Friendly Fire – Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2012

“To be of interest to me, people have to expose themselves.”

This is what Marieke Hardy, author of the collection of autobiographical stories You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, said last Saturday at Friendly Fire, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event. She was of course talking about memoir and about how much of the personal lives of yourself and others you can safely reveal.

This is something I’m very concerned about at the moment. I would never want to hurt anyone I know by writing about something they consider to be private, but it’s very difficult to tell my own story without reference to the stories of those round about me. I used to be very cautious about writing about others, but gradually I’m casting off my inhibitions in favour of telling the truth. Although this is difficult for me, I can see that revealing more of my thoughts and feelings about the people and events in my life makes my writing more interesting. And ultimately I think I am exposing only myself, my own flaws and weaknesses.

Nevertheless I am constantly worried about offending people, especially when I write about humorous situations. I’d hate for the people I’ve written about to think I’m making fun when the reality is that I have the utmost respect for them.

There’s no doubt that relationships can be destroyed through memoir writing. Another speaker at the event, Sloane Crosely, revealed that she had been uninvited from a wedding following something she had written in one of her books of personal essays. She admitted to exaggerating the characters a little since she was writing about them in the context of being suspected of having shat on her bathroom floor during a party.

She wouldn’t go back and change what she’d written though, stressing that “anything that happened to you, that’s true and strikes you as important” has a place in memoir.

Benjamin Law added that “Writing memoir it’s not a journalistic act. Memoir is your take on things and it’s not about getting everything right on everyone.” He gave the example of recreating dialogue when writing about events from his childhood in his book The Family Law. Of course it’s not possible to remember anyone’s exact words. The goal is to “get to some sort of emotional truth.”

Before publishing his book however, he gave his family copies of the manuscript to read and check if their memories roughly matched up with his. Hardy included in her book letters and e-mails written in response to her stories by some of the people featured.

Would I be brave enough to show people what I’d written about them if they’d come off a bit negatively? Probably not. At least, not at the moment, which makes me ask myself, do I have any business writing about these people if I’m not brave enough to show them?

Hardy’s advice was not worry about this until the editing stage. “I don’t know if I want to write thinking I don’t know if this should be there. It puts a bracket round your writing which I don’t think should be there.”

Maggie O’Farrell – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Photo of Maggie O'Farrell at Edinburgh International Book FestivalWhen Maggie O’Farrell was working as a Front of House Assistant at Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago she never dreamed that she would one day be up there on the stage herself. She was in awe of authors. “They were a bit like Greek gods; they existed somewhere in the ether.”

She wrote from a young age and kept diaries from the age of six or seven. After graduating with a degree in English Literature – “study of literature essential for people who want to be writers” – she worked in London for a while, secretly writing poetry by hand. Back then she thought she was going to be a poet but once she got a computer she moved on to writing fiction. “Having a computer and typing released prose.” She’s never gone back to writing poetry.

Her most recent book, Costa Novel Award winner The Hand That First Held Mine, features two main characters separated by half a century: Elina in the present day who is suffering from post-natal amnesia and Lexie in the 1950s who, we learn from the beginning of the story, will die young. “In an early draft I had Lexie narrating from the grave,” O’Farrell reveals. When she showed it to her husband he said, “‘It’s not bad but you’ve got to get rid of all that supernatural shit.’” O’Farrell went back to the manuscript and realised he was right.

One of the challenges O’Farrell faced when writing the novel was getting the dialogue right. “What I found difficult was the way people spoke in the fifties. I watched a lot of films of the period. I had to immerse myself in the fiction of the time: Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, Muriel spark. I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know I needed to know.”

She recommends research as a way of getting over writing blocks. “With any novel you hit a number of brick walls with the fiction side of things and with a contemporary novel if you’re tearing your hair out with the plot you can do some research…to give yourself confidence or a platform to create your fictional world.”

O’Farrell is currently working on her next novel about a London Irish family who reunite for a family event during the heat wave of 1976. “I’m two thirds of the way through, which is one of my least favourite points. There’s too much to go back and still quite a long way to go.” She nearly didn’t have to worry about “going back” at all when, only a day earlier, her young daughter accidentally turned off the power to O’Farrell’s computer while she was writing. She lost all the work she had done that day. On the whole, however, O’Farrell is positive about the impact having children has had on her writing.

“One of the biggest dangers to a writer is time. Having children you do lose time – and your marbles! – but anything that’s good will make it onto the page.”

