This morning I had the great pleasure of talking to the novelist Paul Torday about his work. His first book, the bestselling, prize-winning Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has been one of the highlights of my recent reading: a highly engaging mix of the very funny and the very sad, poignant, satirical, enormously entertaining. With the film of the book due out next year, a novella being published as an e-book tomorrow (8th. Dec.), and a new novel coming out in January, Paul's is a busy and productive life, but despite numerous calls on his time he very kindly agreed to chat to me and answer my questions.
We began our conversation by talking about the enormous success of that first book, published when Paul was in middle age and having had a successful career in engineering; it won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, was serialised on BBC Radio 4, won the Waverton Good Read Award, and is now, as I say, a film starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas (with which Paul is very happy, by the way) - surely that set the bar very high where subsequent books were concerned?
It might have been 'easy' to have written more of the same - though not to repeat the structure of the first book, which is ingenious and very well done - but wishing to avoid being formulaic, Paul took a markedly different line with his second novel, prepared to let it stand or fall on its own merits. The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, 'a novel in four vintages', is a story of obsession and addiction, identity and the desire to belong, it's a darker book and one in which its author allowed himself the small luxury of self-indulgence, writing what he wanted to write, intent on doing his best without undue concern for commercial dictates. It's a book which I found fascinating, and while you don't have to be a wine expert to enjoy it, just as you don't require a passing acquaintance with a fly rod to read Salmon Fishing, I'd say a little knowledge just adds to the savour!
Paul's 2010 book was The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers, "a sharp, funny novel about money, greed, redemption ... and dog food" set in the world of fund-management (there's a post on it here). For this he took inspiration from A Tale of Two Cities and the device of using two men who are physically very similar, but he also brings in characters from earlier novels, and when I asked about this, Paul likened it to a form of domestic economy, not wasting anything but making the most of one's resources and 'ingredients': a thrifty and successful technique.
His latest work, Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà Vu, is a novella about a former MP who was caught up in the expenses scandal and is now on holiday, recuperating after an illness. It's typical Torday, perfect in pace and tone, concerned again with 'belonging', fitting in, being a decent person trying hard to do a good job, but all is not what it seems, and I found it nicely understated and affecting. Then in early January The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall will be published, though this will be a farewell to a location and those characters I mentioned above who have appeared in earlier stories. I haven't read it yet but it's firmly on my wish list.
From his individual books, we went on to talk about Paul's writing methods and routine, and here he explained that due to other work commitments (essential to keep at least one foot on the ground, he says) he has to block out writing days in his diary. In his study overlooking a Northumberland valley, he tries to reach his daily 2,000 word target before lunch, then after a walk with his dogs he'll spend the afternoon editing what he has just written. Having found a theme and a 'hook' on which to hang it, a beginning, an end, and a rough sketch of the linking path between them, Paul leaves himself space so that his characters can effectively direct the plot, but nevertheless he keeps to a disciplined schedule, allowing roughly a year per book with six months of that for the first draft.
I asked Paul about his own reading and he told me that he's careful not to read much fiction while he's writing as he fears he might subconsciously absorb others' ideas, so he sticks to biography and history, but he finds re-reading the classics particularly diverting. He enjoys Dickens, Trollope, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, and he cited Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English as examples of recent fiction he has especially enjoyed.
Paul's books remind me of Alexander McCall Smith's because, while often darker than Sandy's, they are similarly elegant, humane, sensitive, and often very, very funny. Both men have taken up writing in later life having had fulfilling earlier careers, and both have achieved great success; I wondered whether Paul had any advice for other 'literary late starters'. "Try it if you really want to do it," he says, "but take it as seriously as you would any other job. Commit to it and do your best, and what happens after that is down to luck."
We'll end with those wise words, and my thanks to Paul Torday for an illuminating and fascinating conversation.
Other conversations: Alexander McCall Smith