Category Archives: Writing

Day 5

If you thought day four was short, then day five was – blissfully – shorter still. I went for one reason only.

Started my evening by quickly eating my sandwiches, because it’s finding a time and place for eating that has been the hardest. I sat on the press pew and stared at the rubber ducks for a few minutes.

Kathryn Evans by Chris Close

And then I took one turn round Charlotte Square, to see if there was anything new I’d not seen before. Any new crazy photographs by Chris Close, for instance. There weren’t, so I offer you some I found earlier and kept back, in case I needed them.

Juno Dawson by Chris Close

Walked over to George Street and the Bosco Theatre again, and was really pleased to find that the event was being chaired by Bookwitch favourite Ann Landmann. She had the double Cs to deal with. I’m sure someone knows I use initials when taking notes, and thought it’d be a hoot to have CC and CC talk to each other. (That’s Cat Clarke and Christoffer Carlsson.)

Signing queue

There was no way I was going to miss this, seeing as Christoffer and I come from the same place, and he has such a lovely surname. So I queued up behind all the fans afterwards, for my books to be signed and to chat. And having ‘missed’ my first train, I had 15 minutes to spare on Christoffer. Enough to have some water near the yurt, and find out why he’s ditched the accent. Apparently his Stockholm students couldn’t understand what he was saying in lectures.

Christoffer Carlsson and Cat Clarke

It was meant to rain, but it didn’t. How could it? I was there. In fact, I’d say that my walk back to Waverley around nine o’clock was the balmiest evening I’ve had so far, with no rain, and a comfortable temperature, and the lights and the [not too many] people. The kind of evening when you want to sit out, over drinks, and chat to someone.

Hang on, I did. OK, I didn’t have any water, but I had a companion, and we chatted. It was pleasant and warm. The poet laureate sat at the next table. There were [other] nice people around. Ticks a lot of boxes, that does.

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Thrilling Fiction

They fought about who would sit on the middle chair, Michelle Paver or Peter Høeg, and while they did, their chair Daniel Hahn quickly sat down on the shiny red chair on the far side. In the end Michelle won, and Peter’s fame got him the chair between her and Danny.

I’d never thought about this before, but when Son pointed out earlier this summer that Peter Høeg hardly ever does events, it sort of made sense. So we made sure we were there to hear him speak, sparingly, about his new book The Susan Effect. (Everyone knows him for Miss Smilla.) And as I said last week in my review, I loved Michelle’s Thin Air.

Daniel began by saying they’d discovered they had one scientist and one mountaineer between them, and one book about science and one on climbing. But the trouble was that the ‘wrong’ person wrote the books; with Michelle covering the climbing and Peter the physics.

Describing Thin Air as a ‘thrilling, intense, really scary book’ that he shouldn’t have read alone late at night, Daniel asked Michelle how it came about. This story about the frozen world of Kangchenjunga began with her suffering from a frozen shoulder and when she couldn’t sleep, she got up and read something from her shelf of mountaineering books. Originally it was to be set in South America (she fancied making a research trip there), but in the end it had to be Kangchenjunga, with God at the top and the abominable snowman further down. And ghosts.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

Peter usually gets his ideas during a ‘fleeting short moment’ in the middle of another book; this time about a woman who makes people speak the truth. He’s got a couple of such people in his own family, so knows what it’s like. It’s important how the character speaks. It has to be someone the reader can spend a week with, and the author maybe two years.

Like many Scandinavians, Peter speaks English well, slowly and with a marked Danish accent, but quite competently. He said Michelle ruined his reading of Thin Air, but Danny pointed out that this is what book festivals are for; having your illusions destroyed.

For her children’s series Wolf Brother she felt it important that children could like the characters, but for her adult books she’s quite happy to ‘be’ her new character, however unpleasant, or racist, they might be.

Peter tries to create something new each time, feeling it’s dangerous to repeat yourself. He was surprised by the humour in this new book. It’s warmer and more fun, and that makes him happy. Michelle mentioned that his line about a raisin made her laugh out loud when reading.

Peter Høeg

They both read from their books, with Peter apologising for his bad English as he read a short piece from the beginning of The Susan Effect. Michelle read the bit where her character wakes up in the tent, and how there might be someone out there…

As the middle of three sisters, she felt she had the necessary experience to write about sibling rivalry, and she mentioned the background of ‘beating the Hun’ and the public school ethos, and how men couldn’t admit to things like altitude sickness, which might affect a whole group.

