Author Ben Markovits on his ex-professional basketball career and keeping America on the literary map

Author Ben Markovits in Pond Square Highgate

Author Ben Markovits in Pond Square Highgate - Credit: Archant

While finishing his third novel, Imposture, Ben Markovits realised he likes to write about failure. Now six books in, with a family home in Highgate and a clutch of literary honours to his name, the task has become somewhat harder from an autobiographical perspective.

Half-German and Californian by birth, the author is a proud Anglophile and lived in north London for part of his childhood before returning later with his wife at the turn of the century. When I meet him at the Kenwood tea rooms however, he is typically nonchalant about his latest national success: becoming one of two winners, alongside Sarah Churchwell, of The Eccles British Library Writer in Residence Award 2015, which will see him give talks during the year to help promote the centre’s collection of American literature.

“I think in general, the British have a complicated relationship with America,” he explains. “On the other hand, the relationship with American literature is more straight-forward. A lot of writers I know, a lot of editors, a lot of people in publishing and readers generally admire American novels; I think it has a scope that makes it interesting for them. So I don’t think that’s too hard a sell.”

This relationship, Markovits continues, runs both ways. From an early age, he – like many American high school students – grew up on a literary diet of Dickens, Austen and the Bronte sisters. In particular, his love of Lord Byron shines through and has formed the backbone of his breakthrough in the industry, having penned three books loosely formed around the rambunctious Romantic poet.

Imposture, the first of the trilogy, details the real life efforts of Dr John Polidori, whose ghost story Vampyre was anonymously published in the 19th century and was widely believed to be a work of genius by Byron. In many ways, this false accreditation remains a parable of lost greatness, yet Markovits notes that even the work of the man himself was eventually judged in comparison to his younger years and so, after a while, “he became another figure living on the outside of the influence of his own celebrity.”

Perhaps then, it is understandable why Markovits seems keen to quickly brush aside his own acclaim. There are certainly other reasons too; his previous experience as a professional basketball player for a season in Germany for instance – a difficult and lonely experience detailed in his fictionalised memoir, Playing Days – has conversely given him an insight into the competitive world of publishing and its parallels with sport. He admits the latter is a “relatively fair judge of ability. Basically if you’re good enough, you’re given a chance to show it and it’s clear what good enough means.

“In writing,” he continues, “it’s not clear what being good means; people disagree about it, which makes it in some ways less painful, because regardless of the level of success you have or not, you can console yourself with the fact that success and failure are misrepresentative. But in another way it’s more painful, because you can’t do anything about it – you can’t prove to anyone your book is good.”

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Even when the reviews are positive, Markovits is keen to ensure he doesn’t base his “sense of self” on them. I wonder if his young daughter and son – eight and five respectively – have helped with this?

“This is not a reason to have kids, but having kids puts you in touch with things that are important in a lot of people’s lives and puts you in touch with your own childhood in a way that you might have forgotten. It’s enormously fruitful as a way of thinking about how people actually live to have kids.”

As a creating writing tutor at Royal Holloway University and with his next book – which details a group of struggling 20somethings who decide to embark on a housing project in Detroit – due in July, there is every indication that Markovits has truly now arrived in literature’s higher circles.

Much like England though, it appears to be a world he has always belonged in.