Judith Kerr, still going strong at 92, is surely a role-model for us all; in case you didn't see it, here's my report of her appearance at last year's Edinburgh International Book Festival where she took the stage with her son Matthew Kneale to explore creative heritage.
Back to books now, and in other news, the Costa Book Awards shortlists have been announced, and I'm pleased to see Melissa Harrison's At Hawthorn Time in the novel category. It's a story of contemporary rural life set over a spring month, but it's an original and unsettling piece, beautifully done, and it deserves its place on the list.
Lastly today, as a PLR Twitter advocate I'm reminding UK writers to ensure that ALL your books are registered at www.plr.uk.com. Paperbacks and audiobooks - anything with a different ISBN - should be listed along with hardbacks so that they qualify for payment under the PLR scheme. Illustrators and translators should check, too. If you have writer friends, please nudge them to make sure their registration is up to date.
I've missed the first week of the Edinburgh International Book Festival as I've been somewhat under the weather, but to give all of us absent friends a flavour of it I thought I'd post one of its 'sidelights', if I can put it that way, the gallery of writers' portraits by Edinburgh photographer Chris Close which you can find around the festival site in Charlotte Square Gardens.
You can see a few of Chris's great pictures here, and if you're on Periscope and following Edinburgh Book Fest (@edbookfest) you can catch a short film of him at work, photographing A.C. Grayling, and talking about some of this week's shots.
Chris has collected 100 of his best pictures in a book, Between the Lines: Portraits of Authors, and if I can get up to Charlotte Square in the next few days I'll look out for his postcard portraits which are on sale in the bookshop.
My recent visit to Oxford coincided with the Oxford Literary Festival, and I was able to go to a couple of events including a rare appearance by Philip Pullman, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of publication of Northern Lights.
In conversation with Nicolette Jones, children's books editor of The Sunday Times, Philip Pullman talked most entertainingly about the writing process, his influences, and the extraordinarily rich concept that is the daemon.
He revealed that he doesn't have the readership in mind at all when he writes as he feels that identifying them even in general terms as 'children' or 'adults' might exert a subconscious control which he doesn't want, and he's glad of his wide audience as no-one is excluded from the world he has created; related to that he commented that there is no right way to read his books, and how you understand or respond to what he has written is entirely up to you; "that is," he says, "as it should be".
It's well known that Paradise Lost inspired the His Dark Materials series (that's the origin of the title, for one thing), and Philip Pullman recalled loving Milton's work, as a teenager, with a "physical admiration and passion, not just an intellectual appreciation". On the subject of his well-known atheism, he termed himself "a cultural Christian", not exclusively atheist, whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of the Bible and of growing up with a clergyman grandfather.
In beginning Northern Lights with the words "Lyra and her daemon ...", he opened up a deep seam of material which he has mined to great effect. His use of the daemon - the soul, the spirit, the physical manifestation of the inner self - arose out of his observations of children (he used to be a teacher) and the changes adolescence brings. The onset of self-consciousness, of a realisation that certain talents will never be ours, of withdrawal in certain circumstances, all these things occur at the same time as a broadening of our mental horizons, and a reconciliation with who we actually are - hence the daemon's changing as the child grows and develops but 'settling' on adolescence: we may think we are a lion, when in fact we are a poodle (to use his own example), but the sooner we accept that and live comfortably with it, the better.
As to the writing itself, he's well on with the next book in the series, The Book of Dust, and says it may be out next year. To this end he continues his habit of writing three pages every day. If the work is going well he stops at three pages, giving himself a 'springboard' into the next day, and if it's going badly he still fulfils his quota. "Gin helps," he says, if he finds himself lacking inspiration, and if he does dry up in the middle he recommends simple dialogue of the ' "Hello," "oh, hello," "how are you?", "I'm fine, thanks," " nature to fill the page!
Asked about his own daemon, Philip Pullman reckons it's a corvid of some kind, a magpie, a raven or a rook: "... a bird which steals things. I hear things, read things, see things, then 'steal' them and use them myself".
