My Desert Island Discs dozen castaway novelists

Desert Island

Mrs eNil, Creative Commons

Since the Desert Island Discs archive was digitised, making recordings of around 1500 castaways interviewed since 1942 available for download, I’ve been steadily making my way through the pick of them.

The interview format is timeless and still smart to this day: the music often prompts an emotion or a recollection that a short interview would otherwise struggle to do.

What’s more, there are hundreds with interviewees I admire, and from time to time the interviews are genuinely illuminating, peppered with insight and warmth, a whole biography writ small.

I love the different interviewer styles too: Posh Roy Plomley with his shambolic shortfall in research; urbane and wise Parky; go-for-the-jugular Sue Lawley; and slick Kirsty Young.

The 12 interviews with writers that I’ve chosen here are the best, most touching, most revealing, most surprising and thought provoking of those I’ve heard to date.

Les Murray

The famous Aussie poet is stirring both on his love of poetry and language, and on the black dog of depression that has afflicted him for much of his life.

Iain Banks

I was an avid reader of this Scottish writer’s novels during my university years, and I was shocked when he died so young. This interview is full of wit and energy and enthusiasm that was typical of his novels.

Ian McEwan

A thoughtful meditation on the passions and obsessions that run through his books, from the early days when he was christened Ian Macabre to the later, fuller work. Some nice asides too, such as on the joys of American road trips.

Julian Barnes

Prickly, choosing his words slowly and carefully, Barnes refuses to rise to Lawley’s bait, and remains mum about the breakdown of his relationship with Amis. I wonder what he makes of Leicester City’s premier league campaign this season?

Martin Amis

At his most charming, despite provocation from Sue Lawley, Amis is slick with the bon mots in interview as he is on the written page. Lots of the topics were revisited in his memoir Experience.

Kingsley Amis

Whereas Martin talks at great length about his father in his Desert Island appearance, and former wife Elizabeth Jane Howard is happy to discuss him in her own, Kingsley focuses on his own work and on Philip Larkin, and fails to even mention either Amis Junior or his ex.

Maya Angelou

Wonderfully wise, warm and witty, Angelou is at her most charming and expansive. A great illustration of her indefatigable spirit and good humour.

Salman Rushdie

This interview took place in 1988, before the infamous fatwa was issued, and the chat is all about Rushdie’s relationship with India and Pakistan, politics and identities, his troubles at English public school and experiences of racism, and it’s full of fun and vigour. It’s only at the very end that Rushdie talks with animation about his upcoming book, the Satanic Verses, and you hold your breath at the thought of him to spend a life locked in round the clock armed guard since – surely worse than desert island solitude.

Alan Sillitoe

A great insight into the decisions the writer of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning took along the path of his career, and how the book gave him the security that allowed him the freedom to pursue a life as a writer.

J P Donleavy

Interesting for his recollections of his many scraps and scrapes in Dublin, and his anecdotes about other famous writers of his time, especially Brendan Behan.

John Updike

Updike is clearly a sauve raconteur, and speaks just as he writes with perfect poise and lacquered sentences, including some very funny turns of phrase: such as when he talks of his ‘Very successful first marriage’.

JG Ballard

Avuncular and thoroughly charming – it’s always remarkable to hear the man behind Crash, the Atrocity Exhibition and Cocaine Nights is so thoroughly sane and down to earth, and not a raving madman. The discussion is fascinating when he talks about life as a boy in a Japanese POW camp, and moving when he tells of the sudden death of his young wife, and raising his three young daughters alone.

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2 thoughts on “My Desert Island Discs dozen castaway novelists

  1. A guy I know sent me a link to listen to Lemn Sissay. It was the first of these I’d ever listened to. His story is very sad of course but his accent so warm that’s it’s impossible not to feel uplifted.

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