On Monday evening I attended my first book event at Waterstones Bookshop in Bath, and what a lovely venue this turned out to be. I was there to catch the John Murray Waterstones Book Tour, to meet three of the publisher’s prize winning authors and to “discover a future classic”. The three authors on the panel, Lisa McInerney, Andrew Michael Hurley and Jessie Greengrass, have between them won the Baileys Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa Book Award. With such a line up in my local area, how could I resist.
The event host was Waterstones Senior Bookseller, Steve Andrews, who tempted the audience with mention of future events before introducing his guests. The panel were compèred by Richard Kerridge, a creative writing tutor at Bath Spa University. A good number of his students were in the audience.
Lisa gave the first reading from her book, ‘The Glorious Heresies’, before talking of how she developed her characters’ voices. They talk in the vernacular, which is how Lisa talks herself. She advised all writers to read their words aloud to ensure they have caught the rhythms they seek.
Andrew then read from his book, ‘The Loney’. He talked of finding it easier to write a character who spoke with an accent, although for him voice develops as relationships are firmed. His plot is written organically, aspects coming from characters as they are formed. This is a slow process but one he finds works for him.
Jessie read the first short story from her collection, ‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It’. She does not write dialogue, or give characters names, but talked of the perspective of the narrator, the effect of events, and how she believes these have more impact than what is actually happening. She sees voice as a starting point to development of plot and writes instinctively. She regards the rhythm and cadence of the narrative as vital in telling her tales.
Having heard from each of the authors, Richard had a number of questions to put to the panel and a lively discussion ensued about inspiration.
Andrew mentioned the bleak landscape of his setting, Morecombe Bay, and of the horror to be found in religion. There is the fear of hell, the gruesome art depicting suffering, the wars fought, and the permission religion gives followers to behave in horrible ways. He does not believe he could write as he does had it not been for his Catholic upbringing.
Lisa suggested that ruthlessness is a quality necessary in literature. She placed her cast of characters on the outside of society and told their story through a lens of black humour. This is a method many use to cope, to wrest back control when situations seem bleak.
Jessie added that details of small acts may seem acceptable at the time but, when looked back at alongside everything else going on, are shown to be brutal. She wished to explore how her hunters were not aiming to drive the auks to extinction, although the bird’s passivity enraged them. The horror of what they did is hard to comprehend yet they did not hold themselves responsible.
Each of the three books are award winners yet are difficult to categorise. Richard asked if avoiding genre was deliberate.
Lisa has no wish to be categorised and pondered if this were snobbery. She wishes to avoid formulaic writing.
Jessie believes a book can carry more emotional weight if not constrained by genre, although as her book is a collection of short stories she could offer an eclectic mix of styles.
Andrew wouldn’t wish to impose limitations on himself when writing, although recognises the challenges this can present when pitching to agents.
The audience were invited to ask questions which included “Does your own writing horrify you?” and a discussion on influences.
Andrew talked of not so much being horrified as being taken to places where he was not comfortable, exploring unfinished business from his personal experiences, and wondering what dark recesses certain ideas had come from! He writes using trial and error to see what works, what gets him to where he wants to be. Some characters take time before they seem real. His influences included Philip Larkin, Thomas Hardy, Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, but he felt all experiences counted – reading, films, and conversations.
Lisa questioned if she pushed herself hard enough when writing. She wishes to capture the many facets of even the most horrible people, few of whom are entirely bad. Her influences included Flannery O’Connor but she also mentioned films, songs and photographs. ‘Heresies’ started as a collection of short stories which came together. Her original plans for the book changed.
Jessie finds her stories sad more than horrific, although as time passes she sometimes wonders what she had been going through at the time to prompt such writing. Influences included David Foster Wallace and Philip Larkin, but more important was to read widely and frequently.
The evening concluded with an invitation to purchase the authors’ books and to have them signed. It was good to see so many in the audience doing just that. It was a fascinating event.
Each of these books is published by John Murray, and is available to buy now.
The tour continues…