Lucy Popescu, tell us about your childhood and where you grew up
I grew up in Oxfordshire. My late mother was the children’s author, Christine Pullein-Thompson so I was put on a pony before I could walk. It’s a beautiful part of England and I loved hurtling round the woods and hills on a pony – following in my mother’s hoof steps – she grew up in Peppard. Years later, I found out that I had lived in a world that many horse mad girls envied.
Were your parents great readers? What were the books that made you fall in love with reading?
I come from a family of writers and grew up surrounded by books. I read hand me downs of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet and loved C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books as a young child. I also read all my mother’s books and then the books written by her sisters . . . That took some time. I was a precocious reader. I wanted to know why, aged nine, I was banned from reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I also read Wuthering Heights too young and thought Heathcliff was a romantic hero. I devoured JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a teenager.
The greater part of your career has been spent supporting freedom of expression and championing literature by and about refugees. Is your interest rooted in your own personal the experiences and those of your family of origin?
I’m sure my Romanian origins played a part, but it was after I read Andrew Graham Yooll’s memoir, A State of Fear, about the years of terror and chaos in Argentina between 1975 and 1983, that I knew that I wanted to work in the field of human rights. He wrote about the disappeared, the voiceless. My grandmother, Joanna Cannan, was an early member of PEN and my aunt, Josephine-Pullein Thompson was General Secretary and then President of English PEN. I started doing odd jobs there when I was seventeen but after reading Yooll’s work I knew I wanted to campaign for free expression. My aunt was active in defending Salman Rushdie when the fatwa, calling for his death, was declared in 1989. Around this time, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden was staged and Harold Pinter’s work was overtly political. I jumped at the chance to work, initially just six hours a week, for the Writers in Prison Committee. At PEN we also campaigned on behalf of writers in exile so, when I left, it felt natural to volunteer to help refugee writers at Freedom from Torture.
Is there greater recognition and curiosity nowadays about writing from other worlds and cultures than when you first began your career twenty-five years ago?
There seem to be more independent publishers promoting a wider range of international fiction in translation today, but they struggle to survive. There were fewer, but bigger names – Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez etc. I remember theatre used to be far more international than it is now. The Gate Theatre was dedicated to international work, The LIFT festival flourished and took place every year, rather than biennially.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
Both. Pony Holiday Book. I was Granada’s youngest author when it was published in 1982.
Your top tips to share with aspiring writers?
Write regularly – a tip from my grandmother – aim for just 400 words a day. That’s so doable and you’ll often write more.
Read widely and regularly.
Show, don’t tell.
Use strong verbs and avoid adverbs.
No writer, however successful, writes a perfect first draft: Refine, refine, refine.
Be kind to yourself.
Your views on book publishing?
Support those Indies! They are publishing the most exciting stuff at the moment. Bigger publishers don’t seem to want to stick their necks out or take risks.
How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from your editor(s)?
Always listen to your editor (I’m an editor!) I had great editorial support at Unbound and was particularly impressed by the work of my copy-editor. Too often the funds for a copy-editor are slashed and they really are crucial. I loved the fact that she made me re-route an air journey one of my contributors had imagined. She pointed out that the plane would not have flown over a particular country on its trajectory from A to B.
Which is more important, style or voice?
Hmm that’s a tricky one. I love the voice of Holden Caulfield, but I love the excitement of reading something that is interesting stylistically. Michael Ondatjee’s Running in the Family. More recently, Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they?
If you enrol on a good one they can be liberating in so many ways and at the very least they allow students the space to write, the chance to experiment and exercise their imagination on a regular basis. An encouraging teacher can give someone the vital confidence they’ve always lacked. A good teacher will help aspiring writers develop their voice and style.
What are your favorite literary journals?
The Literary Review, the TLS, Words without Borders, BookBlast.
Your views on how technology and social media have changed your writing and publishing life? Are you an eBook reader?
No, I spend too long on my pc when writing so I refuse to read eBooks. Technology and social media mean a writer no longer has to rely solely on their publicist. You can raise your profile by being prolific on social media. But it’s exhausting. And many people genuinely don’t like to blow their own trumpet!
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing in your view?
Grim. It could really damage the industry. Our reading fare could become as bland as our food.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Back to the woods and bridleways of my youth.
Your views on handling success?
Don’t let it go to your head.
Pride comes before a fall.
Tomorrow is another day.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Tantrums and bad behavior caused by emotional pain.
Your chief characteristic?
Your heroes/heroines in literature, and in real life?
Elizabeth Bennet. My late mother, Moris Farhi, Harold Pinter, Anna Politkovskaya. They’re all dead. I desperately need some new ones.
Who would be in your dream book club?
Margaret Atwood, Sebastian Barry, Alain de Botton, William Boyd, Shirin Ebadi, Elena Ferrante, Tom Keneally, Andres Neuman, Michael Ondaatje, Philippe Sands and Joan Smith.
Five top reads by and about refugees?
The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain
by Gulwali Passarlay (Atlantic Books); Lights in the Distance by Daniel Trilling (Pan Macmillan); Refugee Tales (Comma Press); Dalila by Jason Donald (Cape) and A Country Too Far (Ed.) Tom Keneally, Rosie Scott (Penguin Australia), the inspiration behind my own refugee anthologies.
Five favourite feature films?
I’ve just seen a preview of The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical feature, which I loved. (It’s released in August.) It’s a fantastic evocation of London in the 1980s, first love and the creative process of a young filmmaker. I think it will remain a favourite of mine. Doctor Zhivago; Midnight Express; Underground by Emir Kusturica; and a little known Greek film, Suntan directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos.
Five favourite musicians or bands?
The Beatles; John Lennon; Bob Dylan, Blondie; Abba.
Your bedside reading?
There would usually be a pile of debut novels but there’s a lull before the next round of submissions. Home Grown by Joan Smith (Riverrun); Under Pressure by Faruk Sehic translated by Mirza Puric (Istros), You Would Have Missed Me by Birgit Vanderbeke translated by Jamie Bulloch (Peirene) and Others (Ed.) Charlies Fernyhough (Unbound).
Don’t give up.
Lucy Popescu is a author, editor and arts critic with a background in human rights. She worked with English PEN for over twenty years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. Her anthology A Country to Call Home focuses on the experiences of young refugees.
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