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.

Riveting Reads with Julie and William

I knew my place, so sat at the back for Julie Bertagna’s event with William Sutcliffe. I was glad to see there were a good number of actual, proper teenagers in the audience. They are often the hardest group to tempt to book events; neither old enough nor young enough.

Julie Bertagna and William Sutcliffe

Chaired by Calum McGhie, Julie and William told us the background stories to Exodus and Concentr8. In Julie’s case it was a news story about a sinking island on the opposite side of the world, which became a Scottish island in Exodus. And now, 15 years on with a special anniversary edition and a new cover, we have much more of a refugee crisis and climate change to worry about.

William had been astounded to learn from a doctor friend that parents bring their children in, demanding to have Ritalin for them, because a diagnosis of ADHD means money for the family. He was shocked to find that people would put their children on what is a kind of amphetamine, for this reason alone.

William Sutcliffe

He’s aware that North London’s middle classes prefer to hide behind the familiar. It was after being the victim of a crime ten years ago that he became a mentor for a teenage boy, and it’s having known this boy so well that helped him get ‘the voice’ in his book. He feels that you can become another person by reading a book, whereas you don’t by watching a film. William said he borrowed from the 2011 riots, because it’s always good to start a book with a riot.

Julie was asked if she’d been tempted to re-write anything before the republication of Exodus, and she had, but in the end felt you can’t tamper with an already published book. Books are slower than films, and you are more in control when you read.

Julie Bertagna

She decided to make the tale more immediate by writing in the third person present tense; something that some readers have had difficulty with. You change the future by how you live your life, and the young have time on their side. Julie also admitted to having rearranged bits of Glasgow to fit the plot.

William described himself as neither a leader nor a follower, and said that when faced with an alpha male group leader it is generally impossible to either say no, or to leave the group. He has made it a point to hide which character you’re meant to like or dislike, which is so common in stories these days, and this has caused some negative reviews.

When it was time for questions, Julie and William almost talked at the same time, both eager to have their say. Julie likes the dynamics of the young; things might go wrong in YA literature, but there is hope for survival. And William pointed out that there is more to a book than the last ten pages.

Asked if they have worried that no one would want to read their books, Julie said yes, but that she’d tried to write what she would have enjoyed as a teenager, whereas William believes you shouldn’t think too much about the readers.

Why YA? William had written adult novels before, but needed a book to be YA for plot reasons and then started reading more teen books and liked them. He also feels they have a longer life through school events and similar, and that in the shops all YA novels sit side by side, no matter what genre, because YA itself is a genre. Julie reckoned that children’s books was a quiet backwater where she felt safe, until Harry Potter and Philip Pullman came on the scene and things started happening.

Books to recommend brought out Louis Sachar’s Holes from William, and Julie suggested the not yet published Book of Dust by Philip Pullman.

Julie is currently working on A Girl Made of Stars, about the Hadron Collider, and she knows what dark energy is. Or so she said. And asked if she’d get on the boat [in Exodus] or stay, she’d go on the boat, if there’s room.

Julie Bertagna, Exodus

On purple vomit and other horrors

He has moved on from weeing in the kitchen sink. This time Barry Hutchison was all about vomit, which occasionally was purple, and little white lies.

Introduced by Sarah Wright, who knew ‘nothing’ about Barry, because his website had been hacked, we still learned a great deal in this appropriately named Mischief and Mishaps event. I too came cold to this, knowing nothing about Barry’s new hero Beaky Malone. Seems it doesn’t matter, because all his best characters are really Barry. It explains a lot, although I do feel he should keep quiet about liking Beaky’s dad, on account that it’s himself.

Charlotte Square’s Corner theatre was packed with young readers, all keen to learn about Barry/Beaky/all-the-others. They were nice children, who showed concern in case Barry were to write any more scripts for the screen, as he has a history of making film companies go bankrupt.

Barry Hutchison

Beaky tells the truth. Always. Things like ‘I did a little wee.’ Honesty isn’t always the best policy, as Barry found when he was fired for pondering ‘what would happen if a monkey came through the door carrying a big gun’ when in a business meeting.

He is big on vomiting. But even Barry now feels you should take care when attempting to throw a sickie. Sometimes it is actually better simply to go to school [and not do what Barry did]. Not only did young Barry vomit a lot, but these days he’s an embarrassment to his children. He lies to Mrs Hutchison when he says writing is hard work, when in reality he sits staring into space for seven out of eight hours.

Barry Hutchison

Actually, whereas Barry solemnly promised he didn’t lie to us, I suspect he did. There is no way he could write all those books in the eighth hour alone. Even if he does write about himself, and even if he never does research, because he doesn’t like it. Why find out, when you can write about zombies instead?

And how did that pair of shoes, standing by the side of the motorway, get there? They could do with having a book written about them.

