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: Launching the Marlborough Literature Festival programme

On a sunny evening last week I travelled to the beautiful town of Marlborough for a literary party of a type new to me. I had received an invitation to attend the launch of the Marlborough Literature Festival programme, to be held at the White Horse Bookshop on the high street. It proved a friendly if packed event.

The festival started small and has grown since its inception, but never too much to lose its intimacy. Using just a few nearby venues – rooms at the college, a church hall, art gallery, library, and the town hall which also hosts the festival’s box office, pop up bookshop and tea shop – it aims to offer

“events with enough variety – from bookbinding and beer to poetry and politics – for everyone whatever your age or interest”

“This year we welcome several leading authors whose names will be familiar to all, as well as those you may not yet have heard of, but who we think are well worth looking out for.”

The expected highlight of 2018 is the attendance of children’s author David Walliams. So popular was his event expected to be that he agreed to perform twice on the festival Sunday – and both events sold out on the first morning tickets went on sale, demand bringing down the on line booking system much to the frustration of everyone involved.

David Walliams is not the only big name to attend. The Golding Speaker is Rose Tremain. Kate Moss, Alan Johnson, Max Hastings, William Boyd and Chris Cleave will all be there. You may check out the full programme by clicking here.

Back though to the launch party. Those I chatted to were: involved in the festival organisation; representing the sponsors; from local media. All were invited to enjoy a glass of wine, browse the programme and purchase tickets. The queue for these ran the length of the bookshop throughout the event. There was also a healthy interest in the books on display.

Personally I am looking forward to listening to the Hiscox Debut Authors – Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson. I am also intrigued by the Translation Duel where Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne debate the literary dilemmas posed by L’Amant by Marguerite Duras.

Whatever your interest, if you can be in the area do please consider attending. There are now many literary festivals to choose from and I believe this is a good thing, especially for local book lovers and their independent bookshops. These can only survive if they receive your support.

You may follow news of the festival on Twitter: @MarlbLitFest 

You may also follow the bookshop: @whitehorsebooks

 

Gig Review: Debut Authors at the Marlborough Literature Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

The Things We Tought We Knew is published by Doubleday.

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

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

 

 

Gig Review: John Boyne at the Marlborough Literature Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is published by Doubleday.

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

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.

Out and about

I am off to beautiful Marlborough this weekend to attend a few talks at their Literature Festival. They have a fabulous programme of events if you happen to be in the area with a few tickets still available. You may check these out here.

Updates can be followed on Twitter @MarlbLitFest. I will be writing about my own festival experiences next week.

Today I am also out and about on the blogosphere. The lovely Claire is hosting me on her feature The Bloggers Bookshelf. Click on the link to find out more.

Have a happy, book filled weekend.