Zibby is joined by the Booker Prize-winning author of Girl, Woman, Other Bernardine Evaristo to talk about her first non-fiction book, Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. The two discuss why Bernardine didn’t want to write another novel after the runaway success with Girl, Woman, Other, why she’s written in various genres at the different stages of her life, and which medium she plans to return to with her next project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bernardine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. Thank you.

Bernardine Evaristo: Oh, hello. Hi.

Zibby: You can say hello now. Welcome. Thank you so much. Your first book, obviously, or your last book, I should say, Girl, Woman, Other, was such a huge hit. You were kind enough to then take readers in and show them how you got to that point in your life, what your life was like, which was so fascinating, the whole journey, everything. Tell me a little about why you decided to write this. I’m sure people were very curious, but you didn’t have to do it.

Bernardine: That’s true.

Zibby: Explain the impetus and what it was like going back through time and reliving some of these experiences and all that.

Bernardine: When I won the Booker, I was sixty years old, so I’d already had quite a long life. I realized that even though I wasn’t unknown as a writer in Britain, I wasn’t really known very widely. I wasn’t known around the world. A lot of people were introduced to me when I won the Booker. They were then very interested in who I was and what was my background was and so on. I found myself talking a lot about myself in interviews that, actually, almost continue through to today.

Zibby: It hasn’t really solved your problem. Look, we’re right here.

Bernardine: It hasn’t really stopped. Also, Girl, Woman, Other is published in lots of languages. They all want interviews and so on. I just got very used to talking about myself in great depth and detail. I then had to think about what the next book was going to be. I thought, I think I want to create a record of my life up to this point rather than write another novel. I was also sort of dodging the bullet of the next novel because Girl, Woman, Other was very successful. People might want more of the same. I didn’t really want to have to engage with fiction. I thought writing a memoir would be a really good thing to do. I call it a memoir and a meditation, not to put anybody off. It’s not strictly a memoir where I say, this is where it began. This is the journey of my life. It’s looking at my creativity and how my life has been shaped by it and my creativity has been shaped by my life going back to my childhood. That really was the thinking behind it.

Zibby: I love it. I so love it. There was a passage in the beginning where you talked about what you were like as a young reader. You said, “An avid reader since my early childhood, it was here in the solitude of my room that I started to write poems, discovering a relationship between what I was feeling and the power of words to articulate it through poetry.” Tell me about starting your poetry career as a young child.

Bernardine: I was a young woman. I didn’t really write until I was about nineteen when I went to drama school. I was on a course where we there to create our own theater. We were trained as actors, but we were also creating our own theater. I discovered that when I started writing for theater, it came out as poetry. It felt like that was my natural means of expression. I was also reading poetry. I loved poetry. I’ve been reading poetry since my teenage years. It just felt like this was how I wanted to express myself. When I started writing, I was completely unable to change a single word of anything that I wrote. I think about that now because we know that writing is rewriting. As a writer, very quickly, you have to learn that the first words that you put on a page are going to be changed and rearranged and may not even appear in the final version of a poem, for example. At that stage, I was so attached to what I was writing. It was so personal that I could only write one draft of a poem. Now I might write forty, fifty drafts of a piece of writing. A book will typically go through anything from three to five, maybe even six drafts, whole drafts, a whole book. It really is a very big enterprise shaping something so that it’s just right before it reaches the reader. In those early years, poetry was my thing. I still am, I suppose, a poet in some ways. I don’t really see myself as the poet that I was because I started writing poetry — I called it verse drama for theater. Then I wrote verse novels. My first two books were verse novels until eventually, I ended up writing more straightforward fiction. Even Girl, Woman, Other, I call it fusion fiction. I’m somebody who mucks about with form quite a lot. The poetry is still there inside me. It won’t let me go even though I try to get rid of it.

Zibby: You can’t take the poet out of the girl, or something like that. Then I just wanted to jump to a passage at the where you said, “I am first and foremost a writer. The written word is how I process everything, myself, life, society, history, politics. It’s not just a job or a passion, but it is at the very heart of how I exist in the world, and I am addicted to the adventure of storytelling as my most powerful means of communication. To quote from Zuleika and The Emperor’s Babe, this is my legacy, to leave a whisper of myself in the world, my ghost, a magna opera of words.” I love that.

Bernardine: That’s it. I’ve been writing so long now, starting writing seriously at drama school when I was a young woman and for over forty years since. It’s hard to imagine a life where I’m not writing. People have to go out to work. We have to earn a living. Some of us choose a vocation rather than a simple job. It’s something that we feel really, really passionately about, as most writers, I would suggest, probably do. For me, it’s something that I will be doing, hopefully, if my mental facilities enable me to, until the day I die because it is how I process life. I’m a storyteller. When I’m daydreaming, I’m thinking in terms of the kinds of stories I want to tell. I also like the fact that as a writer, you get to have this massive, hopefully, platform where people are experiencing your ideas, your characters, your narratives. They are coming into your world and seeing the world through your perspective. That’s quite an exhilarating thing to think about. It’s absolutely integral to me as a human being. I can’t imagine it not being there.

Zibby: When you write, do you like to type? Do you like to write freehand? If you have a funny thought or an interesting thought during the day, do you write it in notes? Are you a scribbler? What’s your style?

Bernardine: I don’t really take notes very often. I know people who do, who are always getting out their notebook to jot things down. I wish I could do that because I think there are a lot of things that I forget. I type directly onto a computer. That’s how I’ve been working now for about twenty-plus years. Before then, I would write by hand and then put it onto the computer. That was when I was writing verse novels. I think it’s better to write poetry by hand. I would write by hand, put it onto the computer. Then way before then when I first started writing, it would just be by hand. Now when I’m writing a novel — Girl, Woman, Other was 120,000 words. I just don’t know how anybody could write that by hand. People do.

Zibby: Some people do, though. Some people do. It’s crazy, but they do.

Bernardine: That’s right. Some people still do, which I find incredible because I’m just so used to delete, cut, paste, copy. That facility that computers have given us, I don’t know how I could write long-form fiction without it, or even any kind long-form nonfiction because you can just get things out and then make it right later, whereas when you’re writing by hand — I saw Charles Dickens’ — it was Nicholas Nickleby, the original manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had a look at it about two months ago. It was so interesting. Of course, it’s all handwritten. You see all his notes, but not a lot of notes. For people of his generation and for basically the whole of the period that people were writing by hand, I think you probably process your thoughts in a much more ordered fashion and probably give a lot more thought to them because you know that it’s going to be a hassle having to rewrite things. Whereas now, it doesn’t matter, really, does it? We can be a bit scrappy because we know we can tidy it up.

Zibby: I wonder if literature would’ve been better or worse or the same net result if we had given Dickens a computer and said, here, use the cut-and-paste feature.

Bernardine: Oh, my god, I think he would’ve probably been even more prolific, but better…?

Zibby: Someone should do that. Someone should take Great Expectations and say, but this is the version if he had been able to write it on a computer and cut and paste it.

Bernardine: It’s interesting. When you’re writing on a computer as well, you have very easy access to different words, to synonyms and thesaurus and so on. I don’t think a thesaurus existed during Dickens’ time. You would just have had a dictionary, I guess. There would definitely have been limitations. I don’t know, really. It’s hard , isn’t it? That’s an interesting one.

Zibby: It is interesting. Do you ever get tired of talking about Girl, Woman, Other? Do you ever want to be like, I don’t want to talk about this book ever again? I’m tired of it.

Bernardine: I think I literally have given about — I kid you not because I was counting at one point — about four hundred interviews, sometimes many in a single day, especially during lockdown. During lockdown, I would do maybe four countries in a day at four different festivals. I would be in Brazil, then in Italy, then in Australia, and then in France because it was so doable all via Zoom. I really, really have talked about Girl, Woman, Other a lot. I don’t want to be ungrateful.

Zibby: I know.

Bernardine: I’m in a luxurious position now as a writer in that people do want to talk to me about my work. I know what it was like for a very long time where I would’ve loved to have this attention, but the honest answer is yes.

Zibby: I bet. So funny. At least now you have a new book. You can just deflect the conversation and make new ones. While you’re busy at work on different books like this one, are you reading all the time yourself? If so, what do you love to read while you’re working? Are you one of those people who can’t read of the genre that you’re writing in, or do you just read whatever all the time?

Bernardine: I’ve gone through different stages where I have felt that I can’t read fiction when I’m writing fiction. Then I realize at some point that I’m writing fiction all the time, so that means I don’t read any. I had to get over that one. Actually, the problem for me — I love reading, obviously. I’ve been reading since I was a little child. From the moment I was able to go to the library on my own, I would go and get books. Reading was the world to me, literally. I engaged with the wider world through reading as a child. As an adult, I’m a professor at university. I have been a book critic. I judge prizes. I chaired the Women’s Prize last year. I know a lot of writers. That means that my reading is not as free as it used to be. That, for me, is more the issue. Years ago in my twenties and thirties in particular, I would be able to just pick up a book, any old book that I wanted to read. I’d read it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t finish it. I wouldn’t even, probably, have a discussion with anyone about it. Whereas now, I have to read for all these different activities, especially judging prizes. One prize I judged, two hundred books turned up. I wanted to kill myself. Why did I say yes to this when all these books filled up my house? It was terrible. You kind of have to read them in order to talk about them. You can’t pretend to have read them. That was a nightmare. It’s more about finding books that really, really inspire me because that then nurtures my imagination and nurtures my own reading rather than the kind of duty books that I have to read.