From last month's Historical Novel Society London conference, here is the very interesting discussion Fact and the Unexplained: Myths, Fairy Tales, and the Gothic, chaired by Kate Forsyth with Prof. Diana Wallace, Essie Fox, Jessie Burton and Deborah Harkness*. (I loved Kate Forsyth's description of historical fiction as "history set to music".)
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.
Following on from yesterday's post, if you have access to A.N. Wilson's* article on 'forgotten' books/writers enjoying a new lease of life, do read it. He describes the revival of Stoner as "a sort of parable of the true life of a book," and goes on to talk about literary pleasure: "the unique magic of what happens when you hold a book (or Kindle) in your hand, and from that moment onwards, enjoy the peculiar intimacy that exists between writer and reader. You go to live in that place – the world of the book." Indeed you do.
If you've read our first At the Writing Desk post you'll know that Adèle Geras has a new novel for adults, Cover Your Eyes, coming out in July next year. In advance of that, Adèle's publishers Quercus have just re-issued her earlier adults' books in e-book format and you can find them all here; follow the links for my posts on Hester's Story ("Ballet Shoes for grown-ups"), A Hidden Life ("a family drama full of secrets from the past ..."), and Made in Heaven (dilemmas, tough decisions, and a wedding in prospect).
The Royal Society of Literature has announced its programme of events for Spring/Summer 2014. Booking will open on 16th. December, and among the highlights are Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton in conversation with the chair of the judges, Robert Macfarlane, Alexander McCall Smith talking about how W.H. Auden changed his (AMcCS's) life, and a celebration of the work of Penelope Fitzgerald with Susannah Clapp, Alan Hollinghurst, Hermione Lee and Penelope Lively. Click here for the RSL archive which includes audio recordings of previous events.
*Anyone interested in C.S. Lewis who missed last week's documentary by his biographer A.N. Wilson should try to catch it on iPlayer.
I've been in Oxford for the weekend, attending a special event to celebrate the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis.
For almost thirty years from 1925, Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, and his shadow still looms large there. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the College invited members and guests to an afternoon of lectures on his life and works followed by a commemorative dinner; among those who attended were former students of Lewis's, others who knew him, and many like me who had come to pay tribute to the man who had opened a magical world to them, or had touched them in other ways through his writings.
The book in the picture is my childhood copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I took it with me and read it again over the weekend, and found on the back page the application form for membership of the the Puffin Club which as a ten-year-old I had neatly filled in but for some reason had not sent; seeing that and reading the book again was like re-encountering my younger self, and I think Lewis would have understood that feeling.
The afternoon began with a talk by the Revd. Professor Alister McGrath, whose biography of Lewis I have just read and can warmly recommend, and who was speaking on the symbiotic relationship between Lewis and Magdalen. He traced Lewis's path to the college - it was not a straightforward one - but once there he was found to be a natural teacher who talked to people, not at them, and who, with his "port wine and plum pudding voice" packed the lecture room and opened up works of literature with an unusual lucidity.
Professor McGrath talked of the Thursday evening Inklings meetings in Lewis's rooms in New Buildings (above) when works-in-progress were read and ideas were sparked, but in referring to the all-male environment of which Lewis was a product, and defending his subject against allegations of giving his female characters subordinate roles, he was quick to make the point that Lewis was "discerning of talent and blind to gender" when it came to the teaching and discussion of English Literature.
The second speaker of the day was Mr. Walter Hooper, a charming American gentleman whom I can best describe as 'couthy'. I wish I could recount at length his many anecdotes and his recollections of his correspondence, friendship and working relationship with Lewis - he was his secretary during the final months of Lewis's life, his biographer and the editor of his collected letters. Invited to attend Inklings meetings, Mr. Hooper said he had never experienced anything like them: "you were your best in his company," he said. The warmth and affection with which he spoke was as great as his admiration for the man whose work he had first come across as a young soldier in 1953 when he kept a copy of Miracles hidden under his shirt and read a page or two at every opportunity while on exercise, and whom he remembers with the utmost fondness all these years later.
