Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

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Gig Review: Markus Zusak in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to join a large and appreciative audience, some of whom had come from as far away as Paris, to hear Markus Zusak talk about his latest book, Bridge of Clay. Markus was interviewed by Mr B from the bookshop hosting the event, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. As is my wont, I made notes throughout the evening and the following is a write-up of these. Much was discussed so this post is quite lengthy. I hope it will be of interest.

Markus told us that he started writing Bridge of Clay when he was nineteen or twenty years of age. He is now forty-three. The idea came to him during long walks around Sydney where he was living at the time. He wanted to write about a boy building a bridge and needing to do this well, perhaps better than he was able. He thought of the title, Clayton’s Bridge, then shortened the boy’s name to Clay. Bridge of Clay seemed apt as, whatever materials were used, the bridge would be made of the boy. Clay may be moulded into anything but requires fire for it to set. At this stage Markus even knew how his story would end – it doesn’t end that way now. He believed this was his best idea and set about writing it.

Somehow he couldn’t make the story work. He moved on to write other books but kept going back to Clay without success. After The Book Thief was so well received he had the time to devote himself to the story.

Markus was surprised by the reaction to The Book Thief. He hadn’t expected many people to enjoy a book narrated by death in which a large number of characters die. He knew that he needed to write another book and Clay was all he had.

Around 2007/8 the family structure in the story came into being. Prior to that it had been very different and had gone through many iterations. He introduced the five brothers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy – when he realised that a menagerie of animals would be involved. He knew that one of these animals had to be a mule (all ambition is an ass) so set the story in the racing quarter of the city to enable this. From here Carey evolved. The original narrator was Carey’s sister but this didn’t work. The character was cut out.

Mr B asked Markus if his writing process is as fluid as it sounds.

Markus told us that he has all these ideas. He claimed not to have a great imagination but rather sets himself problems to solve. He wanted to include a mule so had to make that work. He came across a misspelled sign on a fence warning passers by not to feed a horse and decided he could use that. The feral brothers came from a picture in his head of boys running up a flight of stairs, goading and challenging each other. He needs to know what happens to characters – their backstory which makes them what they are.

The boys’ mother, Penny, started from the idea of nicknames. She was to be The Mistake Maker and it came to him that she would play the piano and love Greek mythology. Her journey to Australia would be like The Odyssey. Homer used nicknames. Markus’s wife was brought to Australia by her parents when she was six years old. Her parents couldn’t believe the heat, the size of the cockroaches. The chapter on paper houses developed from their stories of that time in their lives.

Markus aims to create memorable characters. Penny looked fragile but was incredibly tough. Although apparently based around the five brothers, it is the female characters who are the heart of Bridge of Clay.

Mr B asked about the origins of the fights on the running track.

Markus told us he always needs to train hard to be good at anything. Clay is training but nobody is sure what for – it turns out he is training to build a bridge. Matthew offers motivation but improvement stalls. Rory realises that Clay needs to hurt – to improve at anything it is necessary to make it harder. Markus remembers a teacher telling him that to get good at running on grass a runner should train on sand.

Boys are very physical. He wanted a contrast between the toughness they display and how much the brothers love each other (love runs through the family like a river). Boys don’t mind touching – elbows, shoulders, fists – but they don’t talk much.

Markus writes books from the inside out. He shows how the boys are and how they would like to be, juggling the rough and tumble with emotion. He didn’t want author quotes on the finished book but did think of having quotes from each of the Dunbar boys – “It’s a bit shit but you’ll love it”; “I can get you a good price for it”, and so on 🙂

Mr B asked about the objects, talismans in the story.

Markus is a collector of things. He and his children have a book of feathers. He is interested in memory and what is treasured. The lighter that Carey gives Clay has several meanings – don’t burn your bridges, clay needs fire to set. The monopoly piece is a reminder of a game played while their mother was ill.

Markus is always trying to write a book that maybe he’s not good enough to write. The book is made of him. He is at his happiest when writing and it is going well. Life is stories.

The real hero of this book is Markus’s wife. in 2016 she sat him down and told him, after a decade of trying, that he had one week to finish the book. When, after a week, it still wasn’t finished she told him to take a break from Clay, to write in his neglected blog. He didn’t want to. He started to write up all the books he would read when he finished. After four to six weeks he knew he was ready to get back to it. He started building up the chapter headings he had noted down in an attempt to progress.

