One Sleep Till @Edbookfest


Before I head off to Edinburgh for the next three weeks, here’s a round-up of summer reading. Not beach reads; who can read in the sunshine?, but some of the new books that kept me entertained while you were all out playing football and running around Glasgow.

mrs.hemingwayBhallaStrandCallOfTheUndertowFalling_SkyHead for the edgeholdstillNina-Findlaygiven the choiceA-Girl-is-a-Half-Formed-ThingA god in every stonewe-are-called-to-riseUnder-the-wide-and-starry-sky


You’ll notice it’s books by women writers, but that’s a quirk of what came to hand or was sent to me, not a meaningful decision on my part to seek them out. The list is random:

  • **Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape): the hype around this book made me cynical, but it’s true; she really has taken on the male bastion of nature writing, and moulded it into the female psyche. A goshawk called Mabel; superior descriptive writing, highly imaginative, compelling, raw emotion, thought-provoking, sad, funny: BRILLIANT!
  • Laura McBride’s We are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster), stirring debut based on a real incident due to the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder, but fictionalised into an angry, uplifting look at American values, and how they relate to people who don’t quite fit in. Technically brilliant in handling the to-and fro between past and present and showing the impact of childhood on adulthood. I think it’s fair to say, this is the complete opposite of most American novels, and one I’d recommend if you’re into meaty, thought-provoking stories and strong female protagonists.
  • **Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow (Freight): atmospheric story about a cartographer’s move to the north of Scotland; the challenges she faces in a new environment is twisted in with the emotional baggage she packs with her, and the map work she’s undertaking as the story unfolds. The opening, with a mysterious snowman appearing in the garden, reminds of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child – and it is and isn’t about motherhood and childlessness – but it’s a different book and sensibility. The title gives away the story, a bit, and a map or two would lift it for me, but I read the Kindle version so maybe the paperback has insets I didn’t see. Anyway, a good, satisfying, two-hour read.
  • Sarah Maine’s debut, Bhalla Strand (Freight): another woman with emotional baggage moving north – this time it’s to take up her inheritance; a derelict house on an island, with secrets. I expected this book, from the woman with her back to us on the cover and the swirly title, to be a predictable romantic froth. It’s not! It’s technically assured, well written (apart from a couple of over-descriptive passages, which you forgive as it sweeps you along with the strong characterisation). The story moves smoothly between different time periods and different historical relationships, which kept it all moving forward, even when it was looking back. A really enjoyable story for a rainy afternoon.
  • **Kamila Shamsie’s, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury): merges a story about colonial engagement in the First World War with a story about a female amateur archaeologist; the kind of book normally described as ‘ambitious’; ‘sweeping’. Let down by a fatal flaw at two-thirds in, which made me throw it on the floor. Before then, it’s a good, strong story about an aspect of war that is rarely covered by Western historians, twisted in with a story about early feminism and colonialism. I’m still not over it – but might be worth a re-read in a year or so.
  • **Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): fierce writing that haunts you when you’re reading it, and even now, thinking about it, I can see the young girl whose sad life we follow. Hard to get into its stuttering rhythm and narrative flow, but form and story combine to make a powerful story, and it’s well worth sticking to it until you’re hooked.
  • Nancy Horan’s, Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Two Roads): I so wanted this book about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osborne to be good: who doesn’t want to know the real reason he tracked a divorcee and her children to San Francisco? Sadly, it hit the floor three times, and I had to give it away as I couldn’t bear it to be in the house. Good fictional biographies bring the real people alive, lets you see into the rationale for their actions, makes you want to re-read their books. Horan is so keen to build up Fanny Osborne that I wanted to call her up and ask why she’d portrayed Stevenson as a soppy wimp; apparently, according to this reading, it was Fanny who came up with the psychological underpinning of Jekyll and Hyde?!
  • Andrea Gillies’s, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (Short Books)woman with emotional baggage has an accident on holiday; bedridden, she recounts her past life and relationships to her doctor. Any other writer would make this into a beach read – after all it’s set in a holiday resort in Greece – but Gillies has a sharp ear for dialogue and an empathy for women and the decisions they have to make. Intelligent and astute writing.
  • **Kate Tough’s, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo): about real women with real problems and emotional issues that could be worthy and sentimental, but isn’t. It’s gutsy and laugh-out-loud funny in places, although, there’s a wee tip to sweetness in the middle: a Tunnock’s Tea Cake of a novel. Warm and angry at the same time; a strong debut novel.
  • Cherry Smyth’s Hold Still (Holland Park Press): fascinating biographical fiction. Set in London and Paris in the 1860s, it’s about Joanna Hifferman, amateur artist and muse/model to both Whistler and Courbier. What lifts the book from other fictional biographies is in the unusual decision to construct a thesis around Courbier’s painting: L’Origine du monde – depicting female genitalia – yes, weird, I know, how to sell this to your friends? Strong female protagonist and fine historical detailing; sometimes it seems too modern in its sensibility. Dreadful cover image, especially, as it’s a book about the world of painting.
  • Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky (Freight): coming of age debut; female protagonist with friendship, life, work issues; good at depicting the infighting and back-biting in academia, and how women need to conform to society’s image. Cleverly threads astronomy and time into the storyline. Maybe I learned something about space, but perhaps that was another me, another time.
  • Susan Sellers’ Given the Choice (Cillian Press): intelligent, thoughtful look at an unlikable character – an ambitious agent; a woman who doesn’t want children – and the consequences to her relationships and herself. Set in the self-deceptive world of London arts, the protagonist is the arch deceiver: she deceives herself and those she comes into contact with, while her husband, a gentle soul, deals with it in his own way. Highly post-modern in the multiple endings that leave it up to the reader to decide which ending she should have; throwing the creative construction of the self into the imagination.
  • **Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway (Picador) is astonishing; excellent – the very best kind of fictional biography. I reviewed it for Fiction Uncovered

