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.

 

 

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Book Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell, tells the story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the sibling. It is told from the point of view of Helen, born in Korea and adopted when a baby by Paul and Mary Moran of Milwaukee, USA. Helen was raised in her adoptive parents’ large if frugal home alongside her younger brother, also born in Korea and adopted when a baby. Their upbringing was not a happy one for multiple reasons, poignantly portrayed.

Helen now lives in New York City, in a shared studio apartment, where she is phoned by an uncle to be told of her adoptive brother’s demise. She describes herself thus:

“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror I saw something upright and plain.”

Helen decides that she will fly to Milwaukee, despite not having contacted her parents in several years, to provide comfort and discover why her brother took his life. Arriving at their childhood home without warning she resents that the welcome given is less than effusive. She is irritated by the presence of a grief councillor as this was the role she had assigned herself.

In the days leading up to her brother’s funeral, Helen questions those who had spent time with him in the years since she left. He had remained in Milwaukee and still lived with their parents. Helen’s interrogations prove upsetting. Even her attempts at being helpful are not well received.

It is clear from early in the story that something about Helen is out of kilter. She prides herself on her ethical practices and reliability, that she has transformed herself into someone she regards as virtuous. She aims to offer succour yet seems incapable of empathy.

The narrative voice has a disturbing undercurrent. Helen’s scattered thoughts, inappropriate sharing, her ragged memories and attempts at fitting in, can erupt into antisocial behaviour. She believes her needs are often ignored in favour of others. She has cultivated a strategy for survival that proves brittle under stress.

There are moments of humour, particularly around Helen’s work as an after-school supervisor of troubled young people. That she can support herself in this way perplexes those who knew her from Milwaukee. She feels satisfaction that she managed to get, and stay, away.

The restless prose travels inexorably towards a climax that is deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered. Helen’s isolation pulses with dark energy.

A powerful evocation of a family damaged despite well meaning intentions. A tragedy of the living as well as the dead.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

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.

London Bookshops #BookshopDay #BAMB

Today is National Bookshop Day, organised in conjunction with Books Are My Bag, a collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors to celebrate these friendly, knowledgeable  havens and help keep them on our high streets. Bookshops are businesses – we need to use them or lose them.

Last Thursday, due to an event cancellation that came two days after I had booked my transport to London to attend, I travelled up to the capital to spend the day visiting the bookshops I am familiar with thanks to on line bookish friends – what better way to make use of a bus ticket now surplus to requirements. The sun shone as I walked a ten mile circuit enjoying the architecture and revelling in the opportunity to discover for myself why these bookshops regularly appear on my social media feeds.

Arriving in Victoria Coach Station around lunchtime I met up with my daughter and we made our way past Hyde Park and north to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street.

   

Described as a bookshop for travellers, stock is organised by location. My daughter, a fantasy fiction fan, was unable to find an Out Of This World section but they seem to have Planet Earth well covered. The bookshop itself is gorgeous. I was pleased to discover many books from the independent publishers I read.

   

We then headed south to Piccadilly where we visited the UK’s oldest bookshop, Hatchards.

   

This is another gorgeous shop with a warren of rooms to explore over several floors. It proudly proclaims itself bookseller to the Queen. I wonder what she enjoys reading.

Just down the road from Hatchards is the huge flagship store for Waterstones.

This is Europe’s largest bookshop offering over eight miles of shelves. We could have spent a lot longer here than we had time for.

   

From Piccadilly I was left to my own devices for a few hours so headed to Charing Cross Road, a mecca for booklovers, to vist Foyles, the only bookshop visited that I had been to before.

As well as browing the shelves I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the cafe, surrounded by friends.

   

Suitably refreshed I set out on another stretch of my planned route, heading west through Bloomsbury to Persephone Books.

   

This small but perfectly presented bookshop, in a lovely location, fronts a publishing business that:

“reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. All of our 122 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial.”

The books are so aesthetically pleasing I wanted to buy a stack just to admire them on my shelves. I can feel a new collector’s seed germinating.

To finish the day I had arranged to meet back with my daughter at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road.

This was the only part of the day that did not meet expectations. The bookshop provides signed first editions, fine quality books that will be future investments. It is not really a bookshop to browse. Having spent more time than was probably necessary ascertaining that there were no further rooms where more ordinary books were displayed I left regretting that I had not done a little more research.

With shops closing their doors for the day I met my daughter at Piccadilly, pleased that I had her company as I waited for the late bus I was booked on. Although not arriving home until the wee small hours, it was a fine way to spend a day.

