Man Booker Prize 2011 longlist: Alison Pick interview

08 August 2011

MBP: Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Can you tell us where you were when you heard the news and how you reacted?

AP: We spent this summer at my family's summer house in Quebec, where I was finally, finally! getting some work done on my new book after a very busy year. So I was scribbling in my notebook that morning and when my phone rang I ignored it. It rang again. I ignored it again. Then I glanced up at my computer screen and saw twenty new mentions of me on Twitter. What a very modern way to receive good news. I'm delighted, for me as a writer but especially for the book itself. I hope this will help it reach the readers who will most enjoy it.

MBP: Far to Go is inspired by the harrowing five-year journey of your own grandparents from their native Czechoslovakia to Canada during the Second World War. Had you always known about this family story and at one point did you decide to write a novel inspired by their journey?

AP: I did not always know. When my grandparents arrived in Canada they made a decision to hide their Judaism and raise my father as a Christian. They were afraid that what was happening in Europe could happen in Canada too. I went to Church as a child, and only learned I was half Jewish when another child on in the schoolyard accused me of being so. As a teenager I was very curious and asked lots of questions, but it wasn't until my grandmother's death in 2001 that the topic was up for discussion in my family. When I wrote my first book, a collection of poetry called Question & Answer, I included a series of poems about my grandmother's life after the Holocaust. When I was writing those poems I realized how much material was there, and the incredible emotional resonance it held for me. After that I was just biding my time.

MBP: In researching the novel did you come across many separation stories - where families had decided to send children on the Kindertransport?

AP: Yes, absolutely. There aren't many fictionalized accounts of the Kindertransports (Sebald's Austerlitz is a wonderful exception), but there are many memoirs from the now-grown children, and I read everything I could get my hands on.

MBP: Exploring this period of history must have been quite harrowing. Was it difficult to research the novel sometimes?

AP: For long stretches of time my research focused on mundane details like how and where people in Czechoslovakia in 1938 went to the bathroom. I was also quite preoccupied with the technical elements of the research, ie; how it impacted plot, setting, and characters. Ultimately, though, there was no denying the bigger picture, and every time I returned to the actual stories of these children and their families I was heartbroken. A series of letters between one of the Kindertransport children's biological parents and his adoptive ones were what made me want to write the book in the first place; I've read these letters probably fifty times and they still make me cry.

MBP: Has Far to Go been optioned for the big screen?

AP: Yes, by Bill House at House of Films. Two brilliant young Canadian playwrights, Rosa Laborde and Hannah Moscovitch, have been commissioned to write the screenplay. I'm thrilled.

MBP: What are you working on next?

AP: I'm working on a memoir that is related, in some ways, to Far to Go It's about the process of discovering my family's hidden Judaism, and a depression I suffered around the same time. Memoir is a new form for me, and it feels quite vulnerable. On the upside, what a relief to not have to make everything up!

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