The Republic of Consciousness Prize 2017 Longlist

On Thursday of this week, The Times Literary Supplement announced the longlist for the 2017 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. You may read the article, which includes Neil Griffiths’ thoughts on each book, by clicking here. This made public the results of a process I have been involved in since the summer. As a member of the prize’s reader bloc I have been privileged to be a part of the judging process, reading all the books submitted and providing my views. The reader bloc have been sharing their thoughts and opinions amongst themselves over the past few months which has highlighted differences in reading preferences. One thing we have all agreed on though is the high quality of the submissions. We have read some of the best literary fiction published this year.

The longlist is an outstanding selection representing the wide variety of titles we were asked to consider. When Neil Griffiths created the prize he wrote the following Mission Statement which I kept in mind as the judging process progressed.

The Republic of Consciousness is an expression of the affect of a particular kind of writing. Whilst I’m sure there are examples before Shakespeare, for our purposes the Shakespearean soliloquy might be regarded as the first explicit attempt to deliver us into the consciousness of another person, to take us from being mere witnesses to a character’s behaviour to participating in their lived experience. It is an act of phenomenological conjuring, which in slightly less technical parlance means the re-creation of a perceived world without any mediating voice. Of course there is a contradiction in this definition: the novel or play is an artefact, a work of fiction, and a long way from direct prehension of phenomena. And yet. There are writers whose work suggests that human consciousness beyond their own can be accessed, and through that the categorical unknowableness of others’ lived experience might be revealed. It is writing as a moral act. The Republic of Consciousness is here to support and celebrate this.

The prize is intended to reward small presses willing to take a risk on books that offer readers ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’. The longlisted titles meet these criteria and more. As well as literary merit the judges were asked to consider how much we enjoyed each reading experience.

I have already reviewed these works – you may check out my thoughts by clicking on the titles below. Should you choose to read these books do please consider borrowing from a library, buying from an independent bookshop, or ordering direct from the publisher where this is possible. These small presses can only survive if they are able to cover their costs and Amazon does not always support this endeavour. If you click on the publisher listed below you will be taken to their page for the book.

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (translated by Sophie Lewis) – published by Les Fugitives

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson – published by CB Editions

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell – published by And Other Stories

Compass by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Attrib. (and other stories) by Eley Williams – published by Influx Press

We that are young by Preti Taneja – published by Galley Beggar Press

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie – published by Salt

Playing Possum by Kevin Davey – published by Aaaargh! Press

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers – published by Bluemoose Books

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) – published by Charco Press

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner – published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner) – published by Tramp Press

Darker With The Lights On by David Hayden – published by Little Island Press

The shortlist will be announced at Waterstones Manchester on February 15, 2018. To keep up with news on the prize you may follow on twitter at @prizerofc. It will be a challenge to whittle this list down to the five from which the winner will be selected later in the spring.

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Gig Review: M John Harrison in Bath

Michael John Harrison had his first novel published in 1971 and has since produced more than twenty novels and short story collections, acquiring numerous awards and notable listings for his work. He is credited with being at the forefront of the New Wave science fiction movement. Although known for his SF and fantasy writing he now eschews labels believing the question of genre to be an irrelevance. He secures a space within which he can do what is necessary to get the point he wishes to make across, liberated to write what he needs to at the time. If not all readers get what he is saying he can accept this.

Prior to receiving his latest collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now (you may read my review of the book here), I had not come across M John Harrison’s writing. Thus I was pleased to discover he was visiting Bath and went along to Waterstones last Thursday to hear him speak. The event proved popular with the many in attendance who appeared familiar with the entirety of his published work.

Mike was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and an obvious fan. Having introduced his guest we were treated to readings of five of the shorter stories from Mike’s latest book. I was pleased that he included two of my personal favourites – Psychoarcheology and Jackdaw Bingo. He commented that many of the stories are linked to travel in some way, and he was therefore amused to be speaking from within the Travel section of the bookshop.

Following these readings there was plenty of time for questions – from Steve and the audience. Just as Mike’s writing cannot always be easily be categorised, so his answers were not necessarily what may have been expected. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the evolution of his attitude to writing and his creative style.

