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).

Q & A with author/agent, David Miller

Q & A with David Miller, debut author of Today (Atlantic Books) and literary agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White


Before his event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I caught up with David Miller, who kindly agreed to give a more personal insight into his writing. As a reader, researcher and writer I was keen to learn his views on historical fiction and I was also curious about his dual role as agent and author – David represents literary lights such as John Burnside and Louise Welsh. I’m grateful to his insightful and very frank responses.


Q1:- Janette       Your debut novel, Today, is based on real people – Joseph Conrad and his family and friends, and events surrounding his death. Although you drew on original documents and personal papers and history books – there’s a lot we can never find out because we weren’t there. Can you tell us something about how you came to write about this moment in time?

Q1:- DM            It’s the question, isn’t it?   Where did this book come from?   There is a haze of answers I could give you, but really, if I can, I’d winnow it down to two things.

The first is, as you might expect, desperately autobiographical: the book came from the sudden death of my own father inEdinburghthree and a half years ago.   I was on the journey up when he died, so arrived in the city early one misty morning and discovered I had to go and see a corpse in a hospital morgue for the first time in my life.  And then I found myself placed in a world of policemen knocking on the door and people talking about the post mortem and having to deal with the calls, and watching my mother organize a funeral, talking to people about what had happened – and then doing mundane things like throwing out clothes and shoes, or cancelling magazine subscriptions.

So, in the book, I wanted to explore those moments, when someone dies and when everything alters and nothing changes.  And to examine the moments of weird hilarity there are – moments of humour and amusement.  I wanted to explore real grief in imaginary people, save – in the book – my imaginary people once lived.

The second is more academic.   Nearly ten years ago, I became fascinated by Lilian Hallowes who worked as Conrad’s secretary from 1904 until 1924, off and on, and I gave a paper about her at a conference inAmsterdamin 2005.   She continued to haunt me.   One of Conrad’s last letters mentions she’d be there for the weekend I describe in the novel.   But nobody mentioned her being there when Conrad died – she next appears, with a wreath, at his funeral.   So the book was also my way of answering my own puzzle: what happened to Miss Hallowes when Conrad died?

You fuse the two; you have the beginnings of the book.

Q2: – Janette       I thought that using Conrad’s “typewriter”, Lilian Hallowes, was a really effective strategy for leading us into the story. I like how you lend sympathy to all the female characters and bring them and their perspective to the fore rather than keeping them in the shadows. It’s a very Conradian strategy. I wonder, though, why you chose Lilian as the conduit into the story and not, say, one of Conrad’s sons?


Q2: – DM            I’ve sort of answered that above – but also, I think I do use John, as well as Conrad’s friend Richard Curle as the eyes through which you see the story.   I wanted the book to be a sort of chamber-piece, with no hero, no heroine, just a dead man at its centre, like watching the centre of a rippling puddle.   Perhaps a little like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.   I wanted to write something that was realistic, which is why there are so many people in such a short book – everything that happens could have happened, and the people who are in a room at a certain point could have been there in historical reality, even if they’re only there delivering a tea-tray, or waiting to be paid.   Which is why Miss Hallowes is at Conrad’s house, Oswald’s, for about an hour before being taken off back toCanterbury (working out the timing of things like this was a nightmare!).

But to your other point,  I – bluntly – find women more interesting than men, and if I was aspiring with this book to do anything, it was to do what someone like Colm Toibin does in The South, or Brooklyn (as well as The Master), and using Miss Hallowes also gave me an inside-outsider, someone who was seen as family – she went on two holidays with the Conrad’s and was a sort of nanny to the young John – but not actually “family.”


Q3: – Janette       Unlike Sarah Waters and Matthew Pearl and other historical novelists you don’t include a note about the historical facts that the story is built around. Unless the reader is familiar with Conrad they could easily miss many of the historical resonances and subtleties which texture the book. What’s the reasoning behind the absent historical note?


