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.”

Hanif Kureishi – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

Hanif Kureishi - Simon & Schuster

Hanif Kureishi is often accused of being controversial. His writing explores sexuality, race, religion and politics. I went to his event at the Book Festival hoping for something juicy and I wasn’t disappointed. He read a short story from a forthcoming collection about a sick woman whose friends visit her bedside each night to tell her stories. In The Widow, a man recounts an affair he once had with an older woman. The story was funny, touching, and ripe with explicit oral sex. Not bad for an 11am reading.

Growing up, Kureishi’s father encouraged him to be a writer. “I come from a writing family. My uncles were writers too so it wasn’t such a weird thing in my family. My father wanted to be a writer but he never managed. He was a civil servant and very depressed.”

Luckily their different styles of writing meant that Kureishi’s father did not envy his son’s writing career. “He thought my stuff was a bit dirty, it wasn’t philosophical enough. I thought that was a good thing. I wouldn’t want him to be humiliated by my success. We established a rule that his writing was deep and meaningful and mine was trashy and everyone was happy.”

Kureishi’s father is not the only one to have had reservations about his son’s writing. Other family members have criticised him for exploiting their lives in his stories. He admits that family and friends have provided him with “more than enough material” to write about and justifies this, saying, “Looking at my family and seeing their relationship with the wider world seemed like a good way to write about race and contemporary Britain.”

He describes growing up in a London suburb where he encountered overt racism daily, people shouting ‘Paki’ at him on the street. “It was humiliating and wearing.” He found respite when he got a job at The Royal Court Theatre, eventually becoming writer in residence. “Getting to the theatre, where everyone was weird and odd and strange, was a huge relief. The Royal Court wanted material that was about the contemporary world. They were committed to making material about class and social change. I felt welcome there.”

In the course of his writing career, Kureishi has written scripts, short stories, novels and screenplays, switching between forms to balance earning a living with artistic freedom.  “I’ve got to write movies to buy time to write other things. If I do that film then I’ve got six months to write that story.”

As a creative writing teacher he tells students his students how hard it is to make a living as a writer. “Getting by financially is a difficult thing.” He ticks off the writers he admired when he was young: “Kafka, Beckett, Kerouac. None of them had three kids in private school. The artists I admired were just that, pure artists. I can’t really afford writer’s block. Once I had kids and got a bigger house, to hell with the block, I just had to get on with it. I’ve got lots of projects on the go. If I get stuck on something I move onto something else. My children want to be rock stars and I’m doing my best to stamp it out. I want them to be doctors or lawyers and earn a living.”

Although he has ample screenwriting experience, Kureishi says that he is not going to be involved when the BBC turn four of his short stories into half hour features to be broadcast next year. “I’m happy to give them my work to do what they want with it. If they do a good job or if they mess it up that’s fine. You have to allow other people the creative freedom you want for yourself.”

Kureishi is just as happy to take stories from other people as he is to give away his own. “You get a story in a sort of flash, usually when the person who you are about to rip off is telling the story to you,” he jokes.  The idea for A Terrible Story came from a tale his friend told him. “Half way through I thought, Oh God, I’m going to have to write this down.”

He says that when the inspiration for a short story hits, “you need to write it down quickly, like a sketch. Chances are if you work on it for a long time you’ll make it worse.” Although Kureishi claims he is “much too lazy” to research his stories, he has spent a lot of time in London mosques talking to young radical Muslims, which inspired both the short story My Son the Fanatic and also the novel The Black Album, now published together in a single volume. “Talking to these kids, your hair would stand on end. They hated their parents and they hated the West.” Kureishi believes it is important to deal with such sensitive issues in fiction. “I think art should be dangerous. It’s important that writers are asking difficult questions, that they interrogate people. Freedom to speak and to ask questions is crucial.”

With his own writing grappling with these dangerous topics, Kureishi likes to read an entirely different sort of fiction. “I don’t want to read anything miserable. I know how miserable the world is. I read P. G. Wodehouse.” He doesn’t read often, however, finding that the style of the book he is reading creeps into his writing. “You need a clear signal when you are writing, your own unconscious and voice. If you read someone else’s books it interferes with your signal.”

My Stint at Story Shop

I did a practice run with some colleagues last Friday, with a dry mouth and a shaky voice, which I think got most of the nerves out of the way. On Sunday morning, the day of my reading, I practiced once in front of my sister, both of us in our pyjamas, and decided that I would imagine it was just the two of us again when I did the real reading to a group of strangers.

I got some good feedback from my colleagues and sister: show a bit more emotion, vary the tone of your voice, don’t read too fast, project your voice. I was lucky enough to  interview Michèle Roberts when she was up for the festival and she gave me some great advice: “Imagine that there’s a friendly being in the front row that admires your work and wants you to do brilliantly. I tend to imagine that my grandmother, who is dead, is sitting in the front row because she loved me and I loved her very much. If you know your text really well you can keep glancing at the audience and they love that because it means you really know that they’re there and you’re in touch with them.”

Luckily I didn’t have to imagine the friendly beings. My brother and sister were both there to support me so I instructed them to stand at the back and quite far apart so that I could look from one to the other and give the impression that I was making eye contact with the audience. The plan was that they were to smile when I looked at them which in turn would make me smile, but in practice it was quite a sombre story so the most I got was lips pressed together in acknowledgement that I was looking at them.

There were quite a lot of people there, but I was related to half of them so it was not as nerve wracking as I had imagined. Cousins from both side of the family came, an altogether weird situation which would normally be reserved for me or one of my siblings getting married. “Not much chance of that,” my sister said.