He writes at home amidst the family chaos. Occasionally they will all go away for a few days. He remembers one day, it was very hot, he took off his t-shirt – something he never usually does. His son’s reaction amused him and he thought, I can use that. The writing came to life again. He realised that he was 85% done and six months later he finally finished.

One big change in that time was with Michael Dunbar – a painter who loved the work of Michaelangelo. Markus decided Carey and Clay would have a mutual obsession with a book about the artist, The Quarryman. This now has its own thread.

There is a lot going on in the story but every single piece means something and will make sense by the end. Each idea introduced is part of a jigsaw.

Markus had a lot of ambition for the book. We all live our lives moving forward but take everything that has gone before with us. He wanted the structure to be tidal. Beginnings are everywhere and there are many before the beginnings. This may offer a challenge to some readers but hopefully also rewards. In some ways he wants readers to finish and feel they have been run over by a truck – maybe need to soften that analogy – he wants readers to still remember the book in ten years time.

He has always had a good relationship with his editors. With Bridge of Clay, some of the queries he had to point out the answer was coming if they read on. This may not suit all readers but that’s okay.

Mr B was sent an early manuscript copy of the book that contained handwritten notes on illustrations which aren’t in the finished copy. He asked: why is that?

These were an idea that wasn’t included because illustrations weren’t needed. Words alone leave more to the imagination for the reader.

Mr B asked why in America the book is promoted as for YA while here it is primarily aimed at adults.

This is because Markus wished to stay with the same publishers as previously. He felt a loyalty. He doesn’t regard Bridge of Clay as a YA book but it is down to readers.

Questions were opened to the audience.

Markus was asked what he thought of The Book Thief film.

He didn’t expect the book to reach such a wide audience. Dealing as it does with death, when the producers wanted little kids to be able to watch the film it had to be made the way it was. The book is not for little kids. When film rights are sold the story needs to be handed over. Creative people have to be allowed to be creative. A book is a book (although there are elements in it he would now change – he was very young when he wrote it – he is still young!); a film is film (and it opened up a new audience for the book).

A teacher asked how to get young people interested in books.

Markus is asked this a lot and doesn’t know. It’s not his job. He would maybe point out that reading is tougher than football or TV – challenge them. Also, find the right book for the right person. Take them to a good bookshop such as Mr B’s.

Asked why Matthew was the narrator it was pointed out that this is explained at the end of the story. Markus did change the narrator regularly during rewrites. It couldn’t be Rory as he wouldn’t care enough. Henry is too flippant, Tommy too young. At one stage he nearly cut the brothers out but realised he needed them for colour – and to get the mule in.

None of the final characters other than Clay were in the first version of the book. All the brothers are deceptive and offer flashes of insight. He believes in Matthew the most.

Q: What motivated you to keep coming back to the unfinished work?

This was the book he was destined to write – that sounds corny – he felt it was the book he had to write.

Q: What research did you do for the book?

Markus doesn’t look for facts but rather people. Ideas can leap out from their stories and be turned into something else. He uses them as stepping stones.

Q: What are you going to write next?

He may further develop a minor existing character, or look at the time after the setting of The Book Thief – at what would happen next. He is not contracted to anyone so can write for the joy of it and see what happens.

Q: A favourite quote from Bridge of Clay?

“It’s a mystery to me how boys and brothers love”

Q: Did Homer influence the style of writing?

Yes, that was deliberate. The rhythm and cadence, the epic nature. This is a suburban epic. All lives have epic moments.

Q: Does the book feel finished now, after being in your life for so long? Will the brothers grow old as your life progresses?

Markus may well revisit them. Characters don’t arrive fully formed, they have to be worked on and developed. They become akin to friends.

When his publisher suggested he must feel great to finally finish he admitted to feeling terrible. After the high of all the hard work it all felt flat.

Q: Do you have a nickname?

There are many nicknames in the family and all evolve over time. A friend called him Small and his son then became Little Small. His sister called him Golden Boy (here he is with his books) and when The Book Thief did so well this became Platinum Boy, and then PB – he doesn’t think this suits him at all but the stories behind the names are what interest. The dedications in the book are to his family and are their nicknames.

Q: Would you allow Bridge of Clay to be made into a film?

