D. J. Taylor Wins the Sidewise Award for Alternate History

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, is one of our best 21st-century writers.   His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, and his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003.

Now his elegant novel, The Windsor Faction, has won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History.

The Sidewise Award, which is given at the World Science Fiction Convention (LonCon this year, because it was in London), is not a prize one associates with Oxford-educated writers.  Yet it has gone to literary novels before:  in 2007, Michael Chabon won it for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,  in 2004 it went to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in 1998 to Stephen Fry’s Making History.

And this year, in strange wrinkle in time, or do I mean in alternate histories, there was a tie between Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies:  What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, a self-published novel written in the form of a book based on a tabloid magazine. (Fans and detractors of the Kennedys may very well find it interesting:  I wrote about it here.)  Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Taylor’s style is more to my taste, but I also find it fascinating that SF is open to self-published books. 

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorI have written about The Windsor Faction here and here, so I will only talk about it briefly.  Taylor’s suspenseful, unputdownable novel explores the question of what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne. In Taylor’s novel, the king’s mistress, the divorced Wallis Simpson, whom Edward married in real life, dies in 1936.  And because Edward had fascist sympathies, a powerful pro-Hitler group forms what they call  “The King’s Party” or “The Windsor Faction.”   Taylor creates the details of a vivid 1930s atmosphere, and describes weekend parties,  politics, and the workplace.  Beverley Nichols, a popular novelist and garden writer (have you read Merry Hall?), is one of the main characters. But by far my favorite character is Cynthia Kirkpatick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, on her return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine.

Since I am known for abandoning contemporary fiction on p. 50 (a practice I encourage), it is quite unusual for me to read a number of books by living writers.  This year I have read five of Taylor’s. 

What makes me read a living writer?    I much prefer to read writers who are more brilliant than myself.  To take examples from the dead, I might in a pinch be able to write a low-rent D. E. Stevenson  (fans will diasgree!:)), but I could never possibly toss off a Barbara Pym or a Pamela Hansford Johsnon.

I’d much rather read books than write.

By the way, the Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History went to Vylar Kaftan for “The Weight of the Sunrise.”

You can read more about the Sidewise Awards here.

An Interview with D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, the novelist, critic and biographer, kindly agreed to be interviewed by email.

First, a few words about his book:  his brilliant new novel, The Windsor Faction, is one of our favorites of the year.  It poses the questions, What would happen if Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne because Wallis Simpson died  in 1936?  And what if he were a fascist sympathizer?

Billed as an “alternate history,” The Windsor Faction is also a fascinating literary novel, set in the late 1930s when England is on the verge of war and told in multiple forms:  the diary of Beverley Nichols, a journalist, who collaborates with the King on a speech on pacifism; a traditional third-person narrative about Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a bored young woman who works at a spy-ridden literary magazine in London; and newspaper articles and editorials about the death of Mrs. Simpson and the war.

MIRABILE DICTU:  Your novel has been called an “alternate history.”  What do you think of that term?

Windsor Faction d. j. taylorD. J. TAYLOR:  I’d describe it as ‘counter-factual history’. The analogy I usually use is that of chess board in which one of the pieces has been removed, meaning that the remaining 31, though unchanged, have to re-calibrate themselves in interesting ways. Keeping the reader on your side means that you can’t alter a great deal. In The Windsor Faction, for example, I was careful to employ the same politicians and the same public figures. Without this, I think the whole thing becomes less believable.

MIRABILE DICTU:   Did any writers influence you in the writing of The Windsor Faction?

D. J. TAYLOR: I wouldn’t say there were direct influences. But I have read fairly widely in the literature of World War II – Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, say, and the three war-time novels of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and I’m sure these raise their heads every now and again, particularly as one of my aims was to make it read and sound like an artefact written in the period in which it was set.

MIRABILE DICTU:    When and why did you begin to write?

D. J. TAYLOR: I started writing at a very early age. Even in my teens I was sending things – mostly chronically bad impersonations of J.R.R. Tolkien – off to publishers. I began to get things published in my early ’20s, but I think this was due merely to having served an apprenticeship at an age before most people get properly going

MIRABILE DICTU:   Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction?

D. J. TAYLOR: I like both, and find – encouragingly – that the one cross-fertilises the other. For example, the idea for my novel Ask Alice (2009), which is about an American-born British society hostess, grew out of non-fiction book called Bright Young People (2007) about the social circles that inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

MIRABILE DICTU:  Who are your favorite writers and what are you reading now?

D. J. TAYLOR: My favourite writers are English classics  like Thackeray, George Gissing, Orwell, Powell, but I have a weakness for those sprawling early 20th American novels by people like Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck and Dos Passos. Among modern US writers, I very much enjoyed the memoir that Richard Russo published a couple of years ago, and my absolute favourite is Mary Gaitskill.

Thank you for the interview, David!

You can read more about D. J. Taylor at his website:  http://www.djtaylorwriter.co.uk/