The Revd. Dr. Michael Piret, Magdalen's Dean of Divinity, then talked about Lewis's time as Vice-President of the College, and read many excerpts from a drama which exists in College archives, Lewis the Bald, a tragi-comedy penned by Lewis in which the author reveals both a high degree of self-awareness, and a sharp, clever wit and clear-sightedness when it came to his colleagues.
The final speaker of the afternoon was Lord Williams of Oystermouth, better known to most of us as Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury; his book The Lion's World - A journey into the heart of Narnia was published last year. He spoke on fantasy fiction and fairytale and of Lewis's view that being supremely about something that isn't us, it is of moral importance to the young: "in a world of agency, magic, supportive animal friends, the ego is not at the heart of it," and destructive self-interest is put aside. His thesis was closely argued and more complex than my summary might suggest, but his analysis of Lewis's fiction was a fascinating one, and when asked to whom Lewis's mantle has been passed, he spoke with the authority of a deep knowledge of the field of Philip Pullman (ironically, as Alister McGrath describes him, "Lewis's most strident critic"), Alan Garner - particularly for books such as Thursbitch and Boneland which Lord Williams commended as "utterly haunting and remarkable", and of course, the Harry Potter series, "a most interesting fusion of the school story and fairytale, and a work about atonement and redemption".
The day concluded with dinner in Hall at which a toast to C.S. Lewis was drunk, the petits fours appropriately included Turkish Delight, and at which Lewis's Godson Mr. Laurence Harwood spoke and read extracts of three of Lewis's letters, including one full of wisdom, consolation and encouragement which he had received from his Godfather at a difficult time in his youth. It was a fitting end to a day which remembered a man whose brilliance as a scholar and teacher shaped the lives of many young people, whose clarity and fluency as a speaker and communicator opened many minds to faith, and whose writing continues to inspire and delight.
Sue Gee is a writer whose books I love, and so when I saw that she was to be speaking at the Slightly Foxed Readers' Day, I had an extra incentive to go to London for the event.
A quick look at the posts on Sue's novels The Mysteries of Glass, Reading in Bed, and Earth and Heaven, and her short story collection Last Fling, will show something of the calibre of her work, and highlight the characteristics which keep the reader coming back for more - she's someone I look forward to reading because, to put it simply, she's so good at what she does.
Sue's talk at the Readers' Day was titled Staying On and Coming Home because she discussed and explained her admiration for Paul Scott's Booker Prize-winning Staying On - which is about 'old colonials' who have stayed on in India after Independence - and contrasted that story with her own new novel Coming Home which features a couple who have left India in 1947 to make a new life for themselves back in Britain. She commented on the pathos of Paul Scott's book, and on its dry humour, and she explained that for Scott's characters - as for her own - India was the defining experience of their lives.
I have recently read Coming Home (which was provisionally titled The Tiger of Tulsipore, in case anyone has been looking out for a novel under that name) and I'd say it too is marked by pathos and dry humour, and of course by Sue's trademark keen observation and beautiful rendering of a scene, whether its focus is external or on a character's interior life. It's about Will and Flo Sutherland who met and married in India and almost immediately left the country to return to Britain. Now with two small children, they are setting up home on a ramshackle farm in Devon, and while Will puts his all into the back-breaking work, Flo picks up her pen and starts to write the story of their time abroad. The novel follows them through the years as Bea and Fred grow up, Will's career changes and progresses, and Flo struggles to find a path for herself. It is a very poignant book, for of course there are many ups and downs in the Sutherlands' lives, and some scenes and passages are very sad indeed; to that extent it reminded me of Joanna Cannan's Princes in the Land* in its portrait of the disjunction between expectations and reality, and of how a woman can so easily lose her way.
Sue spoke about her own family background, for this book is her most autobiographical and in many respects it is the story of her parents, her brother and herself. She was moved to write it when on her father's death she was left tapes he had recorded of all his old India stories, for like Will, he was there until 1947, and of course had told his children of his life and exotic adventures in that other world. Hearing those tales again, Sue decided to use this personal history as the basis for a novel about families, their dynamics, and how it is all too easy to get 'lost' in them, missing a turning as one tries to find one's own way of 'coming home'. Its arc of experience reaches from that all but vanished world of the 1940s to the post-colonial age, and it is a perfect period portrait, but it's chiefly a very human story and one with great resonance. I strongly recommend it.
