Further Festival Jottings – Saturday and Sunday, 20 & 21 August 2011
Weekends bring different kinds of book-lovers into Charlotte Square Gardens. I’m not sure any of them are the much-vaunted “literati”. Mostly, they’re working people who don’t get time to come during the week, people with families who bring their children, people who can take advantage of cheaper weekend travel and parking [if you can find it]. I disagree with Rosemary Goring’s assessment that there aren’t any “big names” this year. I don’t know what she expected. Surely, THE event this year is the one-off ‘never to be repeated – sold-out in a nano-second’ World Premiere of Alasdair Gray’s Fleck with a cast list that includes, among others, “Ron Butlin, Chiew Siah Tei, Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, A L Kennedy, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh, as well as actors Cora Bissett, Paul Birchard and Gerda Stevenson” – are these not big enough?
Saturday –I didn’t know what to expect from Paul Muldoon. He was charming, a bit like a mad, jumpy professor, he read jovially for ten minutes from two poems: ‘I Love You but You Love Him’ and ‘The Love’ which set the day off beautifully.
Next I dropped into Alexandra Harris (Romantic Moderns) and Kathleen Jones (Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller) who indulged in a lively discussion about literary biography and British modernism, and made odd yet familiar connections between both. Alexandra Harris gave a breathless, animated talk on the different ways that modernism infiltrated every avenue of early British culture – into ordinary gardens and tourist guidebooks and, as Nash said, “the different changefulness of places we think we know”. Kathleen Jones entered current debates on literary biography and argued for a new format away from work that was deadly factual to something that was academically accurate but also lively and readable. She discussed Mansfield’s relationships, early experience of childbirth and death and told how Mansfield was punctured to the core by Rupert Brooke’s careless remark – “do you still write?”. Between them, Harris and Jones reminded me what good academic writing and research can be: informed, engaging and constructive; not closed off as if it’s the last word on a subject but open, inviting further avenues to explore.
I wasn’t sure what I expected of Edward St. Aubyn. A friend suggested I’d enjoy his book event, so I went, even although I’ve not read any of his writing and with only a slight knowledge from a half-read review that he’d suffered an abusive childhood. I was under the impression that Mother’s Milk and his other books were misery memoirs.
I was so, so wrong. He’s a writer’s writer (Alan Hollinghurst was there for this enthralling hour in his company). He talked about everything: why he wrote, how he wrote, what he wanted from his writing. He talked about a “life spent warbling between tenses, was/were” and why he created Patrick Melrose to tell an interesting story – not as therapy but a project to turn painful lived experience into enjoyable prose. He writes fiction, he said, because he’s “not interested in facts but in discovering the dramatic truth of situations” he’d been in. It had taken him “ a long time to suppress the machinery” and he doesn’t enjoy writing but is compelled to do it, has always written. He started and discarded three or four novels before he started Mother’s Milk and found it upsetting to write At Last, but he has to write: “that’s what he’s here for.” Almost no planning goes into the structure of his books. He didn’t plan to write a trilogy or six books, they just evolved. He just makes it up as he goes along, which, he finds, “is a frightening way to write”. In all it’s been 22 years from the first sentence of his first published book to the last sentence of At Last.
Like all good writers, St Aubyn is an avid reader. He often compiles reading programmes between novels -he read the whole of Tolstoy and Turgenev at one time. A light sleeper he reads before he can sleep. Of his current writing, he said he is working on a “non-Melrose novel”.
St Aubyn admitted to an initial dislike for book events and signings and avoiding them for the first six books. But he seemed to enjoy himself . I didn’t know what I had expected but it wasn’t to be completely bowled over by a writer so completely in love with words and telling a story that I wanted to read every scrap he’d ever written.
Here’s a link to a radio interview with Mariella Frostrup that will let you hear the wonderful Edward St. Aubyn.
Sunday – I expected a good discussion from the Guardian Book Club on American Gods with Neil Gaiman and John Mullan. And wasn’t disappointed. Fun, detailed, attentive and wholly given over to the joy of writing and reading American Gods, it brought the book to life. We discovered there’s a novella included in the tenth anniversary edition. Titled, ‘Monarch of the Glen’ it’s set in the same weird universe but has Shadow in Scotland. We had to have it. Teen got it signed and now we’re fighting over who gets to read it first.
Hop over to We Love This Book for my longer report on the event.
I don’t know what the woman who heckled A.L. Kennedy expected. She left after five minutes just as Kennedy started reading, saying, “this wasn’t what she’d expected”. Kennedy was flustered, annoyed, distracted and decided not to read further. I thought she was going to stop. Fortunately, Kennedy is experienced at stand-up comedy and we were witness to some impromptu amusing banter between her and the woman. And, thankfully, she got back into her stride and read a different passage from her latest book, The Blue Book. The story involves fake psychics – “do we need to put those words together” Kennedy wondered aloud. Once we’d all readjusted to the gap left behind by the woman leaving and settled into the normal way of doing things (reading followed by writer discussion followed by audience questions) – the atmosphere warmed noticeably.
Kennedy explained that a “blue book” is a book of trickery and deceit; a collection of files about people kept by mediums and psychics. After researching the “business” for three years she’d become cynical about it all and gave us anecdotes about how awful psychics and cold readings are. Interested in “proper magic” she became obsessed with finding just one trick that would work; “something magical to work in the book … something nice” among all the deception. The central dilemma of the book is this: “can you make people feel better by something that’s a con”. She portrays the central characters as flawed but it’s not a moral tale so that they’re not charlatans. She told us how she met Derren Brown and was a bit intimidated by meeting him and desperate to find a way to ask a question that didn’t insult. He surprised her with his kindness and awareness of the power his magic holds. She likes that he doesn’t abuse it because that’s what most fakery is about: “sincerity is the best way to fool people.”
At times, she headed off into weird connections, such as how political spin doctors use the same kind of fakery, and observing how cold reading is just paying attention to people: “we don’t pay attention to each other … we pay so little attention. We should look at people. It’s beautiful and intoxicating and wonderful.” She compared the art of cold reading with the novelist’s craft – they both read characters, inhabit people so fully that they become other people. She got into writing, she said, because she loves reading and wanted to inhabit the inner lives of the characters.
Kennedy is superb at detailed imagery, sharing her idea that she used the cruise liner as a metaphor for life: “people dancing the tango, living in a tiny bubble of light in the middle of everything that can kill you.”
For all her research revealed the fake side of psychics she spoke movingly of how, if someone offered a way for her to speak again to loved ones, “she’d pay, would want to believe it to be true, would reach into get it.”
You can listen to Kennedy talk to John Freeman about The Blue Book on the Granta podcast
Bookrambler was at the EIBF on Saturday and Sunday 20 & 21 August. She spotted, Paul Muldoon, Lisa Allardice, David Roberts, Edward St Aubyn, Neil Gaiman, John Mullan, Claire Armitstead, Ben Okri, Robert Robinson, Ryan Van Winkle, Darren Shan, Quintin Jardine, Andy Stanton, Kathleen Jones and Alexandra Harris>> check Bookrambler’s flickr photostream >>