Jackie Kay – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

The whole audience is in stitches as Jackie Kay recreates the horror and hilarity of her first meeting with her father, dancing around on the stage and putting on a Nigerian accent as she reads from the autobiographical Red Dust Road.

“I think of Red Dust Road as being a multi-voiced thing. It’s fun to do the accent – it brings out the ham actress in me,” she admits afterwards.

Red Dust Road recounts the emotional and physical journey Kay made as she tracked down and met with her birth parents. The companion book, poetry collection Fiere, covers some of the same ground, but also deals with relationships between friends. Fiere is a Scots word (Kay pronounces it “feeree” – “you can get more rhymes in that way”) meaning companion, friend, equal. “I like the idea that relationships are to do with power, and things that people don’t talk about. There are lots of poems that celebrate romantic love but not that many that celebrate friendship.”

After reading a selection of poems from Fiere, Kay announces that she is going to regale us with one of her Maw Broon Monologues and people in the audience cheer. I’ve never come across them before but the character of Maw Broon is known to me. She is the matriarch of the Dundee family who feature in the Sunday Post comic strip The Broons.

Apparently DC Thomson, who publish the Sunday Post, responded to one of the monologues saying that Maw Broon would never go for a colonic irrigation, which Kay thinks is missing the point. “This one’s even more hardcore,” she warns, before launching into Maw Broon’s Vagina. It’s hardcore and hilarious. Now I understand the cheer.

When the time comes for audience questions someone asks Kay what she thought of Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father. “I think his search is a similar search to the one I’ve carried out and I just hope that I get his sales,” she jokes. A few days later, in a separate event at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Red Dust Road is awarded the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book of the Year Award. The prize is £30000 and will perhaps bring a taste of those Obama sales figures.

Blogging the Book Fest

My last few days working at Edinburgh International Book Festival were spent looking through press clippings, blogs and the yurt comment book to read the nice things that people have written about Book Fest events.

I’ve been a bit lax about blogging recently, thinking What’s the point? Who cares what I have to say about this? Spending all that time reading posts about the Book Festival reminded me why blogs are great. The people blogging about author events were enthusiastic and passionate. They gave me an idea of what it was like to be there at that event and they shared their particular expertise on the author’s work. The articles in the press focused on what was considered newsworthy: what Jo Nesbo had to say about the Norway massacre, what Gordon Brown thought of his treatment by the media.

Of course there’s a place for the type of articles you find in the press, but in this case it was blogs that provided me with the material I needed. And if there’s one person out there searching for a quote on what it’s like to be in an audience with Audrey Niffenegger, or any of the authors I’ve seen over these last few weeks, then I hope they find what they’re looking for here.

My heartfelt thanks to all the bloggers who have written about the 2011 Book Festival, particularly Ali George, Colin Galbraith, Anna Burkey, David Farrer and Ceilidh. Sorry to those I’ve forgotten to mention.

Over the next week I’ll finish typing up the rest of my notes from Book Festival events so that I can post them here. In the meantime, something to brighten up your day: the poem Carol Ann Duffy wrote in the author’s yurt comment book. It gave me such a thrill to read it.

Stella Rimington – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Photo by Jamie Hughes

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington is the author of six contemporary spy novels. People are always asking her if she based her heroine on herself and she told us that the one thing she has in common with the “sharp, spiky and intuitive” Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is that they both hate being patronised – especially by men. When Rimington first joined MI5, “women were second class citizens and they had second class careers. They couldn’t go out and gather intelligence.”

Thank goodness things have come a long way since then. In her novels, Rimington has tried to “reflect the fact that there are a lot of women working in our Intelligence Services at a high level.” She also wanted to “release the spy story from the men. I wanted to have a character who works in a team, by thought and analysis, not the type who runs around with a really big gun trying to kill people.”

Rimington’s stories come from “keeping a very sharp eye on what’s going on in the world.” Her plots cover what she believes are threats to our national security. Her former colleagues carefully read through her manuscripts before they are published to make sure she hasn’t inadvertently revealed any potentially damaging secrets. “So far they have asked me to change or remove very few things. I dread the day when I send them a complete manuscript and they say, ‘You can’t use that plot at all.’”

Audrey Niffenegger – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Apologies for the long break I’ve taken from blogging. As you know, I recently moved out of my flat. The following day I started work at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I’ve spent most of my time ever since. Today is the first day I’ve had off in two weeks so I’m setting up some posts about the wonderful events I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on. Look out for these coming over the next few days.

First up, my notes on Audrey Niffenegger’s event.

