The Books Interview: Elliot Perlman

The scale of The Street Sweeper, your third novel, is vast. It encompasses most of the history of the 20th century. What was the impulse to start work on such an enormous project?
There were various seeds for the book. To some extent, the first ones were planted before I was even born.

As my name might suggest, I'm Jewish. My grandparents were Polish and Russian Jews who came to Australia in the late 1920s and had they not, we wouldn't be talking now. I can't really remember a time in my life when I didn't know something about what we call the Holocaust. It was this dark topic that I would know more about when I got older, but which was spoken about in hushed tones.

So this is a book you were destined to write?
Combine a left-leaning upbringing with a family with direct experience of the Holocaust and someone with aspirations to write and I guess, sooner or later, that person will have a stab at writing something about the Holocaust.

And then there's America, specifically New York, which looms large in this novel.
I developed a relationship with New York City while I was on a tour in the UK for my first book, Three Dollars. Some friends said, "Do you want to come to New York?" Although I'd been there before, this was my first proper emotional engagement with the city. Then I fell into a relationship with a New York woman. I went to New York about five times and ended up living there.

One of the things that struck me, having been brought up in a liberal household, was the shock of being in New York and finding out just how important race still is; to realise that what might be called the "golden age" of black-Jewish relations in the US was over.

You were a barrister. Do you think that has had an influence on the way you write fiction?
Yes. I like dialogue in novels. I wanted to avoid laying history on with a trowel - appearing to be lecturing, as opposed to the characters lecturing their children or students. Dialogue can humanise the story and make it go down somewhat more smoothly.

Are you trying to remind the reader that history is made up of individual stories?
If we can engage the emotions through the stories of just a few individuals, then perhaps we can extrapolate from whatever tenderness we can inspire in the reader.

It's something I've tried to do in all my books. My first novel, Three Dollars, seeks to criticise economic rationalism. I know that at literary festivals I'm speaking mostly to middle-class women, who frequently vote in a way that is contrary to how I'd like them to vote.

In my work, I'm always trying not to put barriers up between the "good poor" and the "bad poor". I'm not sure my work will change things much but, at the very least, you want to make people feel that they are not alone.

In your "author's note", you talk about employing "idioms of cultures other than [your] own". What were the risks with doing that?
Diving into a culture that wasn't my own – namely, black culture - I knew that I was running the risk of causing offence. Sometimes, I felt the need to say, "I don't mean to cause offence and may have failed to capture your culture or circumstances." I know that, in some people's eyes, I will have failed.

I've read that you're an insomniac. Does most of your writing get done at night?
Being an insomniac only slows me down. I try not to write at night, as I'm concerned that this will affect the quality. I might have a Scotch to keep me going but I like to be as awake and as alert as possible.

Much of the five years it took me to write The Street Sweeper was spent researching, gathering together and reading a tremendous amount of material. Because I'm a barrister by training, I tend to plan my books relatively carefully. This means that I know where the book is going and
I can be happy with the structure of the work, its "architecture".

I went to Auschwitz six times for this novel. It wasn't so much that I was getting information that I couldn't get from books but that I felt the need to experience the landscape there as much as possible.

Elliot Perlman's "The Street Sweeper" will be published by Faber & Faber on 16 February (£14.99)