Q3: – DM             I don’t like historical notes.  This is a novel, and I made most of it up.  I think putting in a bibliography and thanking loads of scholars would detract from the reader’s experience.  So, although the book is based on facts, the facts become nothing when they meet anyone’s imagination.    If I were a professional author, I might put some notes up on a website, for the curious.   Also, if a reader misses anything, I don’t want to make them feel dim or thick by making them think they’ve got to go and read letters, diaries, biographies, and all that.   It’s a novel that’s meant to entertain and perhaps enlighten and – with any luck – move the reader.   If anyone goes off to read anything by Conrad or the period after reading the book, I’d be chuffed beyond belief.   If anyone laughs, or blubs up just a bit, then I’ve done something better than I’d hoped to do when I started.   A historical note won’t help do that.

Q4: – Janette       Writers enjoy a love/hate relationship with book critics. As a debut writer you must be pleased by the favourable reviews Today has garnered. I wonder though, whether you think reviews will change the way you write?


Q4: – DM             Two answers to that one, again.  I am thrilled by the fact people liked the book and said so in print, but I also found the reviews and reading them strange, as if they were happening to someone else.  I also found some of them funny – the TLS picked me up for imprecision whilst misspelling Lilian’s name throughout and the Independent’s critic had Miss Hallowes pick up Howard’s End, when it is in fact A Passage to India.

The second: will I ever write again?   Who knows?  The reviewers won’t have affected anything that comes again, because if anything does get written it’ll be in years to come and be very different from Today, I guess.

Q5:- Janette       There’s a moment in Today when you focus on Conrad’s writing desk and his favourite fountain pen. I have to ask – can you tell us something about your writing life and how it differs from your life as an agent? And, is it pen and paper or computer?

Q5: – DM             Ah, the fountain pen.   I wanted John to give Lilian something, as the family refused even to lend her Conrad’s typewriter (you can see it in theCanterburyHeritageMuseum) so it had to be that.  And also so Conrad’s oldest son Borys could practise his father’s signature (Borys later spent some time in prison for forging one of his father’s typescripts). My mother mirrored that in life this year as, for my birthday, she gave me a fountain pen which my father had and which I use now and treasure: that was very moving – a small moment of a book influencing life – and it proved she’d read the novel!

I wrote Today in the middle of the night, from 11pm till 2am, on a computer.   I wrote the thing in scenes, over about four months so the funeral was written before the death scene, the scene with Lilian and Borys inCanterbury was the last thing written even though it appears in the middle of the book.  The process was a little bit like how I imagine sewing a patchwork quilt might be and then, to mix the metaphor, when I had a complete sheet, it was washed and dried and ironed and starched.    Every now and again I might think of something – the bit about the wound on Jessie’s knee came to me on a flight in the USA, waiting to take off from La Guardia and I remember quickly scribbling down the image I had on the back of a boarding pass – or a phrase would come as I sat listening to leaves in the trees in my in-laws’ garden.

When I had what looked a little like a book, I sat on it for about a year and looked at it again and then printed it out, corrected that draft with a pencil, and then, the second printed draft was printed out using a new, larger font so it looked new and I had to read it differently.

I kept the writing of the book very secret while I was doing it – only my wife knew, and then a few friends.    I see myself as an agent who has written a book, not an author with a job.  Many of the authors I represent are up at the Book Festival – Louise Welsh, John Burnside, Magnus Mills, Sam Leith, Siddhartha Deb, Will Eaves, Zoe Strachan, Gwyneth Lewis, Robert Bickers to name-check a few.   I am there to represent them, and so try to ensure this book hasn’t encroached on anything any of them might have achieved this year. After that, I’m in the hands of shops, and the public and readers.   But I’ve certainly learned a huge amount, seen a great deal I didn’t know about and hope my experiences of being an author for a year will help me in my future years as an agent.