Mike was asked if he enjoyed playing the trickster. He explained that he sees writing and reading as a game, with points scored between writer and reader. He has fun with his writing, making use of tropes, employing parody and satire. In the past his intentions have not always been understood. Although his latest collection is subtitled Stories of Ghosts, the ghosts are such things as political spectres, past mistakes, ideas and situations.

Asked why he released a short story collection Mike explained that this came from writing his blog. There he takes a paragraph and then flips it, changing direction for the fun of it. He likes the results and also that he has produced stories of different lengths which fit well in a collection. As a writer, if there are no changes of direction he would consider himself stalled, even if still writing. He also has a novel in progress – it has fish people in it who may be trying to take over Britain and no one has noticed! Asked how he got involved with Comma Press he told us he had been looking for a small press as they are all the rage. He approached them and they agreed to publish this latest book.

Does Mike like to drop his characters and therefore readers into unfamiliar landscapes? He has always written about where he is at the time. He grew up in a village on the cusp of being absorbed into a suburb – an Edgeland. He enjoys exploring the transitions between landscape – woods, derelict factories, urban nature writing. He prefers to write what he sees without specialist knowledge of, say, nature, getting across to the reader the experience of simply being there.

His book The Centauri Device was mentioned. Originally conceived as an anti-space opera it ended up revitalising the genre and influencing the works of later authors such as Iain M. Banks. It is Mike’s most in print work but he hates it – he was advised not to write it but did anyway. He much prefers Light, an award winning SF novel which references his personal interests – mountaineering and rock music.

Talking of the New Wave he believes this had more influence outside the genre than within. For a time it broke through the limits of SF&F but the wounds healed. He has no desire to try this again. He has gone on to write as he pleases, always he wishes to move forwards, not working on repeat.

Mike believes genre should react to the writer rather than writers trying to fit into an existing space. Results come through the work of individuals who have differing ideas. An audience member asked about the New Weird. Mike agreed that such umbrellas may be necessary for a given moment, as a shelter, but in the end Mike doesn’t wish to be labelled.

Asked if he read Philosophy Mike admitted to doing so when younger. He sees SF as weaponisation of philosophical metaphor, bruising to read. He has been influenced by dozens of movements outside of fantasy. He manipulates ideas, tips them towards reality and then destroys the image created.

There was discussion of how to world build without info dumping, finding a balance so that the reader understands but the story moves forward. Editors often encourage description but Mike prefers to strip back, to follow his instinct. Info dumps are fine if entertaining – as in Pschoarcheology which contains little dialogue.

Asked how much revising of text Mike did he answered that he is constantly throwing away what he has written and goes through many iterations before being satisfied he has expressed himself as he wishes. Asked what books he has read recently he mentioned Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson. He would like to talk to this author about how he revises.

As the evening drew to a close Mike mentioned that the Christmas issue of New Scientist will contain a new version of Elf Lands – “a five-volume fantasy trilogy in 1000 words”.

There was then the opportunity to buy books and have them signed, with a long queue forming. The eager fans spoke of their excitement at the chance to meet this author, and he appeared happy to talk as he inscribed their purchases.

   

It was good to see so many younger men making up the audience at a book event. The demographic was notably different to most that I attend. Mike may have been writing for close to fifty years but it was clear from the way he spoke that he is more interested in enjoying what is to come than in what he has already achieved.

   

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press 

Gig Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet in Bath

Having read His Bloody Project last weekend (you may read my review here) I availed myself of the opportunity to meet the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, at Toppings in Bath on Monday. Graeme talked about all three of his books including his latest, The Accident on the A35, which I purchased at the event. I look forward to reading and reviewing it in the coming weeks.

A35 is a sequel to Graeme’s debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau. Both are set in the unremarkable, small French town of Saint-Louis on the Swiss French border. They were inspired by a visit to the town on which Saint-Louis is based a decade before Adèle was written. The cafe at their centre exists and has not changed in that time – Graeme returned as part of his research for A35 and told us even the menu has remained the same.

All three of Graeme’s books share a playfulness of form. They are written as if true with Adèle and A35 presented as translations. When Adèle was released a bookseller sold it to customers as a newly discovered French work that Graeme had translated into English, as is claimed on the fly page. He felt somewhat hoodwinked on discovering this was untrue. Of course, all works of fiction are untrue. Readers want to believe that stories could be real, to enter their fictional world.

