Even More Festival Jottings

Even More Festival Jottings – Wednesday 24th August 2011

Wednesday Morning

In the ever-changing face of the book festival, on weekdays, crocodile-lines of schoolchildren find their way into every crevice around Charlotte Square Gardens. The National Literacy Trust said recently that, from a poll of 18, 141 children, 1 in 6  “don’t read a single book in a month”, but the high number of children attending the book festival disputes their narrow-field of research. Every where you look some child is reading, looking at someone else reading, talking about a book, looking at books, buying a book— or two, writing, listening to inspirational stories or taking part in a pirate-themed ‘fight-fest’.

I caught up with New Zealand children’s and young adult writer, Kate de Goldi, signing books and posters and handing out bookmarks and badges after a successful reading. She’d flown 27 hours, she told me, to take part in two events at this year’s children’s book festival; the first was with novelist Saci Lloyd (Momentum), where she talked about her latest book The 10pm Question, which generated some good audience questions about the process of writing. She was looking forward to the afternoon session panel event with newly installed Children’s laureate Julia Donaldson and also Ruth Eastman to discuss emotional and mental issues -“Quirks of the Teenage Mind” – with a teenage audience. While she’s in the UK Kate plans to research places and landscapes associated with children’s literature for a forthcoming non-fiction book – taking in Roman Britain, the Yorkshire Moors, the fens and the Wold, as well as writers and books associated with Edinburgh.

All day around the Square I bumped into children’s writers, including, picture book author, Petr Horáčk, Katie Grant (Belle’s Song), Kevin Crossley-Holland (Bracelet of Bones) and the two Steves:  Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore (authors of over 130 pirate, Viking, horror, myths and dragon books, including the iHorror series). In the middle weeks of August, some 11,500 children from 141 schools from across Scotland and the north of England descend on Charlotte Square Gardens, as well as countless tots and teens who come along with their parents: if researchers had asked them ‘do you read books?’, the results would be dramatic but for a different reason entirely.

I was here, though, for a Bookshop Café sponsored event (with free coffee and Danish pastries) headlined as “Europe in the New Era”. Taking part were Judith Hermann, German author of Alice (Clerkenwell Books) and Norwegian author, Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time (Vintage), with interpreter, Donal McLaughlin (author of A Nervous Reaction to National Anthems and Other Stories, Argyll Pub). Paired because these books deal with bereavement and loss, they’re actually very different books and the authors have very different views on their approach to writing and also of translation, which made for a lively morning’s conversation.

Hermann spoke of how, listening to Alice being read in English, she can “step out of her own text and can listen to the text for once as if it’s someone else’s. The English translation is a closed space. She can be outside it.” Per Petterson said that translators “massacre the text.” In translation, the book has a different tone and rhythm, he said, and there’s a difficulty in showing the Norwegian in the English translation – to demonstrate its foreignness. Although he came to enjoy, the three-way shuttling of text between author, editor and translator until they came to a version he was happy with, the end result is a new book, not a literal translation.

Hermann said that it was “a great luxury to think whether the translation works for the reader or not. She’s conscious, she said, “of the fact that everything she’s read that has meant something to her was read in translation.”

Questions from the floor included a discussion about whether British and US publishers and readers were resistant to books in translation. Both said they’d found no resistance, although Per Petterson admitted that very few Norwegian writers were translated into English. When asked if writing books with death as their subject had been cathartic both said that it hadn’t. For Hermann, Alice isn’t a self help book. She felt happy when she was writing it. Per Petterson said that “literature should open wounds instead of healing them.” He’s very happy when it feels painful because that means he’s succeeded in what he’s tried to do: “A good burial can be uplifting.”

I asked Judith Hermann how she’d begun Alice and how long it had taken her to write. She’d started with the character of Alice, she said, who had led her into the story. It was a long gestation but the actual process of writing was very quick, around six months. I asked Per Petterson about the English translation and told him I liked how the sentences seemed to mimic the movement of a meandering river. That’s because “basically I rewrote the book in English” he said. I also caught a few words with publisher Geoff Mulligan of new imprint Clerkenwell Books (Alice, Wall of Days). Why, when everyone was talking about the death of books, I asked, did he start up a new publishing company? There’s a market for good quality fiction, he said. Clerkenwell will publish just half a dozen new books every year — “a small number of outstanding books rather than a big number of mediocre books.”