Markus doesn’t know. He loves books and loves films but who should he give it to? They might do something different with it which may work or may not. He would be just as happy if it isn’t made into a film.

Q: When writing are you a prolific reader?

No, but he likes a book with a good voice, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Good characters make good books.

Markus was then asked to sign books and the queue snaked all the way around the large church venue, several people deep, and out the door. Unable to delay so long I took my final few photographs and made my way home. It was an evening well worth attending.

Bridge of Clay is published by Doubleday.

You may read my review here.

Monthly Roundup – October 2018

This month’s reading has been a mix of new publications – including several read in preparation for author events – and a few books plucked from my vast TBR pile that I have been eager to get to for ages. I have enjoyed fiction and non fiction, translated works, and even a couple of books aimed at children. In total I posted reviews for 14 titles, including two that I originally wrote for Bookmunch. I also posted write-ups from 8 literary events. It has been a busy bookish month.

If you click on the book covers below you will be taken to publisher information and purchase suggestions. Click on a title and you will be taken to my review.

Translated fiction

  
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), published by Portobello Books
Soul of the Border by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), published by Pushkin Press

Fiction

  
Normal People by Sally Rooney, published by Faber & Faber
The Study Circle by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink

  
Thin Air by Michelle Paver, published by Orion
Crocodile by Daniel Shand, published by Sandstone Press


Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, published by Doubleday

Short Stories


Chains: Unheard Voices, published by the MargŌ Collective

Children’s and YA Fiction

  
Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans), published by Bloomsbury
Disbelieved by Beth Webb

Non Fiction

  
For Love & Money by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland
Landfill by Tim Dee, published by Little Toller

  
The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad by Sam Jordison, published by Michael O’Mara Books
The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah, published by Profile Books

Literary events

  
Rachel Trethewey at Bowood
Adam Kay in Bristol

  
Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson at the Marlborough Literature Festival
The Corsham Bookshop (for Bookshop Day)

  
Edward Carey in Bath
Tim Dee in Bath

  
Sally Rooney in Bath
Novel Nights in Bristol 
with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.

Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.

Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.

  

The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.

  

The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.

  

Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.

After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.

Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.

Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.

The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.

  

Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.

Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.

Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.

Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.

Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.

There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.

Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.

Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.

A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.

Nikesh was asked  how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.

He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.

Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.

Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.

Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.

As Grace said in her summing up:

“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”

I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.

As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.

  

  

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.

You may read my review here.

Gig Review: Sally Rooney in Bath

The following is taken from notes I jotted down at the event.

Last Sunday evening I attended a packed event at Toppings bookshop in Bath where Sally Rooney gave readings from her latest novel, the Booker longlisted Normal People, and discussed how she approached her writing. She was introduced by Matt, one of the booksellers and an obviously ardent fan. Sally then read from the opening pages of her book.

She told us that she wished to tell the stories of the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, from each of their perspectives. She first started writing about these characters in short stories, set when they were in their twenties. Her first attempt placed them at a political protest but that story didn’t work out. She then wrote a second story about them which was published in The White Review. As the characters kept turning up in her writing she decided to allow them to stay and to develop them further.

At this stage Sally didn’t have a publishing contract. The jumps in time in the novel occurred because she was writing about the stages in the characters’ lives that she was interested in. Normal People was written over a two year period but Marianne and Connell had been with Sally for a year longer than this.

Matt asked about the genesis of her first novel, Conversations With Friends.

Sally was studying at Trinity College Dublin for her Masters. She had a scholarship that covered fees and was working part time in a restaurant. She had no real idea what she would do next. The book was her first attempt at a full length novel. It turned into a long long novel. Once finished she set it aside and wrote the short stories about Marianne and Connell. She worked on both these manuscripts, back and forth, for her own amusement. She knew she wanted to be a writer but with no contract felt under no pressure, enjoying the freedom to write what she wanted. She suspects that there will be pressure with whatever she writes next, that she will feel a need to create something new and different.

Matt asked what it is about the novels that resonates so with readers.

Sally has no idea. When writing she considered her subjects niche and of limited appeal. They are culturally specific, about the life she was living (although not autobiographical). She is grateful that people like her books but has no idea why certain novels work. She now wonders why she thought such specificity would not be liked as many of her favourite novels involve characters that are nothing like her.