Audrey Niffenegger - photo credit Edinburgh International Book FestivalShe was so lovely and down-to-earth. I’ve noticed that really mega authors can sometimes come across as either super aware of their own brilliance or else embarrassingly self-deprecating. Niffenegger was neither. She was funny and charming and spoke admiringly of the artists and writers who have influenced her work. Both her novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, share a fantastical element, and she explained that she is attracted towards the weird and wonderful in the everyday. “If you sit down and pay attention to anyone, they will be out of the ordinary. Artists direct your gaze towards the amazing thing that would otherwise appear normal.”

Some of her characters, for example, the obsessive compulsive Martin in Symmetry, have been inspired by people she has dated. She met this particular ex recently and joked that he had either not read the book or not recognised himself, since he didn’t comment on the similarity.

One audience member asked if she ever felt that she had to rein in her imagination when she was writing. Niffenegger replied that on the contrary, she wished she could let it go more. Niffenegger is a Guest Selector for this year’s Book Festival, which means she chose three authors to appear in the programme. The writers she picked – Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and Chris Adrian – are ones she admires precisely because they are so free and unrestricted with their imagination.

Another audience member asked her to comment on her model of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is non-traditional compared with other works of fiction in that Henry can’t influence future events or change history. Niffenegger said that she researched by reading some “light physics” and decided that she wanted “a block universe where everything co-exists.” The way she sees it, there are two types of time travel: humorous Back to the Future style, where the character’s motivation is that he can interfere with past and future events, and the tragic style of her own novel where the drama comes from the fact that the character can’t control his own destiny. The idea that Henry knows what will happen but can’t change it is what appealed to her about the concept.

Can you believe Niffenegger has never seen the film of The Time Travelers Wife??? She doesn’t want to spoil the idea she has of it. “In my head that movie’s glorious. Sometime when I’m ninety and ready to die I’ll watch it.”

Banana Me Beautiful by Emily Dodd

I don’t think anyone at the launch of Banana Me Beautiful last night could have got through the whole evening without falling in love with Emily Dodd just a little bit.

How can you not love a person who interrupts an intense silence after a poetry reading to sing a song about a horse whose poo smells of roses (complete with whinnying and prrrrr-ing at the chorus); who thinks it’s more important to dress for children than for the Queen when both are in the audience and who, during high school art lessons when everyone else is painting still life fruit, makes a series of artworks featuring a depressed banana character?

The horse song and the depressed banana drawings are published in Emily’s debut poetry collection, Banana Me Beautiful. The photo of her meeting the Queen, wearing a ‘cartoon punk’ dress with puffin puppets on her fingers and children at her feet, is not.

The book is divided into three sections which contain writing, art and photography from three different periods in her life: age 9-11, 15-18 and 25-28. It documents her journey as a writer and a person and, although I have only read the first section so far, I already feel touched that she has shared such a personal journey with the world. The diary entry at the end of part one made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Banana Me Beautiful is available as an e-book from Chipmunka Publishing for £5. If you buy a copy you will be supporting a wonderful writer and artist and a publisher that raises awareness of mental health issues and encourages society to listen. The physical book paperback will be out in six months.

A Lyrical Death Match

I promised to write a post about the Lyrical Death Match last Sunday but because I was working I didn’t see enough to be able to do it justice. Luckily, Stuart Innes agreed to take over blogging responsibility. You may remember Stuart from guest posts such as Theme and Throughlines in Screenwriting,…OK, that’s the only one, but it’s a very good one and it still gets a fair amount of traffic.

Over to you, Stuart…

Helen pounced on me in the street. She pressed a flyer into my hand. It read “Lyrical Death Match” – a no-holds-barred title fight between book publishers Cargo and indie music label Chemikal Underground. The whole thing was being held in a cave, or The Caves or something.

Death. Caves. That edgy way they spelt chemical with a “K“. My primal, lizard brain pulsed urgently, told me to lay my cash at the door and head on inside.

Author and comedienne A L Kennedy was on stage, channeling her inner Doctor Who, all highly caffeinated and dressed in layers. Master of Ceremonies, she introduced the night’s acts.

First came the short stories: Kirsten Innes’s woozy tale of a drunken hen night, then one from Rodge Glass about three adolescent boys forced to take sides in a bitter divorce.

