Interview: Alison Pick

Author's Booker Prize conversion

By Simon Round, September 1, 2011
Researching her novel Far to Go led Alison Pick to convert to Judaism

Researching her novel Far to Go led Alison Pick to convert to Judaism

Having a novel nominated for the Man Booker Prize could easily be described as life changing, particularly for a young writer on only her second novel.

However, Canadian author Alison Pick's book, Far to Go, had already changed her life long before the day in July when she discovered that she had made the Booker longlist.

Pick's personal history and that of her father's family are interwoven with the novel, which tells the story of a Czech-Jewish family on the brink of the Holocaust. Although not biographical, the book does echo some of the experiences of the family which left Czechoslovakia for Canada before the onset of the Second World War.

It was a long time brewing - Pick's fascination with her roots stemmed from the day at school as a teenager when she discovered her father was Jewish. "I had no idea until a classmate told me. I asked my dad if it was true and he said it was."

Gradually, Pick discovered more about her Czech-Jewish background. Her father had himself been brought up Christian because his parents had been so traumatised by their experience, they did not wish their son to know about his tragic heritage.

As she grew up and started to write, Pick began to think of this story as the basis for a novel. "It wasn't until my grandmother died 10 years ago that writing this kind of book was even a possibility. In my first collection of poetry I included some poems about my grandmother's experience of the Holocaust, but there was so much more there. Poetry was too limiting a medium and I wanted to explore it in the form of a novel. I had been thinking about this subject for a long time but I decided to write another novel first just so I could get the hang of writing one."

I had no idea my father was Jewish

That book, The Sweet Edge, was a critically acclaimed best-seller in Canada, and created expectation for her next work. But there was a lot of research to do before it could be written - and the process of discovering where her family had come from started Pick on a journey which was to lead to her formally converting to Judaism. She explains: "Had I been living in New York, I could have claimed patrilineal descent and that would have been the end of it. But Toronto is a much more conservative community.

"When I began to research Far to Go, my partner, Degan, and I were new to Toronto and I wanted to take classes and really engage with the Jewish community. I would say I felt a resonance that I had never felt with Christianity."

One facet of Judaism was not new to her, however. "For a while we had been practising this thing we called "24 hours unplugged". We had been taking a day each weekend to disconnect the computers and the TV and just have a nice time together. So when I learned about Shabbat it was remarkable. Perhaps it says something about genetic memory but everything just became clear. The writing of the book and my conversion were two concurrent processes. By writing the book I was finding out about my own past."

The book does not directly follow the experience of her own family, however. It tells the story of the Bauer family - Pavel, a Sudeten-Czech factory owner, his wife Anneliese, their son Pepik and his non-Jewish nanny, Marta, through whose eyes the story, of hope, betrayal and desperation, is played out.

Although set amid the chaos and terror of the Nazi occupation, there are no camps or gas chambers mentioned explicitly in the text. "I felt any contemporary reader would be well versed in the history and would know what was coming even if I didn't say it specifically, and the characters themselves didn't know. There has been a huge amount written about the camps so it was a conscious decision not to get into that territory, but to approach it from a different angle."

Her research also persuaded her that she wanted the Kindertransport to play a part in the story - those children who were ferried away from their parents in Nazi-controlled Europe in the late 1930s to live with foster families in Britain. "A man called Tommy Berman allowed me to see his memoirs and some letters written by his birth parents to his adoptive parents in Scotland. There was more drama and tragedy in that situation than in anything I could dream up."

The book was well received when it was published in Canada last year but nothing prepared Pick for the announcement that it had been judged one of the top 12 of the year by the Booker judges. She recalls: "I heard the phone ring but I ignored it. It was only when I looked at Twitter and saw my name mentioned about 20 times in 20 minutes that I knew something was happening."

She will no doubt be monitoring Twitter fairly closely when the shortlist is announced next week, but she is not anxious about the decision of the judges. She says: "I feel that I have won already. Even if I am not on the shortlist I am still absolutely thrilled."

'Far to Go' is published by Headline at £12.99

Last updated: 3:10pm, September 1 2011