Matt asked how she got an agent.

An essay Sally wrote was published in the Dublin Review. This was spotted by an agent who contacted her asking if she had a novel, giving her the motivation to tidy up what became Conversations With Friends.

Sally talked about how strange it feels to see her novels as a product in a bookshop, to see a fixed version of the text. If she wants to she can still go to her laptop, pull up the word document and change it!

She loves writing and feels grateful that she can do this now. It feels incredibly rewarding having this imaginative existence. The pleasure of writing is completely separate from the experience of publishing a book.

Matt asked about the idea of masculinity. He said it blew his mind reading about Connell’s recognition of how he should behave alongside the reality of his behaviour.

Sally explained that during the process of writing she isn’t aware of broader ideas. She writes how characters are and how they act. Later she will think about issues covered more, asking if she is doing the character justice or making him a puppet to express her ideas.

Ideas of gender are a series of cultural texts. Children grow up being exposed to what is regarded as appropriate for a boy and a girl. They absorb this. Navigating expectations as a young person can be difficult and complex.

Sally wishes to be able to sympathise with her protagonists. She wishes to remain optimistic about the possibility of redemption.

The second reading was taken from the chapter in Normal People where Connell has just started at university and attends a party. Sally’s reading brought out the ironic humour of the text.


Photo taken from my seat at the back of a packed bookshop. Sally is there in the distance!

Questions were invited from the audience.

A reader asked about the endings of both novels as she felt they stopped rather abruptly.

The ending was the part of the stories that Sally struggled with most. When writing Conversations With Friends she regarded it as a tapestry in which every loose thread must be tied. She then realised that she could actually just end it if she wanted. This was liberating. She chose to leave the ending open. With Normal People she got to around the tenth draft and saw similarities with a book she was reading, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The overlaps may be a byproduct of her total immersion in the text but it helped her understand how her book should end. She believes in ambivalence, inconclusiveness.

Sally was asked what books and authors inspire her.

As well as Daniel Deronda she named Emma by Jane Austin which also has echoes in her writing. Emma is another twenty-something year old woman, with similar problems despite living two hundred years ago. Sally enjoys eighteenth and nineteenth century bourgeoisie novels, the intimate lives of those who have a lot of free time. The Irish experience is, of course, culturally and politically different due to historic land ownership.

She also enjoys reading contemporary short story writers. For better or worse she is influenced by texts and tweets.

Sally was asked about how she handles class, why Connell’s working class background is so integral.

Reading has informed an image of society. It is hard to write without observing the texture of how class structures interactions. Sally came from the West of Ireland to attend Trinity and felt alienated. A much larger proportion of Trinity students than is normal in Irish society come from elite families. She was determined to prove that she could be as good as them.

She feels invested in and wants to be sensitive to class issues.

Sally was asked what sparked Marianne’s submissiveness and power, if she researched these issues.

No, she didn’t research. She doesn’t wish to create a commentary on such issues. She writes about the characters she creates, how they carry past experiences. They will be influenced by trauma but also every other thing – layers of experience. She is not trying to write as an expert. She wants to be politically sensitive but also true to the weirdness of individuals.

In Normal People she was telling one story – the relationship between Marianne and Connell. It was not necessary to include every other detail of their lives.

The third reading concluded the evening. This was a section where Connell attends a literary event. He is suffering depression which perhaps feeds the cynicism expressed. It was amusing, given the venue and audience, that Sally chose this to read.


Photograph Credit: Toppings twitter feed – @ToppingsBath

As staff cleared away the many seats two queues formed: to buy books and have them signed. Despite the length of the queues it was good to see that the author found time to chat to each reader.

It was getting late so I decided against waiting and headed back out into the rain to make my way home. Sally came across as genuine and interesting. I was glad to have attended this event.

Normal People is published by Faber & Faber. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Toppings in Bath

Gig Review: Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson at the Marlborough Literature Festival

Last weekend I attended the Debut Authors event at the Marlborough Literature Festival. First stop was the box office to pick up my ticket. I reluctantly declined the delicious cakes on offer at their pop up teashop. Attendees were making the most of the opportunity to enjoy the refreshments on offer.

I also passed on the adjacent book stall as the venue for the talk I was attending was inside the bookshop that provides festival stock.

