When my credit card bill came in mid-October, I realised I might have exaggerated with my book purchases – but of course they managed to hide quite comfortably behind the major purchases such as the sofa and the mattress. Nevertheless, I have continued my merry bookish dissolute ways!
The #1976Club is to blame for the impulse buy of The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore – several of the participants read and reviewed this book about… well a woman’s mid-life crisis, I suppose. I initially looked for it at my local library and they didn’t have it, but they had another book with the same title by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published in 1864. This also talks about adultery, death and the ‘spectacle of female recrimination and suffering’, so I thought it might be interesting to compare the two. Another library reservation also showed up at last: Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes, a satire of the literary festival world. I can never resist a book gently mocking the writing and publishing world, so as soon as I heard what it was about, it went on my wishlist. I hope it won’t be as disappointing as that other reservation I had to wait for, Magpie.
I am a big fan of tiny but innovative Emma Press, especially of its poetry books (now that my children are too old to enjoy their children’s literature). They work with local illustrators as well, and send everything with much love and care. This small poetry pamphlet by Julia Bird has just come out and promises to be full of childish reminiscence about growing up in a small English seaside town – with a tinge of the surreal.
One single online event led to three book purchases, such is the strength of my willpower. The event was part of the Durham Book Festival and it featured two American authors: Willy Vlautin in conversation with Nickolas Butler. They were not only on the same wavelength with their own writing and world views, but they both expressed admiration for Sara Gran (whom I also admire), so I ended up buying Vlautin’s latest The Night Always Comes, Butler’s Godspeed (the author is new to me, but the theme of impossible deadlines in building works just intrigued me) and Come Closer, one of the non Clara DeWitt books by Sara Gran, which makes for perfect Halloween reading.
The next batch of three books were all recommended on Twitter and blogs: Janet Emson reviewed The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery, while Lisa of ANZ LitLovers waxed lyrical about Frank Moorhouse when we were still speculating about the Nobel Prize winners, so I ordered the first in his ‘Edith’ trilogy, Grand Days, because I cannot resist books about working for international organisations (as my own father did) and because I am woefully ignorant about Australian literature. I cannot remember who was the triggering person who made me order Men to Avoid in Art and Life, but I had enjoyed Nicole Tersigni’s satire on Twitter for quite a while. Here is an example of what she does below. Several of my friends have already asked to borrow it.
I hardly ever get review copies anymore, but Europa Editions is still good enough to have me on their list, and Shukri Mabkhout’s The Italian, transl. from the Arabic by Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza, sounds fascinating, about trying to love and live amid the dangers and political/social turmoil of late 1980s Tunisia. I also support Nordisk Books, so get sent every new book that they publish, and I love this bilingual edition of Danish poetry by Michael Strunge, Speed of Life.
I couldn’t go out on Independent Bookshop Day on the 9th of October, but I ordered a book from my nearest independent shop, the lovely, very well-stocked Marlow Bookshop, namely Simon Armitage’s collected public lectures from when he was Oxford University Professor of Poetry, A Vertical Art. Of course, immediately after they told me they had received the book, I entered a period of self-isolation, so I have only been able to pick it up a few days ago. Naturally, since I happened to be in a bookshop, I stumbled across The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, which I’ve heard so many good things about, so… another impulse buy, I’m afraid.
At times I feel that there is no more room for me at the table of literary translation from Romanian, because a) so little gets translated from that language anyway; b) there are much more qualified/highly regarded people doing it. Jozefina Komporaly falls into the second category: she lectures at the University of the Arts in London and is very well known in theatrical circles for her translations of plays from Romanian and Hungarian. I have only just started theatre translation, so when I heard Methuen Drama has just brought out this collection of contemporary Romanian plays, I had to get it, even though the prices are more ‘academic’ rather than ‘literary’.
Lovely though it is to join the translation community, one victim of this is my bank account. As I get to know and appreciate more translators, I am tempted to buy all of the books that they translate. I have some favourites I will follow pretty much anywhere, such as Alison Anderson and Tina Kover (from French), Katy Derbyshire, Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (from German), Polly Barton and Ginny Tapley Takemori (from Japanese). One such translator is Anton Hur from Korean and hits translation of Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City has just come out from Tilted Axis Press, so I preordered it a few weeks back, and it’s just arrived in time to take its place amongst my bumper crop of books.
Although I’ve written three posts about Bristol’s CrimeFest, I wrote a very long and detailed post about Newcastle Noir long before that, which I generously handed over to a different site. Since they still haven’t put it up yet (and may not do so anymore, since it’s out of date), I’ll put it up now. With apologies to the wonderful organisers and all the great people I met there for the delay. If it makes them feel better, I think I liked Newcastle the town (and the festival) even more than Bristol.
Newcastle Noir 2019
The 2019 event (3-5 May) was the sixth annual event, and this time it was housed in the City Library. While this did mean that the venue got very crowded at times (it remained a fully functional library and community centre and it was a busy Bank Holiday weekend), it also made it very easy for people to pop in for just one panel if they so wished. And why would they not wish to, since they were very reasonably priced (£4 – eat your heart out, Hay Festival!).
The timing of the panels was a huge bonus: they each lasted about 45 minutes, which gave attendees sufficient time to regroup, take a comfort break, get their books signed by the authors and then head back in for the next panel. And, while the event remains small enough to avoid parallel sessions, you didn’t face the pain of having to choose between two equally fascinating panels. There were a couple of fringe events (writing workshops or a guided tour of Newcastle’s fictional crime heritage) which coincided with a few panels, but these provided a change of pace and respite for those overdosing on author talks. A bookshop and a bar on site (as well as the library café) also offered small escape areas for when it all gets a bit too intense. However, if I had one small criticism of the event, it would be that there aren’t enough dedicated places to just sitting, resting or gloating over your newly-purchased books.
There were, however, more opportunities to mingle with the
authors informally in the evening. Or, as is typical in my case, fangirling
over my favourite authors and waylaying them with book signing requests.
Thursday night was a pre-festival Noir at the Bar Open Mic session of readings.
A great opportunity to hear not only from authors who were present at the
festival but also from emerging writers or others (such as Zoe Sharp) who had
to leave early. Friday night we all headed over to the Central Bar in Gateshead
for a cabaret evening. Crime writers proved themselves to possess enviable
talents as singers, songwriter and even stand-up comedians. Last but not least,
a silent disco on Saturday night gave everyone the chance to show their best
(Dad) dance moves or else catch up on the day’s events without having to shout.