I've been in London this weekend, especially to attend the Readers' Day hosted by that excellent literary periodical Slightly Foxed. We have subscribed to the quarterly since its launch almost ten years ago, we look forward eagerly to each elegant edition, and have followed many of the bookish trails towards which it has gently pointed us - if you don't already know it, do take a look.
On Saturday, at the Readers' Day in the Art Workers' Guild in Bloomsbury, we were able to experience Slightly Foxed made flesh as it were, meeting other readers (a lovely bunch) and enjoying talks from speakers who enthralled, entertained, and stimulated their avid audience. It was an event of the nicest, most interesting kind, and neither Mr. C. nor I could have had a better time.
Sara Wheeler - complete with newly broken arm in a sling - took to the stage first to tell us about her latest book O My America!: Second Acts in a New World, an account of the life-changing experiences of six British women who travelled to the New World in the 19th. century. Among her subjects, Sara talked about Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony), whose writings, incidentally, Tracy Chevalier read while researching The Last Runaway, and Fanny Kemble, the actress and celebrity of her day, but I'm pleased to see that the book also includes the doughty Isabella Bird who ought to be better known these days.
The next speaker was Sue Gee, and I'm going to save Sue for a post of her own, so please stay tuned for that, and I'll move on now to Ursula Buchan who gave such an amusing, clear-sighted talk about the Dig for Victory campaign, as covered by her book A Green and Pleasant Land: How England's Gardeners Fought the Second World War. Ursula's many period photographs illustrated her talk in often hilarious fashion, for example, can you imagine the expressions on the faces of these two little people who had been looking forward to an ice-cream and found there were only carrots (an important source of vitamin A) on offer!
Illustration was key to the next talk as it was given by the great Sir Quentin Blake, and what a delight this was. Sir Quentin's work in recent years has often left the confines of the page and spread to the larger canvases of walls in museums and hospitals, the sides of buses, and even a whole building, 'wrapped' in wonderful Blake fashion for a particular purpose. He showed slides of many of these projects, each one so perfectly suited to its environment, and he talked engagingly about his creative process and his collaboration with Roald Dahl, "it was like being led astray by a naughtier schoolboy," he said. His recent books include Beyond the Page and Words and Pictures.
After lunch, we reconvened to hear Grant McIntyre share his passion for the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian and explain why the books are read and loved by so many people who find their richness of detail, complex characterisation, and drama - among other things - make them much, much more than just 'a naval yarn'. To get us further into the spirit of things (if you'll pardon the pun), grog was served, and a clip from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was shown, and while many members of the audience were already firm O'Brian fans, Grant's talk will certainly have persuaded others to discover the books.
After Virginia's talk we had to rush off to catch a plane so couldn't stay for tea and the marvellous array of homemade cakes which were being served to those who could linger a while; there was also the opportunity for more book-buying, courtesy of the Slightly Foxed Bookshop which had brought a tempting range of stock, available to browse at breaks throughout the day.
As you can see, this was a truly splendid day for book-lovers, and I look forward to next year's.
The Blenheim Palace Literary Festival opens tomorrow, and while I'd love to attend many of the events taking place there over the next few days, I shall have to content myself with adding to my wish list on the basis of their programme, and here are a few things which caught my eye:
Also on Thursday, Ruth Rendell will be in Woodstock to discuss the latest in her Inspector Wexford series, No Man's Nightingale. In this the 24th. book, Reg comes out of retirement to help his former colleague Mike Burden investigate the murder of an unpopular vicar.
One of my best books of the year so far is William Nicholson's Motherland, and one of the ones I'm most looking forward to reading is D.J. Taylor's The Windsor Faction, so Friday's event which sees those two authors in conversation on the art of writing fiction based around the events of World War II sounds like a real treat, and a must for me had I been able to go.