I think the best thing to come of it was my brother telling me afterwards that he was inspired to write a story that would be better than mine. And I feel inspired to write more fiction too, and a lot more confident about reading it in public. If you get the chance to read your story in front of an audience, go for it! I can tell you that there is life on the other side. And if you have any advice to share about short story or book readings, I’d love to hear it.

Michele Roberts and Helen Simpson – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

“Walking about in London in flip flops you get these little curds of mud between your toes, tickling your bare feet. It’s a form of sexual bliss!” declares Michèle Roberts, introducing her recently published collection of short stories, Mud, to the Book Festival audience. Indeed it is a very muddy collection, from the “turned, buttery earth” in the title story, to the “stinking mud caking the cobbles” that signifies to Polly a backwards slip in time. For some characters mud is a source of nourishment and growth, for others it is associated with secret hiding places and private magical worlds; some, like Polly, are made dirty by it. 

Mud is also a very sensual collection, full of smells and colours and tastes. The book is subtitled Stories of Sex and Love and Roberts says, “Sex and love are often connected to food and eating in my fiction. They are difficult to write about because the language available to us is not good enough, for me anyway. It’s a language of lying.” She points to pornographic langauge about throbbing members and wave-crashing orgasms as an example.

Roberts reads to the audience from the humorous story A Vegetarian in France. I must be a very serious reader because I always find fiction funnier when it is read aloud. Poor Larry with his omelettes!

Afterwards Helen Simpson reads the short story Diary of an Interesting Year from her collection, In Flight Entertainment. It switches rapidly between moments of hilarity and devastation, the brief one line entires proving that sometimes what is left unsaid can be more revealing than what is put into words.

Simpson sees the short story as a “zoom lens. Sometimes it’s criticised for being small, but it’s not small; it’s just not panoramic. It’s a close up.” She describes herself as “a coral reef type of writer. There’s a little bit added each year. Short stories are wasteful in terms of money and time to write but you’re never bored. That’s why I write. Your only duty as a writer is to write about what stimulates your imagination.” Five of the stories in In Flight Entertainment feature climate change, a topic that is “hard to know how to dramatise without moralising. There are lots of statistics, it’s a depressing and boring subject unless you are a physicist. I’m just a layperson. I’m not very good at science.” So why did Simpson choose to write about climate change? “I like a challenge I suppose.”

In each of the five stories Simpson tried to find a different route into the subject. “One is a sales pitch and that was meant to be a comedy. She’s a carbon coach but that’s almost not satire; people are doing that now. One is an apocalyptic love story and one is about a death on an aeroplane where people are getting annoyed about the delay.” According to Simpson, deaths on aeroplanes occur quite frequently but not to worry, it’s usually in first class. Something to do with the age of the population who can afford to  fly in comfort. “I think they store bodies in the overhead lockers,” Simpson says. “Or else stretch them across three seats in first class, even if you die in economy. Apparently the first class passengers get quite shirty about that.”

Unbound at the Book Festival

This year the Edinburgh International Book Festival has introduced a new strand to its programme. Unbound will see the Highland Park Spiegeltent taken over every evening by authors, poets and musicians for a series of free, live literature events. Nick Barley, the Book Festival director explained at a recent City of Lit Salon that Unbound would appeal to those people who love books and reading but who don’t like to plan or book tickets in advance. It’s for people who get up in the morning and say: Right, what am I going to do this evening?

Spoken word events such as DIScOmBoBulAte, The Golden Hour and Irregular will relocate to the Spiegeltent for evenings of literary, musical mash up. There will be events hosted by literary magazines such as McSweeney’s and Five Dials, and sessions where authors and poets show a different side of themselves, away from the printed page. The Unbound programme has deliberately been left slightly vague to allow an element of spontaneity: as well as the scheduled performers, the organisers of each event are free to wander around the Book Festival, talk to visiting authors and maybe pick up some new acts.

The first event last night was hosted by Scotland’s newest literary magazine, Gutter. It was enticingly named A Night in the Gutter: McSex and featured new and established authors reading erotic fiction from their own work and from the work of others. The Spiegeltent (mirror tent), looking like a glammed up circus arena, was the perfect location for this night of literary debauchary. In between readings, a burlesque model strutted across the stage bearing signs introducing the next segment of the show.

Who knew Robert Burns was so filthy? Cheryl Follon read from some of his X-rated poems, emphasising the good bits with a deliciously dirty laugh. Zoë Strachan’s reading from her own novel Spin Cycle, was beautifully sensual. Hats off to all the performers who not only managed to hold the audience’s attention with confident and witty readings, but sailed through all the smutty vocabulary without so much as a blush or a bead of sweat.

New Writery Stuff

The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards are open for applications from unpublished writers living in Scotland. £2000 and the chance to work with a writing mentor? Not to be sneezed at.

Previous winners of the award are starting up a New Writers Blog where they’ll be writing about literary projects they’ve been involved with, events and workshops they’ve found useful, and posting samples of their work. The first post, where Billy Letford talks about writing poetry under roof tiles, went up on Tuesday.

I’ll be reading one of my short stories at the Book Festival this year as part of Story Shop. My slot is 4pm on Sunday 22nd August. If you’re around, come along. As nerve wracking as it is to read in front of people, I think it would be worse to be talking into an empty room. Story Shop is taking place every day during the festival so I’m going to catch as many of the readings as I can. I’m looking forward to hearing some brand new Scottish fiction.