The Way I Work... Booker Prize Chair Of Judges Esi Edugyan
Esi Edugyan is the bestselling Canadian-born author of Washington Black, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and has been shortlisted for numerous other accolades, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Literary Excellence and the 2018 Booker Prize – the world’s leading award for literary fiction. Currently, she is the chair of the judging panel for the Booker Prize 2023. It is a job that carries prestige as well as responsibility, requiring the judging panel to read 163 books over a seven-month period before selecting a longlist, a shortlist and then the winner. She credits the “eye-opening” process with giving her “a sense of the landscape and what it is to write a novel in our age”.
Undoubtedly, the role has its challenges, hence Edugyan admitting “there was some heartache along the way… Favourites we had to let go of.” Ultimately, the books chosen came down to those from writers that could tell “captivating, engrossing and moving stories. These were books that transported us and had touched us collectively.” Edugyan talks to Funmi Fetto about writing to the sounds of Beethoven, a life-changing trip to Ghana and eschewing society’s expectations of getting dressed.
On Her Working Space… My husband [the writer and poet Steven Price] and I live just outside Victoria in British Columbia. We also have an office Downtown, so the partner who drives the kids in – we alternate – heads to the office to write afterwards. Knowing that my writing is confined to the school hours means you become quite efficient at getting straight to work. When I was younger, it felt like there was so much time. Now I look back and think, ‘How could I have wasted all of that time?’
On Her Writing Playlist… Whether I listen to music while I write depends on how tired I am. If I’m very very tired, I find music distracting. But if I’m awake and focused, I love it. In my twenties, I wrote in cafes. I loved the idea of being so concentrated when there was this whirl of activity happening around you. So nowadays, listening to music while writing at home provides that similar feeling of something going on, but with me being in the eye of the storm. When I was writing Half Blood Blues, I would listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With Washington Black, it was classical music – particularly Beethoven and Erik Satie. But also Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Björk…
On What She’s Learnt From Films… I love filmmakers like Joachim Trier because I feel like I’m learning something about how to put a scene together and set a mood. He makes a small story feel much more epic. There was a period where I was constantly watching films from the Criterion Collection, like Ingmar Bergman’s thoughtful ‘quiet’ films, such as Persona and [the original 1973 TV series] Scenes From A Marriage, which I’ve watched so many times but now find too painful!
On Dressing For Work… When I’m dressed for the office, I like to wear Byredo’s Bal d’Afrique. At home, I will sometimes give myself permission to be in my pyjamas all day. It’s a question of comfort; a kind of turning inward and not worrying about what you look like because you’re just so focused on the work. You know when a book is going well when you’re not willing to get dressed and conform to the standards we’ve set for being presentable.
On Transformative Trips… One of the beautiful things about being a writer is that there are all these festivals and residencies around the world, which is a way to travel without it being too arduous. And so much it has informed my work. A year-long residency in Stuttgart in 2007 led to Half Blood Blues. My mother passed away when I was 19 and thereafter I went to Ghana, where my family originates, for the very first time. I felt profoundly at home but also profoundly alien. It was a life-defining trip, which I wrote about in a series of essays called Dreaming of Elsewhere, Observations on Home.
On Her Alternate Career Path… There was a point in my life when I thought I might become a painter. But, actually, I wasn’t great. There are so many artists I admire: Alex Colville, Mary Pratt, Christopher Pratt, Emily Carr, Lawren Harris, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Zanele Muholi…
On The Highs And Lows Of Cooking… The New York Times Cooking app might just be my most beloved app. My favourite thing to cook is always the thing I haven’t cooked yet. Still, when I make these elaborate dinners that take me over two hours and my family come, eat in 10 minutes and then it’s over, that drives me crazy.
On The Best Career Advice… When my husband was a student, his writing professor told him, “Enjoy this time in your writing career because, as you’re undiscovered, you can do anything. So be at your most playful in your work and don’t be worried about recognition, or publishing, or impact, or awards. All of these things add this layer of anxiety to your creative process.” That’s a wonderful thing to say to a young writer. I still try to follow it today.
Funmi Fetto is a Contributing Editor at British Vogue, a columnist at the Observer newspaper and the former Global Editorial Director of Service95