Next, a Bruce Springfield-referencing poetry reading (‘Darkness on the Edge of Toast’) from Ryan Van Winkle.  After that, Kennedy returned to read an excerpt from her forthcoming novel – an over-thinking-it inner-monologue about kisses, hugs, sex, love, and how it all inevitably leads to violent, bludgeony death inside a sofa shop. My personal highlight of the evening.

After the interval, Doug Johnstone previewed a couple of chapters from his shiny new novel ‘Smokeheads‘, then sang cheerily about car-crashes for a bit.

Alan Bissett was less cheery. He’d had his heckles raised by an article in this week’s NME calling Bono the worst frontman in rock, and felt compelled to mount a defence by reading aloud some of the U2 singer’s most profound quotes. The audience remained largely unconvinced.

The evening ended with a double bill of musical acts. Lord Cut-Glass, fronted by Alun Woodward, proved that accordions and rock music can indeed live in harmony, and then Woodward’s fellow ex-Delgado, Emma Pollock, brought matters to a close with a flurry of alt-rock guitars and lyrics that may or may not have made sense. Pollock noted that she used to find writing songs daunting, but then she listened to Pavement and realised that lyrics don’t actually have to make any sense at all!! (Sample Pavement lyric: I sneezed cornflakes down to my nose, He’s got a chrome-plated baby so it knows where it goes.)

And that was it! Four hours had passed. No death, no blood, not even so much as a maiming. But while my gore-thirsty lizard brain may have felt duped and cheated by the whole affair, the rest of me walked out into the cold night air feeling very happy with the way the evening had gone.

I almost wanted to sing.

But probably not about cornflakes.

Thank you, Stuart. An appetite-whetting post. Before we all head over to the Let’s Get Lyrical website to listen to audio clips from the Lyrical Death Match, there’s one question that needs to be answered: when are you starting up your own blog?

Behind the Scenes of Let’s Get Lyrical

Thank you to everyone who commented on my Scottish Book Trust Soapbox blog post. I’m just waiting for the comments to be approved and made visible on the website then I will join in the discussion.

Here’s a post I wrote about what goes on behind the scenes of Let’s Get Lyrical for the Guardian Edinburgh Blog.

I’m going to at least one more big LGL event, the Lyrical Death Match on Sunday, so I’ll write a little about that here next week. It should be good: writers and lyricists battling it out on stage with prose, poetry and song. The event is refereed by A L Kennedy, who is a hoot. I can’t wait.

The Funny Things that Songs do to Words

“Funny things happen to words when they’re in songs. They become more profound, or funnier…” said Simon Frith, Mercury Prize Chair of Judges, at the launch of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust’s latest campaign, Let’s Get Lyrical.

I’ve been volunteering at the City of Lit these last few weeks, mailing out bundles of promotional materials and proofing some of the website content. But even if I weren’t working there, I would still tell you to check out the Let’s Get Lyrical website and to think about writing your own story about the song lyrics that mean the most to you. Lyrics are such a huge part of our lives, whether they’re in songs by our favourite bands that we play on repeat, in catchy tunes overheard on the radio or in music added to films for dramatic effect.

The opening event for Let’s Get Lyrical was an evening of music and words entitled Why Do Songs Have Lyrics? Sandwiched between performances by King Creosote and Ziggy Campbell, the audience heard from a panel of musicians, writers and academics about the lyrics that have inspired them and about some of those funny things that songs do to words:

On the lyrics that have inspired them

Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote: Morrissey is a song writing genius. He tackles subjects head on and his lyrics make sense. Morrissey lyrics on the page look like prose.

Ziggy Campbell: Until I heard Arab Strap, I just listened to music. Arab Strap lyrics were the first lyrics that grabbed me. I think Aidan [Moffat] is an absolute genius. The lyrics to The Shy Retirer in particular are funny and visceral. He nails it at the end.

Ian Rankin told the audience how he was inspired by The Mutton Birds’ The Falls. Read the full story here.

On mishearing lyrics

Kenny Anderson : I put lyrics in album covers so that people know they’re not as bad as they think. Sometimes I am aghast by the way lyrics are misheard.  I have a song called Spystick and you can imagine how that sounds in my accent.

Ian Rankin: “I love to see song lyrics written down because if there’s any way they can be misconstrued, I will misconstrue them.” He misheard the Sex Pistols lyric They made you a moron/a potential H-bomb as They made you a moron/ touching your wife’s bum.

Simon Frith: “Mishearing lyrics can be a big problem if you’re a critic. I once wrote a review of Stop the Task Force by the Clash and that got into print.”

Which lyrics most inspire you? Which lyrics have you misheard?