The rain clattered onto the canvas, scattering the deck-chair loungees into the bookshops and cafés. I sheltered in the LRB tent for a while, wasting time ’til the evening sessions. Colin Thubron charmed everyone who wanted a signature; Ed Vulliamy seemed genuinely pleased to sign books; Jo Nesbo was deluged with fans of Scandinavian crime; Rodge Glass was getting ready for the Cargo-publishing sponsored Unbound event.

Censored Event – Dinner at Browns


Wednesday Evening

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry and musical recital was packed – a sell-out. “You can see that poetry is a minority subject”, quipped Robyn Marsack (Director of the Scottish Poetry Library who chaired). Duffy read familiar poems from The World’s Wife and Rapture collections—‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Darwin’, ‘Mrs Tyreseus’, ‘You’, ‘The Lovers’—as John Sampson melded mellifluously into the end of some poems. ‘The Dark Island’ blended beautifully with the last lines of ‘The Lovers’, and he played his own set too.

I was pleasantly surprised by Duffy’s relaxed, amusing, quite pithy introductions. A combination of my bad handwriting and low lighting means that I don’t have a lot to report but it was a really super hour – too short really. An added bonus was hearing from Duffy’s upcoming collection of poems called The Bees – and her tempting offer of 150 advance copies. Poems include, “Virgil’s Bees”, a poem in protest against the Post Office … consumed with middle-aged rage … a revolutionary poem” against dropping counties and shires from addresses, like “Clackmannanshire”, a poem about “Atlas” and one about her mother who died five years ago. “Premonitions” moves back in time to revisit long-cherished images. I’m not sure if there was a dry eye in the tent when John Sampson played the refrain from ‘Danny Boy’ along to the closing lines: “a loving litany of who we had been.”

The central dilemma of the night was this: Ian Rankin talking about his new book, The Impossible Dead, or Michel Faber talking with actress Romola Garai and writer Lucinda Coxon about the screenplay adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White. With two Victorianists in our company we plumped for the latter. A great choice, as it turned out.

With the Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead guiding the debate, Lucinda Coxon spoke of her determination to adapt the book for screen and the problems of turning it into a four hour series “without butchering” the text. She was aware that it would need a new kind of costume drama but that she needed to “take the audience” with her. Romola thought the character of Sugar was an opportunity for “a new kind of heroine” who used sexual power as a device, a heroine who was “half in, half out of both levels of society”. She wished, in some ways, that she was more like Sugar, “a brilliant manipulator of her own and other’s emotions.” Asked whether the scenes where the two women wave from upper windows was a reference to Victorian fiction [Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights], Coxon agreed: they weren’t in the book but she used them as shorthand and as a “framing device” that viewers would be familiar with.

Coxon related how designers had fought to work on the series, how the screenplay of the “novel that was perfect for tv … developed a life of its own.” Romola shared details of how discussions with the leading man mirrored the Sugar/William struggle. For her, the extent of Sugar’s vulnerability “is always up for debate,” she had wanted her portrayed with less vulnerability and more power. Michel Faber talked about the delicate balance, of how, if wrongly handled it would be “too porny”. “Desire and disgust are happy bedfellows”, Coxon said.

Michel Faber was happy with the adaptation although he’d deliberately had nothing to do with it. He said that “six parts would have been nice.” Not shown in the US “so far” the panel debated whether it ever could be. It was too different in sensibility for a US audience not used to dealing with abortion and rare skin conditions in British costume dramas. It would be “Pretty Woman in crinoline”, said Michel Faber, more like “Fatal Attraction in crinoline”, Claire Armitstead replied.

BookRambler was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Wednesday 24th August 2011. She spotted, Carol Ann Duffy, Claire Armitstead,  Colin Thubron, Donal McLaughlin, Ed. Vulliamy, Geoff Mulligan, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo, John Sampson, Judith Hermann, Kate de Goldi, Katie Grant, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Lesley Riddoch, Lucinda Coxon, Michel Faber,  Nell Nelson, Per Petterson, Petr Horáčk, Robyn Marsack, Rodge Glass, Romola Garai,  Saci Lloyd, the two Steves.

you can view the pics on Bookrambler’s flickr photostream>>>