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Carol Birch - the Lancaster author shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

PUBLISHED: 00:16 05 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:24 20 February 2013

Carol near her home in Lancaster

Carol near her home in Lancaster

A Lancaster author's life was turned upside down when she was shortlisted for our biggest literary prize. Sue Riley reports Main photography by Darren Andrews

Its been quite a year for Carol Birch. She wrestled with empty nest syndrome when her eldest son left home, her beloved dog died and then her novel, Jamrachs Menagerie, was named as one of Richard and Judys top reads.


To cap it all, the book went on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize only to be pipped by fellow writer Julian Barnes, who won the 50,000 prize.

Carol, who lives in Portland Street, Lancaster, has some experience of literatures glittering prize as her 2003 novel, Turn Again Home, made the long list. However, nothing prepared her for the media frenzy when her new book was shortlisted. As a result she has been signed up to appear at book festivals around the world, including one in China.

Its been quite mad really, she said. Being on the long list did not make much difference but people do take notice of the shortlist. Its taken me by surprise. Figures tend to go over my head but the sales have gone up a lot. In fact, the six titles on


Its been quite a year for Carol Birch. She wrestled with empty nest syndrome when her eldest son left home, her beloved dog died and then her novel, Jamrachs Menagerie, was named as one of Richard and Judys top reads.

To cap it all, the book went on to be shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize only to be pipped by fellow writer Julian Barnes, who won the 50,000 prize.

Carol, who lives in Portland Street, Lancaster, has some experience of literatures glittering prize as her 2003 novel, Turn Again Home, made the long list. However, nothing prepared her for the media frenzy when her new book was shortlisted. As a result she has been signed up to appear at book festivals around the world, including one in China.

Its been quite mad really, she said. Being on the long list did not make much difference but people do take notice of the shortlist. Its taken me by surprise. Figures tend to go over my head but the sales have gone up a lot. In fact, the six titles onthe shortlist sold more than 18,000 copies in a single week.

The book which has been causing all the fuss is Jamrachs Menagerie, the dramatic story of Jaffy Brown, a young boy who gets a job with Jamrach, an importer of wild animals in the 19th Century.

Jaffy goes to sea to capture a dragon and then endures a shipwreck which is to change his life. Carol came across the true story of Jamrach when she was researching in the east end of London for her previous book, Scapegallows.

She was particularly interested in the story of a boy who had to be rescued from a tigers mouth and this forms the startling beginning to the novel. I keep these things in my head. I thought of doing something with it because the little boy interested me. I started working on his life and other stories melted into it, she said.

Much of her research focused on the true story of the Essex, an American whaler sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, leaving its young crew shipwrecked. The incident went on to inspire Herman Melvilles Moby Dick. I was very struck by it, they were so young. At the time I was surroundedby teenagers. I was moved, she said.

It took her about two years to write her eleventh in 30 years. She said: Jamrach was quite easy, I had the story mapped out. I have to have two or three good ideas, I doodle mind maps and Im quite practical, I write a chronology.

She wrote her first book, Life in the Palace, at the age of 30 when she and her first husband moved to Ireland. As the marriage disintegrated she returned to London, got an agent Mic Cheetham and her book won the David Higham Award for Best First Novel. Until Jamrachs Menagerie, which was published by Canongate Press, Carols books had been printed by Virago.

I feel very liberated with my new publisher. They have taken this new book to a wider audience. I do not feel as much a woman writer as a woman who writes. I am here for men and for younger people and it is reaching a younger audience. Reaching a wider public is terrific, she said. Shes already started work on her next novel but commitments surrounding the Man Booker Prize took over once the shortlistwas announced and she has had little time to sit down and write.




Carol and husband Martin Butler, who teaches at Lancaster and Morecambe College, moved to Lancaster in 1989. As Carol was born in Manchester and attended Keele University she had fond memories of the north west, particularly staying in a caravan in Silverdale on family holidays.

Moving here was the right thing to do and I have never regretted it, she said. She writes at home and says she has to ask her husband to take the newspaper to work with him otherwise she would be distracted by crosswords and sudoku all day. But when she does start writing she continues into the early hours and thats when she feels she does her best work.

She also enjoys reading other writers but doesnt have as much time for it as she would like. Recent reads have included the experimental House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and books by Jane Harris. But she also enjoys going back to her old favourites, particularly Ulysses. James Joyce is the author who most inspired her to write. Wuthering Heights, Ulysses..they remind me of when I was a teenager and you fall for a book, she said.

Carol celebrated her 60th birthday in January and has spent half her life as a professional writer, although she doesa little teaching and also reviews books for the national newspapers. I couldnt have lived on the money Ive earned, I hope thats going to changeI do hope so.



The print version of this article appeared in the December 2011 issue of Lancashire Life

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