Two books that I’ve read recently that I’ve really loved — I know I’m really late to reading this writer, but Ann Patchett, The Dutch House. We were on some list together, so I started to pay attention to her. Then I thought, let me get this book. I absolutely loved it. I was like, oh, this is a discovery. I know that I’m probably forty years too late. I’m going to be reading more of her work. I just finished it. When I read a book that I love, it is the most pleasurable experience. I look forward to returning to it, to curling up on my own, reading at leisure, getting so much pleasure from it, and just feeling fulfilled by someone else’s skin and imagination. The other book I read recently that I — it was my first book of his that I also thought was really powerful, was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. I know they’re huge writers in America, aren’t they? I thought that packed such a powerful punch. It’s a short book, but it left such a strong aftertaste. It was so shocking and horrifying but just so brilliantly explored. Those are two writers who are definitely very fresh in my mind.

Zibby: I love the idea of a book leaving a strong aftertaste. I love that. That’s a great way to describe it. I love it. Some books I read and I’m like, this was so powerful. Whatever I read next is not going to be even close. I’m so moved that I can’t possibly — it’s like being in a very heated relationship and then going on your next date. You’re like, no, I can’t. Yes, books are amazing. What are you working on? Can you even say?

Bernardine: I’m working on a theater piece, actually, which I can’t talk too much about. I began in theater. I returned to writing a little bit for theater. Theater was my first love. I was an actor to begin with. I love theater. I go a lot. I love theater people, actually. I miss the creative process of being in a theater company, and the collaboration and just the energy of actors in particular. When actors get drunk, they often become really extrovert and wild and crazy. I love all that. Whereas writers, when they get drunk, get very quiet and morose and even more melancholy. It’s not such fun. I miss the performance of theater people. That’s not why I’m writing. I do like the whole culture around theater. I have a piece that has been commissioned. I can’t say any more than that. I have to deliver it very soon, so I better get on with it.

Zibby: I love it. You’re basically writing so you have more fun parties, right? That’s really what it comes down to. That’s hilarious. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I’m sure you’ve been asked this a trillion times. Make something up, or something that you haven’t said before.

Bernardine: There is so much to say to aspiring authors. The first thing to do is do it. A lot of people want to write, and they don’t actually do it. Join a class. So many classes around these days for people to join to have a taster of it and see if they want to do it. Reading is as much about writing as writing. If you’re writing books, then you need to read. If you’re writing nonfiction, read nonfiction. If you’re writing fiction, read fiction. If you’re writing poetry, read poetry. Then read everything as well. It’s the equivalent of musicians not listening to music. If you want to be a writer and you don’t read, you are like a musician who doesn’t listen to music. That is a very stark analogy because if you don’t listen to music, how can you create it other than very rudimentary kind of work? I became a writer through reading. I always say to my students, you’ve got to read. Unfortunately, they have a lot of competition with reading these days because they have this thing called the internet and smartphones. I despair, really.

You have students studying creative writing who don’t want to read. You know that when they come in bedraggled half an hour late for the class that they’ve been up doing this TikTok thing or whatever it is they’re doing — I don’t know; I dread to think — on the internet. Especially for any young people listening, you need to read. If you find you can’t concentrate, it will get better. You just have to persist with it until you can devote an hour, two hours, three hours to reading something. The third thing is, you will find your own voice and your own style eventually. Don’t expect to win the Noble Prize with the first thing you ever write because it is going to be rough. You will develop your skills and your craft over years. Then eventually, hopefully, you’ll be published. Some people get there sooner than others, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Just follow your own path. You will find your own style. That is often something that people feel they haven’t got. It develops over time. It may not be a particularly literary style, but you will find the kinds of stories you want to tell and the way you want to tell them. That, first of all, has to satisfy you and then the reader. If you hate your own work, it’s very likely the reader will too. That’s not a very good style. Find your own way in so that you find it rewarding. Then get the feedback that you need and so on to grow and develop.

Zibby: If you hate your own writing, don’t have high expectations. Back to Dickens. Lower your expectations. Thank you so much, Bernardine. Thank you for coming on. I’m sorry again for coming on late. I’m looking forward to hearing what your theater reveal will be. That’s exciting.

Bernardine: Thanks very much.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Bernardine: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

MANIFESTO: ON NEVER GIVING UP by Bernardine Evaristo

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