Man Booker Prize 2018 at the Royal Festival Hall

Designer | Helena Keeble

For the last thirteen years, The Southbank Centre in London has hosted the Man Booker Prize Readings where the shortlisted authors gather and perform a short reading from their nominated novels before discussing their works with the host and amongst themselves. The Man Booker Prize has recognised and rewarded outstanding worldwide fiction for fifty years and is the leading literary award in the English speaking world. Each year the prize of £50,000 is awarded to the best novel written in English and published in the UK. The six shortlisted authors receive £2,500 which is funded by the active investment management firm – Man Group. Over the course of fifty years authors such as P. H. Newby (1969 – the first year of the Man Booker Prize), Salman Rushdie (1981), Kazuo Ishiguro (1989), Margaret Atwood (2000), and finally this years’ winner Anna Burns for her novel Milkman, have all won the Man Booker Prize. On 14 October, the Royal Festival Hall held the 2018 shortlisted authors: Anna Burns (Milkman), Esi Edugyan (Washington Black), Daisy Johnson (Everything Under), Rachel Kushner (The Mars Room), Richard Powers (The Overstory), and Robin Robertson (The Long Take), hosted by writer, columnist and playwright Damian Barr two days before the winner was announced.


Anna Burns – Milkman

Burns began the evening by reading from the beginning of her novel which Barr revealed holds ‘so many words for vagina – very educating for me!’ to which there was an uproar of laughter. Burns described her book’s location as ‘fiction – it’s about an entire society, suffering long-term violence and existing under extreme intense pressure. … Rather than describe the actual location … I much prefer to get the word of the fiction true to itself – its emotional reality – its quirks – it comes this way – that’s how I write’.

Barr questioned the lack of names within the novel and the complication from this to which Burns responded ‘it just didn’t work with names. I tried it at one point … and as I was reading it I thought “oh no, no, no! This is just not the same book” and then my writing-buddy read it she said “oh no, no, no, no! This is just not the same book”. Its all about protecting oneself so I think the name thing – it was part of that. The collective as more important than the individual.’


Esi Edugyan – Washington Black

When questioning Edugyan, Barr focused on her process of research due to the horrific nature of historic truth of slavery within the text. Edugyan explained, ‘It required a lot of research. It was very difficult to do psychologically – there were times I had to set down the books and take a day off – it was harrowing.’ Barr went on to question how the research changed and developed her Edugyan’s novel as she wrote it, which prompted this response, ‘The research changed the story as I was writing it, but I’m one of those writers who researches extensively before I start writing. I’m also constantly researching while I’m writing, … [to] create a sense of compulsion while I am writing.’


Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Johnson’s novel centres on the theme of memory and how, as Johnson described, ‘the memories we have are never entirely ours and you can never really know whether they’re real or not.’ Barr also questioned Johnson on her writing process to which the audience learnt that it was a chaotic book to write. ‘I wrote it illogically in that I would write an entire draft and then a bit of that would be ok and I’d keep that and then I’d write another draft and a bit of that would be ok, so it came together in a kind of scattered way … it was literally spread across my floor as I was trying to put it together. It went places where I thought it would never go – it took on a life of its own.’


Rachel Kushner – The Mars Room

For Kushner, the topic in her novel was from her life’s experience, rather than research that she then turned into a novel. ‘Almost ten years ago I became very interested in the way society is structured in California … I was interested in the public nature of courtroom proceedings – I basically decided to restructure my life to follow those people tried and convicted in the courthouse near my house. I got to know a lot of people in prison who are serving life sentences in prison.’ Interestingly, Kushner has done readings in prisons where her book was received with a lot of praise and appreciation. Kushner admitted that a friend she made in prison was in awe of the sheer reality in the novel, stating that ‘this book is insanely realistic. I don’t even know how you did it myself but the thing I fear is that when people read it, they won’t understand how real this is – because it [prison] is so grim.’


Richard Powers – The Overstory

For Powers, his novel grew from his desire to create a story with ‘trees themselves as crucial central characters’. The audience laughed in a clamour as Barr chuckled that, if Powers loved trees so much, he would have made his five hundred plus page novel shorter. Fortunately Powers was able to defend himself with the knowledge that his book was made from ‘100% post-consumer material’.


Robin Robertson – The Long Take

For Robertson, his novel is all about the Film Noir. ‘I used to watch these black and white films in Scotland and I was completely fascinated by the atmosphere in these films. I couldn’t really put my finger on why that was. It was only when I moved down here to London and started watching them on the big screens that I realised what that tone was – what I found attractive. It was the sense of urban paranoia and panic that was in those films that I was now feeling as an outsider coming from Scotland, another country from the same land mass, to be an alien in that country. Which was precisely how these films were made, because they were made by German refugees from Nazi German who brought their own artistic viewings and German expressions to Hollywood and they also caught the sense of deep existential dread. I was interested in how you brought this to life.’


The 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction was chaired by Kwame Anthony Appiah with Val McDermid, Leo Robson, Jacqueline Rose, and Leanne Shapton as judges. After hearing the shortlisted authors speak at the Royal Festival Hall, everyone would agree that the judges did not have an easy task, but congratulations must go to Anna Burns for Milkman, a worthy winner. Burns has made history as the first Northern Irish writer to win the Man Booker Prize 2018, drawing from her own experience of northern Ireland during the troubles to write Milkman. The judges praised its ‘surprising and immersive prose’, definitely worth a read!

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