The remote, mundane places Graeme writes about enable a feeling of claustrophobia to be explored. The central characters are young men who consider life to be better elsewhere. Living in a backwater, where middle aged residents treat them as children and will ask after their parents, Graeme prefers not to dwell on the key event – a death. He focuses instead on the effect of living where they do on the characters psyches and what goes on in their heads. The drama is the development of these young men, not who did the killing.

The structures employed are not new, they existed in 19th century fiction. By including documents and changing points of view it is possible to employ unreliable narrators. Graeme spoke of the apparatus of truth, that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Memory is partial, biased and selective. The reader must consider for themselves what is actually happening.

A member of the audience asked Graeme about the effect of his Booker Prize shortlisting. His Bloody Project was rejected many times before being picked up by Saraband, a small Scottish independent publisher. The initial print run was 1000 copies which were selling slowly until the Booker longlist was announced. From there Graeme’s life as a writer changed. He did point out that not all listed books do so well – his outsold even the eventual winner. It gained exposure for being with a small publisher, and a crime novel on the Booker list, although Saraband shouldered the risk in deciding how many copies to reprint. Sales of a book depend so much on visibility, on whether Waterstones will stock, on interest in foreign rights. The Booker Prize listing helps by putting books on tables at the front of shops for a time. Graeme is happy that His Bloody Project continues to sell. With digital and overseas markets he has recently found an agent to deal with the complexities of such deals.

Another audience member asked how he wrote his young protagonists, if he drew on personal experience. Graeme does not have children but as a reader has a view on what is engaging. He did not wish to write historical novels, or to present his protagonists as victims. He understands that seventeen year old boys, in whatever era or place, will be developing an interest in sex and pushing boundaries. The structure of his novels was fun to write but the vividness of the setting and making characters relatable adds the depth.

Graeme shared a few anecdotes: Adèle is currently being translated into French, he is unsure how that will work as it is already presented as a translation; His Bloody Project includes a glossary of Highland words which provide a challenge for any translator; he received an email from a resident of the small town on which Saint-Louis is based. Worried he had caused offence with his portrayal he was relieved to be told he had captured it perfectly. Graeme pointed out that from the point of view of his seventeen year old character he had to present the town negatively as the boy was eager to escape.

Asked if there were any plans for film or TV adaptations we were told rights had been sold but who knew if this would be taken any further. Graeme would be happy to wait a few years for this to happen as such things change readers perceptions of what a story should be.

When I presented my copies of his books for signing I was pleased to discover Graeme is as friendly as this frank and open discussion suggested. I am delighted with the inscriptions he provided, including these very appropriate stamps.

   

   

 

Gig Review: Christopher Fowler in Bath

This year I spent Halloween at Waterstones bookshop in Bath where Christopher Fowler was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and obvious fan of his amiable guest. The event was the final stop on a tour for The Book of Forgotten Authors which I review here. Although I am only familiar with this and a handful of the author’s more recent Bryant and May series of crime novels, Christopher has published over forty books that cross several genres. As well as books, his other works include screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio and stage plays. He writes a weekly column in The Independent on Sunday where the idea for this most recent publication germinated.

Steve described The Book of Forgotten Authors as a cornucopia of author delights including excellent digressive essays. He read out the names of a number of the authors included, many of which the audience were familiar with. Christopher commented that although their names may still be recalled, few of the readers he has asked could list these authors’ books. I got the impression that he was addressing a well read audience in Bath, perfect for the discussion that ensued.

In whittling down his list of hundreds of forgotten authors to the ninety-nine featured, Christopher was not interested in the obscure but rather recognisable writers whose books have been eclipsed. After mentioning them in his newspaper column, he received letters, often from author’s families. They subsequently corresponded and set up meetings, thereby enabling Christopher to gather the fascinating snippets of data he cites in his book. He made the decision not to include anyone living in case of upset by being listed as forgotten.

Christopher is obviously well connected within the arts. There were references to films he has been involved with and mentions of writers who are acquaintances and personal friends. Most of the discussion though was of his interest in books, how they are valued and how this changes over time.

