My first Edinburgh International Book Festival event of 2011 was one so richly enjoyable that it will be hard to surpass. Salley Vickers was in conversation with James Runcie, and that was such a happy combination, a perfect pairing of subject and interlocutor, that an hour sped by and all present would have gladly stayed for more. At the end, James Runcie likened the event to a car journey with a very good friend which has as its destination a place with the most perfect view. Well put, I think.
I have twelve pages of notes from the discussion which began with reference to Salley Vickers' most recent book, the short story collection Aphrodite's Hat (now in paperback - post on it here), but which ranged widely from the significance of art and theatre to her writing to the danger of self-exposure inherent in loving and being loved. The 'buried' life, the hidden life and its underlying mystery, the life as yet unlived, these are themes she returns to and ones to which her background as a psychoanalyst gives her particular insight, and which contribute to her being, in James Runcie's words, "a curious, sympathetic, wise writer".
On the subject of modern fiction, when a member of the audience commented that she is very good at endings, Salley Vickers replied that it takes courage to leave the characters and end the book, that there is a sense of mourning - both for reader and writer - when the world in which one has been living is finally left, and in her opinion many modern novels have unsuccessful endings, but she agrees that she leaves the reader with a feeling of hope, and notes - generally - a prejudice against optimism in fiction today. She describes herself as a romantic writer in the tradition of Keats, not Cartland, and is avowedly affirmative about the human heart, the hopeful spirit and the positive sides of life.
As to the business of writing itself, she says that if you write against your gender, you can take more risks and harness your imagination and unconscious rather than your experience. For this reason, she loves to write from a male point of view, and cited Henry James and Anthony Trollope as being marvellous when writing about women, and George Eliot as being particularly good on men. Her own writing is organic, unplanned; she says Miss Garnet's Angel began life as a short story but in effect "wrote itself", and that her novels begin with a voice which attracts or repels other voices, and come to "a pre-destined ending spun out of the nature of the characters"; as with a good dinner party, things naturally unfold.
Mr. C., who hadn't read any Salley Vickers at all, came to the event with me. He left quite full of it, stimulated and enthusiastic, so glad that I had persuaded him to join me. Testament to the impression made, he is now reading Aphrodite's Hat.