Winning the Booker Prize is like an out of body experience — I’m in a happy concussion

·3-min read
Damon Galgut (Booker Prize/PA) (PA Media)
Damon Galgut (Booker Prize/PA) (PA Media)

I arrived in the UK on Thursday. It feels strange being out in the world. I hadn’t left South Africa for several years. Getting in a plane and pushing back the horizons — there is a sense of the world opening up again and breaking out of long confinement. My book, The Promise, was finished at the beginning of last year and publication was delayed so I had the whole of lockdown to tinker with it.

On Friday, shortlisted authors went down to Coventry for some events. It was very nice to meet the others. In previous years, the first time I met them was in the green room before the big event — not a relaxed or natural place to talk. I liked them, in all in their idiosyncratic ways. I have deliberately not read the other titles as I didn’t want to get into a competitive state of mind — although I will read them now the axe has fallen. We did not spend time discussing each other’s books. It felt like too touchy a subject.

Sunday was the Booker Prize shortlist readings at the Southbank Centre. There was a state of tension leading up to that. The hall was only three-quarters full but everything is streamed so there is a sense of a much bigger audience being there.

We authors did not see each other again until Booker night, which was Wednesday. Everyone was focused on the night, although we were mutually supportive — I would have been happy for anyone to win.

We had to go in early to the BBC for a run through. My zen state got rocked by that; it all became quite real.

We did dress rehearsal all afternoon and at each stage of it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to go my way. I’m more programmed these days to being the runner-up. When I won, it came as a real shock. A happy one, but still quite numbing. Since then, it has been turbulent and intense and a little bit like an out-of-body experience — a happy concussion. I went to a couple of parties on Wednesday night, at the Groucho Club and The Union Club.

I spoke to a great many people — at least I think I did — and drank a little. Then spent hours answering messages from friends and well-wishers.

On Thursday, I was woken very early with messages from friends in South Africa. There has been a lot of attention on the book from South Africa as well as here.

Things have got a little more grounded now. I don’t have a clear sense of how this will change me. My fear is that it will take away from the state of solitude I find so necessary for writing.

I find going to festivals difficult. I’ve never been one of those people who can write in airports and hotels on publicity tours, although many authors can.

Even a slight disturbance can knock me off kilter. I was working on a collection of short stories until the Booker struck first with the longlist, then the shortlist.

My fear is this will rumble on for a while, although of course it is absolutely wonderful for the book and fantastic to win. If you don’t win, it all leads up to a moment.

For weeks you feel like you are one of six winners, then someone is chosen and you feel more like a loser. A bit like one of those cartoon animals running off a cliff, with your legs still going. I’m still on stable ground apparently. The cliff hasn’t ended.

Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize this week with his novel The Promise.

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