Festival Jottings

Festival Jottings: Weds. 17th August

Late afternoon is a good time to pop into Charlotte Square Gardens. By then, the early buzz has waned to a gentler pace. Unless, of course, you’re Neil Gaiman: he strode out of a mammoth book-signing session following one of his three sell-out festival events.

In the festival bookshop, Stanza Director, Eleanor Livingstone, relayed the news that Jane McKie had won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Competition, taking £5000 with her poem, “Leper Window, Mary the Virgin”.

At the book-signing table, Francesca Kay was bursting with pleasure at the glowing review that The Translation of the Bones had just received in Sunday’s Telegraph. 

Over coffee in the LRB tent, Wildlife adventurer Steve Blackhall entertained a CBB-size crowd of children as he signed copies of his latest book, Looking for Adventure.  Apparently, he’d been there for over 2hrs.

I’d come in for two events – a debate on how the rise of e-books will affect writers and a Newton First Book Award event with David Miller and Dan Vyleta. I was disappointed by the debate, I have to say. The panellists didn’t really address the central question but rambled around the negative aspects of e-books and how they saturated the market, punctuated with comments about the convenience of e-readers. All agreed that by 2020 bookshops and traditional publishing will be very different from today. Ultimately, though, no one seemed to address the really important questions of how e-books will affect writers and writing. I’ll be posting a full report later.

Unfortunately Dan Vyleta cancelled; making David Miller’s reading a cosy affair. The Guardian’s Sarah Crown was an excellent, knowing chair who guided the discussion into new areas of reading Miller’s debut novel. We discovered that a Dutch publisher turned it down because it was “almost a silent novel” that, it’s not really about Conrad at all but about “fissures” that open up in families when someone dies, about “moments when things shift”. Despite the numerous versions of Conrad’s biography, Miller thought that “we can discover a different truth about someone through fiction.”  He researched the life of Lilian Hallowes, Conrad’s secretary, for three years, because, he said, “no one spoke for her. No one asked her about Conrad, ever.” He also explained some of the literary in-jokes secreted within the lengthy four-page ‘Dramatis Personae’, such as, the connection between the mysterious “José Altamirano, 78 or so, a funeral crasher from Colombia, now living in Barcelona” and the narrator of the same name in Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Constaguana.

Miller touched on his role as author-agent— he doesn’t see himself as an author but an agent who happens to have written a novel. And, in comments which chimed with the panellists on The Rise of E-Books, Miller rounded off his event by telling us how Today benefited immensely from being edited and copy-edited. Books, he said, “need filter systems”.

EIBF isn’t just about literary fiction, though, as demonstrated by the noticeably longer and noisier book-signing queue for two football-based books: Stramash by football historian Daniel Gray and Stuart Donald’s autobiography, On Fire with Fergie.

By this time, The Paris Review had taken over the Unbound event in the Speigeltent. Prize-winning essayist and NYT reporter, John Jeremiah Sullivan gave a good-humoured reading from his Pulphead essays prompting ripples of laughter around the room while Donald Antrim looked on, propping up the bar, waiting to read from his current work-in-progress.

Both kindly agreed to pose for a photograph (sorry about the quality but these men aren’t called towering literary types for nothing).