He talked of pulp fiction from the sixties found in paperback fairs, some of which were written by well known names under pseudonyms, with artwork from highly regarded sources. Having grown up in a house containing few works of literature he spent much of his childhood in a library, frequenting second hand bookshops when he had money to spend. He now takes an interest not just in titles considered collectable but in the treasures that can be found tucked away between their pages – letters, notes and similar ephemera.

Christopher talked of the peaks and troughs in book fashion, how an experimental novel from the sixties is now being sold as a mass market paperback. He applauded the small presses such as Persephone who are republishing works that do not deserve to remain forgotten. He is a fan of ebooks as they enable out of print books to be more widely shared which may help prove there is demand for them in hard copy.

He also mentioned the books that deserve to be forgotten. He believes some authors whose work has remained popular had contemporaries who were even better yet disappeared from retail shelves. As he talked of books I was not familiar with, although Steve and several in the audience were agreeing with his words, I pondered how much book appreciation is a matter of personal taste.

In his Bryant and May books Christopher told us that the weirdest things are often based on fact, toned down because readers would find them too unrealistic. He does not like writing gore, preferring to create unease and trust reader’s imagination – disturbing rather than distressing. His books have been optioned by the BBC although he believes the scripts may not have captured the essential quirkiness of his elderly detectives. He mentioned that he bought back the rights of one book he was unhappy with after publication.

Christopher’s next book, due out in 2018, is based around the theme of a country house murder. The one after that will explore the theme of loneliness. His many fans will be happy that there are plenty more books in the offing. He has also written a fantasy epic but has yet to have it accepted for publication.

Steve had ensured that there was a good stock of a variety of Christopher’s books available to purchase. Those queuing to acquire his signature each presented sizeable piles of his works. It was good to see Christopher taking the time to chat as he signed. All seemed to have enjoyed the event.

As well as the pleasure of meeting Christopher I was able to introduce myself to his publicist, Elizabeth Masters. It is always lovely to meet those who kindly send me the books I review.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and is available to buy now.

   

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Gig Review: Debut Authors at the Marlborough Literature Festival

The final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival was a discussion between two debut authors, both of whom were named by The Observer as new faces of fiction for 2017. I had purchased my ticket as I wished to meet Xan Brooks. I have been recommending his book – The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times – to everyone since I read it (you may click on the title to read my review). Also taking part was Mahsuda Snaith, author of The Things We Thought We Knew. The discussion was chaired by Caroline Sanderson, an editor at The Bookseller magazine.

Following introductions, Mahsuda read from the beginning of her book before talking us through how it came to be written. She told us that she wrote the novel when she was sixteen and then set it aside. When she went back to it, years later, she saw the bare bones of a story she could develop so set about a rewrite. As a primary school teacher she observes the worlds children inhabit, something that enables her to capture their authentic voice. Both authors have young girls as their protagonists, albeit living in different times. These are coming of age stories with a difference.

In her first draft Mahsuda’s girl, Ravine, was in a coma. In the rewrite she is bedridden with chronic pain and has been for several years. With a static protagonist the mother figure, Amma, is key to moving the plot along. All the characters in the book arrived in Mahsuda’s head fully formed, more of them than could ultimately be included. The second person point of view was added by the editor.

Mahsuda wished to tell a positive council estate story. Elements were drawn from personal experience – she wished to portray the sense of community in this setting. Like her characters, Mahsuda is a British Bangladeshi but ethnicity is not the key driver. Other writers have been told by publishers that their stories are not Asian or African enough, as if a girl in a headscarf can only write in a certain way.

Mahsuda’s influences are from particular books rather than authors – The Color Purple, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, The Life of Pi.

Xan then read from his book. Describing it as fairytale grotesque he explained that the kernal of the idea came from his family. A great aunt had spoken, just before her death, of being sent into woods as a child to meet funny men. In talking about this, perhaps for the first time, she appeared traumatised. Xan mentioned that, for it to happen, her parents must have been complicit.