I've long been meaning to read something by Rachel Hore (D.J. Taylor's wife) and still haven't done so, but her latest book The Silent Tide, set in the world of publishing in both the present day and the late 1940s/early '50s looks good. Rachel's Sunday morning event is billed as "an intimate chat about books and writing over coffee" and sounds fun.
My last event of this year's EIBF was Simon Sebag Montefiore talking about his new novel One Night in Winter, and had I been experiencing 'festival fatigue' today after the end of a fantastic fortnight, his talk would certainly have perked me up - what he had to say was gripping, horrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
Based on actual events which happened in Stalinist Russia in 1945 and which Simon uncovered during his research for his non-fiction book Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, the novel is centred on an exclusive school and the bizarre and dangerous game played by its senior pupils who are all the children of government leaders. When one of these 17-year-olds is shot by a classmate who then turns the gun on himself, Stalin takes an interest in what has been going on and orders an investigation resulting in the arrest and imprisonment - for as long as 6 months - of some 26 young people. During their incarceration, the children were interrogated about their families, their private business and their views of Stalin and his leadership, and their 'confessions' could and did destroy their parents. What they revealed and how they survived the interrogation is covered in this novel which is at heart about family and love.
Soviet Russia at this time "was like Edith Wharton with the death penalty", any faux pas resulting not in a snub or social banishment but in execution, and in a society which was hierarchical, the book looks also at what Simon called "the hierarchy of love", the range of relationships carried on in a place where jeopardy is supreme, and where "everything was secret but nothing private".
Simon talked very entertainingly about his research, not just for this novel but for his work generally. While we may think of archives as staffed by obliging people who will help find material and do what they can to aid scholarship, some of the archivists Simon encountered in his Russian researches are of an altogether different stripe. When working on Young Stalin he had privileged access to documents and people because his book Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair had put him in favour with the powers that be, but as those powers had 'taken agin' him' for Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, subsequent access had been denied. Still persona non grata, one particularly difficult archival guardian dropped a kitten on Simon's head from the upper level of an old palace - a cruelly original way of showing him the door!
A historian's lot is often not a happy one, it seems, as Simon told us that when working on his book Jerusalem: The Biography, he was stoned by both Israeli and Palestinian factions, thereby establishing his own "state of perfect neutrality". Against these real difficulties and dangers, the challenge of writing historical fiction, of interweaving hard fact and accurate detail - for readers are sophisticated and spot inaccuracies - with invented characters with whom one can do as one likes sounds like rather a freeing experience; the results, if today's talk was anything to go by, quite compelling.
Paula Byrne's latest book is The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, and in it she takes a series of objects owned by or associated with Jane Austen and uses them to shed light on her life. She talked briefly about this type of 'microbiography' or 'partial life', contrasting it with the traditional 'womb to tomb' work which would not have been appropriate in the case of this subject as so much has already been said and nothing new has been unearthed.
Speaking with great verve and passion, Paula gave a most lively lecture on some of the objects she covers in the book, using them to set Jane Austen's life in context and correct what are frequent misapprehensions about her. She illustrated the overlapping areas between the author's life and her novels - what she said would have any fan rushing back for a re-read - and was at pains to show that far from the very confined, limited existence she is often thought to have had, Jane Austen was engaged with the world, went about the place, and of course, translated what she saw and heard into prose of genius.
by Eleanor Catton, longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize and tipped to win (I've read it, and it's mightily impressive). Burial Rites
by Hannah Kent, a debut novel, the subject of an international bidding war, out this week and high on my TBR pile. The authors of these books came all the way from New Zealand and Australia respectively to talk to an eager audience at EIBF.
Eleanor's book is set on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island during a gold rush in the 1860s, and it was the drama of that landscape, which Eleanor visited often as a youngster, which captured her imagination and inspired her story. Hannah's takes as its subject Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland, and an exchange visit she made to Iceland as a teenager planted the seed that would grow into a work praised by Madeline Miller as "gripping ... beautifully written ... outstanding."