Marlborough has a wide, historic high street which on an overcast Sunday was still busy with visitors and shoppers. It was good to see the place so vibrant.

The White Horse Bookshop is just one of many interesting buildings in the town. It contains a small art gallery at its rear where the author event was being held.

This year the debut authors were Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson. Their event was chaired by Caroline Sanderson. Below are the notes I took during what turned out to be a friendly and informative discussion.

Asked how it felt to first hold a finished copy of their debut novel, Adelle told us her experience was somewhat stressful! The first edition of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile was published on a shoestring budget by the small independent, Wrecking Ball Press, and launched at the Bradford Literature Festival. Copies of the book didn’t arrive until twenty-four hours before so it was a relief to find that the print run was okay.

Mick also felt relief when he finished writing Sal, even before it was printed. He still finds it wonderful when he sees his book stocked in shops.

He spoke about the story and why he wrote it. Described as a modern adventure inspired by Huckleberry Finn and Kidnapped, he wanted to write a character who was the opposite of him. He also wished to include elements that he enjoys – fishing, trees, the healing power of nature, swearing…

He read to us from the opening of the book commenting that a good opening is vital – he decides if he will buy a book from the first few paragraphs. He likes novels that make him laugh and cry – he included a joke on the opening page of his book. He wanted to create a strong voice for Sal who came to him fully formed. She removes herself from her emotions but during the journey she goes on perhaps learns how to feel. At the beginning she is suffering from PTSD having killed a man. Later, with the help of the first mother figure in her life, she is getting glimpses of the infinite.

Asked if his experience as a teacher helped him capture the girls’ vernacular he spoke of the funny, loquacious eleven year olds he encounters in Scotland who, five or six years later have lost that energy and inventiveness. He pondered what horrible things we do to them that this happens.

Caroline turned attention to Adelle whose debut novel (she has also published three chapbooks of poetry) was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize which rewards brilliant and truly inventive work that might otherwise be overlooked – ‘all ye that are weary and heavy burdened, gaze upon these works and wonder!’ She asked why Adelle chose to write about Andrea Dunbar.

In 1989 Adelle watched an interview on television, possibly the last interview Andrea gave, that piqued her interest. The television was kept in a cupboard in her bedroom – a gift from her parents – and she would watch unsuitable films with her headphones on after her family went to bed. These included Andrea’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too. The dialogue was a language she understood. Although she didn’t grow up on an estate she lived in a brewery town and encountered a lot of drunks.

Adelle wanted to be a writer. She went to university when she was thirty, a mature student. She found Andrea a fascinating character and looked for a book about her life. When she found none existed she decided to write it. Andrea’s plays are autobiographical and depict the cycle of poverty, deprivation and abuse.

Her four years of research included talking to Andrea’s daughters, friends and acquaintances. Adelle was given access to letters, diaries and scripts, although much was lost as Andrea burned everything in anger at how the film turned out. The book started out as biography before Adelle decided to fictionalise it. She read us a section from around the time Rita, Sue and Bob Too went on general release.

Regarding the challenges of writing fiction about a real person, Adelle mentioned her sources – letters to the theatre that put on Andrea’s three plays, and the works themselves. Her main worry was that she wouldn’t do the story justice. She also wished to retain respect for the people she was writing about, to get the voices right.

Andrea’s family were helpful and provided an insight into their lives. The Dunbars have a particular way of speaking and Adelle worked this into the book. She also visited The Beacon, the pub where Andrea collapsed, never again regaining consciousness. It was a challenge to walk in alone, to an establishment filled with drinking men, but on the day she chose one of Andrea’s sisters happened to be working behind the bar and many of the customers knew the family. Adelle had her research bag with her containing many photographs which broke the ice. She stayed there for three or four useful hours.

Andrea had not felt she belonged in London theatreland but, after she started working there, neither did she feel at home on the estate. She didn’t earn as much money as some thought, perhaps because she didn’t have an agent. She was still perceived as wealthy. There were numerous hangers on and she felt out of place.

In the end Andrea stopped writing and returned to factory work. She died with £45 to her name. The sequel she had written to Rita, Sue and Bob Too has never been found.

Caroline asked about representation, if more working class voices were coming through now.

Mick wasn’t sure. He described Sal as marginal, not from a dominant cultural background. He certainly doesn’t want to read stories about a London writer who goes to Norfolk. He wants to write about those who don’t have a voice.