But what about the panels themselves?
They were an intriguing combination of themes, yet managed
to avoid that forced feeling or random groupings which are sometimes the bane
of literary festivals.
I really liked the mix of the familiar faces and the fresh,
emerging talent. There were some obvious suspects there, such as showcases with
big hitters such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir, or Gunnar Staalesen and John Harvey,
or the finale with two of the most popular female crime writers working in
England today, Mari Hannah and Elly Griffiths. But there were plenty of chances
to find a new favourite regional author (Femmes Fatales from the NE including
Sheila Quigley, Danielle Ramsay and Eileen Wharton; Northern Noir with Mel
Sherratt, Caroline England and Robert Parker; Tyneside male authors such as
Howard Linskey and Mick Herron; Yorkshire Noir for example Nick Quantrill, June
Taylor and AA Dhand; and Welsh crime fiction with Phil Rowlands, John Nicholl and
GB Williams) or to discover debut authors such as Adam Peacock, Alison Belsham,
GD Abson and Noelle Holten. The international panels gave readers the
opportunity to travel further afield and discover new worlds. Alongside the big
international names, there were also writers from Romania, Australia and New
Zealand who are still relatively unknown (or who, like Helen Fitzgerald, are
not necessarily perceived as Australian), as well as fresh Icelandic writers
who have not yet been translated into English. Let’s not forget panels that are
loosely grouped around a theme but are likely to have a very wide appeal, such
as modern gothic and supernatural writing (SJI Holliday, Anna Mazzola and
William Ryan), LGBTQ authors (Paul Burston, Derek Farrell and Jonina Leosdottir),
historical crime fiction (Lesley Thomson, Oscar de Muriel, Nicola Ford and
Fiona Veitch Simon) or writers who have chosen woods as their settings for
murder (Antti Tuomainen, Matt Wesolowski, Will Dean and MJ Arlidge).
From BalkanNoir to
Bucharest Noir – here come the Romanians!
I was there to support my fellow countryman and women, the Bucharest Noir panel, represented by Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and their publisher and fellow crime author Bogdan Hrib.
Anamaria Ionescu was introducing her ‘hot off the press’ English translation of Zodiac, part of a trilogy featuring the nearest thing Romania has to James Bond. Sergiu Manta is a trained but reluctant assassin, who has to live apart from his beloved family in order to work for an organisation that is so secretive, it’s not even supposed to exist. The author acknowledged that a real-life person, a biker friend, was the inspiration for the Sergiu Manta character, and that she deliberately made him not quite as feminist as he thinks he is in a still rather traditional macho Romanian society.
Teodora Matei is well-known in her home country for her science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as crime and even (steampunk) romance. Her first novel to be translated into English Living Candles perfectly conveys the less glamorous aspects of urban life in present-day Bucharest. Her husband is NOT the source of inspiration for Toni Iordan, her main detective, although he had high hopes initially that he was. However, Toni does represent Mr. Average in every respect: a little overweight, a little fed up of his wife and kids, a little unfaithful but not quite as much as he dreams of being…
Bogdan Hrib is one of Romania’s most successful contemporary
crime writers (and publishers). He has had several novels translated into
English, although not necessarily in order of appearance. His series featuring
journalist Stelian Munteanu are fast-paced, moving from one European capital to
the next, with complex characters who vacillate between cold-bloodedness and sentimentality.
Quentin Bates, himself a respected crime writer and translator, helped edit the English language translations and moderated the panel in Newcastle. He asked the authors what they consider to be special and different about Romanian noir, and why it deserves to be translated into other languages. The answer showed, I believe, that noir is at the very heart of Romanian literature: ‘We have a different way of thinking and living. It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to move from Communism – actually, that wasn’t Communism, it was pure and simply a dictatorship – to Capitalism. We survived against all odds, we’re survivors and fighter, and sometimes we have to fight against ourselves first and foremost.’ However, there was also agreement that the books that do get translated (or even the books that get talked about in the Romanian press) tend to be literary fiction, often very experimental and impenetrable. There is a bit of snobbery about genre fiction in Romania as everywhere else.
Love and crime are
One of the liveliest panels despite the early morning start on Saturday was the panel What’s Love Got to Do with It? A feast of Orenda authors, moderated by Mamma Orenda herself, Karen Sullivan, talking about dysfunctional relationships and the crimes that people are ready to commit in the name of love. Lilja Sigurdardottir and Steph Broadribb’s kick-ass heroines both engage in dangerous (and sometimes criminal) pursuits to protect their children, so maternal love is strongly represented. In Doug Johnstone’s latest novel Breakers, it’s brotherly love that drives the narrative, although a Romeo and Juliet burgeoning of adolescent feelings gives some hope to the conflicted main protagonist.
Meanwhile, Will Carver’s insomniac Seth is desperate for
love and connection, feeling lonely and trapped in his marriage, so seeks to
talk to random people he selects from the phonebook. As the author says,
boredom should also be on the list of factors that motivate us to commit a
crime – the unbearable dreariness of routines often make us long to do stupid
Doug Johnstone agrees that he likes to focus on those
split-second stupid decisions that people make. Readers can relate to that:
they might think that they would act differently and wisely if they were in the
same position, but when we are under pressure, how many of us wouldn’t make a
Lilja Sigurdardottir admitted that one of the most embarrassing things she had done for love was to stalk her partner when she first met her (in pre-internet days), in order to convince her that they were right for each other. 24 years later, they are still together, so the panel agreed that what we might deduce from that is: ‘stalking works’.
One of the most surprising moments was when the authors talked about their own favourite reading matter, love related or not. Who would have thought that tough thriller writer Steph Broadribb likes to alternate crime with romance and chick lit type fiction? Doug Johnstone admits he is envious of Sara Gran’s writing, while Will Carver considers The Great Gatsby to be one of the most poignant love stories ever told. Lilja appears to be the most romantic (or possibly the most dysfunctional) of them all, citing Wuthering Heights as her favourite, as well as being a regular re-reader of Shakespeare.
Seen one festival,
seen them all?
Literature festivals are a bit like music festivals in the
UK at the moment – there seems to be one (or several) taking place every week
all across the country. Poetry, regional literature, special interest (children
and YA, romance, for aspiring writers etc.), big names and debut authors –
there seems to be something catering for every taste. Quite frankly, I don’t
know how any writing or reading gets done, as we could just spend three quarters
of the year touring from one event to the next.
Crime festivals seem to be particularly popular.
