Meet the Jury: Claire Armitstead
February 5, 2020
Claire Armitstead is Associate Editor, Culture, at The Guardian, where she has previously acted as arts editor, literary editor and head of books. She presents The Guardian Books podcast and is a regular commentator on radio, and at live events across the UK and internationally. She is a trustee of English PEN.
When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
I knew I wanted writing to be a part of my life from quite early on, which is a bit different to wanting to be an author. I was under the influence of the romantic poet John Keats in my early teens and thought it would be romantic to die young after writing some great poetry.
What is your favourite writing routine?
I suffer from what I call cat-in-the-basket syndrome: going round and round for ages before settling down to it. My favourite routine is therefore no routine, but to have the luxury of sinking into that basket for as long as it takes.
What are you working on now?
A piece about the food culture of the Colombian city of Cartagena as seen through the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Who is your favourite Canadian author?
Can I have two? Carol Shields and Rohinton Mistry. I discovered Shields early on in my life as a literary editor and with her beautifully composed, emotionally precise novels she taught me that literature and style are inseparable. Mistry enlarged the world for me. I have been waiting faithfully for his next novel for too long.
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
You can do it. You can.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
My whole life is research, and a small part of that is writing. It’s a concatenation of interests which now stretches pretty much around the world.
Where is your favourite place to write?
Currently in my bed because it’s quiet and warm. Now that I am writing rather than editing, I find it hard to work in our open plan office. When I have to do so, I create an ambiance for myself by listening to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations on my headphones. Always that. I like the cleanness of the music and his little grunts: evidence of the effort that produces mastery.
How many hours a day do you try to write? Why did you choose this number?
As long as it takes. I’m generally a slow writer so I find clock-watching stressful, though I can sprint when absolutely necessary. I did a double interview with Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo the morning after their Booker win and it was published the same afternoon.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I used to think I’d be a cab driver because I could choose my hours and meet lots of people. Lately, gardening has become more attractive, with plants standing in for the people.
What is your favourite childhood book?
The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge
Which piece of writing are you most proud of and why?
I always think I could have done better.
What are you most looking forward to being a juror for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize?
Dipping a toe into the great, rippling pool of Canadian literature at its source.
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