Adelle mentioned that America has blue collar writing and takes pride in the likes of Steinbeck. This is not done in Britain to the same extent. Perhaps it is the English and their obsession with class. It is also a problem with agents, editors and publishers being London based. The industry needs to expand its horizons, to follow the lead of the likes of Dead Ink Press who published Know Your Place. The Northern Fiction Alliance are doing good work in this area.

Questions were opened to the audience and Adelle was asked if Andrea had inspirational characters. Stephen King was cited. Also Tony Priestley who taught her drama and encouraged her to write. Andrea attended a good school. She also met Leanne at a women’s refuge when she was eighteen which resulted in her work being sent to London.

Caroline mentioned that teachers and libraries are most often mentioned by authors as providing initial encouragement and inspiration to write. Mick told us of a school he had visited recently which had a library the pupils were not allowed to use (sigh). Kids need to be given permission to write in their voice rather than to copy the established works they must study – to use their lives, friends and experiences to find a unique voice.

The authors were asked if they will write another novel.

Adelle has started. She has written 17,000 words and has just captured what will be the beginning. She now realises she needs to ditch those words and start again. When writing she has a rough arc but elements appear as she writes. Too much planning takes the fun away.

Mick told us he doesn’t know when he starts how his stories would be resolved. When writing Sal he knew his character couldn’t be made to lose. He consulted a lawyer friend to learn how child offenders would be treated in Scotland. Sal’s fear wasn’t prison but being separated from her sister.

Mick took a year off work when Sal came out and wrote his second novel. He has now started a third. This one requires more research as it is set in the 1830s. His ideas though come when writing. He gets a feel for the emotional intensity as he goes along.

The final question was: to what extent do characters push you around?

Adelle pointed out that Andrea’s story was based on fact so she knew what the characters were like. In her new novel the characters are behaving in unanticipated ways – turning into monsters.

Mick told us that Sal didn’t always speak as envisaged and, on the final read through, he added some emotion.

Caroline drew the event to a close commenting that, having chaired many author events, the advice given by successful, established writers on planning and plotting remains contradictory.

Adelle and Mick moved downstairs to sign books and chat to their appreciative fans. I took the opportunity to catch up with Adelle’s roadie, Ben Myers. I had hoped to be able to hang around for long enough to talk to Adelle as well, but she was kept busy doing her job. That people were buying her book was a good thing so I headed home.

   

Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile is published by Fleet Books – you may read my review here.

Sal is published by Canongate – you may read my review here.

 

Gig Review: Adam Kay in Bristol

Last Thursday evening my husband and I set off, through chaotic travel conditions that had emptied motorway traffic onto every other route toward Bristol, to attend a sold out show I had booked tickets for in the spring. It was touch and go whether we would get there on time but we made it – just! Judging from the empty seats in the auditorium a fair few didn’t.

We were there to see Dr Adam Kay on his comedy tour based around his best selling book, This Is Going To Hurt. Much of his material was taken from the published diary entries. Added to these readings were songs in a similar vein.

The show is very funny. I did feel a tad sorry for the doctor seated near the front who Adam kept referring to for laughs. Hopefully he took it in good spirits.

There was further audience participation in a sing along quiz. This worked better than it may sound – Adam had most of the audience in the palm of his hand.

My husband, who hasn’t read the book, was laughing more than I have seen in years throughout the evening. He wasn’t, however, impressed by the way the show was concluded. Having shared the very moving reason for resigning as a doctor, Adam gave his views on health secretaries and the way governments blame staff for problems in the NHS, which the media duly reports thereby influencing the general public’s perceptions. He asked that we consider the challenges of being a medical practitioner where, despite best endeavours, patients may die. Doctors are human. They sometimes make mistakes. The job is stressful enough without having to face accusations of greed when ninety hour weeks are being worked to ensure patients are cared for.

On that somewhat downbeat note the show ended. Adam received rapturous applause and moved to the foyer where he signed books purchased. He had explained earlier that, on each leg of the tour, a local bookshop is invited to provide stock as some tax may thereby be paid.

It was an enjoyable evening. Fairly short – for a show at that price, not a book event – at around an hour but was packed with laugh out loud anecdotes and irreverent banter. If you haven’t read it already, I recommend the book.