** indicates writer is at EIBF this yearEIBF

Golden Nuggets – last words on writing, from EIBF 2013

Edna O’Brien [EO] and Margaret Atwood [MA] are so different in the books they write that it’s hard to convey how alike they are, in their professional approach to writing that is. Each spoke of the struggle to find the right form to tell their stories and each conveyed something of the magic of writing through the little golden nuggets they dropped into their talks. Both were gracious too about other writers and were generous in sharing a life-time experience of writing.


  • On writing memoir – it’s crucial that you place the memory in a place, its correct setting, you need to ‘ground it, give it physicality’ (Proustian qualities).
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013] - pb
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013] – pb
  • On setting the scene – don’t write a catalogue of description – ‘unless it has emotional relevance it’s no good’: writing is about detail
  • Ignore inane clichés like post modern etc. – don’t pigeonhole your book
  • On story: stories are essential to any book – hook the reader into what will happen next; stories are about how to live, how to be – about the characters’ inner lives
  • Baudelaire changed the way she writes
  • She is annoyed by the current vogue for limiting writing into genre and category.

The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013]
The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013]
An anecdote Edna O’Brien shared reveals the hunger that exists for writing and character, for setting and descriptive writing as well as the story. She told us how her village had few books, the Bible was most prominent. But someone had a copy of Rebecca and its pages were shared around from house to house and hand to hand, but out of sequence, out of order.

Edna O'Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
Edna O’Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
On Feminism

EO also spoke about feminism during the Q&A in response to a question about how she saw herself in the trajectory of modern feminism and whether she saw herself as a role model.

[in summary – not verbatim]

In some ways, every woman must thank the movement and recognise their work and question why it took so long. She was lucky enough to be living through the time when it emerged. She is grateful and proud. She’s wary of ‘isms’. ‘Most importantly, we must remember that the root and intent of feminism is about freedom of intellect, not about being superhuman or trivialising it’. She’s wary of those who reduce the seriousness of it – ‘it’s so important’ –‘ we mustn’t allow it to be reduced to being about being audacious but about being deep, which is much harder’. She’s drawn to women because of their psyche and the tragedy of women’s lives; pregnancy and marriage and losing the self; feminism is about being a person and deep rootedness. Above all, she doesn’t write under the banner of feminism but writes what most affects her about the condition of women.


[On writing The Blind Assassin]

  • The story preceded the form in which it unfolds.
  • MA had several false starts before she found the right form – starting with death of central character and a found cache of letters; started again with an elderly relative and two journalists; finally found the form to tell her story. The newspapers contradict the story; the story contradicts the story
  • a framing narrative structure is hard to sustain. MA wrote as far as she could in one section and then took up another section but she wrote in sequence
  • Research, research, research – go to the places in your book to add authenticity and realism
  • Part of the struggle to find the right form was resolved when she asked ‘who is Iris’s reader – who is reading the story?’
  • When asked during the Q&A about writing, she said: Plunge in, write what you need to write, then go back and fix it  – and
  • Write 200 words a day, whether good or bad, matters less than getting into the mindset of being a writer
  • Get ‘the look of an age’ from old newspapers and ads in old magazines, such as, Good Housekeeping
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)

MA commented on how to write, mostly, these were summarised from her excellent [and highly recommended] book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead. Here’s what she has to say on being a writer:

There’s one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts – its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression. As a recurring newspaper advertisement puts it, “Why Not Be A Writer?…No previous experience or special education required.” […]

To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to

train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness – when you hear remarks like “My four-year-old could do better,” you know that envy and contempt are setting in, of the kind that stem from the belief that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an artist apart.

As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as “being a writer.”

Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. – /

Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)
Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)


Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)
Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)

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.


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].

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>>>

Further Festival Jottings

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 >>




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?