INTERVIEW with Pauline Melville

Anna Metcalfe interviewes Guayanese-born writer Pauline Melville for the Financial Times.

Author and actress Pauline Melville was born in Guyana in 1948 to an English mother and a Guyanese father. She began acting in the 1960s, starring in Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), and TV shows The Young Ones and Blackadder. Melville won the Commonwealth Writers Prize with her first book, Shape-shifter (1990), a collection of short stories exploring post-colonial existence in the Caribbean. Her first novel, The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997), won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. More short stories followed with The Migration of Ghosts (1998), and another novel, Eating Air, in 2009. Melville is married and lives in London.

Who is your perfect reader?

I’d settle for someone who chances on my work in a second-hand bookshop and becomes enthralled.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

When I was about five I realised I was something of a detached observer but I didn’t get round to writing for another 30 years or so. I thought I needed the widest possible experience of real life. Later I discovered that other writers were just sitting at home making it all up.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Difficult one that. Probably The Possessed by Dostoyevsky.

What is your daily writing routine?

My best work is written early in the morning between 7am and midday. In the afternoon I edit and ponder.


Who are your literary influences?

Gabriel García Márquez, Flannery O’Connor, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare. I fear that the influence doesn’t always show.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Shakespeare on one side and Salman Rushdie on the other. But would I get a word in?

Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?

Anna Karina – in her youth when she was in the Godard movies.

How do you relax?

I dance. I do a classical ballet class and I like to dance at parties.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

My mother once said: “Never have children. They’re a pain in the neck.”

What are you most proud of writing?

I am too critical of my own work to be proud of it. But I am always hugely proud of the book I am just about to write – when it is in my head, before it turns out to be just another book.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Rio de Janeiro.

What does it mean to be a writer?

Being a writer is like being a window-cleaner in a house or a castle where the windows are obscured by dirt and grime. Writing is like cleaning the windows so that people can see a view of the world they have never seen before.

Pauline Melville’s latest novel is ‘Eating Air’ (Telegram Books)

The interviewed appeared at

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