I was thrilled to see that the book which won the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, was edited and published by Natania Jansz of Sort of Books. Some of you will remember her wonderful talk in 2020 about Tove Jansson, in our last in-person meeting before lockdown began. Nat very kindly agreed to my request for an interview.
Tricia: I saw Shehan Karunatilaka talking in the Guardian* and it occurred to me The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida wouldn’t have been around in this form if not for you, and I just wanted to ask a few questions around that.
Nat: Firstly, and obviously, this book wouldn’t exist without Shehan Karunatilaka! His debut book Chinaman was written with no input from me and that’s an acclaimed and brilliant book, so we’re starting from a very high bar. We would have liked to publish it, but we were a bit too small at the time and were just pipped by Jonathan Cape. I think we were a bit too under the radar for the competition at the time. I think the mood has changed in that, obviously where you’re competing with enormous advances it’s harder, but for debut writers where that might not be the case, a small and bespoke independent could give you a better service.
Tricia: And you certainly have!
Nat: When you’re small, every book you bring out has your full attention, with all your resources funnelled towards it and that only happens with the very big books with the much larger corporate publishers. Certainly when a book starts to get traction that might change for any publisher but we treat every book as if it’s our biggest, our potential bestseller.
Tricia: Lucky authors to get that attention. I see that the book came out originally as Chats with the Dead on the Indian subcontinent in 2020 just before lockdown. And then that Shehan Karunatilaka spent lockdown with you, revising it. I wondered, do you think this book would have been published in the form you published it if lockdown hadn’t happened?
Nat: I think in Sri Lanka it was immensely difficult. People were under serious threat of Covid as well as a spiralling economic crisis so you had to keep working at anything that might bring in money. And Shehan had shown amazing fortitude reworking this book under such pressures. I don’t quite understand how he kept up the stamina and faith in it all – it’s so hard to take a book which you’ve finished, and revisit it. And when it has so many moving parts, that has so many unforeseen consequences for other parts of the plot, and he was having to track his way up and down over 400 pages, with very complex plotting. As a cognitive task that’s difficult, but you also have to find the energy and the interest and impetus to do that and he seemed to have all three so that was extraordinary really.
Tricia: Yes, I know he said you told him: ‘Terrific work, but I’m afraid that the middle and the beginning and the ending don’t quite work.’
Nat: Yes I was …brutal! (laughs)
Tricia: But he said you made him keep pushing and I wondered, what made you keep pushing, what did you see that perhaps others didn’t?
Nat: Shehan Karunatilaka is an extraordinarily good writer. There have been many books written about Sri Lanka which is a place I feel deeply about because my family are from Sri Lanka. They came to England in the 1950s and I’ve grown up hearing these cadences and voices and idioms and these spring out of the page at me. And I felt this with Chinaman and there’s something he does which is not at all easy for authors to do, I don’t know if it’s even something you can train an author to do, but he has a sort of vitality in his writing. The Booker Prize judges talked of it as fizzing with energy, and it does because of its crackling dialogue and it feels very modern. It’s very alive, which is ironic for a book about the dead, the afterlife, but it does fizz with life and I was so stunned when I started reading it.
Shehan sent me his book because he had some questions about whether it was ready or not. In the past I had said, ‘If you ever need a reader to read it closely, attentively as a publisher might, then do send it to me as I will definitely read the book when it comes out. So if you have any questions, or feel at all unsure, then send it pre-publication’ And he did. And there were questions – quite big ones I had to ask him. For a readership outside of Sri Lanka, and the Indian subcontinent, many things would be new, so your mind is taken up with trying to absorb all these new things. So what I thought he needed to do was to leaven it a little, so that the important things would land. And he thought so too, and as he was writing, there were all sorts of plot opportunities which suddenly appeared, where you could add momentum. He’d created these terrific characters and sprung them to life. Some of the things he wanted to do with them changed over time and it’s one of those things where an author might say, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t I make this happen?’ And of course it has ramifications for everything else. But what he really did was tighten scenes, lighten some and add momentum in others. It was thrilling to see, and thrilling to journey with him on that.
Tricia: I listened to the audio book as well as reading it and, as you say it fizzed with life, I loved Jaki in particular.
Nat: Ah yes, Jaki – isn’t she wonderful? She’s so relatable – not that I think you have to have relatable characters because you certainly can have great novels with characters you wouldn’t ever want to meet – but what was amazing is that you know Jaki in a way. I mean the eroticised love of his life is DD and he doesn’t really deserve Maali, he’s slightly vacuous in some ways. And DD has a father called Stanley who’s of a certain generation and there were some tics of speech he had, where you say, yes, I know that, I’ve come across that.
Tricia: Yes, very much so. Your face was just wonderful when the win was announced and I just wondered (it’s a bit of a clichéd question!) But how did you feel at that moment?
Nat: Well, I think my face might have said it all. I was completely swept away by it. I thought it was a phenomenal achievement for Shehan to be on the shortlist and I didn’t want to feel any disappointment, not a jot, so that I would be able to console Shehan should he not win. Because the reality of the Booker shortlist is that you’ve got six terrific books and five of them don’t win… . The judges were very supportive in the way they talked about it afterwards. They were thrilled.
Tricia: That must have been amazing.
Nat: Yes it was. When I started work on the book, I remember saying to Shehan, ‘We’re looking to launch this onto the Booker longlist.’ Which is the inspirational chat, you know? So it was a wonderful moment when I could phone him and say, ‘Guess what Shehan, you’re on the longlist!’ Shehan told me that that day he’d managed to get some gas canisters for cooking, because they’d been very short on all these things, and his friend came round to congratulate him. He thought this was about his great Booker achievement but no, it was about managing to source two gas canisters…’.
Tricia: (laughs) So finally, I wondered whether this changes things for Sort of Books at all?
Nat: Well, we have no ambition to change. We publish very few books a year, and only two of us – me full-time and Mark Ellingham, the publishing strategist of Sort of – who also works at Profile Books as an associate publisher. So there’s 1.6 of us and there’s our office dog, who’s not very helpful, but we have wonderful freelancers as well, our publicist Ruth Killick and our cover designer, Peter Dyer who’s known as a genius in the profession, and we have some help with web design and the Profile sales team organises our distribution, so that’s very well managed.
Tricia: I’m very glad it’s not going to change because I think your production values are so high, and your books are amazing. So I want to say thank you Nat for talking to us.
Nat: You’re welcome and Suffolk have been such great supporters of the Tove Jansson oeuvre. So thank you.