When I sat down to listen to Caryl Phillips at Manchester Lit Fest last year (listen here), for the first couple of minutes I drifted off, asking myself this: 'Does this unassuming, softly-spoken guy know he is a legend?' Five minutes before he arrived to a lecture theatre heaving with people, I had overheard two girls squealing that they were sooooo excited because 'he's practically already a legend'. Their use of already made me smile: he is one of those rare authors who has been canonised while still living, especially by students. Who wouldn't like that, dear reader? But... does he know?
Professor Phillips now teaches at Yale University and often appears around the world to discuss his work, but his beginnings are quite local to me, as he grew up in Leeds and studied at Oxford (evidently, I hope that, if only by remote osmosis, I too may be destined to great literary things). He has published an inordinate number of works, from anthologies to stage plays, screen plays, radio plays and various non-fiction, and has won numerous literary awards and fellowships, but it is because of his novels that we delve into his nuanced work on identity and belonging.
His latest is In The Falling Snow, about identity, for sure, but also dislocation, missed opportunities, a lingering inability to move on with life and to express one's own emptiness and desires. It is a novel that had me wondering where exactly Keith was going, if anywhere at all, but one that rewards the reader with an arresting change of tone as the author brings it to an end. Coming up this summer is Color Me English, a collection of essays on what we mean by 'English'. I am particularly looking forward to this one as identity, both as a perceived objectified entity and as the defining force of who we are (or think we are) is one of my interests, as we saw in the eCourse last year.
Dear CP, thank you for answering my questions. I really shouldn't have agonised over it for a year!
What is your idea of perfect writing?
Depends on the genre. I just know it when I see it.
What is your greatest writing fear?
It would be sad to write something that was terrible, but nobody had the guts to tell you.
What do you consider your greatest writing achievement?
Being published felt like an achievement. It still does.
What is the writing tendency you most deplore in yourself?
Setting sail with only half an idea and then having to double back and unpick everything.
Which living writer do you most admire?
What is your greatest writing extravagance?
Checking into hotels to do intensive work on final drafts.
What is the quality you most admire in somebody else's writing?
Elegance of language.
What or who is your greatest writing love?
Some poetry by C.P. Cavafy and Derek Walcott.
When and where were you happiest with your writing?
Tenerife 1984 when I finished my first novel.
If you could easily modify one of your writing tendencies, what would it be?
What is the most marked characteristic of your writing?
I have no idea. Others will have their ideas.
Who are your writing heroes?
No heroes. You know what happens to people when you put them on a pedestal.
How do you hope your writing will be referred to as after you've gone?
I'll be happy if it's referred to.
What is your writing motto?
Only write if you have something to say. If not, do something else.