First conceived as a short story, it tells of an innocent child going into the deep, dark forest where the monsters live. When developed in longer form Xan realised it required light and shade as readers would not wish to read four hundred pages of bleakness. Setting it in 1923 allowed the portrayal of damaged war veterans who had fought for an ideal of a country that no longer existed. Xan wished to explore the contrasts between these men’s changed circumstances, the faltering economy, and the decadence of the wealthy at the time of Gatsby. It was a decade of paradox.

Xan admitted that he did not do much research. He talked of the lack of vocabulary at the time, how it was yet to catch up. There was no definition of PTSD or child abuse, people were expected to bear whatever happened to them. Children were regarded as just a small step up from livestock, sent out to work, expected to help support the family. So many had died in the terrible war – if something did not kill they were expected not to complain.

The story is about abuse at all levels of society: war as industrialised abuse; the wealthy and their treatment of those they regard as lesser beings; poverty and whatever it takes to stay alive. The structure sees the girl get through the forest, beyond the monsters, to reach the castle beyond. Here she discovers that life is worse. The wealthy created the monsters, directly and indirectly. Xan mused about who owns the future – aristocrats, soldiers, the children who survive what adults put them through.

In trying to keep the story honest yet portray the grotesque Xan worried it would descend into kitsch. He was asked if, as a Guardian film editor, he envisaged the story on screen. Xan assured us he wished to move away from this idea. He recognises the implied relationship between writing styles but suggested it was like saying a banjo player would be capable of playing a cello without further training.

Asked about titles, Xan’s came from his wife, a random comment she made as he was writing. There was resistance to it but, unable to come up with anything better, and being memorable, it remained. Mahsuda had a working title of The Constellation of Ravines, which would have fitted with her proposed chapter headings. When this was met with resistance she accepted her publisher’s suggestion.

There followed some discussion on reviews. Mahsuda admitted to checking Amazon frequently and was pleased her early reviews were mainly positive. By the time negative feedback appeared she had won awards so had acquired more confidence in her abilities. Although validation matters she accepts that no book will appeal to everyone.

Having been a critic, Xan now experiences reviews from the other side side of the fence which he told us has changed his opinion of bloggers, regarded with a degree of snobbishness by paid reviewers. Xan stated that bloggers work can be at least as well written as that published in national newspapers. Naturally I felt cheered by this.

The authors were asked if they had done a creative writing course. Mahsuda told us she couldn’t have afforded an MA but read up a lot on creative writing. Xan completed a module as part of his degree twenty years ago and subsequently ran creative writing sessions for arty people in London, at a centre where David Bowie used to hang out.

There was further discussion about language, semiotics, and societal expectations. Xan reminded us that in the 1980s Benny Hill chasing women around was considered funny. Mahsuda pointed out that, with hidden illness, providing a medical term helps sufferers shake off the accusation of shirker. In twenty years time what parlance will exist, what will we look back on and consider appalling?

To round the discussion off the authors were asked what comes next. Mahsuda has a two book deal and has already completed her next novel, written while this one was being sent out and then prepared for publication. Xan is still working on ideas.

The talk offered a fascinating insight into the early stages of a literary career. I was particularly happy with the inscription Xan provided in my copy of his book.

     

I came away from the festival buzzing with delight at the people I had met – authors, publicists and those who work to promote books in other ways. I will be connecting via social media and hope to be in touch with some of them again. It was a fine way to spend a weekend.

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is published by Salt.

The Things We Tought We Knew is published by Doubleday.

You may read my thoughts on other events I attended at the festival by clicking on these authors’ name: Gwendoline Riley; John Boyne.

The Marlborough Literature Festival will return next year. Save the Date.

 

 

Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Marlborough Literature Festival – you may read about my first day experiences here. Day Two was more straightforward as traffic had returned to manageable levels in the town. I was also familiar with the venues, knowledge that helps anyone prone to unnecessary anxiety.

Unless an author is of particular personal interest – Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel come to mind – I tend to eschew larger events, prefering the intimacy of a bookshop venue. However, having so much enjoyed his latest work – The Heart’s Invisible Furies (you may click on the title to read my review) – I couldn’t miss the opportunity to listen to John Boyne speak. Plus he is Irish. I do like to support writers from my home country, even those as successful as him.

Held upstairs in the town hall, this event was chaired by Tony Mulliken who has worked with the National Book Awards and The London Book Fair. He appeared to be enjoying the ensuing discussion as much as the audience.

