At this year's Whitbread Prize award ceremony, Matthew Kneale was convinced his novel wouldn't win so he concentrated on getting quietly inebriated. When the vote was tied for 'Book of the Year', the casting vote from the judging chairman went in favour of his novel 'English Passengers'. It's an epic tale of high-seas smugglers, British colonialism and biblical expeditions handling class and cultural conflict with humour, sensitivity and exceptional originality.
Sinéad Gleeson: 'English Passengers' is a multi-layered tale about Manx smugglers, convicts in Australia, Aboriginal depletion and colonialism. Where did you get the inspiration for the book?
Matthew Kneale: I've travelled quite a bit in the world, and have seen the legacy of British occupation in many places, often so destructive and hurtful to this day, and this left me wanting to write about that time. I felt it was something important to do, even for the English themselves, as to me England still seems a country stuck in the shadow of its past. I feel that the only way it can truly move on, and make a real peace, is to face up to the terrible things it has been responsible for in the past.
As a child I'd seen a television documentary about what happened in Tasmania, the invasion and the destruction of the Aboriginal society, and this had haunted me ever since. It seemed a good place to begin. My father is from the Isle of Man, and I liked the idea of introducing some Manx smugglers. This was partly to stop the book getting too sombre, partly to offer a less predictable view of events, and partly just because it allowed me the chance to learn more about where my family had come from.
SG: Was a lot of research required? How long did it take from inception to completion?
MK: This was not a subject I knew well, so I did have to do a lot of research. I spent about a year and a half reading everything I could. I also went to Tasmania and the Isle of Man to read and also to go walking and get to know the feel of the landscape. Then I got very stuck for a while, trying to work out how to transform this research into stories. That was a frustrating time, and I gave up the novel a good number of times. Finally I came up with a way of doing it that seemed right, and set to work. All in all it took getting on for seven years.
SG: There are several narratives going on simultaneously in the book, why did you choose this way to tell the tale?
MK: The thing I was most worried about was that this book would seem too self-serious, too 'noble', and that I was trying to stuff a message down people's throats. By having lots of voices - often disagreeing with one another - I felt safe from that, as readers would have a chance to make up their own minds who to believe. Also I felt using different styles of English could help show how different the thinking was of the different groups involved, from the Manx, with their slyness and wariness of the world, to the Aboriginal characters, who have been raised in a completely different world, living in the bush and having a wisdom about the creatures they hunt and the weather they live in, to, finally, the Victorian British, stiffly concerned with their own status.
I wanted to write something that was readable, and at times funny, and unpredictable, and true to its characters. Most of all I wanted it to seem alive.
SG: When the judges were tied (on 'English Passengers' and Lorna Sage's 'Bad Blood') at the Whitbread Awards and Tim Rice had the casting vote, did you think you'd win?
MK: I didn't know anything, least of all that I'd won, till Tim Rice made his speech and I heard my name. I only learned about the tie afterwards. In fact for most of the evening I was sure I'd lost. It was a strong list, after all, with Lorna Sage's biography and Zadie Smith's novel, both excellent books. Award events are intense occasions, with people who are more used to them - people in book world - watching for all kinds of signs that will give away in advance who has won. These all seemed to say it wasn't me, so I concentrated on getting quietly drunk. It came as quite a shock to find it was me after all, but fortunately I managed to get onto to the stage without falling over.
SG: What writers do you most admire/respect?
MK: Too many to list here, but I'll mention one: JG Farrell. Until I came across his books I always thought of historical fiction as a bit dry and dusty: history textbooks with a wholesome story in the middle, Farrell was the opposite. The worlds he created were wholly his own, funny, atmospheric, yet bringing the past to life with truth and accuracy. Also he wrote about the British Empire - and scathingly - back in the 1970s, when few in Britain wanted to think about the uglier parts of their country's past. Farrell is a great stylist, so every paragraph he writes seems to glow with quiet surprise.
SG: 'English Passengers' is an epic, very visual tale, has anyone approached you about making a film of the book?
MK: Not yet. But I'm open to all offers. If you happen to meet any big Hollywood directors, don't hold back!
SG: Finally, are you taking a break from writing at the moment or have you started work on your next project?
MK: I'm trying to get started on another novel. I'm a little superstitious about talking about something in advance, but it's about a fictitious Soviet satellite state. It may be less of a jump than it seems. Marxism was a creed that had its origins in the Victorian era after all. Also it offers the chance of looking at some very misguided political notions, arrogance, and brutality – so, not so far from the British Empire.
'English Passengers' is out now in paperback from Penguin, price £6.99stg.