Brit writer Fiona Mozley shocked her debut made Man Booker longlist

At 29, PhD student Fiona Mozley is the youngest author in this year's "Booker dozen".
At 29, PhD student Fiona Mozley is the youngest author in this year's "Booker dozen".PHOTO: JOHN MURRAY

Fiona Mozley's first novel, Elmet, makes its mark tackling exploitation with a teenage heroine of immense strength

When the longlist for the prestigious Man Booker prize was announced last month, many of the literary titans named - previous winner Arundhati Roy, for instance, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead - came as no surprise.

But it was a shock to first-time British writer Fiona Mozley to discover that she too had been longlisted for Elmet, a novel which, at the time of the announcement, had not even been published.

At 29, she is the youngest author in this year's "Booker dozen". Should she win, she would be the second youngest to do so after New Zealander Eleanor Catton, who won the £50,000 (S$87,000) prize in 2013 aged 28.

"I was absolutely blown away," says Mozley over the telephone from her home in York, Britain.

A part-time bookseller, she is fitting in this early call before she rushes off to work. "It was the first book I'd written and I didn't even know I was going to finish it."

She was walking her dog when her publisher called. "I thought it was something like, 'We've found a good quote to go on the cover.'"

Instead, she was floored to hear that she had been longlisted alongside some of her literary heroes.

"Many of those people are writers I've been reading for years, particularly Ali Smith and Zadie Smith," she says. "And now, a book written by me about a rural community in Yorkshire is up against all those huge, huge authors. It still hasn't sunk in."

Mozley started writing Elmet four years ago when she was a fresh graduate. She was desperately homesick, trying to eke out a living in London and spending most of her salary on rent for a cramped, shared house.

On the train back to London from a visit home, she watched the Yorkshire landscape flashing past in the morning light and began writing the first chapter then and there.

The novel's title is the ancient name for the area of Yorkshire she grew up in, which between the fifth and seventh centuries was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England.

Although the story is set in the modern day, Mozley - who is doing a part-time PhD in mediaeval history at the University of York - wanted to root it in something old, but which also had "a bit of independent spirit".

In the novel, a reclusive family living in the Yorkshire woods find themselves spearheading a protest by the rural community against a ruthless landowner.

The family is an unusual one: the father, a hulking former bareknuckle boxer, teaches his teenage son and daughter to live off the land. They have almost no memory of their mother.

The children themselves defy gender norms. Daniel is a slight, sensitive boy who loves reading, while his older sister Cathy takes after their father in terms of immense strength.

This is the source of the closeness between the siblings, says Mozley. "They want to swop roles. Their personalities and identities don't match their bodies."

She wanted her heroine to be "otherworldly", to carry out improbable feats of strength as male heroes in genres such as the western often do - and indeed Elmet is "sort of like a western, but set in Yorkshire, rather than America".

"In a western, we're happy to see men punch each other relentlessly, throw each other through windows and then get up on their horses and ride away," she says. "We don't question that. We're a lot more shocked when we see a representation of a woman with improbable strength. I consciously wanted to show that."

The family's existence is threatened by the area's landlord, who owns the copse in which they live.

"Each generation faces its own difficulties," says Mozley, "and in terms of my generation in this country, it is having somewhere to live.

"I graduated in 2010, two years after the financial crash, from the University of Cambridge with a good degree. I can't imagine ever being able to afford to buy a home in London. And that is the case for those of my generation with a similar kind of education - they'll be renting for their whole lives, I imagine."

Land ownership and gentrification will be the themes of her next novel, adds Mozley, who lives in York with her partner Megan, a fellow PhD student to whom the book is dedicated.

Does she expect to win the Booker come October?

"No, no, not at all," she laughs. "It's nice that I've had this experience, that it has been so international. I have no expectations to go any further."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'British writer debuts on Man Booker longlist'. Print Edition | Subscribe