Following introductions, John was asked about the impact of the success of his fifth novel, The Boy In Striped Pyjamas, and what he thought of the popular film adaptation. John admitted that it changed his life, enabling him to do what he had always dreamed of and become a full time writer. He told us that he liked the movie, that he had worked on it himself. He also pointed out that a film doesn’t change a book, but it does bring more readers to the author’s works.

Moving on to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, John explained that this was a story about love, invisibility and anger at how his protagonist, Cyril Avery, is treated. Set over seventy years – ten chapters in seven year leaps – it opens when Cyril is still in the womb. John did not wish to portray Cyril’s pregnant and unmarried mother, Catherine, as a victim but rather as a strong, independent woman. He prefers to write his female characters in this way.

John then read from the book. This was one of several readings, each of which had the audience in stitches. The story weaves humour and pathos with a warm, impressive adroitness. Its author proved himself a fine, live entertainer.

John explained that although he plots his novels in advance he then allows them to develop. His plan for this book was to tell the story of a seventy year old man looking back on his life. After he had written Catherine’s denouncement by the church, he found the tone of his writing changed. A particular type of humour evolved with Cyril’s adoptive parents. John enjoyed writing in this way, deciding that readers did not need six hundred pages of misery. He hadn’t really done humour before but the change of direction opened a floodgate in his head and he enjoyed the process.

Irish people will know of the teatowels and bar towels and other touristy paraphenalia featuring the eight great Irish writers, all men. He decided that Cyril’s adoptive mother would be an author horrified by the thought of popular success, whose latest novel would suddenly threaten to put her face on such ephemera. Her husband is a dodgy banker whose foolish actions upset the family equilibrium. Both these characters provide much humour despite their sometimes casually cruel behaviour.

The book is historically accurate featuring an emerging homosexual growing up in a country where being gay is still illegal. John was asked what personal echoes exist in the book. He pointed out that all writers feature shadows of themselves. He wanted to write about how terrifying and misunderstood the AIDs crisis was having experienced the fear of it as a teenager in the 1980s. He also talked of the fear of the twenty foot walk, from bedroom to sitting room to come out to parents, and the huge repercussions on all their lives from there. John mentioned the pressure put on gay men to ‘try’ sex with a woman, the suggestion that maybe they might enjoy being married. Few considered how cruel this would be to the woman.

To develop Cyril’s character, to allow him to grow up, Cyril had to be taken out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ireland. When he eventually returns, having finally experienced love, the country has changed. The decriminilisation of homosexuality along with the revelations of the extent of abuses within the church allowed more liberal attitudes to develop. There was mirth from the audience when John mentioned the ongoing support of his country’s European friends.

In discussing endings, John does not feel a need for happiness so much as authenticity. He does though enjoy placing well known real public figures in his books and representing them in a certain way.

John was asked about his influences and mentioned John Irving, for his sexual misfits, and Dickens, for his orphans. John enjoys writing children without adults to solve their problems.

Another question asked was why Julian, Cyril’s best friend on whom he had a crush, could not see that Cyril was in love with him. This was because everyone loved Julian, he was used to being adored. Also, it was the 1950s when such behaviour would not be expected. Cyril did not feel he could be honest with Julian which demonstrated a lack of trust in their friendship.

John was asked about how he treats priests in the book. He wanted to start with the hypocrisy. He didn’t want it to be another church book but it is set in decades when the church was still a major social force. John grew up living next door to priests and nuns. He was an alter boy. These were not good memories.

Asked about the notable Irish voice throughout the story John was asked about translations and how this voice could be retained. He talked of the skill of the translator in capturing nuances. He also pointed out that he could not read the translations so would never know.

Did John set out to write a social history of Ireland or to write about Cyril? Both. He wanted to highlight the massive changes in attitudes in Ireland through the eyes of a particular person.

Has John been approached for film rights for this book? Yes, in a way. They have been sold to Ridley Scott as a ten part series. Of course this is no guarantee that the project will be taken further.

I found this a fascinating talk as well as being a highly entertaining event. If you haven’t already read The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

I will be writing about the final event I attended at the Marlborough Literature Festival in the next few days.