For years she was told there was no market for her work. But the celebrated author of Girl, Woman, Other proved sceptics wrongby Rebecca Liu / May 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
Twenty years ago, Bernardine Evaristo visualised winning the Booker Prize. She had been taking upbeat American-style personal development classes, and decided to set herself what seemed like an impossible goal. Though Evaristo had already begun establishing herself as a poet and novelist in London, drawing the respect of her peers as well as critical praise, she felt far removed from the literary mainstream and her books had yet to crack the bestseller lists. Last October, when she finally realised her dream and won the prize, she joked in her acceptance speech that in the course of her 40-year career she had never made her editors much money.
That’s all changed now. Sitting (pre-lockdown) in a coffee shop in suburban northwest London near Brunel University, where she is professor of creative writing, Evaristo reels off the ways in which winning one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes has supercharged her life. She has, for one, started making her editors serious money. Five days after her victory for Girl, Woman, Other—her radiant novel about 12 mostly black, mostly female, Britons—total sales of the book, which had been in bookshops for five months, more than doubled from 4,391 copies sold to 10,371. Barack Obama named it as one of his favourite books of 2019. It’s set to be adapted into a television series by Potboiler Television, the studio behind adaptations of John le Carré. Hamish Hamilton, her longtime publisher, has ordered a reprint of her back catalogue. And then there’s the bestseller lists. Girl, Woman, Other not only entered the Sunday Times bestseller list, it also stayed there for nine consecutive weeks. “I remember [seeing] those lists for years,” she says, “and looking at the names.” She continues: “The fact that I’m there, and some weeks I might be beating Stephen King or James Patterson, I’m like ‘yes! How did this happen?’” she says, punching the air.
But there’s a difference, she’s quick to say, between writing with the express purpose of winning the Booker, and hoping that if you persevere that one day the Booker might just come to you. After all, this is a prize that signals the approval of the literary establishment from which Evaristo felt excluded for decades.…