A moving gif of the words "In the end, it was frankly too urgent not to do" with a red line underneath
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The best quotes from authors in 2021

Despite another unpredictable year, our authors have offered wit, wisom and plenty of great writing advice during conversations with Penguin.co.uk.

We started 2021 in lockdown and we finish it in a time of similar isolation and uncertainty. And yet, this hasn't been a year without change, progress or the decision to do things better. There have also been hundreds of brilliant books released, helping us to broaden our minds, better understand ourselves and often, just give us a laugh when we really need it. Here are the best things said by some of our brilliant authors on Penguin.co.uk this year.

On writing

Barack Obama, author of A Promised Land

"A lot of times progress is two steps forward and one step back. I tried to write not just my successes but also shortcomings and failures so that people recognise that it's not always a smooth path forward.”

Watch the interview with Barack Obama

Shon Faye, author of The Trans Issue

“I think any writer from a minority has that tension,” Faye continued. “You want to just be a writer, you don’t want to be a Black writer, you don’t want to be a trans writer. But I think what ultimately what changed my mind, in the end, was a feeling that it was frankly, too urgent not to do.”

Listen to Shon Faye on The Penguin Podcast

Ali Smith, author of Summer

"Whenever I’m trying to write anything, you know the moment it becomes alive, which is when you begin to argue with it, and it begins to argue back with you. And then something starts to spark, which is about connection. And it becomes. That’s when you know you’re on the right track.”

Listen to Ali Smith on The Penguin Podcast

Rachel Kushner, author of The Hard Crowd

"I wait for that thunderbolt from Zeus that gives me the feeling that I know how to move forward. It’s unmistakable when it’s happening and it makes the writing so easy. But those days are few and far between. I move through the world with this filter and everything is just the novel, the novel, the novel."

Read the interview with Rachel Kushner

Alison Bechdel, author of The Secret to Superhuman Strength

"For me, finishing a book – especially a memoir – feels like a version of what death will be like, when you’re just done everything. Making creative choices is so finite; you’re letting go of other possibilities to say one thing. You have to let things go, let them die. I realised, in that panel, I’m talking not just about creativity but about life. Just… allow yourself to be."

Read the interview with Alison Bechel

Deborah Levy, author of Real Estate

“I think there is this idea that a female character, or narrator, has to have one clear thought or motivation. And that's something I feel strongly about: why not be all those things at once, why not feel your feelings and walk into the world with them and see what happens. It occurred to me that, in this way, these books are my most political writing.”

Read the interview with Deborah Levy

Jenni Fagan, author of Luckenbooth

"I can’t sit at a desk because I’m so used to writing in bed, so I built this ridiculous fairytale bed. It’s as high as my window, you have to climb up on a stool to get up to it. It’s really thick wood, and it’s curved at the back, and it’s covered in cushions and a rug. It’s very decadent. And it has an amazing view: when I’m up here I can see over the rooftops, over the sea, over the Firth of Forth and I can see the mountains in the distance."

Read the interview with Jenni Fagan

Daisy May Cooper, author of Don't Laugh, It'll Only Encourage Her

"Charlie and I always said, ‘I will write a memoir one day’. Otherwise everything that’s happened in my life would just be depressing and there’d be no purpose for it. There was so much stuff I hadn’t processed. It’s been like a massive therapy session.”

Read the interview with Daisy May Cooper

Jeanette Winterson, author of 12 Bytes

"I think for a writer, to have a long stretch of language to feel at home in, whether you’re reading something from the 1600s or not, gives you enormous confidence. You’re not trapped in your own linguistic time, you are a free traveller."

Read the interview with Jeanette Winterson

On reading

John Boyne, author of The Echo Chamber

"We all have those books that we've just never read, but I read Moby-Dick (1851) for the first time about two years ago. John Irving and I were having some drinks, and he had just gone the day before to get a new tattoo: 'only found another orphan', which are the last four words of Moby-Dick. (Inspired by that, and in serious hero-worship mode, I went out the next day to get my Garp tattoo.) He said Moby-Dick was his favourite book."

Read the interview with John Boyne

Terrance Hayes on Wanda Coleman

"She was a grenade of brilliance, boasts, and braggadocio. She burned and shredded all my platitudes about whatever poetry topic was at hand. She only softened when she understood/believed I was a fan."

Read Terrance's piece in full

Rick Stein, author of Rick Stein at Home

"I remember a friend saying to me once: poetry is the room you go into when there’s an earthquake. I mostly reach for it in times of trouble; it’s still world to go to when things are falling apart."

Read the full interview with Rick Stein

On life

Stephen Fry, author of Fry's Ties

"As I was recording the audiobook I was thinking how good the world essentially was in 1995 – despite my own flicker of unhappiness, and so on. The Berlin Wall had come down. Apartheid had ended in South Africa. It really looked as if we were moving towards the millennium in a period of peace and prosperity, with huge, benevolent technological advances that seemed to have no downsides. It was a kind of golden era; Britpop and Blair's ‘97 victory just around the corner. The right wing was in abeyance, and there was a consensus that in politics there might be this third way, between left and right. We had no idea the wheel of fortune would turn and put all of that at the bottom." 

Read the interview with Stephen Fry

Elif Shafak, author of The Island of Missing Trees

"We need some degree of forgetting in order to heal, but that healing cannot start unless we remember first. So memory matters. Memory is a responsibility. Not in order to get stuck in the animosities, the hostilities of the past, but to learn from them, to understand where you're coming from and hopefully build a better future with that awareness, that consciousness, and hopefully the wisdom that comes with it in the long run."

Read the interview with Elif Shafak

Zadie Smith, author of The Wife of Willesden

“All of the things I was called as a kid, particularly ‘nerd’, ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo’ I count as badges of pride. I remember more than anything a kind of defensive pride, and also when people find their tribe, like the tribe of readers or the tribe of poets, you find with it a place of joy.”

Listen to Zadie Smith on The Penguin Podcast

Jay Griffiths, author of Why Rebel

"The appetite for the discussion [of climate crisis] before Extinction Rebellion was very, very low. There were several times when I would bring it up in conversations and be cold-shouldered. People would literally just turn their backs on me.”

Read the interview with Jay Griffiths

Paris Lees, author of What It Feels Like for a Girl

“I still don’t know why I’m the way I am today, all I know is that I am a fact in and of myself. I exist. Byron existed. We’re a social fact. And we don’t traditionally have a voice. I think we should hear from them more.”

Read the interview with Paris Lees

Raynor Winn, author of The Wild Silence

“I don't quite feel the same about home now, I don't really associate it so much with house and walls as I did before. I think it's more to do with what makes you feel like you. And I think you can take that with you no matter where you are.”

Read the interview with Raynor Winn

Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Fortune Men

“I wrote it all under a Tory government. That whole environment has been getting worse and worse and worse. I don't know if it's at its lowest point yet, but we've been living with that hostility for quite a while now.

Read the interview with Nadifa Mohamed

Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom

"The pandemic has been incredibly constraining – constraining to the point of madness for many of us for the past year” she says. “This polarisation of freedom versus care that I’d been writing about just became fully technicolour.”

Read the interview with Maggie Nelson

Natasha Lunn, author of Conversations on Love

"I repeat the line to myself all the time, there is no other life than this. And when I do, I know how lucky I am to be living the life I have been given, and that I would not choose another."

Read Natasha Lunn's piece in full

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Rebecca Hendin / Penguin.

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