Born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, Caryl Phillips was four months old when his family moved to England. He was brought up in Leeds, Yorkshire, and studied English at Oxford University. Since 1985, he has published 10 novels, many of which examine the African slave trade. He was one of Granta’s Best of Young British Writers in 1993. The same year, his novel Crossing the River was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and in 2004, he won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for A Distant Shore. Phillips, 52, is a professor of English at Yale University and lives in New York.
What book changed your life?
Richard Wright’s Native Son. It’s the book that made me want to become a writer.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight. I’m also re-reading Simon Kuper’s terrific Football Against the Enemy.
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
The late summer of 1978. It was more hope than knowledge, but I felt clear in my mind that that was what I wanted to do with my life.
What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
Travelling across the Atlantic Ocean from the West Indies to England on a banana boat. It was a miserable, lonely three weeks. I’ve never been so happy to see land.
Where do you write best?
In a hotel room with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, room service on the end of the phone, and a nice park nearby where I can walk while they clean my room.
What do you snack on while you write?
Chocolate digestive biscuits and plenty of black coffee.
Who are your literary influences?
Shusaku Endo, Derek Walcott, Henrik Ibsen, Pico Iyer and CP Cavafy.
What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
“Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not from here.”
What are you most proud of writing?
Everything I’ve written is the best that I could do at that particular time. In this sense, I’m proud of it all. However, no sooner is it published or performed that I realise that it is, to some extent, a failure.
What book do you wish you’d written?
White Egrets by Derek Walcott. An astonishing collection by a poet in his 80th year. If only I knew so much about myself and the world.
Caryl Phillips’ latest novel, ‘In the Falling Snow’ (Harvill Secker), is out in paperback