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Twenty Questions with Natalie Haynes, Writer, Broadcaster & Literary Prize Judge

Natalie Haynes is a writer and broadcaster. She writes for the Guardian, and the Independent. Her first novel, The Amber Fury, has been published to great acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, as was The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, her previous book. She has spoken on the modern relevance of the classical world on three continents, from Cambridge to Chicago to Auckland.

She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4: reviewing for Front Row and Saturday Review, appearing as a team captain on three seasons of Wordaholics. A second series of her show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, will be broadcast on Radio 4 next year.

Natalie’s documentary on the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum, Secret Knowledge: The Body Beautiful aired in 2015 on BBC4 in the UK and on BBC World News everywhere else.

She was a judge for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Industrious, thoughtful, shambolic

How many books did you have to read as a 2013 Man Booker Prize Judge?

151 – 50 in the first 100 days, 100 in the second 103 days. Publishers could definitely send them in earlier…

What did you love most about the role?

The sense of being on top of a whole year of fiction – like a snapshot of the cultural world. And meeting with the other judges, who were all lovely.

What did you find hardest?

Reading 151 books in 203 days, while trying to also edit my own novel, write newspaper columns, review films, pay bills. I have never been more tired.

Where do you most love reading?

My sofa. I lie across it, as though I am expecting you to present me with some violet creams (you never do. Actually, I’m not sure I like violet creams, even).

Tell us an amusing anecdote from your time as a Man Booker Prize Judge.

Ah, that would be the time a publisher submitted an ineligible novel taped inside the dust-jacket of an eligible novel. You could have heard my howl across three postcodes when I realised I’d read 80 pages of the wrong book. I know it sounds trivial, but when you’re reading a book or more a day, for months on end, it’s pretty crushing.

What book – from any writer – do you wish you’d written?

Anything by Borges. Even a sentence.

Did you have any routines, systems or quirky habits to keep you on schedule when reading all those books?

Open the book, read the book. If it’s going slowly, set impossible targets to make you read faster. It’s the only way. Reward yourself with frequent cans of diet coke. Apologise to your dentist.

Are there any writing tics that make your toes curl?

Those really long lists that American authors use for no reason at all (to supply authority? Heft? Why would you do that? Write the damn book)

What’s your favourite word?

And

Is there one sentence from one of the hundreds of books you read that has stayed with you?

‘I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’

If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Euripides, Bill Watterson. Not together.

What are you reading at the moment?

A biography of Augustus by Jochen Bleicken (I’m reviewing it).

What’s the first book you remember reading?

The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I owe it all to Judith Kerr.

What’s your view on the much debated move to make American writers eligible for the Man Booker Prize?

Good for readers, tough for writers.

Did ploughing through so many hundreds of books put you off reading for a while?

No. I went straight from Man Booker-judging to judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. That may have been foolhardy.

Is there a book that got a way – a novel you loved that didn’t make it onto the 2013 Longlist?

I’m not allowed to tell you what was submitted. But, yes. There’s one.

In your view, who is the most worthy Man Booker Prize winner of all time?

Julian Barnes.

While adjudicating, what did you do when you weren’t reading?

Ha ha ha ha ha. You’re hilarious.

What three tips would you give aspiring literary prize winner?

I read 151 books, of which maybe 3 felt slightly over-edited – too shiny, as if they’d had their corners rubbed off.

I read maybe 120 that could have done with another pass.

So:

Edit your book.

And then do it again.

Yup, one more time. And now you’re done.

You can find out more about the inspiring Natalie Haynes on her website.

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