The Luminaries is a murder mystery, a ghost story, a psychological drama, a book of extraordinary complexity and richness written in perfect 19th. century style. In discussing her influences, Eleanor talked persuasively about her desire to "defend the adverb", how psychology changed the landscape of the novel forever, and how Agatha Christie's books taught her how to keep the reader reading. In Burial Rites, which tells Agnes's story from when she is found guilty of murder, sentenced to death and waits out the months until her execution at a farm in the north of the country, Hannah has used several narrative voices and fragments of letters, aiming by these means to explore the ambiguity, depth and humanity of her subject, contrasting that with received opinion which paints Agnes as simply and starkly "monstrous and evil".
Both books are very well plotted, and on the subject of plotting generally, Eleanor talked about what is seen as a distinction between literary and genre fiction, i.e. that in the case of the former, plot is secondary. This fascinates and enrages her, she says, as she feels plot is every bit as important as structure, and that novelists could learn a lot from watching high quality television drama such as Breaking Bad which provide lessons in suspense and in keeping character and plot alive and developing. Eleanor wanted her book to be entertaining: "entertainment isn't necessarily low brow," she said. In Hannah's case, her plot was formed by actual events, although her research into them was gradual and laborious. She was researching and writing concurrently, "finding the dots and then joining them," so the suspense "just happened" as she waited to discover what came next, but the effort she put into understanding and shaping her characters shaped the plot, too.
Hannah told us that her book is "a dark love letter to the natural landscape of Iceland", reflecting in some ways her own experience of living there, of the slow descent into winter, of the place and its culture. Eleanor, when asked whether her book could have been shorter (it is 832 pages), talked of wanting to do justice to the 19th. century style she'd adopted and to her large cast of characters by giving them space to evolve. She employs a structural conceit, too, making each part half the length of the one before, thus "a golden spiral", a shaping force, and she admitted that she didn't know whether the ambitious task she had set herself was even possible until she had completed it. I can tell you that she's done it in fine form.
Edna O'Brien at 82: a luminous quality to her presence and her prose, elegant, erudite, perceptive, witty and wise, she charmed the EIBF audience, and was in turn delighted that so many (for it was a sell-out) had come to hear her. She has described herself as "ravenous for life" and "never lacking in energy or appetite", and this was evident in her recollections of a life lived, much of which she has written about in her memoir Country Girl.
Chairing the event, journalist Ruth Wishart described Edna O'Brien as "a weaver of magical prose, a consummate wordsmith", and in both the extract she read from her book and in her account of the process of writing it - "grounding memory, giving it its physicality" - she showed not only her eloquence but the depth of her thinking and feeling.
"Injuries and wrongs are very good for fiction," she said, recalling the painful events of her past, but she also credited her parents for giving her the gifts of stories and storytelling, even though her childhood lacked books (in the village where she grew up there was a single copy of Rebecca, loaned out by the page - but not consecutively), and the absence of the printed word didn't stifle the young Edna's latent creativity. Fueling both her imagination and her romantic sensibilities were a disparate collection of influences, she told us, beginning with "Our Lord - the unattainable, heroic, sacrificial," then moving on to Count Dracula, "all sweeping black", as portrayed by a group of travelling players which came to her village in rural Ireland, and then she dicovered Heathcliff: "not a practical man who paid the rent and grew potatoes...".
Navigating what she referred to as the minefield that is biography, she has compressed "80 years of turmoil" into her book, concentrating on "attachment, love, betrayal, debt - our inner life is racked by these concerns". On writing itself, "I leave the real world outside the door when I write," she says, and "keep the child within as far as any creative work is concerned, but keep the parent there as well".
Billed as "Dystopian Dramas for a New Age", Friday's EIBF event featuring Samantha Shannon and James Smythe might have looked dark and even drear on paper, but was in fact a light-hearted, often hilarious discussion which would open anyone's mind to the world of books, or the parts of it they had yet to discover.
Samantha was there to talk about The Bone Season
(for more on it click here, and I must just mention in passing that it had sold out in the Festival Bookshop even before the event), while James was introducing his new novel The Machine in which a woman tries to 're-build' her psychologically damaged husband in a possible near future. While Samantha's book imagines a future based on an alternate history of Britain (everything changed in 1859), James took our present concerns with global warming, war and the economy and used them to threaten his society. Both are 'genre' books, but James commented that readers are very willing to buy into new worlds such as we see here, and Samantha made reference to the fact that hers is a grounded fantasy with a strong sense of realism. From urban dystopian fantasy to modern gothic horror, Samantha - quoting Isaac Asimov on science fiction - talked about these and others as "flavours" to be applied rather than definitive genres in themselves.