Both authors admired each other’s books, and spoke about different – non-literary – genres, and how you need all kinds of books. The Danes, like other Nordics, read crime in the summer, a bit like porn. Michelle said that YA is good, because it tends to have a plot, and it doesn’t need to be literary.

Peter writes his first draft by hand, from beginning to end, and then he types it up, editing as he goes along. And if a day feels as if it won’t be a writing day, then he doesn’t force it. According to him, there are no books, only reading. We all read differently and there are as many versions of a book as there are readers.

Question time made a slow start, with Danny saying that if this had been a children’s event, all hands would be in the air. He mentioned one very important aspect about Peter’s book, which is that none of the words are his, but those chosen by his English translator (Martin Aitken). Peter said how grateful he is to him, and how all of Denmark relies on people to translate their small language. Daniel described the translating process as the translator first reads the book, then has to become arrogant – in a positive way – in order to rewrite the words so the book reads as though it is English. ‘Little Denmark’ likes this.

Michelle likes MR James, likes ghost stories, and she recognises that it’s unusual with ghosts somewhere empty like Svalbard (Dark Matter). Daniel said first you are scared because you are on your own, and then a stone moves, and you think ‘oh my god, I’m not on my own!’ And that is worse.

She does a fair bit of research, travelling to the places she sets her stories, and looking into things like illnesses and reading up on what others have already written, like the early climbers on Kangchenjunga.

Peter did research the first twenty years. And then the internet happened and he lost interest in old style research. He has a love for both science and music, but neither loves him back.

Peter Høeg and Michelle Paver

At the signing afterwards, I was delighted to discover that Michelle never travels without her paw print stamp for when fans bring copies of Wolf Brother. And she let me have a paw print in Thin Air. After all, we don’t know what’s out there on that mountain. Could be anything.

The Great Gender Debate

‘Yes, but my book’s really for girls.’ Best to get the embarrassing comments out of the way early. This was Kathryn Evans, who once said that to a school librarian. Hopefully accidentally. She has since recognised that lots of boys buy and read her More of Me. And surely it can’t be because of Kathryn’s ‘sneaky thing’ where she advises boys that they can learn a lot about girls by reading her book?

There should be more events like the Great Gender Debate on Friday night at the book festival. Not just because it was interesting, but because it sold out, and it did so to a surprising number of teenagers. I often wonder what it takes to get young readers come to events, when they are too old to be taken by a parent, but possibly too young to choose to come a long way for a literary thing.

David Levithan

It was an interesting line-up of authors, too; with Kathryn flanked by Jonathan Stroud and David Levithan. Three quite different – from each other – writers, gently guided by chairs Sarah Broadley and Anita Gallo from SCBWI. Asked to tell us about an achievement which made them proud, David said being given the Albert Einstein award at camp, Jonathan was pleased when he found the voice of Bartimaeus, and Kathryn was so excited to be published after writing for 15 years. They were also asked to admit to some embarrassing past event, of which I will only mention that a young Jonathan got himself locked into a bookshop in Hay.

This was a longer than normal event at 90 minutes, but it wasn’t long enough to cover what the audience wanted to discuss. And there is always Enid Blyton. A mother wanted to know what she ought to say or do about the sexism in Blyton, whose books her six-year-old son loves. Jonathan thought the boy could be left to enjoy them, whereas both Kathryn and David felt some educating on the sexes was wanted, and David mentioned that there are other books. Kathy also had a little go at Jonathan, about his character Holly, who bakes, and to be perfectly honest, that thought had occurred to me as well.

But as someone pointed out, what matters most is what it’s like at home, and then it doesn’t matter if Blyton is OTT.

Kathryn Evans

Asked for recommendations on who to look out for next, David said he’d enjoyed a book about a young trans boy. Kathryn praised Penny Joelson, and Jonathan really likes Jo Cotterill. As for books that changed their lives, David didn’t have one, Jonathan loved Treasure Island, while Kathryn was a bit of a non-reader (too many words) until she discovered Watership Down.

