Things To Look Out For In April

The Edinburgh International Science Festival will be taking place from the 3rd-17th of April with a wide range of events including talks, exhibitions and workshops. Visitors interested in crime fiction might enjoy the Rebus Tours: A Hidden Edinburgh and The Body Politic, or Murder, Mystery and Microsopes, a look at the application of forensics in investigating crime with crime writer Stuart MacBride.

Following on from the very successful ScreenLab, Scottish Book Trust is teaming up with BBC Scotland to create CBeebies Lab.  The Lab is free for successful applicants and is designed for anyone interested in writing television for a pre-school audience. Deadline 14th of April.

 The next installment of Edinburgh City Reads on the 15th of April will see Santiago Roncagliolo visit Central Library. Booking essential.

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A L Kennedy, What Becomes – Edinburgh City Reads

Due to what I can only hope is some kind of administrative error, I worked two days last week and now owe the company £24. This negative salary has only compounded an already worrying financial situation and I have resolved to work harder at writing and to try to make some money from it.

After a couple of productive hours in the library bashing away at an article and a few less productive hours back at the flat, I braved the sleet and went to see A L Kennedy at the third Edinburgh City Reads event.

Who knew A L Kennedy was a comedian? It’s no secret. She even takes her stand-up comedy show on tour. And yet I was completely unprepared for the hilarity of her reading of Story of My Life, one of the short stories in her new collection, What Becomes. It was proper, laugh-out-loud funny. At one point I had to press my face into my hands to stop my wine from shooting out of my mouth. (Oh yes, another great thing about Edinburgh City Reads: not only do you get to be in an audience with an author for free – similar events at the Edinburgh Book Festival would cost you £10 –  but you also get a free glass of wine. I always feel slightly naughty sitting amongst all the ancient books in the reference library with a drink in my hand and have to take sips when I think no one is looking.)

After the reading there were the usual audience questions. I’m about two thirds of the way through my shorthand course so I thought it would be good practice to take notes in Teeline. It turns out I still can’t write as fast in shorthand as I can in longhand so I didn’t manage to get everything down. Here’s a summary:

A L Kennedy is a fan of Shakespeare and would have loved to have met him. She thinks romance should be like it was in his day, when people wrote poems and letters to their sweethearts and love was this enormous thing akin to being hit over the back of the head with a frying pan

She enjoys doing readings and likes to present new stories to see if they work. “I’m an auditory person. I hear [the story] in my head when I write. [At readings] I’m hearing if the music is the correct music.” She doesn’t like travelling to readings so much because it takes time away from her writing. She writes in hotels and on trains to try to get some of this writing time back. The only short story she got in the New Yorker was written on a train.

She doesn’t plan her novels, although she spends about three years researching each book. “I’m researching as I go. I kind of start [writing] when it feels right and see how it goes. I get to a hundred pages and do a rewrite…but it tends not to be a catastrophic rewrite or an abandonment.”

She says that she does not “literally experience the emotions of the characters” she writes but she tries to “follow characters about” so that she can describe how they think and feel.

She always worries that her writing is rubbish. “I don’t like anything that I do that much. It’s always some kind of failure, otherwise I wouldn’t write the next thing. If I thought that I’d nailed it it would be disastrous.”

Despite the author’s own misgivings about her writing, I thought the story we’d heard from What Becomes was excellent and I was very tempted to buy a copy of the book on the spot. Then I remembered that I’m working this weekend so that’s potentially another twenty-four quid down the pan. Thank goodness we have libraries!

Iain Banks – Edinburgh City Reads

My two favourite things about living in Edinburgh are the sky, which is sometimes blue or pink, often grey, but always luminous, and the huge number of literary events happening throughout the year.

A new addition to Edinburgh’s programme of book related events is Edinburgh City Reads, where an author comes to discuss his or her work and answer questions from the audience. Recently I went to hear Iain Banks talk about his latest book, Transition.

Banks describes the novel as “49% science fiction.” Closer, then, to literary fiction because the plot is “technically more scientifically plausible” than those of his science fiction novels which he publishes under the name Iain M Banks. (The inclusion of the middle initial, he explains, “sounds more American” and “gives the books more of a science fiction feel.”)

The premise of Transition is that there are an infinite number of parallel realities which certain people can move between with the help of a drug called septus. Agents of an organisation called The Concern exploit their ability to flit between realities by interfering in important events to control the outcome. The concept of a multiverse is something which Banks finds “mind boggling” and he jokes that he would one day like to write a letter to Nature to put forward his own theory on the matter (something to do with onions and layers, and the letter would of course be long and written in purple ink.)

The novel is told from the point of view of a number of different characters and Banks brushes off praise for making each voice distinct, saying: “if you are a writer it’s the kind of thing you have to do. It’s part of your job to get inside the heads of your characters.” He admits to particularly enjoying being inside the head of the terrifying Madame d’Ortolan. “She was great to work with. Often the really bad characters are.”

The advantage of a novel with multiple narrators, according to Banks, is that by switching from one viewpoint to the next you can avoid all the boring bits in each character’s life. If you are following only one character it is a bit risky to jump from one point in time to another past the boring bits.

Banks typically spends six months thinking about each book before he begins writing. “I do quite a lot of preparatory work. You could start with an idea like [the one in Transition] and just write and see where it takes you but that could take years,” he says, explaining that you could write yourself into a corner and have to backtrack. “If you plan the novel out in advance you make all the mistakes in your head rather than on paper.”

A good ending is crucial for Banks. “I’m a sucker for a surprise ending- a bit of twist in the tale. I couldn’t write a book … without a proper ending.”

Banks finds that the writing process varies from one novel to the next. “Some books are more laborious and more of a chore than others. Transition went almost too smoothly in a way. A month after it was finished I couldn’t remember writing it.”

The one novel that he really struggled to write was Canal Dreams, which he eventually got through “under the influence of a lot of whisky.” He describes it as the book he is least proud of. “I took on too many degrees of difficulty with that one,” he says, referring to the fact that the main character is female and Japanese so has little in common with him, and that the novel was set in Panama and Japan, places he had never been. The book was “intimidatingly difficult to write” and Banks distracted himself with displacement activities, laughing as he says, “My flat had never been cleaner. It was spotlessly perfect.”

Banks learned his lesson from Canal Dreams and tends to write about people who have something in common with him, “a middle class Scottish chap,” and who are of a similar age. He describes writing books set in Scotland as “a kind of laziness. I hate doing research.” Although he is famous as a Scottish author, he points out that there is “no sort of great burden of Scottishness” in his novels.

His next book will be based on the same template as his first novel, The Wasp Factory: “short, sharp and horrible and nasty.” His only concern is that he might come off as “an increasingly elderly writer trying to impress the kids. I’ll be 58 by then. I’m not sure if I can pull it off.” But, as he points out, “[Writing is] a late maturing craft. You’re always getting better and better up to a point. You have fewer ideas when you get older but you are better at writing them.” So he should pull off the next book just fine.