Beejay: Was there a particular life event which made you know with certainty that you had to write, that it was impossible not to do so, or did you feel it was a natural progression from advertising and journalism?
Justin: I always wanted to write and discovered from a reasonably early age that I had a facility for it. Also, my father was a journalist and writer of journalism, even in that vanishing world, and enjoy seeing my name on a piece in the papers, but novel writing is the real thing for me.
Beejay: In “To Heaven by Water”, when David and Guy are journeying through the Kalahari it seems to me that both find their nirvana. I loved the respect which David showed Guy in death. Was Guy, for you, the voice of John the Baptist crying in the desert, albeit a drug-affected one, or was he just somebody who could not deal with the reality of life as an adult and all the responsibilities that entails?
Justin: One of the themes of my books is irrationality, by which I mean that which is not strictly susceptible to scientific method. Although I think of myself as reasonably rational, I am also aware that most of our lives we are in thrall to emotion and love and longing and doubt. So Guy, who was of the more spiritual persuasion, nonetheless has a huge effect - as you rightly spotted - on his brother, not least by his death.
Beejay: Are the views that David expressed about the cynicism of journalism, particularly the “foreign correspondent” who always shows a facial expression perfect for the story being covered, the result of your own time in journalism, advertising or the world of politics, and which would you say is more cynical in its approach?
Justin: Obviously advertising is, on the face of it, deeply cynical, but actually everybody who watches a commercial or sees a print ad knows that something is being sold. In television it is not so clear what is going on: the journalist parachuted in to some tragedy, who knows less than nothing about it, the picture which tells the requisite but not the true story, and the politician who can invent an eternal verity just in time for an election or an interview. All of these I experienced.
Beejay: After “In Every Face I Meet” was shortlisted for both the Whitbread and the Booker, did you then feel the burden of expectation and a great deal of pressure with your next book, or were you able to put that to one side?
Justin: To be honest the pressure is always there, not especially burdensome after winning a prize - I have won quite a few - but the pressure of trying to maintain a standard.
Beejay: If the world changed into something terrible and we could each only own one book – that would really be terrible - what would your book be?
Justin: If I had to save one book only it would probably be WG Sebald, “Austerlitz”.
Beejay: If you could be remembered for only one of your books, which would you want it to be?
Justin: I think maybe “White Lightning”. In a sense this is an unanswerable question, like choosing between children.
Beejay: I loved the way, in “To Heaven by Water”, David finds himself crying at the ballet and talks about that tendency to cry easily as he gets older. I can relate to that, Justin. Do you find yourself doing that also, or is that something which you have observed in other people?
Justin: I am very inclined to tears and it is brought on by all sorts of things, from great art of all sorts - movies, plays, music, novels - to way more mundane and embarrassing things; I saw a tv programme not so long ago about orangutans being taken from their human owners and almost broke down.
Beejay: Thank you, Justin, for your candid answers and for being so generous with your time.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of one of Justin’s books, do yourself a favour and add them to your reading list – better still, visit your local bookstore, be it online or on the corner, and pick up something of his. With a great body of work to choose from, you are bound to find something which is the perfect read for you.
To Heaven by Water
This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited
The Song Before It Is Sung
The Promise of Happiness
Half in Love
Look at It This Way
Leading the Cheers
Not Yet Home
In Every Face I Meet
Please also visit Justin’s publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing. Visit this link for information on their wonderful reading guides – fantastic for book groups - http://www.bloomsbury.com/readinggroups/list
And why not also check out why Justin Cartwright names W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz” as the book he would keep if he could only own one book. It has certainly gone onto my “to read” list.