This charming man

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Alan Hollinghurst talks comedy, cash and awards snubs with Matt Fleming

Alan Hollinghurst is English. He’s also gay. He’s charming, relaxed and takes time to choose his words carefully. His novel The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 but his latest offering The Stranger’s Child missed out on the shortlist this year – although he was named ‘author of the year’ in the UK’s Galaxy National Book Awards a few months back. There. That’s a brief introduction to the author. Although the 57-year-old shouldn’t need it.

Hollinghurst has just graced the fragrant harbour for only the second time in seven years, speaking at a British Council literary event in front of, he says, a ‘warm, responsive, drunk audience’. In his hypnotic English tones he tells us ‘you could hardly have a more intense urban experience than the extraordinary Hong Kong setting’ and it’s ‘invigorating coming from the despondent atmosphere of Europe to somewhere like this – it’s like a tonic’. A tonic indeed.

Hollinghurst is very much an Englishman. He labels himself as middle-class, being educated at boarding school and Oxford University, with a Conservative background which ‘I don’t think I escaped from until I went away to Oxford and was exposed to larger forces’. A former The Times Literary Supplement deputy editor, he became a full-time author in 1995 and has racked up five grand novels since 1988. There’s no argument he is one of the most celebrated writers to emerge from England over the past 25 years.

And he loves his freelance author lifestyle. “It’s very nice having a monthly paycheque,” he says, “but I quite like living by my wits. It gets a bit scary at times, though. I’m very slow and the production of each book takes me much longer than I anticipate – and, with The Stranger’s Child, in distinction to its predecessor, I thought I can’t write a 500-page book again. This was planned to be 250 to 280 pages max and it turned out it’s exactly twice that, so towards the end I was getting pretty strapped for cash. The last part was written at extraordinary speed just to avoid bankruptcy. But I’m quite good at adjusting between my champagne and taxi periods, and my beer and bus periods.”

The Stranger’s Child spans both world wars and, as Hollinghurst puts it, focuses on ‘how people cope with the holes that war keeps punching in their lives’. It’s primarily about the impact of war, and there’s love, sexuality and Hollinghurst’s wonderfully subtle comic turns. “It’s how I experience life,” he says. “Things veer constantly between the serious and the funny – in the midst of something utterly ghastly going on you’re suddenly struck by how terribly funny it is. I’m always pleased when people say they find my books funny but sometimes you have the baffling experience of reading out a passage which you think is amusing – but isn’t.”

Hollinghurst was snubbed by this year’s Man Booker panel in his bid for a second illustrious prize – but he says he ‘knew it was going to happen somehow’. “I just had a feeling,” he says, “from the composition of the jury and things that they let slip about their own priorities. I felt it was a team with more of an agenda perhaps than they normally have. Susan Hill (judge) was very emphatic about wanting to have small publishers and to get away from the tyranny of the major publishing houses.” He says he was disappointed but accedes these literary prizes are ‘inevitably personal and arbitrary’. He says: “It would be absurd to take it too seriously. It would have been nice to be on the shortlist and I know, if I had been, it would have made a big financial difference to me. But I’ve quite quickly got over my pain. People drive themselves mad with the Booker and their desperate desire to be on (the shortlist). But it’s just a prize. Look at who’s won Oscars. How many did The Artist win? I doubt if it will be seen as the most important film of its generation.”

But Hollinghurst will surely be seen as an important author of his generation. And he’s already working on his next novel, which he expects to start crafting at the end of the year. “The book might be rather a departure in some ways (from his usual style),” he reveals. “It’s not clear enough yet in my mind. I’m always so secretive anyway about anything. You’re better off asking me what it will be in seven years’ time…” The next time he visits Hong Kong perhaps?

The Stranger’s Child is published by Picador, priced at $112.

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