One – female – member of the audience wanted ideas on how to make the audience more balanced, seeing as there were far more females than males. David reckons YA engages girls more than boys, and girls read more, too. But ‘books don’t have gender.’ Jonathan mentioned that his books are read by 14-year-olds as well as by those over sixty (I’ll say…)

According to David social progress will get on no matter who is President or Prime Minister. Teenagers are more open. Kathryn has had discussions with both the older and younger generation, arguing with her daughter and discovering she is very privileged, while her own father now accepts that her lesbian friend is ‘allowed in the house.’

Jonathan Stroud and Kathryn Evans

A youth worker said that hardly any of his young people read. And those who do, have read Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. He wanted to know what he could do about this. Jonathan felt it was good that there is something – even if it’s this – that gets them reading. He had not read either himself, and both Kathryn and David had struggled with Fifty Shades, with David managing ‘one shade’ before putting it down. Kathy liked Twilight.

Kathryn Evans

How to understand that not only girls can be feminists is another problem. On screen more females tend to die, but Jonathan kills his characters regardless of their sex. David said ‘people tend not to die in my books.’ As for lesbians, they have a much higher than average death rate on television. And whatever you do, don’t kill the dog!

Day 3

By some stroke of misfortune, when Kathryn Evans lay down flat on her tummy on the floor of the bookshop I had already put my camera away. She was demonstrating something to do with paintballing to Jonathan Stroud’s son. This is not in the slightest out of character, although I had just suggested she might need to ‘break into’ the authors’ yurt for her coat. Kathryn was cold, and I didn’t lend her my down jacket, but instead suggested to someone else that they should give her theirs. Which they did…

Kathryn Evans

Anyway, we both made it to Edinburgh in the end. Kathy had more than one plane delayed, which in turn made me wonder if it was worth going if she wasn’t going to make it. But it was all fine. Who needs hours to prepare for an event? And she even had time to change into her gorgeous frock. Even if it did make her cold.

I began the evening by being confused, getting two crime writers mixed up. Then I went to catch Cathy MacPhail signing after her event with Nicci Cloke, and got Alex Nye as a bonus. Didn’t know Alex was chairing.

Nicci Cloke, Alex Nye and Cathy MacPhail

Popped over to the other bookshop for Gill Arbuthnott, who had just de-vampired a whole tent, or something. She seemed to be busy planning to put this girl’s beautiful ribbons into her next book. It’s the kind of thing that happens at book festivals.

Gill Arbuthnott

And then it was time for the event of the evening, The Great Gender Debate with Kathy and Jonathan Stroud and David Levithan.

In the bookshop afterwards, I might possibly have rolled my eyes at Kathryn (when she mentioned selfies), so she told me off. Had a very senior moment when I realised that I was in the same room as Jonathan, and I had left every single Lockwood at home. Chatted to him anyway, and then convinced a potential new fan that he needed to start by reading the first Lockwood, and luckily Jonathan backed me up on this. I even found a copy, among all the later books.

Jonathan Stroud

It seems David Levithan is the kind of gentleman who signs standing up. It looks like such hard work, but maybe it isn’t. There were lots of fans, for all three of them.

David Levithan

I ran into a few people again, because these events are that kind of, well, event. It’s where you meet likeminded people. And it would have been nice to go for drinks, but I had a late train to wrestle with, and Kathryn had this floor to lie on, so we hugged a second time (I could get used to all this hugging), and I left while I still had a nice warm jacket to call mine.

Charlotte Square

Little White Lies

Much to Offspring’s disgust and shame I am [was] the only person in the country who had no idea who Reginald D Hunter is. On that basis I had decided to approach his event with Tanya Landman completely cold and unresearched. I understood he’s famous, and on getting out my copy of Tanya’s Passing for White the night before, I discovered she had dedicated the book to him.

I believe breaths had been held as to whether Reginald was going to arrive on time, but he did. In a wheelchair, and I’m only saying this because I don’t know if that is permanent. I’m guessing not.

Anyway, there we all were at this sold out event called Little White Lies, which as the chair Daniel Hahn said is a ‘subject disappointingly relevant’ just now. You keep hoping it won’t be, but ‘this problem doesn’t go away.’ Telling Tanya that she’s white – she agreed – he asked why we were there. She told us the background to writing Buffalo Soldier a few years ago. She asked herself what she was doing, as a white, British, middleclass woman, writing from the point of view of a black, recently freed slave in 19th century America.