Unsurprising, since crime fiction is consistently one of the most bought and
widely-read genres. However, in this crowded landscape, how can you make your event
stand out? Well, if you are Dr Jacky Collins (aka Dr Noir) and her organising
committee, you pick your lively local town (Newcastle), put together an
eclectic but affordable programme of local, national and international writers,
with some quirky additional events (more about that later). Above all, don’t
forget to create a cosy sense of community around the event, while opening it
up to as wide an audience as possible. Newcastle Noir certainly succeeds in
having its very own distinct, informal feel.
The final day was supposedly a short one, since it finished at 1 o’clock, allowing us plenty of time to catch our trains or even have a nice lunch (yes, it’s all about the food with me!). However, it was packed full of goodies.
The first panel was on the Domestic Noir, and I am not the only reader who has grown somewhat weary of this label and also of the steady output of psychological thrillers conforming to this type, which can end up all sounding very samey. Luckily the authors on the panel not only didn’t conform to the stereotype, but they were also expertly moderated by the hilarious Michael J Malone, who knows how to ask those audacious questions to which you really want to hear the answer! Plus, no one can say ‘Murrderrr’ in a more Taggart like fashion.
Elizabeth Mundy’s amateur detective is a cleaner, because cleaners know so much about the most intimate household details. She is also Hungarian, because it allowed the author to use some of her grandmother’s stories, swear words and cooking recipes. Vanessa Savage’s latest book The Woman in the Dark nearly veers into horror territory as a couple move into a very creepy Victorian seaside home (the original title of the book was going to be The Murder House, but then James Patterson published a book with that title, how inconsiderate!). Will Carver mined his own experience of marriage breakdown to write his disturbing story of a dysfunctional couple and the consequences of their deadly boredom. Louise Beech also used her personal childhood experience of feeling abandoned by her mother to create the central character in Call Me Star Girl.
I liked the conclusion of the panel that if you are going to base any of your characters on real-life people, put in their very worst traits, because they will be reluctant to recognise themselves in that (or may not be self-aware enough to do so).
The second session I was unable to take notes, as I was torn between two panels and tried to attend each of them for 20 minutes or so. The first was entitled Down with Patriarchy and featured Anne Coates, Alison Joseph, Christi Daugherty and Jane Shemilt. The second was a bit more free-for-all, entitled Close to the Edge: How Far Would You Push Your Characters?. It featured the near-legend Gunnar Staalesen, Kate Rhodes (one of my personal favourites), Caroline England (whom I admit I’ve never read) and a newcomer to me, working police officer and writer Charlie Gallagher.
The last session of the day I did take notes: it was about crime science vs. crime fiction. It featured Vaseem Khan, who is untroubled by the veracity of the fact that his baby elephant never seems to cause trouble by pooing when his detective is conducting interviews (but is otherwise a bit of a forensic expert, as he works at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science); Dr Georgina Meakin, who is a colleague of Vaseem’s and researches the transfer of trace DNA; Abi Silver, a lawyer turned legal thriller writer; and Robert Thorogood, creator of the anything but realistic Death in Paradise TV series, moderated by Barry Forshaw, who does not shy away from difficult questions.
It was a bit of an eye-opening session, although the panelists started from a well established fact, that you don’t want to let too much accuracy get in the way of a good story. After all, a scientist setting up endless samples and having 6 month’s backlog of evidence to analyse, or a solicitor compiling reams of paperwork do not make for riveting reading (or viewing). At the same time, the scientists were slightly annoyed by the misunderstandings about their profession perpetuated by shows such as CSI. For example, juries nowadays place far too much importance on DNA evidence and expect it to prove things beyond any reasonable doubt, when the truth is far more messy and open to interpretation. I also found out that Death in Paradise was conceived as a deliberate antidote to the scientific sterility of CSI and that you shouldn’t expect to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth in court, because in fact you will only get the version of the truth presented by the storytelling lawyer. Robert Thorogood demonstrated just how hard it is to squeeze a whole story and investigation into just 54 minutes, which is why he moved all the science bits to be analysed off the island. Last but not least, the predicted boom of cyber-crime and the sophistication it has already reached was frightening to both Vaseem Khan and the audience.
How does it compare?
I haven’t been to a huge amount of crime or even more generic literary festivals, but I have been to a few in France and Switzerland, and I’ve been to Henley, Hay, Newcastle Noir and now CrimeFest here. So what are the similarities and differences between countries and types of festival?
Generic literary festivals of course appeal to a broader audience, but the crime fiction readers are a passionate and knowledgeable lot, always willing to recommend or try new authors and titles. So it feels much more like a tribe, particularly when it’s more concentrated on a particular type of crime fiction, such as Newcastle Noir. (But not too narrow, like Iceland Noir, which is mostly Scandi). Besides, crime writers are very funny and nice people – I think they let all of their darker side out in their writing, so they are really quite pleasant to be around.
Of course Quais du Polar has the beautiful backdrop of Lyon, but Bristol and Newcastle proved quite fun cities as well. However, the festival does not take over the city like it did in France, and there aren’t many additional activities beyond the confines of the venue (although Newcastle Noir did include a guided tour of the town, a bit like the mystery trail organised in Lyon). There aren’t any family-friendly activities either – probably because, unlike in France, the local council cannot afford to become involved. There were more opportunities here to mix informally with the authors beyond the signing tables, which was rather lovely. The panels in France (and Switzerland) tend to be much more serious, with quite a high-level (occasionally pretentious) discussion of themes, social influences, politics and so on. Here in the UK the aim of the panels is to entertain – if you are a natural performer, if you come across as charismatic, at the end of the panel the attendees will make a rush on your books. I felt that I was asked to confront my own prejudices or assumptions far more in Lyon – the writers made me think deeply (perhaps because the moderators were usually journalists and literary reviewers, who’d had time to prepare extensively).
However, I really enjoyed going to both UK crime festivals, probably more than the general literary festivals, and will write about Newcastle Noir soon. I’d sent a report about it to another website the very next day, but they still haven’t published it, so I may have to publish it myself on my blog. Depending on my finances (they are expensive to attend, plus I left Bristol with 11 books, and would probably have got more except that my luggage had severe limitations), maybe Harrogate or Bloody Scotland next year?
You are probably suffering from Hay Festival fatigue by now as you notice that just 2 1/2 days spent there produced a whole week’s worth of output. Anyway, after a short lull yesterday, here is the last of the posts on this topic.
