Updated: Wednesday, 3rd June 2020 @ 3:06pm

Interview: Manchester author Robert Williams on his journey to penning Portico Prize shortlisted book

Interview: Manchester author Robert Williams on his journey to penning Portico Prize shortlisted book

By Ed Owen

Awarded to the highest quality books set in the North of England, the Portico Prize for Literature is one of the biggest literary prizes in the UK.

MM chats to Manchester-based writer Robert Williams, nominated in this year’s shortlist for his novel ‘How The Trouble Started’, ahead of tonight’s announcement of the winner.

Described by publishers Faber & Faber as a dark, gripping novel about childhood, morality and the loneliness of children and adults, it represents Williams’ second novel.

“How the Trouble Started is about a sixteen year old boy, Donald Bailey, who attempts to escape a tragedy, but with little support and guidance, ends up running in the wrong direction,” said the Clitheroe-born novelist.

Williams’ writing took major inspiration from his own Northern background – the book is primarily set in a small northern town and two scenes take place in Manchester.  

He said: “My stories, so far, could have happened anywhere – but where you grow up gets into your blood and it feels natural to write about it.

“So to set them in a landscape I'm very familiar with means I can concentrate on getting to the blood and guts of the story as quickly as possible.

“That said, if the story demanded to be set in Australia I would set it there.” 

He explained his inspiration for the book: “For months I had a main character who had to escape his life and he did this through imaginings he called 'vanishings'.

“He would disappear to a hardware store in Iowa, he would become an astronaut flying to Neptune, but I had no idea why he felt the need to escape.

“And then I remembered something that had nearly happened to me years before and would have changed my life if it had happened, and I had the story.

“It’s this incident that the book builds up to.”

The author believes his experience as a musician – he has released music under the name The Library Trust – to be key to his writing process.

 “I think I partly write the way I do because of songwriting,” explained Williams.

“I used to play in a band and at one of our first recording sessions a gnarly, scary, sound engineer asked why I played the opening riff eight times before the band joined in.

“'Because it's good,' I said. 'It's not that good,' he said.

“That taught me a lot about editing – songwriting is a good discipline because it teaches you when to hold back, when to move forward, when to run with an idea and when to drop an idea.”

The Betty Trask Award-winner (awarded to young authors from the Commonwealth) admits that becoming a writer was inevitable – he has spent his life around books.

“When I wrote my first book I was stuck and I wanted to escape – writing gave me somewhere else to be.

“But I’ve always written stories in some form and both my parents worked in libraries when I was young so I probably had little choice.”

But despite this need for escape, certain books have always still play a major part in Williams’ life, continuing to inspire.

“It's a cliche but I read The Catcher in the Rye at the perfect age and couldn't believe a book like that existed,” he explained.

“It felt so 'real' to me as a young teenager – Holden Caulfield was my hero for a while and I became obsessed with Salinger.”

I recently read and loved Last Night at The Lobster by Stewart O'Nan – it’s a great book about a manager managing the last day at a chain restaurant in Connecticut before it's closed down.

“I may not have sold it with that description but it's heroic in its own small way.

“And currently I'm reading Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, which is so good it makes me want to give up!”

Now, the former Waterstones bookseller – whose first novel Luke and Jon was described ‘a hugely impressive debut’ by the Daily Telegraph – sees his own name on the shelves.

And being nominated for the biennial award alongside previous winners of the Whitbread and Booker prize is just the latest step in his burgeoning career.

The Portico prize comes from Manchester’s Portico Library – located on the corner of Mosley and Charlotte Street, the building is one of Manchester’s hidden gems.

It houses 25,000 books, an excellent selection of coffee and cake and members as famous and diverse as Eric Cantona and Sir Robert Peel.

‘How The Trouble Started’ is available from all good bookshops now.

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