Subtitled "mother and son on creative inheritance", this afternoon's Edinburgh International Book Festival event featuring author and illustrator Judith Kerr and her son Matthew Kneale - novelist* and lately non-fiction writer - was billed as an exploration of creative heritage: "what travels with us from childhood to form the adults we become - a sense of self, memories, imagination, creativity?"
As is the way of these things, the discussion ranged widely, but at its centre was the early life of both authors, Judith's as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and Matthew's in a house where writing was the family business. Fondly remembered and the subject of many charming anecdotes was Nigel Kneale, Matthew's father, renowned writer of science fiction and screenplays, who would work in his room at the top of the family's large home, his wife remembering the feeling that "there was always something being made", his son recalling both the background noise of typing, and his father's tendency to analyse television drama as the family watched, something which Matthew credits with developing in himself a strong sense of structure in fiction.
Family influences work in both directions, for Judith said that she would never have become a writer and illustrator of picture books had she not had children - they provided much of the inspiration, and discussing her work-in-progress with her husband over lunch each day proved very helpful, while Matthew credited his father's gift for storytelling as a formative example, and his mother talked of her son's "instinctive respect for writers" when he was a young boy.
Having writer parents made Matthew aware that "you could do that and get away with it", but witnessing the frustrations his father had with what he felt were poor treatments of his screenplays, he himself opted for writing novels. Given that both his parents wrote at home, Matthew was asked about his own preferred workplace, and he revealed that he gets more done away from his flat; walks around Rome (where he lives), time spent writing in longhand on a park bench, in cafés or the library is when he is most productive. Interestingly, on the subject of writing methods, Matthew said that he always works first in longhand as it induces the necessary calm state.
Judith, who at a very sprightly 91 is still writing and whose latest book is Creatures: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr, described her modus operandi as beginning with the story and letting the illustrations grow out of it, complementing it rather than referring directly to it, but equally, she said, a detail in a picture can then produce a further idea for the text. Similarly, Matthew comes up with a situation and plot first and then finds the characters to "catch up" with it: "think of something inadequate," he said rather self-effacingly, "and make up the gaps". Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Today's event was an hour spent in the company of two delightful, entertaining people; I'm so glad I was there.
*Author of one of my favourite books, the brilliant English Passengers.