I mentioned in my first post that Hay Festival does feel a bit like it should be part of the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races, Wimbledon summer circuit, although in a fairly muted way. But the festival organisers are trying hard to incorporate more diverse voices into the programme and some of these events have been attracting a considerable crowd. Nevertheless, it is amusing to play the game of ‘spot the false liberal’, who’ve come to the event to establish their ‘tolerance credentials’ and are slightly nonplussed or unmoved by what is being said. [I suppose this is where my status as an ‘outsider’, albeit a white one who speaks English with a flawless accent, comes in handy. I lull them with a false sense of security and the then – wham! – am hit with a vicious side-glance or nervous rictus.]
The Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi is perhaps the kind of black man that the Hay audiences are most comfortable: born in Zambia, he came to the UK as a child, is well-educated and widely read and speaks with the required accent (this is important when I compare him to the other two below), has published two poetry pamphlets before his debut volume Kumukanda, and has been winning accolades from the established literary community, including residencies, shortlistings, judging poetry competitions, being poetry associate at the ICA and so on. In other words, he has played by the rules and been successful, so we can think of him as a ‘good immigrant’. If he had arrived in a suit and tie, it would have been like Sydney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’.
I’m not saying this to make fun of the poet, who was indeed most impressive and felt no need to pander to the audience. Yet it has to be said: he was signalling all those things which the largely pale and posh audience could understand and accept. But I really enjoyed it when he started talking about growing up in a multilingual home, that Bemba was his first language but English is the only one he can express himself in poetically, and that he feels the loss of that native tongue. He talked about the different texture of languages when you grow up multilingual, how you search for the chewiness of a particular word which might be missing in the other language. He was very modest about his poetry, saying that the moments when he feels most like a poet are when a word or line or poem takes on a life of its own and he says to himself: ‘That’s not absolutely awful!’. But that feeling never lasts too long.
Kumukanda is a rite of passage in his ancestral tribe, one that he never undertook back home, so in his poetry he describes the rites of passage of an immigrant black child in Britain. He told us about being discriminated against, listening to pirate stations and rap and making mix tapes, his discomfort with his own admiration for Eminem, the ‘white man’ who made rap acceptable. Yet in his poetry he warns against those easy generalisations, against typecasting of black people. His poetry is witty and just the right amount of angry without sounding resigned or bitter. I wonder to what extent the poem below is autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter, because it will be familiar to many.
My agent says I have to use my street voice.
Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop
the necessary octaves, stifle a laugh
at the playwright’s misplaced get me blud and safe.
If I get it they’ll ask me how long it takes me
to grow cornrows without the small screen’s knowing
wink. Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick
of playing lean dark men who may have guns.
I have a book of poems in my rucksack,
blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones
that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul
So the content of his poetry is less comforting than his appearance might make you believe.
Akala is the less acceptable face of black youth: with dreads, hip-hop artist, poet, political activist, founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, brother of Ms Dynamite, he has produced a book called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He talked eloquently about growing up poor and mixed race in Camden, about suddenly realising that his mother was white and the conflict that led to during his teens, how he very nearly became a bad boy and certainly had plenty of friends who did, but how he was treated very differently in Jamaica because of his lighter skin and British accent. He considers himself lucky because although he was economically poor, he was culturally rich. He’s been called ‘unpatriotic’, Britain hater, but as he said: ‘If you’ve got a problem in the family, you don’t do anyone a favour by avoiding talking about it. So perhaps what people are trying to tell me when I dare to criticize anything about Britain, is that I am not really part of the family.’
He explained why he thought that a lot of the present-day discourse about black on black crime is not based on actual statistics, but about stoking the flames of fear, about pitting class against race and thus not having to deal with either. ‘We can’t afford racism and classism as a society, because it leads to so much wasted potential.’
Last but not least, it was fascinating to see Anthony Anaxagorou again, this time in action with a predominantly young British audience (you might remember I brought him over to Geneva Writers Group for a memorable workshop on performance poetry). He ruffled a few feathers back then but had a mostly rapturous reception, and it was the same now. The young people loved him, while their parents were somewhat less sure about his ‘working class London accent’. He talked very openly about growing up without many books and aspirations, but how he taught himself the craft of poetry while being stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. I can personally vouch that he has reached an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge of poetry and literature by now, and that he can speak to a wide range of audiences. He also spoke about how he very nearly got caught up in a life of petty crime, how he often gets asked ‘But where are you from?’ because Cypriots are racially somewhat ambiguous, too dark for some, too light for others. And he is very openly political, because, although he often talks about things he hasn’t experienced personally, he feels that as a poet he has to highlight the problems – although it’s policies, not poetry, that can offer solutions.
‘Poets are perceived as nouns but we’re actually verbs. Poeting is a way of engaging with the world. I can’t do anything else but try to organise the world’s turmoil through a sequence of words.’
I was very sad to miss his evening performance at the Hay Poetry Slam (together with Emmeline Armitage, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophie McKean, Zena Edwards, Rufus Mufasa and Akala), but I was facing a very long drive home and, after getting lost on my way there, I was afraid that I would do the same on the way back, but this time in the rain and dark. I’m sure they put on an amazing show, however.
Last but not least, if you want to see a literary festival that has diversity at its very core, and hopefully diverse members of the audience as well as participants, then you should check out the Bradford Literature Festival.
What could be more suitable for #TranslationThurs than a report on the panels on translated fiction which I attended at Hay Festival this past weekend? I had heard of the Bogota39 initiative and planned to attend one panel on it, but perhaps the Caetano Veloso CD I listened to on the way to the festival knew something that I didn’t, because I ended up attending three panels on Spanish-speaking literature, most of it Latin American (and yes, sadly, there were no Brazilians among them that I could practise my three phrases of Brazilian Portuguese on). As it happens, all the three panels I attended were moderated by Daniel Hahn, translator and cross-cultural promoter, whom I’d also met at the London Book Fair last year, and who must slowly be starting to wonder if I’m stalking him…
Bogota39 is a Hay Festival initiative to make the work of young writers from Latin America (under the age of 40) visible to the English-speaking world. The first edition back in 2005/6 was hugely successful, with many of the writers going on to become international stars. This current crop are just a small selection of the many, many talented and vibrant writers working in or stemming from Latin American countries today. There is a freedom to experiment with fiction that perhaps few writers elsewhere have – because the language feels younger and more adventurous than the more literary Spanish from Spain, but most of all because there are no Creative Writing courses that ‘teach’ people to write in a certain way, and there are no advances or royalties (not much money in publishing), so editors are not so focussed on commercial success and writers can write pretty much whatever they like.
The first panel included Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia, short stories), Felipe Restrepo Pombo (Mexico, non-fiction) and Carlos Fonseca (Costa Rica, novelist). The second featured Peruvian author Claudia Ulloa and two more Mexicans (yes, they do dominate a bit): Laia Jufresa and Emiliano Monge. Of these six, only three have been translated into English at present (just one book in most cases), so I hope events such as these will make publishers more keen to gamble on them. They certainly have the brains, wit and English to be very personable guests (which shouldn’t matter, but we all know it does).
The two panels had many common themes, so I’ll discuss them together. For instance, although the previous generation of writers might have felt that they were living in the shadow of the Boom generation of Latin American writers (Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa – the giants of the 1960s and 70s – which coincided with the rise of Latin jazz), this generation does not feel intimidated by them. Nor do they think that they have been influenced by them as much as by other writers, many of them from abroad. As Emiliano Monge put it: ‘We have the same territory and the same guns as the Boom writers, but we are hunting different animals.’
Although they recognise the limitations of the Bogota39 initiative (somewhat arbitrary and subjective inclusion of authors, only a small fragment included which barely gives a flavour), they are also aware that it provides a calling card for UK and US publishers and that it extends the concept of Latin American literature beyond the same obvious names. Hopefully, it also extends the idea of the topics that Latin American literature can cover, beyond the obvious violence, memory, heritage.
What surprised me most was the lack of a continent-wide distribution system despite most of the continent being monolingual. Each Latin American country has its own small publisher and they only bother to distribute to the other countries for the big successes. Sometimes Spain would step in as a mediator, but since the 2008 crash, Spanish publishers have been somewhat bankrupt. So this anthology also helps to introduce these writers to each other.
What, if anything, did this disparate band of brothers and sisters have in common, other than the fact that they didn’t consider themselves ‘Latin American’ until they went abroad and were put in that category? Well, they all love playing around with language, structure and stories; they have quite an ironic tone; most of them are no longer overtly political, but feel that choice of form is a political act in itself.
Another communality is that many of these writers are now living and working abroad. In most cases, it’s this actual physical distance from their home country which also gave them the necessary mental distance in order to be able to write about it. While Valeria Luiselli might be on the cusp of starting to write in English, all of the panellists felt that they wouldn’t write in anything else but Spanish. As Claudia Ulloa memorably put it: ‘I learnt to breathe in Spanish, and writing is like breathing, very physical.’
If you would like to explore any of these authors further, Laia Jufresa’s Umami, Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lagrimas and Liliana Colanzi’s short story collection Our Dead World have been translated (the latter two were published in the US only).
The third panel I attended consisted of two current giants of Spanish-language literature – Juan Gabriel Vasquez from Colombia and Javier Cercas from Spain. They’ve had more of their novels translated into English and were presenting their latest hardbacks, The Shape of the Ruins and The Impostor respectively. I haven’t read those yet (they both sound extremely interesting, but are slightly expensive, so I’m waiting for the paperback), but I have read earlier books by them and even included him in the Crime Fiction Lover article on Latin American crime novels. At first glance, they seemed to agree on many things, not least that Don Quixote contains within it all the possibilities of the novel and proves that you don’t have to follow the rules.
They talked about how their novels were based on certain true facts and their own personal reactions to those facts at the time. Cercas writes about the infamous case of a Spanish man who pretended to be a resistance fighter and Nazi camp survivor, while Vasquez met a doctor who had a vertebra and a piece of skull from the two most famous assassinations in Colombian history. Both of their novels feature a protagonist called the same name as the author, but which apparently is not the author. And both of them are sceptical about calling their novels ‘historical fiction’, because actually they are about how history impacts upon us in the present. Although the past seems remote and alien, it has repercussions and long echos in the present, for generations. What can we do with our bad inheritance (and this applies not just to Latin America or Spain, but to the British Empire and most other countries in fact)? Who gets to control the narrative of the past? And if it’s usually the victors, those in power, then the mission of the novel is to provide alternative possible versions of the story. The novel makes history more democratic, by giving voice to marginalised, forgotten people, by providing a side door to the edifice that is textbook history.
Perhaps the most uplifting moment came at the very end, when someone in the audience asked if the novel has a future. At which all three (including Daniel Hahn) pointed out that the very name ‘novel’ indicates that it is something constantly renewing itself, that it’s an omnivorous monster devouring other genres and influences, and that it constantly mutates and comes out on top.
Finally, a very personal observation: that although it is false to think of ‘Latin America’ as a monolith, I did instantly feel at home with the ‘thinking out loud’ both on the page and on the panels, the chatty replies, the warmth and humour, the serious yet also deeply ironic way of looking at things, which reminded me so much of my own culture. Another reminder that I need to read more of their literature.
Call it ostrich behaviour or making hay before the financial crisis beckons, but I bought quite a large number of books at the Hay Festival. This is what comes of not having any second-hand bookshops in our local area (most of the ones I bought were second-hand, a bargain at £3 apiece). Of course, that shimmering, glimmering possibility of getting books signed also influenced my new book purchases. And I would have bought more, if the authors would have been available in translation (maybe next year).
The Bogota 39 panels heavily influenced me and my buying, and opened me up completely to Spanish Language literature (of which I sadly know all too little): Carlos Fonseca, Liliana Colanzi, Laia Jufresa, Lina Meruane and Juan Gabriel Vasquez are all associated with Bogota 39 past or present, while Javier Cercas was already known to me via The Soldiers of Salamis. I was also very impressed with the very candid assessments of contemporary British society via memoir/essays and poetry of Akala and Kayo Chingonyi respectively. I also bought Joanna Walsh’s first novel, although she was not there (yet) to sign it.
The second-hand buys were more impulse buys of authors that I’d previously enjoyed or books that I wanted to try but didn’t feel I could afford the full price.
In the first category, we have:
Lauren Beukes: Zoo City – a delicious mash-up of genres, Lauren writes books that always leave me feeling breathless and exhilarated
W. G. Sebald: Austerlitz – although his The Emigrants is probably one of my favourite books, I haven’t actually read this one
Carol Shields: Mary Swann – I was familiar with her poetry and The Stone Diaries, but this obscure little book is one I’ve never heard of
Bohumil Hrabal: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still – less well known than his two short masterpieces Too Loud a Solitude and Closely Observed Trains, this portrayal of small-town Bohemia between the two world wars certainly promises to be witty, satirical and brilliantly observed by a writer who never bores me
Penelope Fitzgerald – a collection of three of her novels, two of my favourites plus one I haven’t read yet: The Bookshop, The Blue Flower and The Gate of Angels.
Laura Kasischke: Be Mine – I love Laura as a poet and thought her novel Mind of Winter was very unsettling and atmospheric
Mario Vargas Llosa: The Bad Girl – I’ve loved many of his works and disliked others, but I thought it would be fun to compare the older generation of Latin American writers with the younger generation
Stevie Smith: Over the Frontier – another novel by a poet (do I detect a theme her?). From the blurb, it sounds quite unlike her usual stuff.
For my children I bought The Three Musketeers (although I hope they will also read it in the original) and Holes by Louis Sachar – an old and a new classic.
As for books I thought I would give a whirl, given the cheap price:
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein 1818 text with critical notes. A must after attending the Living Frankenstein event last week.
Meg Wolitzer: The Interestings
Kent Haruf: Plainsong
Radclyffe Hall: The Unlit Lamp
Elizabeth von Arnim: Love – I’ve read of course her two best-known books, but this story of an older woman and a younger man has passed me by – plus it’s a Virago Green cover!
Alaa Al Aswany: The Yacoubian Building – always comes highly recommended when I ask about Egyptian literature
Carlos Ruis Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind – because it features a library, what more could you want?
Now the big question is: how to get these books off the floor and onto my already double-packed shelves?
However we might feel about the subjectivity and inclusiveness of literary prizes, they certainly help to raise the profile of authors and books that a more general audience might not come across otherwise. So I’m all for this ‘democratisation’ of literature. In the queue for Olga Tokarczuk (and her translator Jennifer Croft, who share the Man Booker International Prize for 2018), most of the people I spoke to admitted they had neither read Flights nor heard anything about the author, but were curious to find out more. And after the very charismatic duet that the two of them gave with moderator Gaby Wood, almost everyone in the audience was charmed and rushed off to buy the book and get it signed by her. Hurrah!
I’d just recently read her book and was smitten with it and with the possibilities it offered for fiction (review forthcoming). And I am also very proud to say that Asymptote Journal was the first to publish an excerpt from it back in 2016, so we have a good eye for quality! (Actually, of the 6 authors and 9 translators featured on the Man Booker International Shortlist, we could count 3 authors and 5 translators amongst our contributors). And there was some satisfaction in Tokarczuk attending the prize-giving ceremony wearing the earrings she had bought with her paltry salary when she was working as a chambermaid in London 15 years ago. I will write a separate post on Iconoclasts (writers who go against the grain, do not fit into the established literary norms), but it would be fair to say that Olga fits into this category as well.
First of all, her approach to the novel is completely unconventional. I kept thinking Flights was non-fiction, but the first person narrator is not Olga herself, although she shares certain characteristics. However, the narrator is the only solid base to cling to in this dazzling and dizzying array of stories, situations, reflections, sudden shifts of gear and locations. This is what the author herself calls a ‘constellation novel’: just like the human eye creates patterns in the night sky to orient themselves, this novel is full of disparate shapes and themes and stories, and each reader will create their own pattern, dependent on their past experience, mood, how they come to the reading of the book. She described how she assembled the book by printing it all out, putting the different sections on the floor and then rearranging visually from a high point within the room (very much how I approach a poetry collection), so that the tyranny of linearity of writing on a computer is destroyed. Why write like that? Because Olga believes that the traditional 19th century door-stopper novel no longer fits with the way we lead our lives now. Everything seems to be fragmentary perceptions, from many different sources (some often contradictory), with brief flashes of insight. Stories are a great way to perceive reality, but sometimes they are not quite enough, so it’s important to juxtapose them with facts, lecture-like discourse and other elements.
Meanwhile, it became clear just how crucial her translator Jennifer Croft was in bringing her work to the English-speaking audience. She encountered Tokarczuk’s work while on a study year in Poland and has been a champion for it ever since (approaching publishing houses on her behalf, running her English language Facebook page, touring with her etc.). Jennifer also pointed out that, although the novel is conceptually very ambitious and seems ‘difficult’, the language is very clear and accessible, making it a fun and easy read. I certainly look forward to reading more by Olga – and two of her books will be coming out later this year and in 2019 respectively. Meanwhile, back in Poland she is very well known, has published 10 novels, one of her books has been filmed by Agnieszka Holland and she has become political almost without intending to. She somewhat ruefully said that her generation thought that after the collapse of Communism politics was over in Poland and most of the writers switched to introverted style and inner-life topics. But now it appears that any personal opinions, such as feminism, animal rights, love of democracy, have become political in her home country.
The InternationalDylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi was the second event I attended and it is once again extremely gratifying to see the prize awarded to poetry at long last. Founded in 2006, this £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under. Furthermore, Kayo is of Nigerian descent, growing up in the UK, and English was not his first language, so I will present his talk in more detail in the post on Iconoclasts, but suffice it to say he blew me away with the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his sensitivity to nuances and the world around him. (Well, most poets are like that!) Plus, he likes Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and other such poets that I admire!
I wasn’t planning to attend the 10 a.m. panel on Sunday morning on the Golden Man Booker Prize, but I’m glad I changed my mind, because the three panellists were thoughtful and funny and brilliant, as you might expect with Elif Shafak (I adore that woman and that writer!), Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Philippe Sands. All of them brought a distinctly international flavour to this celebration of English-speaking literature (mostly the former Empire and more recently opened to the US – which was once former Empire as well, let’s not forget). To celebrate 50 years of the Man Booker, five judges were each assigned a ‘decade’ and asked to select one winner. The shortlist was announced at they Hay Festival on the 26th of May and readers can vote for their favourite online. The panellists talked about their favourites, their surprises and disappointments in re-reading or reading the shortlist, with Philippe Sand admitting he found he had to work too hard for something he did not enjoy with Lincoln in the Bardo, while Vasquez admitted what a huge influence Naipaul’s book had been on him as a writer. Overall, it appears that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, surprise winner over Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, were the favourites both with the panel and with the audience in the tent.
They pointed out of course just how different the novels are both thematically and stylistically. Yet in some way, they are all about ways of dealing with the past, how an individual gets swept up by the course of history, and they all demonstrate that there is no single truth but rather a multiplicity of versions of history. Perhaps because both Shafak and Vasquez come from very different storytelling traditions, they did not enjoy so much Hilary Mantel’s linearity, while Sands reminded the audience that Mantel criticised Ondaatje’s lack of linearity back in 1993.
