The beauty of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that, while it’s grown from a modest series of ‘Meet the Author’ events into the largest public literary festival (17 days, 797 authors, 757 events), it retains an intimacy unmatched by other sprawling book events. The iron railings which surround the Georgian splendour of Charlotte Square gardens seem designed to contain it – to stop it from spilling over into the Edinburgh Festival ‘proper’ – and give it an otherworldly aura. Forget Neverland – you’re in Bookland. The event tents which hug the perimeter of the square are linked by a walkway that takes you past the bookshops, the signing tent, coffee shops and trailing orderly queues, and past the authors and readers jostling together in amiable bookish friendliness.
Arriving for my first day [day 3 of the EIBF] I bumped into Nicola Morgan signing books in the RBS Children’s Book Shop – just out from taking part in the debate ‘Surviving Adolescence: Do Drugs Work?’ ‘It went well,’ she said, ‘… lots of questions.’ Along in the main Bookshop, debut authors David Whitehouse (Bed, Canongate) and Juan Pablo Villalobos (Down the Rabbit Hole, And Other Stories Books) were getting lots of attention after their event, ‘Sleepwalking into Adulthood’ [part of the Newton First Book Award 2011]. Stuart Evers (Ten Stories About Smoking, Picador) hovered close by.
David Whitehouse agreed to a spontaneous ‘quinterview’ while he signed a pile of books that were destined for the ‘signed by the author’ bookshelf:
BookRambler –How went your event?
DW – Great! It was a good pairing [with Juan Pablo Villalobos] – really imaginative. It wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. I’ve given readings at music festivals before but it’s different here. [I think he meant people were listening!]
BookRambler – How did it feel to read your book aloud?
DW – Weird. You write alone; it’s a solitary existence and then you’re faced with an audience, listening to what you’ve written. I ended up enjoying it –which I didn’t expect. I was nervous but that passed quickly.
BookRambler Which event are you looking forward to?
DW – Jennifer Egan – but I don’t have a ticket.
Over in the LRB signing tent, Pamela Stephenson Connolly (Sex Life, How Our Sexual Experiences and Encounters Define Who We Are, Vermillion) was wrapt in conversation as tight as her red, figure-hugging wrap. ‘Thanks. Cheerio. It was nice to meet you’, wafted across the coffee queue when they parted like old friends.
As the afternoon buzz turned to mute expectation I headed to the RBS Corner Theatre to the event I’d come in for – Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad, Corsair) and Karen Russell (Swamplandia!, Chatto & Windus). Billed together as ‘New Classics of American Fiction’, the sell-out event attracted writers and poets as well as those with writerly aspirations. Before the lights were dimmed I spotted Nick Holdstock (The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur Town on the Edge, Luath Press) and Ryan Van Winkle (Tomorrow We Will Live Here, Salt).
Chaired by the Guardian’s Lisa Allardice, it was an easy-going, relaxed presentation, rendered surreal when Egan’s reading from the opening of her book – a scene in a city-hotel toilet- was punctuated with screaming sirens while Edinburgh traffic rumbled around Charlotte Square. Unsurprisingly, Egan dominated the conversation. Karen Russell was an Egan groupie – she named The Keep as a major writing influence and bubbled over with infectious enthusiasm for Egan’s ‘experimental’ style. But who can blame her? Egan was in top form, relating the story of how the book came into being – a cobbling together of other stories – of characters whose lives took hold so that she had to tell their stories – she talked for around 40 minutes about writing and the art and toil of bringing 13 disparate but interlinked stories together into a coherent whole.
I wondered what writers would take from her talk? Firstly, she didn’t set out with a master-plan – there was ‘no grand scheme’ – she ‘fumbled her way into it’. The book evolved in parts with each chapter different but combining elements from each other. ‘An attentive reader’, she explained, will realise how she picks up minor characters and brings them into subsequent chapters and develops them into fully fleshed people while she ‘weaves’ them into her ‘loosely-themed story about the music business’. The first chapter was inspired by a real event: Egan has been robbed several times, she said, so that, once, when she came across a wallet, she wondered, what does it feel like to be on the other side? According to Egan, the two ‘significant influences’ of Goon Squad were Proust and the tv-show, The Sopranos. What links them is how they render a story through multiple voices across different times: polyphonic and non-linear [‘time is a Goon’] she reveals, ‘no one can escape time’. Taking Proustian elements, ‘the unthinking becomes normal’ and time is an ‘allusion of permanence’, she ‘played with them’ to create a story where time ‘shifts forward’ while people seem to remain static in time: ‘how did we get to middle-age?’ would sum up Goon Squad.
Karen Russell revealed how she developed Swamplandia! from a 40-page short story titled, ‘Ava Wrestles with an Alligator’. Published in 2007, the story haunted her until she returned to it to create an ‘unconventional coming-of-age’ story that includes myths and ghosts and juxtaposes farce and pathos but that’s also about ‘bigger things’: Southern American gothic was a big influence on how the book evolved but so too was George Sanders. It’s ‘literary and fantastical – a story that’s emotionally true but in a weird register.’
Egan touched on the ‘twitter-storm’ she created by an off-hand, ‘unthought-out’ remark about women’s writing. She wasn’t decrying ‘chick-lit’, she said, but was trying to explain how she thought that ‘women found it difficult to speak about their literary ambitions’. And she claimed friendship not hostility towards Jonathan Franzen. As writers, she said, ‘it’s important to think as big as we can – man or woman – get things down.’
Both agreed there was a ‘fear of presumption to tackle big things.’ Karen Russell found it hard to ‘really talk’ about the ecological themes of Swamplandia! for fear of being perceived as over-reading – ‘perhaps it’s a gender thing,’ she admitted.
A good Q&A session brought it all to an end – and all the questions were for Egan. She disclosed that Jules is ‘a David Foster Wallace- style character … written in the 1990s …as part of a free-standing story … which wouldn’t work now.’ She hadn’t ‘done’ DFW but showed ‘a guy struggling to do something against the process of doing it … the agony amid the humour.’ Egan also told us how the PowerPoint chapter arose as a last-minute revision stage addition to the book – ‘a way to combine the pauses in music with pauses in relationships’, to ‘add sentiment to the story without descending to schmaltz.’ [And she directed us to view it as a glorious Technicolor slide show with music on her website]
As I headed for the train, Nick Barley was hopping out of Audrey Niffenegger’s event.
BookRambler was at the EIBF on Monday 15 August. She spotted –: Nicola Morgan, David Whitehouse, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Stuart Evers, Pamela Stephenson Connolly,, Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, Nick Holdstock, Ryan Van Winkle and Nick Barley.
Images of the day are on Flickr >>>>