BookRambler at the EIBF

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 >>>>

Book Festival Blogging- #EIBF

Charlotte Square - the Press Office

The Edinburgh International Book Festival starts this Saturday and I’m thrilled to have tickets to hear some great writers talk about their books and about writing. Here’s a note of the events I’ll be going to – a good mix, I think, of mature authors, debut authors, fiction and non-fiction. And two poets.

  • Jennifer Egan & Karen Russell
  • John Burnside
  • The Rise of E-Books -: Society of Authors
  • David Miller & Dan Vyleta
  • Unbound, Paris Review evening with Lorin Stein
  • Sam Meekings & Sara Sheridan
  • Alexandra Harris & Kathleen Jones
  • Edward St Aubyn
  • Neil Gaiman –: Guardian Book Club
  • A.L. Kennedy
  • Judith Hermann & Per Petterson
  • Carol Ann Duffy
  • Michel Faber
  • AS Byatt
  • Peter Ackroyd

EIBF runs from 13-29 August: 17 days, 797 authors, 757 events. Sadly, the tents in Charlotte Square are only for events – not sleep-overs, otherwise, I’d be there every day.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be blogging and tweeting @BookRambler about book-events and author-sightings and trying not to babble incoherently to writers … at any rate, saying something other than  ‘I love your book ‘ …

Check the EIBF website for dates, times, and tickets.

Are you going … what events are you looking forward to?

Why we need to save libraries

OED: Library – ‘Collection of books or place in which it is kept; reading or writing room in a house’

In September, Jackie at Farmlane Books Blog hosted a very fine discussion on the present state of libraries in England and the US with her post ‘How Can We Save UK Libraries‘ ?

Since autumn last year local campaigns to save public libraries from closure have grown in number and have become more vocal.  This week, the Guardian reported how my twitter friend, @mardixon‘s question ‘went viral’, attracting ‘more than 5,000 responses worldwide’.

Libraries are important because … [fill in your answer & RT] #savelibraries

Oddly, the article focused on the speed of the retweeting and the celebrity interest in the hashtag rather than use Mar’s tweet as a springboard to open discussion on the campaigns behind it. The Guardian reports that most of the retweeted responses were memories of childhood book-borrrowing: “Libraries are important because, as a child, some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book”.

However emotionally attached we are to the idea of ‘the library’, we have to admit that they are not what they once were. Libraries have evolved into community hubs providing computer access and meeting spaces. Their holdings include audio books, DVDs and CDS alongside books.

PLR data records the borrowing habits of cardholders in the UK and it throws up some interesting facts. The most borrowed library books [2008/09] were popular fiction titles, ‘thrillers, romance and crime’. Children’s fiction featured heavily.  Literary fiction was ‘striking by its absence’  – non-fiction was ‘barely represented’ and, once parental influence diminishes, so, it appears from the data, does late teen book-borrowing. 

It’s wonderful to read and to be entertained. Escapist fiction has its place, of course it does. But what will happen when councils make those hard decisions about what to keep and what to sell?

What will happen to any rare books, manuscripts or archives on which the current libraries are built?

In making the case that a library must be all things to all people there is a very real danger that these holdings will be sold off to preserve books which are borrowed most often. Does it really come down to, say, a choice of the full serialisation of Bleak House in their original blue covers or buying the current title by Nora Roberts?

In his recent paper entitled ‘Libraries at Risk’, presented during the Seminar on the History of Libraries, Professor David McKitterick (Trinity College, Cambridge) made a compelling argument for remaining vigilant about our printed heritage.

>>>>>click to hear the >>PODCAST

It’s sobering to think about what is lost.

But it’s not too late. The first step is to take this opportunity to begin an open debate about our public libraries and to include within those discussions an examination of the current holdings.

[The paper was presented at the Institute of English Studies, University of London on 30 November 2010] — The podcast is shared [with kind permission] from the website of the Institute of the History of Ideas website under ‘History of Libraries’