Tanya Landman

She felt she had no right, but had to write this. No one had to want to publish the book, or to read it, or to like it. (They did, though, and we did.) She based her character’s voice on Reginald’s, and now feels she simply can’t do readings from her books, because it doesn’t sound right. Tanya ‘stalked’ him on Twitter for long enough, saying that appearing with him like this was her fantasy Edinburgh event.

Asked what he thinks of white people writing about black people, Reginald replied that if it weren’t for certain white authors, then some stories would never be told, and compared it with how black music survives because white people fill the clubs, wanting to hear this kind of music. Authenticity matters; and he wouldn’t want a story seen through white eyes, but ‘we all bring some cultural bias.’ According to Reg’s dad, good food or good music is always good.

You need to think yourself into someone’s head, which you can do with a book. Films are generally less authentic; often whitewashed. Reg joked about a white version of the Martin Luther King story.

If you are used to privilege, then equality could seem like discrimination, and other people are seen as bad because they take something away from us. We are all the same; human. Intellectualism is a true interest, and the stories have chosen Tanya to tell them. The middle classes are dangerous because they are in the middle, close enough to both lower and upper classes.

Tanya Landman

Reginald said he never learned much black history at school, but got most of it from his family. Blacks are still not truly free, and the main difference from slavery is that now you have to get your own food. Unlike WWII (there were comparisons between Robert E Lee and Hitler), the Civil War never really ended. The blacks didn’t win.

For Tanya Reg is the perfect person to read her books aloud, but Daniel forced her to read a bit first, which is fine bcause we are ‘used to hearing authors read’ from their books. And then Reg read in the voice she loved so much from Songs of the South on BBC, when he told us he had mostly worried about snakes and mosquitoes…

At this point Daniel was told to get on with questions from the audience, because it was rather ‘toasty’ in the tent, and Reg had had someone faint on him the day before. He considered black remakes of white roles, but felt that there was only a limited amount of undercover work a black James Bond would be able to do.

A question for Tanya was how current affairs influence her writing. It’s her way of looking at history. There was a question on why having black Shakespearean actors works, but it’s so much harder to see black actors playing other than black characters. And there was much joking about how several of the Americans in the audience had also managed to escape the US.

Tanya Landman

The question, of course, is whether Reginald can answer for all black Americans. Maybe what he thinks is OK – or not – is merely his opinion. He used the n-word a couple of times, which felt refreshing, but I understand it offends a lot.

But it does sound as if Tanya can continue writing from non-white points of view. Some readers will always be offended, but these stories must out.

Day 2

That’s my day 2, not the Edinburgh International Book Festival, who were already on day 6. I’m pacing myself, as I keep telling people. It’s not that I’m lazy.

Press ducks

The sun shone again. My theory is that it’s pleased to see me. As I am pleased to see it. We kept each other company outside the yurt, eating, reading, watching famous people go by.

Photographed Siri Hustvedt, doing my best from behind the professional photographers. As you can see, I’m a little short.

Siri Hustvedt

Discussed Peter Høeg with someone on staff, as you do. Chatted to press boss Frances as we both enjoyed the lovely summer’s day on the pew outside, talking about the logistics behind the scenes. Watched Chris Close photograph Tanya Landman, and kept thinking he’d offer her the apple I could see. Turned out later it was for him to eat…

Chris Close and Tanya Landman

Talked with Tanya’s agent Lindsey Fraser, until we realised we’d better head over to queue for Tanya’s sold out event with Reginald D Hunter. Were joined by Elspeth Graham, who is practically Tanya’s neighbour at home.

Tanya Landman and Daniel Hahn

Hung out in the bookshop while Tanya signed her books, and said hello to Eleanor Updale, and was introduced to Lari Don’s mother who looked more like a sister, and finally met Kirstin from Barrington Stoke. Had some tea after that, but was a little disappointed with the scone. Encountered Carol Ann Duffy on my way to the Amnesty International reading. Not that we are pals or talked, obviously.

Daniel Hahn and Eleanor Updale

The Amnesty readings were not quite as harrowing as they usually are, by which I mean I didn’t burst into tears. The Thursday readers were Raja Shehadeh, Siri Hustvedt, Stef Penney and Denise Mina on the subject of ‘Love is a human right.’

