Leaf Arbuthnot is a feature writer at the London-based Sunday Times. She also writes poetry reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and draws cartoons as the Glum Cartoonist. Her debut novel An Unmaimed Man, has won the Pageturner Prize. Norah Myers interviews her about her prize win here.
1) Congratulations on winning Tibor Jones’s 2017 Pageturner Prize for unpublished novels. What motivated you to enter?
Thanks very much! As people always say when they win these things, “I’m honoured”. I genuinely am though. I entered the prize because I had recently finished editing my novel An Unmaimed Man and I was wondering whether I should do anything with it. The Tibor Jones prize was relatively fuss-free to enter; it was run by a reputable agency and I saw no reason not to give it a go. Of course, I didn’t think I’d win it. I figured that rather than sitting on my novel until I grew old, I should send it somewhere.
2) Whose writing do you look to for inspiration?
That’s tricky to answer because I don’t think I’m ever exactly hunting for inspiration per se. I read because it nourishes me; I don’t read because I want to absorb others’ work and hope that it will enrich my own. That said, naturally I’m influenced by a large number of authors, many of whom function in my writing probably without me noticing.
The writers I value most highly in my life currently are Nabokov, Primo Levi, Ben Lerner, Phillip Pullman, Flaubert, Zola, Bassani, Dante, Kingsley Amis, Phillip Roth, Henry James, Proust, Phillip Larkin (Jeez, another Phillip), Mel Pryor. Others I’m sure.
3) Your work has been compared to Rachel Joyce’s Harold Fry. How do you feel about this comparison?
Yeah, I’ve been told this tons and to my shame I’ve still not read her book. I’ve ordered it online though so I’ll get reading soon – when no doubt I’ll be overcome with embarrassment at the paltriness of my own novel in comparison.
Other comparisons that have been chucked at me which I understand more (because I’ve actually read what they refer to) are Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Martin Amis’ Lucky Jim. The McEwan comparison is rather groundless, in my view – my novel, like his, takes place on one day in London, following a white middle-aged man around but, apart from that, they’re very different books. The Lucky Jim comparison holds more water, though, my book is a) less good – I hold Lucky Jim in high esteem – and b) it plays for laughs marginally less. Both feature hapless, awkward, desolate, lovable/hateable central protagonists though.
4) What do you look forward to most about working with your new agent?
As I finished editing my story after writing it intensively for a few months, I realised I had lost a grip of what the book was actually like. I really just didn’t know and couldn’t even tell if it was readable or not. Some sentences had been wholly wrung of meaning – sort of blanched from too much attention. So I’m psyched by the prospect of working on the book with someone from the industry who knows what they’re doing and has a fresh perspective on the story.
Clearly I entered the competition in the half hope that it would lead the book to be published so I look forward to exploring that with Laura too.
5) What advice would you give authors who wish to enter this prize in the future?
Man, that’s hard because I’ve only entered the prize once and won it once, so I’m not sure that makes me qualified to pontificate. But I suppose step one would be to write a book long enough to enter the prize. That’s pretty hard. I managed it by carving out time around my full-time job – write for an hour in the mornings before work, write during your lunch breaks, write at the weekend, in the evenings, whenever. One breakthrough thing for me was that I decided to bang out a first draft as quickly as possible and worry about polishing it later – I prioritised words on the page, not quality of the words.
Then once you have the manuscript, be brave and get your friends and family to read it before you submit. The help I’ve got, particularly from my mother who is a formidable proofreader, was invaluable.