Rupert Thomson, Jay Bernard, Nadifa Mohamed and John Mullan
Sunday 25 October 2020 -
15:00 to 16:30

Writing a story sometimes means using historical events to create absorbing narratives, and basing fictional characters on ‘real lives’. Reading a good story often makes people believe in a fiction created by an author out of facts. How many of us learnt about the Napoleonic wars from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or about Richard III from Shakespeare’s play? Does the writer have a responsibility to the lives of people long dead? What about real people who lived more recently – or those who are still alive? Does a writer have special responsibilities when writing about suffering or violence?

The conversation chaired by Professor John Mullan and featuring three acclaimed UK writers Jay Bernard, Nadifa Mohamed and Rupert Thomson will be devoted to this rich and complicated relationship between fiction and the real story behind it. How precise can an author be in writing about real events? How deeply do authors dive into their life experience when writing and how free do they feel to use that experience? Has fiction begun to supplant biography and autobiography?


John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. He completed his BA and PhD at the University of Cambridge where he was a Lecturer before moving to UCL in 1994. He has published widely on eighteenth-century literature, including Sentiment and Sociability. The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (OUP). He has edited works by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson. He is currently writing a volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. His research interests extend to the 19th century. He is devotee of Jane Austen, his most recent book being What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury, 2012). He recently edited Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for Oxford World’s Classics and is preparing a new edition of Emma. His latest book, The Artful Dickens, is published in October. He has also published How Novels Work (2006), which examines novelistic technique, setting contemporary novels against classics of the past, and Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (2007). A regular broadcaster and literary journalist, John Mullan hosts the Guardian Book Club and appears regularly in literary discussions on BBC radio and television. In 2009 he was one of the judges for the Man Booker Prize

Jay Bernard (FRSL FRSA) is a writer from London. Their work is interdisciplinary, critical, queer and rooted in the archive. They won the 2017 Ted Hughes Award for Surge: Side A, a cross-disciplinary exploration of the New Cross Fire in 1981. Jay’s short film Something Said has screened in the UK and internationally, including Aesthetica and Leeds International Film Festival (where it won best experimental and best queer short respectively), Sheffield DocFest and CinemAfrica. Jay is a programmer at BFI Flare, an archivist at Mayday Rooms and resident artist at Raven Row. Their first collection, Surge, was published by Chatto and Windus in 2019.

Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa. Her first novel, Black Mamba Boy, won the Betty Trask Prize, was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the PEN Open Book Award. In 2013, she was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Her second novel, The Orchard of Lost Souls, was published in 2013 and won a Somerset Maugham Prize and the Prix Albert Bernard, and was long-listed for The Dylan Thomas Prize and short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.  In 2018, Nadifa Mohamed was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Nadifa’s third novel The Fortune Man will be released in 2021 by Viking publishing press. 

Rupert Thomson was born on the south coast of England and educated at Christ’s Hospital School and Cambridge University, where he studied Medieval History and Political Thought. He is the author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including The Insult, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, and chosen by David Bowie as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time, The Book of Revelation, which was made into a feature film by the Australian writer/director, Ana Kokkinos, and Death of a Murderer, which was shortlisted for the Costa Prize. In 2010 he ventured into non-fiction for the first time. His memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, won him the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year. In 2018 he published Never Anyone but You, a novel based on the lives of the French artists, activists, and gender icons, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. His most recent novel, NVK, was published in 2020 under the pen name Temple Drake. Rupert Thomson has contributed to the Financial Times, the Independent, the Guardian, Granta Magazine, and the London Review of Books, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in London.

The event will be in English with Russian translation.