Monday, May 21, 2012

Duncan Barrett

Duncan Barrett studied English at Cambridge and now works as writer and editor, specializing in biography and memoir. He edited The Reluctant Tommy (Macmillan, 2010) a First World War memoir.  His new book, with Nuala Calvi, is The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle's East End Factories.

Not so long ago I asked Barrett what he was reading. His reply:
I am rather hopeless at finishing one book before I start another – so, as is often the case, I currently have three on the go. Melanie McGrath’s wonderful book Hopping is a sequel of sorts to her bestseller Silvertown, and describes the annual East Enders’ ‘holiday’ to the hop-fields of Kent, based on a true story she came across in correspondence with a reader. It was on my to-read list when I was working on my book The Sugar Girls, about women factory workers in the East End, but my co-author and I ended up dividing up the books we had bought between us to save time, and I’ve only just got around to it now. It’s a beautifully written, captivating glimpse at a lost way of life, as well as a very engaging story.

The second book I’m reading is also non-fiction, although the setting could hardly be more different. The Cloud Garden is the true story of two English backpackers who were kidnapped by FARC rebels in the Columbian rainforest around the turn of the millennium, and spent nine months as hostages. When I’m not writing, I work as an actor, and next month I will be playing one of the men – Paul Winder – in a docu-drama for the National Geographic channel, so I’m reading the book for research. It’s a remarkable story, and just goes to show the extent to which truth is often stranger than fiction: at one point, having finally been released rather than executed, the two men get lost in the jungle trying to find their way out and have to return to their kidnappers for directions, aware that the rebels may change their minds and simply murder them. It’s a detail you simply couldn’t make up.

The final book I’m reading is fiction, but historical and clearly well researched: Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk. At first I was worried that it might be more of a pastiche than a genuine continuation of the Holmes/Watson story, with cameos from quite an array of well-known characters, but Horowitz has crafted a clever – and rather shocking – tale, which manages to make Holmes feel very modern while keeping him firmly in his own time, thanks to a plethora of period details. It made me think that there is actually a lot of overlap between the narrative non-fiction I write and this kind of historical fiction – in both cases your research throws up many wonderful little nuggets, and weaving them into a good story is what really makes the book feel real.
Visit the official blog of The Sugar Girls for pictures, excerpts, reviews and more.

The Page 99 Test: The Sugar Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue