Henley Literary Festival: Amanda Jennings, Lisa Owens, Cesca Major

henleylitfestivalHenley 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.

Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com
Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com

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 photo from Picador.
Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.

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, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.
Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.

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.

Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com
Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com

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!

 

Poetry Workshop: Ideas and Results

Aracelis Girmay

This past weekend I had the rare pleasure and luxury of thinking of nothing else but words, writing and poetry.  I attended a poetry workshop organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group and our guest instructor was the vibrant, beautiful poet Aracelis Girmay.  She invited us to play and experiment, to explore bewilderment and mysteries, to climb down the ladder of writing head-first.

It was the first full-length poetry workshop that I ever attended and, boy, did I need it!  Poetry is an old love that I have only recently come back to, after many years of neglect.  I am still struggling to shed the adolescent overcoat that lies over it (yes, it is that long ago since I wrote poetry).  I have been writing a lot of it this year, but is it all therapeutical outpourings of infuriating sentimentality? I needed to push myself. I needed to learn to play, watch words appear and disappear. So here is an interesting experiment we conducted.  Based on Bhanu Kapil‘s thought-provoking questions from her book ‘The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers’, we were asked to create our own questions about a subject that preoccupied us.  I picked ‘Identity and Belonging’, and here are my questions (it’s not really a poem, more like a prompt to spark thinking):

Where do you come from?

Who helped make you what you are?

If not here, where?

How will you know when you get there?

What are you trying to prove?

When will you know and tell?

If not now, when?

What else are you?

What has not been mentioned before?

Why do you need to make the fragments whole?

Who lingers when all is said and done?

But then – and this is where it gets interesting – we had to reshape our questions, leave gaps and rearrange syntax.  We were Isis finding all of the fragments of Osiris and trying to put them back together.  And I was startled to find a much more powerful way of thinking hiding under my initial, conventional questions.  Here is the outcome:

Where do you come from? Who helped make you?

What? You are? What else you are?

When you get there, will you know?

Will you know what you are trying?

When will you know and prove?

If not here, where from? If not now, how will you know?

Who lingers when all is said and done,

Who lingers when all done is said?

What do you think?  Which version do you prefer?  Is this an experiment that might be useful to your own writing?  Can we change our way of thinking by changing the structure of our sentences?  What does the lack of information, that frightening gap, tell us about ourselves?