 

One bookshop I did not visit was the Big Green Bookshop as I will be there next week when I travel up to the capital again for an event I hope will not be cancelled – Not The Booker Live.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Interview with Shelan Rodger, author of Yellow Room

Today I am delighted to welcome Shelan Rodger to my blog. Several years ago Shelan invited me to my first London literary event where I mingled with, amongst others, Broo Doherty and Anne Cater, both unknown to me at the time. I am delighted that Dome Press have chosen to release her beautifully written second novel, Yellow Room, which deserves to find a wide audience. Shelan has provided excellent answers to my questions – I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

‘Writer and wilderness lover with a patchwork life’ is how I describe myself on Twitter. Born in Nigeria, I grew up in an aboriginal community on the Tiwi Islands north of Australia. I was eleven when my family moved to England and after graduating in modern languages from Oxford, my travels began again and I spent a number of years in Argentina and Kenya, before moving to Spain, where I live on a volcanic stretch of coastline in Andalucía.

Professionally, I started as an English language teacher, moving into a variety of roles over the years, all connected to international education, or learning & development projects around anti-discrimination and leadership during the time I spent in Africa.

Writing has been a lifelong passion, fuelled by a fascination with what shapes us and our sense of who we are – which I’m sure is partly driven by the mish-mash of cultures and landscapes in my own life!

2. Can you tell us about Yellow Room?

Yellow Room is a drama that explores the power of secrets, the forces that mould our sense of personal identity, the grey areas that flow between the boundaries of relationships. It is set in England and Kenya, with a poignant insight into the 2008 post-election crisis that took over a thousand lives.

3. What inspired the book?

Yellow Room was born from a very simple idea which I cannot share without giving too much away! But it grew out of a fascination with what creates our sense of who we are and whether the ‘I’ we believe in really exists or is just an illusion. And secrets! Why are we so fascinated by them? Why do we have them? Secrets are insidious, powerful, pervasive, also a clue to our sense of personal identity if we listen to them –  and I wanted to explore their power through the lives of my characters in Yellow Room.

I also wanted to explore the way our inner world interacts with and can be affected by another culture and external events around us and I did this against the backdrop of Kenya, where I was living when I wrote the first draft of the book. Much of the insight into the historical events, as well as the lives of street kids in Naivasha, is inspired by personal experience.

4. When writing, are you an architect who researches and plans everything in advance or a gardener who plants an idea and allows it to develop organically?

Definitely a gardener – and I love this image! I start with a vision of the tree I want to create and then rather blindly plant the seed that I hope will bear fruit, watering and nurturing my idea along the way, but also aware that the tree may turn out to look quite different to what I had initially envisaged, as it grows.

5. What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

It doesn’t happen all the time of course, but those special moments when you achieve a state of flow that is almost like being in a trance, when words just seem to wash through you and it feels as though you are just a vessel for the characters on your page to speak through. There is something very earthy and connected about that feeling, the sheer wonder of creativity.

6. And your least favourite?

Eternally brushing that monkey off your shoulder, the one who looks down at what you’re writing and says, that’s a pile of crap, who do you think you are? Or even, very occasionally, wow that’s amazing. I know that this monkey is not what I need – he can come out later and behave appropriately when it gets to editing but I don’t want him around when I’m writing.

7. Do you enjoy using social media?

I am a social media novice really. If social media were someone I was dating, I would say that I’m not quite sure what I think of him yet. He makes me feel connected, shows me the glamour of a bigger world and yet I am shy in his company and not sure I can trust him yet…

8. How actively do you seek out reviews of your books?

I read reviews with real curiosity to see how individuals react to my books, aware that everyone will respond differently and loving the various nuances that come through. Whether they are heart-warming, challenging, insightful – full of praise or even damning – reviews are life-affirming for a writer I think. Because at the end of the day writing is only one part of the process; being read is the other. And the insight into a reader’s response is a true privilege.

9. What do you choose to do when you wish to treat yourself?

Gosh, anything from a massage, or a sundowner somewhere beautiful with a friend, to meditating on a cliff overlooking the sea.

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being was a book I found intriguing; I love the way she explores and crosses the boundaries between past and present, between fact and fiction, between writer and reader.

Amanda Jennings is a writer fascinated by the different identities we all have inside us and what trauma and twists can do to wake these up and this is born out again by her latest novel, In Her Wake, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun was a delicious recent read; the almost dream-like way he uses language and the poignant exploration of buried love and longing.

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Gosh, that’s a difficult question, there are so many – real and fictitious!

Carmen de Burgos was a Spanish author and feminist activist born in 1867. She was an extraordinary and brave character, one of those people who make history, a woman who fought for freedom at a time and place where women were far from free. And she was born in the village of Rodalquilar, where I live in southern Spain, so it would be fascinating if she could time travel now to sit down with me for dinner at a local restaurant in the place of her birth.

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What an interesting but difficult question! Well, a lot of questions that writers are asked naturally have to do with what their books are about and what has inspired them or the writing process that created them. I haven’t (yet!) been asked the question: ‘What difference, if any, would you like your writing to make?’ I think that would introduce an interesting perspective, about what an author aspires to in terms of the relationship between writer and reader and the tiny part they play in the world…

Yellow Room is published by The Dome Press.

This post is a stop on the Yellow Room Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

You may read my review of the original release of Yellow Room here.

 

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.