Indra Sinha, New Statesman, 13 September 2007
Surprise party – Indra Sinha on his unexpected journey to the Booker Prize shortlist
We were having dinner with some friends who’d just driven up from Spain, ten of us round the table, when the phone rang. It was another friend demanding that we switch on the BBC. “Sir Howard Davies is on Radio 4 and you’ve been longlisted for the Booker.”
The news sounded extremely unlikely. I knew Animal’s People had been entered, but had since forgotten all about it. “He definitely mentioned your book,” my friend insisted. I returned to the table and as calmly as I could told the others. Let’s not get too excited, he’s probably got it all wrong. A quarter of an hour later the phone rang again and this time it was my sister Umi who is never wrong.
It was rather wonderful news because Animal’s People had a disappointing start. One review in the UK, a couple in India. As time went by it became clear that there weren’t going to be any more. No one had heard of the book, friends couldn’t find it in the shops, Indian booksellers denied all knowledge of it. It was set to vanish without trace, a fate that overtakes so many novels. On Amazon it was ranked somewhere around 220,000. Once, when a kind friend bought six copies, it jumped 200,000 places.
The British review appeared in the New Statesman, which in the 1950s, under the editorship of John Freeman, had published a number of my mother’s short stories. When I was a student at Cambridge I dug out the old issues in the university library and discovered that another of John Freeman’s up-and-coming young writers was one Doris Lessing.
The immediate effect of being longlisted was that people started talking about the book. From India, where previously it had been impossible to drum up any interest, came a stream of telephone calls wanting interviews. Some sent questionnaires they demanded back by return. I gratefully obliged. Anything to gain the novel a chance of being read.
At the Edinburgh Book Festival my reading was sold out, a welcome change from last time when I believe it was festival staff gallantly making up most of the audience of ten. I apologised to the audience for the foulness of narrator Animal’s language, but someone said to me later that they thought I was more shocked by it than anyone else.
Afterwards there was a long queue of people wanting signed copies. One man bought 18 and when I asked what on earth he wanted with so many, replied candidly that he planned to sell them on eBay. “But I’ve paid full price,” he said. I think this is when it sank in that something big had happened.
“The attention will only last four weeks,” my agent warned. As they passed, the pleasure of being longlisted slowly turned into apprehension about the shortlist.
I was invited to the shortlist party but didn’t want to go and flew over from Toulouse in a cloud of butterflies, despatched by my wife with instructions that “your smile must be warm and genuine whatever happens”. I spent the afternoon in my hotel room trying to doze, not daring to turn on the TV or radio, dreading the phone. Three thirty came and went and it didn’t ring. Obviously not good news. I finally logged on to the Booker website and was much relieved.
The drinks do was at the Century Club in Shaftesbury Avenue. I met three of the other writers. Nicola Barker was nice and down to earth, Mohsin Hamid was friendly (we have a mutual friend in Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City) and we decided that we must stand together in the face of media reports that “Indo-Pak rivalries enter literary arena”. Lloyd Jones seemed a little reserved, but possibly with good reason, as I may have been pretty well oiled by that point. The stress, you know.
The Times reported that Animal’s People was one of only three longlisters whose Amazon ranking had climbed further from the peak reached after the longlist announcement, while the Telegraph reported that in the first ten days of being longlisted it had sold just 231 copies. If this seems contradictory, friends had initially reported not being able to find the book in any shop, and for much of the first ten days Amazon was out of stock, quoting a delivery time of between four and six weeks.
Animal’s People is the rank outsider to win the prize, but I am clear that I have been very lucky and glad that Animal, who has made so much of my past five years a pleasure and a nightmare, will now have his say.