Day 1

What a day! Now all I need is for the rest of the Edinburgh International Book Festival to be as good. And if the sunshine could continue shining? As I might have mentioned yesterday, I had a good line-up for Tuesday, and it did not disappoint. Nor did any of the day’s little bonuses.

After collecting my press pass, which is a new, edgier design this year, I picked up my events tickets from a boiling entrance tent. I reckon they were expecting rain with that ‘glass’ ceiling in there. I nearly expired, and was grateful I wasn’t queueing up for returns for Peter May.

I ate my M&S salad and ran for Barry Hutchison’s event, where I found Lari Don, busy checking out the competition. Well, she said she was enjoying seeing her colleagues, but… In the bookshop, after I’d taken hundreds of pictures of Barry, I encountered Keith Charters standing next to the Strident shelves, surreptitiously checking they looked all right. They did. He’d been expecting to rearrange them.

Strident books

While we were talking about running, and stargazing, Theresa Breslin arrived on her off-day, and the conversation turned to Kirkland Ciccone, as conversations sometimes do. Then Keith and I went over to bother Barry for a bit, and to find out how he writes quite so many books quite so fast. He was mostly – I think – pondering the groceries he had to buy on his way home, and how appearing at the book festival wasn’t quite as glamorous as it was the first time.

Barry Hutchison

Glamorous would be the word to describe Judy Murray, whom I saw as I returned to the yurt area. Onesies never looked classier.

Stephen Baxter

I did another turn round the bookshops, and found Stephen Baxter signing for adults, and in the children’s bookshop a signing table for, well, I’m not sure who it was for. But after some googling I’d say that the people in this photo are Ehsan Abdollahi – who was originally refused a visa to enter the country – and I think Delaram Ghanimifard from his publisher. And I only wish I’d stopped to talk to them. (I didn’t, because the books on the table confused me.)

Ehsan Abdollahi and Delaram Ghanimafard

Begged some tea in the yurt before walking over to Julie Bertagna’s event with William Sutcliffe. I noticed a man in the queue behind me and my witchy senses told me this was Mr Bertagna, which was confirmed later. And I couldn’t help noticing that ‘my’ photo tree either has moved, or the Corner theatre has, or the theatre has grown fatter over the winter.

Tree

Was introduced to Mr B and also to Miss B in the bookshop, after Julie and I had covered Brexit and Meg Rosoff and lunches in our conversation. And then I needed to go and queue for Meg’s event, which seemed to draw a similar crowd, with much of the audience being the same as at Julie’s and William’s talk.

Julie Bertagna and William Sutcliffe

Miss Rosoff had come along, as had Elspeth Graham, who has been involved a lot with Meg’s work on Mal Peet’s last book, which Meg was here to talk about. Spoke to Louise Cole in the signing queue, before Meg persuaded me to miss my train in favour of having a drink with her.

Meg Rosoff

So she and I and Elspeth chatted over wine and water on the deck outside the yurt, and many people were discussed, but my memory has been disabled on that front. Sorry. They had a French restaurant to go to and I had another train to catch.

I hobbled along Princes Street as best I could, and hobbling fast is never a good look, which is why I paid little heed to being hailed by someone who insisted on being noticed, and who turned out to be fellow ex-Stopfordians Philip Caveney and Lady Caveney. They had been to a church half-filled with water. Apparently this was very good.

My train was caught, and the Resident IT Consultant and I ended up at our destination almost simultaneously. I believe we both thought that our day had been the best.

Låt stå!

‘Who are you seeing tomorrow?’ Daughter asked last night from her Andean mountain. ‘Barry, Julie and Meg,’ I replied. We don’t bother with surnames at Bookwitch Towers.

Today is my first day at the 2017 book festival. It feels fitting that it was Meg Rosoff who lost out last year, as far as I was concerned, appearing on my last night when I was tired and didn’t go because I was travelling the following day. I suppose someone felt they had better put her in on what is my first night this year, and it’s been over 24 hours since I travelled.

My Swedish neighbour felt we could stay longer. ‘Are you not retired?’ she asked. ‘Mwmph,’ I replied. I might have to explain about Bookwitching and book festivals one day. People who are holding on to tails of tigers don’t retire.

The Resident IT Consultant is continuing his trek across Scotland, as I trek across Charlotte Square. We both required sandwiches, and with emptyish post-holiday cupboards this was a harder task than usual. Can you put frozen peas in sandwiches?

In the olden days Swedish teachers used to write the two words ‘Låt stå’ next to anything they wanted to remain on the blackboard, which presumably prevented cleaners from wiping important stuff off. I might have to take to doing that in my fridge. The greek yoghurt I’d carefully planned for to stand there and survive until I returned (they last a long time) was gone. Both Offspring have been visiting during our absence.

Oh well.