn't. I want to guard a little bit of my life, and don't think I'm ever going to write an explicit memoir. Also, it's a book about families, so it's not just my life I'm guarding by not discussing this. I would say that, for some reason, most of the funny things that happen in the book are closer to my life, and my family's.
MF: Did writing the novel generate nostalgia for you? Any self-discoveries?
PHILIP HENSHER: Memory rather than nostalgia, I think. Things have probably improved in general in England since the period at the beginning of the book. I enjoyed uncovering long-forgotten features of domestic life through meditation and contemplation.
MF: One criticism of the novel is that THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY is right-wing and that its left-wing characters-specifically the Marxist Tim and his girlfriend are caricatures. What is your response to that criticism?
PHILIP HENSHER: I don't think it is right-wing, but it comes as news to me that a novel is not allowed to take a right-wing position. Quite a lot of good novelists in the past have voted for the Conservative party, you know. Considering some of the ludicrous caricatures of right-wing politicians perpetrated by some novelists over the last thirty years, I can't see my treatment of Tim and Trudy as all that extreme. In any case, I certainly knew people very similar to Tim and Trudy at the time, including ones who, like Trudy, maintained their homes as "women-only spaces" on certain days of the week. Many of the apparently most extreme and preposterous positions taken by these people in the novel are toned-down versions of what people were saying in left-wing groupuscules in the early 1980s. Actually, I was rather fond of many of these people - they were amusing and clever and talked a lot of fantastic nonsense, which, as you know, is always appealing to the infant novelist.
MF: Where were you during the Miners' Strike? What are your memories of
PHILIP HENSHER: In Sheffield for the most part - it went on during the summer vacation from university. I remember it encompassing everything, absolutely everything. There was no escaping it, and its effects were everywhere. Some of that all-encompassing nature I have tried to suggest in the novel.
MF: As a columnist and book reviewer, you have quite a bit of exposure, and I've read some of the comments to your columns. How do you think this exposure impacts your potential reading audience?
PHILIP HENSHER: I would like to think that if readers enjoy my journalism, they might like to try a novel of mine, without making them think that they know what I, or my novels, think about any given subject. Often my novels seem to think something quite other than what I, or my journalism, believe. I know there is a theory that novelists ought to be ivory-tower figures, only condescending to the vulgarity of the paper press on exceptional occasions. But I enjoy it. I think only very unserious people would think that I can't be serious both as a journalist and as a novelist.
MF: In these days of decreased advertising budgets, many authors are turning to the internet and creating their own websites to connect with readers. This brings up the subject of the blogosphere. How do you feel about the role of bloggers in the future of publishing?
PHILIP HENSHER: God, I don't know. I'm not a great reader of blogs, I'm afraid. I'm not mad on people writing comments anonymously or pseudonymously, for a start, and I prefer to read writing that's been edited and discussed. I know some very good blogs on literary subjects, like Susan Hill's or Amanda Craig's. I might create my own website at some point when I have a moment.
MF: For Hensher fans, are there any books you'd like to recommend?
PHILIP HENSHER: Books I like, you mean? Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Thomas Mann, Dickens,
MF: You have a strong readership in Britain. What about the rest of the world-specifically North America?
PHILIP HENSHER: I'm thrilled that North American readers responded at all to The Northern
MF: What are you working on at the moment?
PHILIP HENSHER: A novel. Almost done. Out next May.
Read our review of THE NORTHERN CLEMENCY at MostlyFiction.com