With less than a week to go before the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize for 2018 is announced, Rathbones guests enjoyed an evening of discussion between two of the nominated authors and one of the judges.
Journalist Mark Lawson, who chaired Thursday’s event in the heart of Soho, warned anyone with a penchant for betting not to interpret Beard or McGregor’s presence as a sign that one of them will win the prize: “It’s not like the Oscars,” he said, “where you know that whoever isn’t present hasn’t won.”
Lawson’s quip set the tone for a lively and wide-ranging discussion. Richard Beard talked about the emotions involved in writing his memoir The Day That Went Missing, while Jon McGregor reflected on the ways that his novel Reservoir 13 subverts readers’ expectations. Both authors discussed writing generally, with topics ranging from how they keep their readers turning the pages, the borders between fiction and non-fiction, and what their children think of their books.
As for the judging process, Kate Summerscale said she used a “60 page” rule, abandoning books she wasn’t enjoying at that point. Summerscale added, though, that the judging trio disagreed about some books and encouraged each other to persevere. “Some of those that were hardest to get into initially,” she said, “turned out to be the most rewarding.” This underlines why it’s important to have a judging panel made up of people with different tastes and backgrounds.
Lawson wanted to know about the authors’ creative processes, so he asked Beard and McGregor if they had written an unpublished work that’s never seen the light of day. McGregor said no, but Beard admitted that he wrote four unpublished manuscripts before his debut made it into print. “Getting better by writing books that are not published is very useful,” said Beard. “Writing doesn’t get easier with each book. You have to solve new problems every time you start a new book.”
The Rathbones Folio Prize is open to writing in several genres, so it was fitting that the authors discussed the differences and similarities between writing fiction and non-fiction. In his novels, McGregor said he’s trying to “situate an invented story in a recognisable world.” Beard, whose ten books include novels and non-fiction, talked about the importance of “information management”. He said: “When you’re writing fiction, you can change the information, but with non-fiction you can only change how you manage the information.”
Are there overlapping themes in the eight books on the shortlist? “A lot of them deal with how we process the past,” said Summerscale. That’s certainly true of Beard and McGregor’s books – the former about the silence surrounding the death of Beard’s brother on a family holiday to Cornwall in 1978, and the latter dramatizing a fictional community’s response to the disappearance of a teenage girl.
Such serious subject matter could have made for a tense atmosphere but the reality was the opposite; the discourse was rigorous and reflective, but everyone on the panel was good humoured and self-effacing.
The audience were invited to ask questions or submit them to the panel via the sli.do app. This proved to be a big success, with questions about topics including the challenges facing the publishing industry and the rise of uber thriller writers, flooding Lawson’s tablet. One young man asked how writing their shortlisted books affected how the authors think about their children. It was a brave question which elicited thoughtful answers. “My sons reaching the age that my brother was when he died,” said Beard, “was definitely a catalyst for me writing The Day That Went Missing.”
Another audience member asked the authors which of the eight shortlisted books they would choose to win the prize. Beard and McGregor laughed, as Lawson let them off the hook, saying: “You’re just going to say each other’s books to be polite, so we’ll move on.”
Beard and McGregor, along with the other six authors on the shortlist, must wait until the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize for 2018 is announced at the British Library on Tuesday 8 May. Summerscale made it clear that the judges have yet to reach their decision. Whichever book wins, though, this evening demonstrated how entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring literary events can be. The panel and audience left the auditorium buzzing and headed back to the bar to continue the conversation.