The Machine is concerned with the mind and with what makes us who we are. Beth's husband Vic suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the army in a war, but a machine has extracted his bad memories; however, it has taken more than that, and now although this machine has been banned as too controversial and its side-effects too harmful, it is the only device Beth can use to reconstruct the husband she once knew. Samantha's book features the depths of the mind as well, seen and reached by clairvoyants. For The Bone Season she has constructed a hierarchical system of voyants, each with plausible limits, and so the world of the book is presented on both a physical and a spiritual level. Inspired by the work of Margaret Atwood and George Orwell, she has layered fantasy with reality to great effect.
James talked very interestingly about the difficulty of reaching readers (including some very close to home!), no matter what sort of book one writes, and both writers described their paths to publication, James's through what he considers to be a poor first novel, and Samantha's after her early work was rejected - something she found very painful and off-putting. Asked what advice they would give to their younger selves in the light of these experiences, they urged perseverance, resilience and openness to constructive criticism - and not reading the 'bad' Amazon/Goodreads reviews!
My EIBF event yesterday featured two writers, each one taking real people or events as the raw material for their fiction. Courtney Collins was there to talk about her debut The Burial, described as "a dark, swooning upgrade of the Australian gothic genre", while from closer to home, Rosemary Goring's book After Flodden
features a young woman's search for her brother in the aftermath of that infamous battle.
Courtney's book is on my TBR pile and so I was very keen to hear her talk about it and read from it - she chose an early passage that was intense, beautiful, atmospheric and dark; Rosemary's novel is new to me but very much 'of the moment' in that the 500th anniversary of the battle is just days away. Although clearly very different in period, subject matter and style, both books aim "to put flesh on a woman", in Courtney's case the circus rider, bushranger and horse and cattle rustler Jessie Hickman, in Rosemary's a fictional character, Louise Brenier, a pivotal figure one of whose functions is to correct an imbalance, for as Rosemary said, "women play a great part in war but you never see them; in the aftermath, they pick up the reins."
Critic Allan Massie describes After Flodden as "a tremendous Romance, the work of a wild and turbulent imagination, a
tale of blood, slaughter, treachery, devotion, and adventure", while Elizabeth Gilbert says of The Burial, "this extraordinary novel - propelled by the dark, rich talents of a truly brilliant writer - dazzles, staggers and amazes".
Courtney grew up in Australia's Hunter Valley, where Jessie herself lived, and her familiarity with the place, its landscape, its folklore even, led her to choose that real woman - about whom not much hard fact is known - as her central character. Her difficulty was in how best to tell her story, from which point of view? In what Jackie McGlone, the event's chair, described as "a daring magical realist twist", Courtney eventually settled on the voice of Jessie's dead baby, and this unorthodox solution helped ease what Courtney described as "the creative tension between the facts of Jessie's life and the writing of fiction per se".
Rosemary then set her book in its historical context, describing the background to Flodden and its effect on the fortunes of Scotland. Disastrous for the Scots, it saw the death of King James IV and the loss of 10,000 men in two hours, and through her research Rosemary wanted to better understand why this happened. Though working with real events, it's fiction, not history, she's writing, and so she says, "I use facts like a trampoline - to bounce away from". Interestingly, both writers were keen to reject the label "historical fiction" for their work. Rosemary explained that she was not a fan of the genre, while Courtney thinks place, rather than period, is key to her book; neither wanted to be pigeon-holed, but while Courtney described her novel as "a project of empathy with Australia's [dark] past", Rosemary admitted her dislike of the 'hist.fic' tag was based on snobbery: "it's a lazy label and too easily thrown around," she said.
Whether or not these books are assigned to a category, what was evident from what their authors had to say was, as Courtney put it, "[one's] faith in fiction acts like a force - to find the way to the truth."