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.