‘The English language is very open and welcoming to new words in the vocabulary, unlike Turkish, but its literature is much more inflexible and not so open to new forms, to stories within stories, which are simply other traditional ways of telling stories that clash with linearity.’ (Shafak)
‘I’ve seen many a Spanish or French book destroyed in the British reviews because they contain multiple stories that have nothing to do with each other or contain digressions that shouldn’t really be there.’ (Vasquez)
Could it be that Tokarczuk’s win marks the start of a new era? That the inclusion of Lincoln in the Bardo on that list also means something? That English-language literature is opening itself up to less rigid consecutive structures and experimenting more with simultaneous stories with no unique interpretations or clear answers?
I did not have internet access at my B&B while I was in Hay, and the Wifi access on the Festival site was patchy at times, so I only tweeted occasionally but was unable to give a day by day account of the three days I spent at the Hay Festival. So I will have to write several posts to discuss the panels, discussions, personal thoughts and book buying binges that all took place during those amazingly rich days.
After an adventurous trip led by the GPS across cattle grids, narrow one-lane roads, Brecon nature reserve with sheep and horses following my car curiously and a pallour of fog hanging over me, I finally made it to my B&B just outside Hay on Wye. The weather was atrocious. There had been thunderstorms earlier in the day accompanied by power failures, but by the afternoon it was merely raining heavily, and it kept it up for most of the weekend. Luckily, the organisers are prepared for the Welsh climate and there are plenty of tent-like structures everywhere, plus covered walkways between them, so this is not Glastonbury levels of mud (although one year it was apparently more like Hay IN Wye). And of course, as soon as any ray of sun came out, everyone was milling about on the wet grass and deckchairs. You have to admire British resilience!
I was sensible on Friday afternoon and allowed myself plenty of time between the two events I attended. There is a downside to that, however: too much time to browse both in the Festival bookshop and the second-hand bookshop run by Oxfam. My total book tally by the end of the weekend was 27 (many second-hand, and all the new ones signed by the authors), although I feel very virtuous that two of those are for my boys. I suppose I’ll have to write a separate post about the book haul.
The first day was all about debate rather than literature. The first panel featured researchers from the University of Cambridge Helena Sanson (Italian studies), Prof Bill Byrne and Marcus Tomalin talking about machine translation. I was amused to hear how algorithms transform words into numbers (with all the lack of subtlety one might expect), and that the BLEU score for establishing the accuracy of a translated text can lead to garbage results. It felt a little bit like the conversations between me and WB – with me as the human translator and him as the machine translation. The key message was that machine translation can increase a professional translator’s productivity or help in the case of basic, technical and repetitive texts, but human translators are unlikely to be supplanted by it anytime soon. What unnerved me slightly was the more sinister message about the fate of the so-called minority languages, the ones spoken by few people. Of the approximately 6000 languages in the world, Google Translate covers only 130, so less than 2%. This is unlikely to change, as it’s costly to train machines to learn the equivalences between languages, so the money for research will flow into the languages where there is a lot of potential for application (and where there are already lots of examples in place). The preservation of smaller languages will have to rely on charities, research councils, public initiatives… so many will die. Plus, does this artificial preservation of a dead language in a showcase really help? As an anthropologist who has listened to recordings of natives speaking now defunct languages, I can confidently say that these are meaningless without knowledge of the cultural context surrounding it.
The second panel (attended by fewer people and most of them women) was organised by the University of Worcester, and included academics Maggie Andrews (consultant on the BBC programme Home Front), Sarah Greer, Krista Cowman (consultant on the Sufragettes film), Anna Muggeridge (Ph.D. student researching women’s work in the Black Country) and Dana Denis-Smith (founder of Obelisk Support for women lawyers, who started an initiative about telling stories from the first 100 years since women entered the professions in 1919). The title of the session was: Is 2018 going to go down in history as the year of lasting change in women’s rights?
And the answers of the panel matched my own not very optimistic one (although I’d be happily proved wrong). Although it has become much more acceptable to define yourself as a feminist than it was 5-10 years ago, the panel felt that it was almost like clicking Like on a Facebook page, that #MeToo is still very much a privileged white middle-class movement and that 2018 happened to coincide with a lot of anniversaries but by 2019 it might feel already like ‘it’s been done, it’s over now and we can move back to life as usual’.
There was also a warning that progress for women’s rights always seem to take a step backwards when bigger events overshadow them (world wars, Vietnam war and oil crisis, austerity government and economic crash and Brexit), yet women are the ones that get disproportionately hit by these.
One important point that the panel made was that a lesson contemporary feminists might learn from suffragettes is that we should focus on a single issue and really fight hard for that. However, it all unravelled a little when it came to defining what that single issue might be even amongst the panel (let alone across the world). Opinions were split between equal pay, social care and precarious work, extending Me Too to all women everywhere, valuing women’s work more. I really liked Dana Denis-Smith’s comment that we devalue women’s work so much that as soon as women enter a particular bastion of men’s work, that also becomes devalued and starts paying less (women in accountancy or solicitors for example).
One final thought on today’s post about Hay, before we move on to literature, was that although some care was taken in programming a diversity of writers, the audience was still predominantly white middle-class (with a tendency to upper). This is perhaps not surprising considering how expensive it is to attend. I don’t even want to calculate the total amount spent, for fear it will give me a panic attack, but add up: petrol costs, B&B, overpriced food at the festival (£9 for a burger – without any extras, £3.50 for a coffee), parking, £7 entrance fee on average for every panel…
So I was not surprised to find lots of yummy mummies sipping Prosecco and gentlemen with straw hats, pink trousers and kerchiefs, children dressed in muddy designer clothes and wellies called Freya, Sebastian, Benedict and Isla. However, I also started chatting to lots of wonderful people in the queues: sheep farmers from the local area, translators, Americans, Irish, Sri Lankans. And of course I do wonder how much of the earnings of the festival gets ploughed back into the local community – or do the organisers just pack up their tents at the end of it all and take all the money and leave? As my B&B host said: ‘At least for 10 days a year most people in Hay can make a little money from renting out their rooms or fields.’
I saw this book tag on Eleanor Franzen’s blog and thought it sounded fun. I have no intention whatsoever of forcing you to watch me vlogging about it, but there are some great Booktube videos out there, such as Victoria’s from Eve’s Alexandria. We all need some spring-like sunshine and plenty of books to take our mind off things, don’t we?
