When award-winning British author James Scudamore was a boy, he never stayed in one place for very long. His father was employed by a large multinational chemical company, which often sent him on regular secondments overseas, usually for three years or more.
This meant that while the young Scudamore was born in Britain, he grew up in places as diverse as Brazil, Ecuador and Japan. These experiences in displacement, however, laid a good foundation for him as a writer.
“This meant I got used to the idea that you could pack up one life and go somewhere new, and start a completely fresh one. It also gave me a usefully global perspective, which I think has assisted me in the business of trying to get under the skins of characters with different backgrounds and life stories to my own,” Scudamore, 40, remarks in a recent e-mail interview.
Scudamore, a graduate of Oxford and of the University of East Anglia, is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, The Amnesia Clinic, Heliopolis and Wreaking. The author was recently in Malaysia as part of this year’s George Town Literary Festival, and also led a writer’s workshop at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 22 and 23.
“The George Town festival is a jewel, and its indefatigable organiser, Bernice Chauly, deserves the highest praise for the spectacular work she has done to create something so wonderful.
“I was struck time and again by how vital a phenomenon it was, as a meeting place for dialogue, for the exchange of perspectives, ideas and stories,” Scudamore says.
“I had a wonderful time in Malaysia. I had visited the country before but spent most of my time in Sabah on that occasion. This trip enabled me to spend more time getting to know KL, before going on to experience the joys of George Town and the festival.”
Scudamore’s first novel, 2007’s The Amnesia Clinic, won the 2007 Somerset Maugham Award and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Glen Dimplex Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. The novel concerns the friendship of two boys in Ecuador, who embark on a quixotic journey across the country in search of an “amnesia clinic” where one of their mothers is believed to be.
“I had lived in Ecuador and had stories to tell about the country. My head was full of stuff derived from all the magical realist writers I had read during and after my degree in Modern Languages. And I was apprehensive about whether or not I was cut out to be a novelist,” the author says of this first effort.
“So I came up with a story about two 15-year-old boys who are competing storytellers, who run away from school and travel across Ecuador in search of something they both secretly know does not exist. Storytelling became a matter of life and death in the novel.”
According to Scudamore, he had never expected his literary debut to pick up such accolades, although he was certainly delighted it did.
“Depressingly, prizes are essential when it comes to bringing attention to a work of literary fiction, especially if it’s a first novel,” the author says.
His second novel, 2009’s Heliopolis, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. Set in the sprawling Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paolo, the novel is the tale of Ludo, a poor boy from a shanty town who goes from rags to riches after being adopted by a millionaire.
“I wrote one draft using my imagination and my memories of living and growing up in São Paulo. Then I returned and checked to see how what I had written measured up to the real place. I also enlisted the help of lots of experts and locals,” Scudamore says about the process of writing it.
As a child, Scudamore says he used to begin many stories but never finished them, with his first serious attempt at writing a complete novel only beginning at the age of 21.
“It wasn’t very good. But I think that writing two or three bad books that never see the light of day is a crucial step on the journey towards writing something worthwhile,” he says. “What drew me to writing? So many possible answers, but in the end you do it because you come to a realisation that you can’t not do it. Obviously, it is helpful also at this stage to believe, rightly or wrongly, that you might have some ability!”
Scudamore describes his third novel, 2013’s Wreaking, as being the hardest to write. The novel contains the stories of three characters who have a shared past in an abandoned psychiatric hospital on the English coast. One turbulent summer in the aftermath of the hospital’s closure leads to a shocking, life-altering accident – but the more the characters try to remember the past, the more elusive it becomes.
The novel had been inspired by Scudamore’s visits to places such as the derelict Severalis Hospital in Colchester, England, which had been rendered obsolete by Care of the Community. (The Care of the Community Act was the British policy of de-institutionalisation, or treating and caring for physically and mentally disabled people in their homes instead of an institution. Legislation for it was enacted in the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.)
“It (the novel) took the longest to write and involved a lot of research into the history of psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals. But the truth is that every time I start a new novel it feels like I’m back to square one and have learnt nothing from what I’ve written before. Which is as it should be, I guess, given that I want to try to do something new each time,” says the author.
Scudamore says that making time to write is not easy nowadays, especially since he has three young children to take care of!
“Their routine tends to call the shots. But I do try to get down a good chunk of words every day, because I know how grumpy I will be if I don’t. There’s no fixed number of hours. I just know when I’ve done enough for my mood to be salvaged,” the author says about his writing routine.
Might we be seeing a fourth novel from him soon?
“I hope so! I’m perilously close to finishing one, so with any luck you’ll see it before too long,” Scudamore says.