Though he was passed over for the Man Booker Prize, in November gay author Alan Hollinghurst became the first writer to clinch both the Stonewall Writer of the Year Award and the UK’s Galaxy National Book Awards Author of the Year in the same year, for his novel The Stranger’s Child.
Poet Cecil Valance, the story’s virile bisexual centrepiece, is modelled at least partially on Rupert Brooke. Brooke was a handsome, bisexual, English war poet whose death at a young age in 1915 made him something of a romantic figure in the UK. His lingering presence inspires many gay characters even decades later.
Hollinghurst wrote his thesis at Oxford on gay authors EM Forster, Ronald Firbank and LP Hartley. In one scene in The Stanger’s Child, Cecil strips down for a swim with lover George Sawle in a clear nod to the homosocial skinny-dipping scene from Forster’s A Room with a View.
“It’s very important that the book that I’ve written is about gay sexuality,” says Hollinghurst. “The erotic impulse seems to be very strong in them. Cecil feels himself entitled to whatever he wants sexually.”
Hollinghurst says The Stranger’s Child was also inspired by Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway. In it Munro leaves readers to sort out disorienting temporal gaps between the stories. Once all the pieces come together, readers are left with a rich and unique reading experience.
“I got more and more interested in the effect of leaving stuff out, inviting the reader to speculate on what had happened and creating something which didn’t give you all the answers,” Hollinghurst says.
Although Hollinghurst won the Booker for his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, writing hasn’t always ensured prizes for him. In his early 20s he struggled to write. With his first publishable novel, he abandoned poetry for prose. Now he writes full time in his flat in London’s posh Hampstead neighbourhood. He says he now has to ritualize his writing time, unlike when he worked full time and wrote on the side. From the start, though, he says he knew what was most important to his work.
“I set out to write a book of the kind which didn’t seem to me to exist and which would express various experiences, convictions, insights, that have very much to do with my own sexuality,” he says. “I felt there weren’t many novels in which gay male sexuality was so much the subject matter. It seemed to me, historically, the kind of thing to do. And I just carried on doing it. Then it seemed distinctive, and now I think it does so less and less.”
The Stranger’s Child
By Alan Hollinghurst
Alfred A Knopf Canada