Gig Review: Gwendoline Riley at the Marlborough Literature Festival

For reasons, now sorted, I was unable to attend events over the summer. Last weekend I put this behind me and discovered the delights of the Marlborough Literature Festival. Their programme was impressive making it difficult to choose the talks I would attend. At £10 each my ticket purchase was necessarily limited.

The festival runs over four days from various venues central to the pretty, if busy, town. Arriving on market day Saturday, having struggled to find an available space to leave my car, I visited the Town Hall to collect my tickets and enjoy a rejuvenating cup of tea at the Festival Cafe. This was a delight. Run by friendly volunteers and stocked with delicious looking cakes I happily handed over my £1 for a cuppa served in a book themed mug taken at tables abutting a tempting pop-up bookshop.

 

Suitably refreshed and with my tickets in hand I crossed the road to the White Horse Bookshop, a lovely independent with art displays on the walls of their events room. I was here to listen to Gwendoline Riley, author of First Love – click on that title to read my review of the book. The discussion was chaired by Caroline Sanderson, an editor at The Bookseller magazine.

   

Following introductions, Gwendoline read a passage from First Love, her fifth novel, shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Gordon Burn Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize. It is always interesting listening to an author give voice to their creations.

Gwendoline explained that the whole book is her protagonist, Neve, asking herself ‘how did I get here?’ Neve is in a challenging marriage yet is unwilling to let go. Gwendoline told us that their relationship developed as it was written – sometimes gentle then aggressive with unexpected changes of mood. The story is about the difficulties of living with another person.

A range of relationships are explored including with parents and a former boyfriend as well as Edwin, Neve’s husband. Gwendoline wanted these to be vivid and acccurate, not necessarily real. She asked what realism is anyway?

There are flashpoints and heightened scenes within the story. Her plot is the emotional development of the characters, portrayed in rich language within an episodic structure. She pointed out that similar events can have alternate impacts at different times in a life.

Gwendoline writes a great many words to get her story down then pares it back to what are short novels by contemporary standards. The first few pages take the longest to perfect, often years – she will not be rushed. The novels are her voice and she writes to her own agenda. When it is suggested she could change direction she points out that others are not doing what she does so why not do it herself?

Although using the carcass of her life the stories are not autobiographical – she feels uncomfortable when reviewers assume this. She writes from what she sees and hears but there is no tethering of people in life to her books. She writes with an almost painful honesty, not thinking about how readers will react to her words.

Gwendoline enjoys writing dialogue and is constantly eavesdropping. The audience agreed that interactions with Neve’s mother are funny and relatable. We enjoyed listening to a reading of one such mother/ daughter meeting from the book.

Asked about Neve’s dad, Gwendoline described him as nasty. He finds women gross and unclean, assuming a lazy authority in his pronouncements. He has a ‘take’ attitude to life, going out of his way to belittle others. Growing up with this will have affected Neve. Parents are a warning to a child of what it is possible to become. Edwin is different in being clever and articulate, yet he also belittles Neve.

Gwendoline was asked if place is important in her writing. She agreed it is but not the detail, more the sense of where the story is set. Continuity matters, that what happened three months ago fits whenever mentioned.

Asked about influences Gwendoline named Philip Roth, Elizabeth Harrower, Richard Yates. She talked of tense dialogue, the steamrollering of one charcter by another. She tries to write her dialogue with the assumption that no one will hear a word of what the other is saying. This contempt is obvious in Edwin when he explains to Neve how she is feeling, uninterested when she tries to tell him he is wrong.

Asked about learning creative writing Gwendoline believes much of the craft is instinct. Certain skills can be taught but the heart of what is needed cannot – this is difficult to encapsulate and articulate.

To conclude the discussion Gwendoline was asked what comes next. She has signed a two book deal but does not expect to meet the deadline her publisher has given. Her next book centres around a group of friends in London who have set up a women’s press. She is currently trapped within those difficult first few pages.

I found this talk worthwhile and interesting. Gwendoline came across as authentic, true to herself, unadulterated by the demands of performance – much like her excellent prose. If you haven’t read First Love, I recommend it.

  

First Love is published by Granta Books.

I will be writing about the other events I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival over the next few days.

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