Then I went out to dinner with Son and Dodo. We had tapas, followed by some enormous puddings (presumably to make up for the tapas-sized main course). Reckon if I display any more senior moments I will never be asked out again. It’s not easy getting old.

To finish the day we all went to an event with Michelle Paver and the very reclusive Peter Høeg, admirably chaired by Daniel Hahn. Again. He certainly gets around. And after that we hung out in the signing tent, where there was a satisfyingly long queue, and Son and Danny talked translations. Or something.

Peter Høeg, Michelle Paver, Daniel Hahn and Ian Giles

And then it was time to go home, to which I will add that it’s also high time ScotRail make enough trains and rolling stock available to dispatch all festival goers to their homes. What we get makes me long for the post-concert trains on the Continent where you don’t end a nice day out on the floor of a train. (And no, that wasn’t me. I had sharpened my elbows before I left, so got a seat. But plenty didn’t.)

Meg as Mal

Jake Hope began his chairing of Meg Rosoff’s event on Tuesday evening by saying so many nice things about her writing, that she felt the need to pat him on the arm and explain to us that he had to say those things.

Either that, or he really meant them. The trouble with Meg is that she doesn’t understand that Jake and I and everyone else quite like her writing and occasionally feel compelled to mention this. And where better than in a tent full of her fans?

Meg Rosoff

Meg had new hair, and the red chair she was sitting on (I don’t mean Jake) went well with her black and grey outfit. (See, I’m managing to steer clear of the writing!) Jake wore a new pair of colourful boots.

This event was about how Meg finished writing Mal Peet’s book Beck after he died, and she explained how offering to do this was the one thing she could say when Mal phoned her with the unwanted news of his illness. You know, the time when you desperately want to say something nice or kind, but you can’t, because there is nothing that will make it better.

After reading what Mal had written so far, Meg felt she could definitely adopt this book. She read a lot of Canadian literature to get a feel for the country Beck ends up being ‘deported’ to as a teenager.

Mal Peet

The end was in place, but she felt the story arc needed pushing for a special ending. She made Beck’s love interest a little younger, and Beck had to be made more attractive [to an older woman].

At Jake’s request Meg’s reading from Beck was the [beginning of the] abuse chapter, which she felt was all right to have in a book for young adults, as long as it was made terrible enough, with no chance of the reader finding it the slightest bit exciting. That is the important thing about what might be taboo; it mustn’t appear tempting in any way.

Despite the beginning of the book being great, Meg reckons she started changing things from about page three, to make it fit in with what she wanted it to be, and now she can barely remember who wrote what in some cases.

The discussion then moved on to politics and her belief that the 45th President has never read a book, so is ‘entirely unshaped by other people’s views of the world.’ Cultural appropriation was next, and Meg feels that children don’t need mirrors in fiction, so much as doors. She said she’s part of the generation who thought things were going to get better… That makes two of us.

Early favourites were A Wrinkle in Time, as well as Hamlet and Lear. We need a mix. One book that inspired her was The Cat in the Hat, which she used to scare her daughter by reading in a funny voice. Then there were pony books, dog books, her parents’ books, books about spies and finally reading le Carré aged nine and not getting it. And why did no one ask Meg to write one of the new Bonds? She liked literature like The Secret Garden, and she read trash, for the good bits.

Meg Rosoff

She knew she could never be an author because she could never write as well as the writers she liked. But when she realised she didn’t want to be run over by a bus, having only worked in advertising, she still wrote a book. And she says she really wrote it for her agent (Catherine Clarke), to please someone difficult to please.

Meg’s well-known inability to plot surfaced a lot. For her the characters come first, and as there are no rules for how you are an adult, hers are weird, singing rabbits and invisible greyhounds. Writing Beck didn’t change her way of writing, but she tended to ask herself ‘what would Mal do?’ And she toned the sex down.

Asked if she wanted to cooperate with others, she said ‘not really.’ Although she does discuss plots with Sally Gardner, and recently disagreed with Sally on rewriting Romeo and Juliet as old people; because she didn’t make them old enough. And ‘I’ll have that idea if you’re not using it.’ She admits to getting weirder as she grows older.

‘How does she plot?’ ‘Haha, I wonder that too.’ The best thing is stealing a plot. For instance, Jonathan is really Lucky Jim. And if she waits a while after she’s written something, ‘a bit of plot creeps in.’

We can be satisfied with that.