Final Festival Jottings

Final Festival Jottings – Sunday 28 August 2011

I realised today that I hadn’t posted my last report – so here it is. As usual, you’ll find more pics in the bookrambler flickr photostream:

Sunday Morning

In the Bonham’s [free] ‘Ten at Ten’ tent, Tracey S. Rosenberg set the strident tone for the day with a reading from her debut novel, The Girl in the Bunker (Cargo Publishing). Introducing Tracey as a ‘product of the book festival’, Festival Director Nick Barley suggested that she exemplified something we all secretly desire— once upon a time Tracy worked FOR the book festival, now she’s reading from her first novel AT the book festival.

The imaginative thread of “mothers and mothering” didn’t quite come off in the second session—both books have mothers at their centre but that’s about all that connects Helen Walsh and her novel, Go To Sleep (Canongate) about the “dark heart” of mothering and Urs Widmer’s sensitive fictionalisation of a mother’s affair through the eyes of her son in My Mother’s Lover (Seagull Books) — despite that, the Spiegeltent session was an engaging introduction to both books. As it turns out, there is a connection between them but it’s not the one stated in the programme: both writers claimed they relied on life experience for the seeds of creation which sparked their respective books.

For some reason I thought that Go to Sleep was a memoir about Walsh’s own experiences as a new mother [even although the programme subtitle is ‘Fictional Accounts of Mothers Alive with Feeling’]. It’s not. It’s a novel. Walsh explained that, while she couldn’t have written the book before she had her own child, it isn’t about her: it’s a novel – complete fiction. She made “the relationship with mother and baby as intense as possible to plunge her into the heart of darkness,” to write “a real dark story of motherhood.’ Walsh said that she set out to deliberately polarise her readers by taking away their moral compass. Readers would easily sympathise with a single mother and this is why, she explained, she created Rachel as a white, middle class, financially sound character and youth worker. She expects motherhood to be a breeze, to be able to deal with it and is shocked when she can’t cope and is further frustrated by the knowledge that her “teenage truants” can handle motherhood better. When research revealed that mothers of mixed race babies had difficulty bonding, Walsh added another thread into the story. The father of Rachel’s baby and the baby are black which provokes complex self-questioning, compromise and exposes hypocrisy.

Urs Widmer said he always knew he’d write a book about his mother’s love affair but that he hadn’t felt able to do so creatively until after her death. “Life gave me a fiction. A real story you have to tell,” he said. “I knew that one day I’d write this book.” The action takes place in a century of European conflict which sweeps around the protagonists. Writing it, Widmer said, he realised he’d written it “out of view of his mother”. Chair, Diana Hope, described the tone of the book as “like a fairytale […] with vivid scenes of beauty and cruelty.” The mother seems to suffer from petit mal and suffers “treatments” which may go some way to explain her behaviour. But Widmer refuted this idea. Clara has been conditioned to accept very little, he explained. She’s not a medical case, she’s an innocent swept up in the events of Germany in 1937.

The discussion turned, briefly, to translation. While Helen Walsh’s books have been widely translated, My Mother’s Lover is the first of Urs Widmer’s books to be translated into English. Born in Basel but writing in German, Widmer is a prize-winning author. He holds the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize and [in 2002] was awarded with the Grand Literature Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, for a lifetime’s work. Donal McLaughlin provided the English language translation of Der Geliebte meiner Mutter and he joined in this part of the debate. Walsh said she’d never taken anything to do with translated versions of her books and Widmer said it would be impossible to translate his own book. Asked how he’d managed to replicate the tone and texture of Widmer’s bitter-sweet story, McLaughlin said it helped that he was also a writer, familiar with sentence construction. For him, the music of the sentence set the rhythm of the story and that then fed into the tone.

The problem and delight of the entire EIBF is best represented by these two books. Published just prior to the festival it’s unlikely that anyone in the audience, except perhaps a family member or reviewer or two, could have read either of them and this meant the conversation was limited. For all that, it was a wonderful introduction to both writers, a taster, a teasing glimpse of the creativity behind the writing.

Sunday afternoon

A. S. Byatt was erudite, intelligent and completely unstuffy as she pencilled in the background to her latest retelling of the Ragnarok myth [for the updated Canongate series]. What did I learn that I didn’t know before? Three things stood out:

  • Byatt loves reading Terry Pratchett.
  • Byatt thinks the Kindle will make reading more enjoyable and more attractive to teenagers and boys.
  • Byatt likes using her Kindle – it’s really useful when travelling.

Of course, she covered a lot more than these three topics – see Charlotte Higgins’s Guardian report <<

Sunday evening

I really wish I hadn’t gone to the New Scottish Writing, Open University Debate – a disappointing demonstration of the “kent yer faither” attitude to the Scottish literary scene. Except for Louise Welsh – who was really good: well-prepared and well-read on the contemporary literary scene. She tried to move the discussion beyond the parochial but fought a losing battle with both the floor and the chair.

The podcast below provides a more stimulating discussion – featuring the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins talking to writers Andrew O’Hagan, and John Niven, and Stuart Kelly, Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday.

>> PODCAST <<

So that was the 2011 EIBF festival – 17 days of stimulating conversation and more bookishness than you can shake a 500 page typescript at. What did I get out of it? I discovered debut authors and met authors I hadn’t heard of before and others I always wanted to meet; bought a pile of  new books to read and notes and back-lists to track down; been exposed to new ways of thinking about writing and the creative process; been inspired to plan new projects and, above all, re- invigorated in my own writing.

Bookrambler was at the EIBF on Sunday 28 August. She spotted, Robaroundbooks, Colin Galbraith, Helen Walsh, Urs Widmer, Donal McLaughlin, Diana Hope, Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, Will Self,  Rodge Glass, Pat Mills, A. S. Byatt, Alan Taylor, Sophie Cooke, and Colin Fraser [Anon Poetry].

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