Lloyd Jones: Lloyd Jones on the success of Mister Pip
New Zealand writer on being the new favourite to win
Mister Pip has been sold worldwide, awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and has now been short listed for the Man Booker Prize. Did you ever think that Mister Pip would be so successful?
No, never. I wouldn’t have dared to dream of or anticipate the success that Mister Pip has enjoyed. Then I don’t tend to have that sort of hope for a book. All my hope and dreams are invested into the writing of the book rather than how it is received.
Why did you choose the South Pacific island of Bougainville as the setting for Mister Pip?
I didn’t choose it in the usual sense of the word – it just washed up there. I began by describing a white man towing a black woman in a cart. Someone had to see this to describe it; that’s when Matilda’s voice came to me. Now, I began to recognize this place. It was Bougainville, a place I had travelled to and written about, for newspapers.
What, for you, would be the message you would want readers of Mister Pip to take with them from the book? Does Mister Pip have a central message or theme?
Certain preoccupations of mine get a fair airing, obviously I know what they are but I don’t want to identify them for fear of ruining the reading experience for the reader.
You chose to tell Mister Pip through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old girl, Matilda; how did you manage to create the authentic voice of Matilda?
It isn’t authentic because I am a fifty-two year old white male. An authentic narrative by a 15 year old girl is written by such a person. I prefer to talk about ‘literary truth.’ Matilda is persuasive because she ‘sounds’ plausible. (As writers, voice is our chief charm offensive).
Great Expectations plays a crucial role in Mister Pip - when did you first come across this book and why did it leave such an impression on you?
It was the first of Dickens’ books I read. I was sick at home from school. I heard someone knock on the door. It was a salesman of some kind. Next I heard my mother’s footsteps in the hall. She came in with a book. ‘Great Expectations’. My reward for being sick, I suppose. From the moment Magwich confronts Pip in the grave yard I was hooked. I’ve returned to it many times, and as I got older and better at reading I began to see the book in a slightly different light. Pip’s invitation to go up to London and turn himself into a ‘gentleman’ is similar to the challenge we all face: to make ourselves into something.
Why do you think that Dickens and other Victorian literature have such enduring value?
Not all of it is that good, so it is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps nostalgia plays a part, not so much for the period but for the way stories used to proceed. Stories, whenever they are written, should always entrance. Perhaps this is what the Victorians understood best.
What are your other literary inspirations?
Other writers. I try to cast my net reasonably wide.
Although Mister Pip isn’t set in your native New Zealand, did you gain inspiration from New Zealand in your writing?
No. ‘Inspiration’ (for me) comes from a desire to surprise myself on the page.
What are your views on the state of New Zealand writing at the moment?
The last 10-15 years have seen huge and impressive changes. When I first started writing there were no university creative writing courses, few publishers, and only the NZ Listener and Landfall in which to publish stories or poems. Now three universities provide creative writing courses to MA level. One in particular, Victoria University’s International Institute of Letters has enjoyed great success. Victoria University Press has played an important role in encouraging new and exciting talent. There are many independent presses – Awa Press has made a mark by concentrating on non-fiction. Huia focus on Maori writing and perspective. The larger multi-nationals such as Penguin and Random House have impressive lists and make a point of searching out new talent. There are more publishing and writers’ grants as well as residencies for writers attached to universities and overseas. In other words, we now have an impressive writing and publishing scene. As a result, it is hard to talk about ‘New Zealand writing’ other than to point to its range and diversity. Newspapers carry substantial review sections, but this is also an area of weakness. The truly competent reviewers are too few.
Which title would be your Booker of Bookers?
I am reluctant to separate Disgrace by JM Coetzee and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
[Entrevista previa a la entrega del Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007.