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Lucky seven for our Carol?

With her seventh novel Lancaster author Carol Birch has broken into the writing big league, with a Booker Prize nomination and widespread critical acclaim for Turn Again Home. But as she tells reporter RICHARD MACHIN, success as a writer means many things to Carol – not least a new damp proof course for the basement.

THE book that has won Carol Birch a place among the literary elite isn't typical Carol Birch.

But at least it's given her publisher a convenient pigeon hole to put her in.

"Usually critics mention my characters being marginal people on the edge of society, there have been a few junkies and drop-outs in my books, people living off their wits. But Turn Again Home is quite different.

"This is possibly the most commercial book that I've written, it's the one that people have been most able to put a label on. Publishers like labels, so now I've got this 'northern historical' tag.

Carol's seventh novel, which only came out in June, is an epic tale of three generations of a Manchester family.

Partly based on her own childhood experiences growing up in Longsight, Carol admits Turn Again Home is something of a departure for her.

"My previous books were quite different, this is the first book that I've done on this scale

"It's recent historical, it's very much based on my own family although it is fiction, but many of the events and the memories are from old family stories, although some of the first-hand memories go back to my childhood.

"There are strong characters that are an amalgamation of people I have known.''

To be put forward for the Booker Prize, one of the literary world's most prestigious awards, is an honour in itself.

To be among the final 23 entries to go forward for shortlisting (out of more than 130 submitted) already marks Carol's book out as one of the most important new releases of the year.

She shares this year's longlist with the likes of past winner Margaret Atwood, Melvyn Bragg and one of her own favourite authors, Martin Amis.

"It feels lovely to be on the list but I was completely taken back by it, it's the sort of thing you always fantasise about but never expect.''

Even reaching this stage in the Booker selection process has been good for business.

Turn Again Home, still in hardback, is selling very nicely and Carol is certain the Booker publicity has helped.

"Some people go out and buy all of the 20-25 books on the longlist, they like to judge it for themselves, read all the entries and see whether they agree with the eventual decision.

"It has certainly been good for my profile, it makes me more of a going concern and sales have gone up since the Booker longlist was announced.''

But Carol is modest about her chances of winning the 50,000 first prize and joining a very select group of writers who have won the Booker, including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Iris Murdoch.

"I would say that my chances of getting on the shortlist (announced September 16) are slim - it is very strong this year and there's a lot of interesting new stuff.''

Carol, who lives and works in Portland Street with her family, husband Martin and sons Richard, 12, and Joe, 14, has lived in Lancaster since 1989 and has written most of her novels in the city.

Carol moved here when Martin got a job as a psychology and philosophy lecturer at Lancaster and Morecambe College, allowing them to move away from London and afford to set up home with a new baby on the way.

Lancaster was somewhere she knew from family caravan holidays in Silverdale, and she's settled right in.

"I've never regretted moving here, Lancaster is a very nice place. It's a nice set up, I like the people'' she says.

Her first novel, Life in the Palace, set in a block of flats in Waterloo in the 70s, was written while she was living in Ireland, and that was followed by The Fog Line, a contemporary urban novel, then a gothic historical novel The Unmaking, which Carol describes as "a bit odd'' and which she couldn't get published in this country, but did get released in America.

Next came Songs of the West, set in Ireland, and then Little Sister.

"I am very fond of that book, a lot of Lancaster people first came to know about me through Little Sister, I did readings at Waterstones and things like that - it was a kind of North West road movie.''

Then came Come Back Paddy Riley, set half in Manchester and half in East Anglia, before this year's Turn Again Home. She is now working on a new collection of short stories.

Although thrilled with the Booker recognition, Carol is also no stranger to awards. Life in the Palace won the David Higham Award and The Fog Line took the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1991.

And she's also a respected and established figure in the writing community, with some high-profile fans. Margaret Forster once said of her: "Whenever I read of people moaning about the dire state of British fiction, I think of Carol Birch (and people like her) who are writing such good novels.''

Carol's writing methodology is to principally ensure it doesn't disrupt her family life, something she is passionately keen to protect.

"I have got the boys so have tended to work at nights or late evening, I'm more of an owl than a lark. Now the boys are getting a bit older I can concentrate a bit more on the writing, but I don't want it to take over.

"I love writing but it can be financially hard, I haven't made much money out of writing, I feel that I have to contribute to the family finances and I don't want to rely on my husband to bring in all the money.

"You don't get a salary, often it's a lump sum then nothing for two years - when we get that lump sum it usually goes on a family holiday or something for the house, damp proofing the cellar or something like that.

"I am lucky, I have a wonderful family, a nice house and I enjoy what I do - it's great to be on the longlist for something like the Booker but it's not the biggest thing in my life.''

Carol does work around her novel writing, running college creative writing courses and also writing book reviews for the Independent, Times Literary Supplement and occasionally for the Guardian.

Her own favourite writer is probably James Joyce, but she also enjoys Martin Amis and new writers like Elizabeth McCracken and Toni Davidson.

"There are a lot of very good writers that are just bubbling under, they have written some very interesting first novels.

"But many very good writers just don't get the exposure. I don't think publishers take enough time nurturing a promising writer, so much is concentrated on looking for an instant seller, something commercial.

"You need to have a thick skin as a writer, it's hard when you've worked for a year or more on a book that no-one's wanted, you've got to roll with the punches, it's not easy, you've got to remember it's about pleasing the right people at the right time.''

l Turn Again Home is published by Time Warner Books and is available in hardback priced 17.99.

Carol will be giving a reading from her new book at Lancaster Litfest this year. See the Guardian for further details.

 
 
 

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