What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?
I want to be more systematic about reading books for my #EU27Project. I really enjoy them when I get around to them, but urgent book reviews or other priorities keep getting in the way. Three books I am particularly looking forward to are:
Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand (for Germany) – a thriller set in North Africa, with an international cast, written by a German writer who died far too young
Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag (for Poland) – a road trip through Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova and the Ukraine after the fall of Communism
Miklós Bánffy: They Were Counted (for Hungary) – pre-1914 Transylvanian counts in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire
What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?
It must be The Secret Garden by F. H. Burnett. Anyone who knows me will tell you what a hopeless and lazy gardener I am, but I do love flowers, particularly in spring, and the abstract idea of gardening (I even have books with pictures about the perfect English country garden). When I read that book as a child, I was sure that at some point, if I ever were to live in England, I would have that marvellous garden with minimal effort on my part.
The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?
One volume Quarto Gallimard edition of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in French – 2401 pages before it says FIN. Well, to be honest, I read it in separate volumes a long time ago, but I couldn’t resist buying it so I have it all in one place to reread. At some point. When I have time. Hah!
What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?
My gallows humour would probably not appeal to most people, but I do have some favourite books which are funny and sunny. I really enjoyed The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. The thought of the Queen discussing Jean Genet with the French President just cracks me up every single time. I also admire Oscar Wilde’s plays: every line is a gem.
Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)
I wish there could have been more books written by Jane Austen or a novel by Dorothy Parker. As for a theme, I wouldn’t mind seeing a novel about a menopausal woman having inappropriate thoughts about younger man all day long and grappling with her fading writing muse – as a counterpoint to all those middle-aged male protagonists out there facing their midlife crisis. Now that I think about it, Dorothy Parker could have written the perfect novel on this theme.
Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?
I was such a good reader during my teens: constantly trying out new genres, obscure authors, quite challenging books of science and philosophy and history, which I hardly ever attempt now.
According to my diary at the time, just before my 16th birthday I was reading and pondering about Spinoza, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rimbaud, The Cherry Orchard, Mademoiselle Julie, Meredith’s The Egoist and K. A. Porter’s Flowering Judas.
Yes, I was a bit pretentious and know-it-all, but also voracious and not as set in my ways as I am now. I am much more of a moody reader now, have to find the book to suit me at any given point in time. However, for the past 4-5 years I’ve kept better track of my reading, with Goodreads lists and with reviews.
We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?
I had a rather slow start to the reading year in the first two months, but things improved in March and April. I am now at 47 books read mark, 12 ahead of my schedule (target is 120 books for the year and I was somewhat behind the target in February). There’s been the usual mix of good, mediocre and memorable books, but no truly horrendous books yet. Or perhaps I’ve just got better at avoiding them.
Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?
Sadly, I won’t be going to Crimefest or Harrogate or Hay-on-Wye or Bloody Scotland this year, as my personal circumstances are still quite muddy. I do love literary festivals though, find them inspirational and motivational, so I might try to attend more local ones, such as Henley or Noirwich in Norwich, where I can go there and back in a day.
The other ‘top-secret’ plan is to get more involved in bringing East European crime fiction to the attention of English-speaking audiences. I’ll be writing a feature on this topic for Crime Fiction Lover, and hope to translate Romanian crime fiction for a collaborative project very soon. Watch this space!
Henley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.
It has grown considerably since, in ways which are not always to my liking, although I do understand the motivation behind it. For instance, it relies heavily on sponsors, who are advertised EVERYWHERE. The eclectic mix of writers and TV celebrities has shifted perhaps a bit too much in favour of the latter. The timing of events has become a bit stricter, so there is less opportunity to chat with your favourite writers. But it is still an informal, friendly affair, with good ticket availability, and with many interesting panels introducing debut authors or authors I’ve not heard of previously.
So I missed it during the past 5 years that I was abroad and was keen to reconnect this year! I would normally choose to spend a whole day in the coquettish riverside town of Henley and attend a number of events, but I had work commitments and came down with flu this week. So the only event I did manage to attend was Book Club Friday at the Town Hall, where Cesca Major interviewed two writers I knew: Amanda Jennings and Lisa Owen. The three women were witty, charming, intelligent and very candid about their writing quirks and paths to publication.
[Sadly, I forgot my mobile phone and camera at home, so was unable to take any pictures, so I am relying on official author photos.]
Lisa Owens, author of the millenials’ manual for procrastination and disorientation called Not Working , did not expect to write the novel she did. She had left her job in publishing to do a Creative Writing MA and used odd fragments which she had scribbled down as the basis of her dissertation. She realised that there was a clear voice emerging from these fragments and was planning to turn it into a more conventional type of narrative, but, luckily for us, it’s those pithy observations and vulnerability mixed with cynicism which raise this book above any Bridget Jones comparison.
Amanda Jennings, meanwhile, admitted that In Her Wake, which is her most successful novel to date, was the one which initially caused her the most heartbreak. It was the second novel that she wrote and she dedicated so much time and effort to it, felt that she had neglected her family to give it her all, that she was devastated when it just didn’t sell. Her agent advised her to embark upon another novel (which did sell, The Judas Scar), and it was only a few years later (after 11-12 rewrites) that she finally found a home for it with Orenda Books.
Meanwhile, Cesca Major enjoyed writing romcoms but decided to put her knowledge of history and love of research to use to write a more serious and dramatic story set in war-time France The Silent Hours. Now she alternates between the two, as it provides her with much-needed light relief.
Other topics these authors addressed (often to much laughter from the audience) were: reactions to bad reviews, treating writing as a 9-5 job, leaving notes to self in CAPITAL LETTERS in the first draft and how you think you will write one type of book (Irish rural drama in Lisa Owen’s case, romance or bonkbusters in Amanda Jenning’s case) but you end up writing something very different, more in keeping with your voice. They also revealed what they read during the writing process. Lisa is the only one who doesn’t mind reading writers achieving the effects she is after, and reads a few pages of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis for inspiration. Cesca and Amanda understandably say they try to avoid those writing works that are too similar to their own, as it can discourage you as a writer (‘They’ve already said it so much better than me’). So they comfort read: recipes books for Amanda, Enid Blyton and Jilly Cooper for Cesca.
The Friday Book Club format works very well: it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on a conversation amongst writerly friends. And it certainly made me eager to read Cesca’s works now as well. Wishing all three writers every success in the future and many more such events!