Tag Archives: Daniel Hahn

True Survival

Bosco Theatre

As I approached the Bosco Theatre to do a bit of a recce 25 minutes before the event with Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff, I was surprised but pleased to find a queue of fans already waiting. I suspect it’s the fantasy effect, which seems to have really keen fans. Girl fans, mostly. And I have no idea who they came to see, Alwyn or Maria. I understand that Alwyn is quite big. But then, I believe Maria is big too.

Chaired by Daniel Hahn, these three knew what they were doing, having already got together for an event in Hay. Alwyn wore the wrong – but lovely – shoes, and walked down those stairs carefully, so as not to get stuck in the gaps. Maria wore a Moomin dress, i.e. made of a fabric that might have looked like white spots, but those spots were Moomins. (Philip Pullman would kill for a dress like that!)

To the accompanyment of screeching seagulls outside, Daniel introduced the ladies as exciting new voices in YA fantasy. He started by asking them how they came to write, and Alwyn said she falls asleep by making up stories in bed (me too, which is why I fall asleep), and she really can’t undertand how people who don’t write manage to sleep. From there she moved on to Harry Potter fan fiction.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

Maria admitted to being far too old to have done any Harry Potter-ing, but in kindergarten she would be allowed to stay up when the other children had a nap, and she would write stories. So while Alwyn sent herself to sleep, Maria stayed awake. She liked Moomin, so wrote Moomin-style stories. She knew she could write, but didn’t have ideas of her own. She wants writing to be easy; a bed of roses.

Alwyn wanted to write about girl heroines, but discovered that it was considered wrong to have girls do what male characters have long been doing. ‘Dragons were realistic, girls were not.’ Girls were not strong enough. She wanted sharpshooters, in order to avoid the requirement for strength, and it became a sort of Western crossed with a Thousand and One Nights.

Maria found a Greek island where women were forbidden to land, and this inspired her to write Maresi, about an island that didn’t permit men to visit. Both authors agreed that you just have to wait for things to click, and then the writing will work.

Reading from Naondel, Orseola’s story – because it was the happiest – she said she has not tried to protect her characters from bad things. You only need to look at what’s in the news to realise how much bad stuff your readers will already be aware of.

Daniel asked about gatekeeping, quoting teachers on an awards committee, who wanted to recommend certain books to their pupils, but feeling they were not allowed to do so. It had to be the parents who permitted their children to read. Maria said that she was not aware of any banning of books in Finland, and that Naondel was part of a book parcel offered there.

Alwyn read from chapter two of her second book in the Rebel of the Sands series. When she writes she likes to do so with fast music in the background,  and she needs to write fast, using placeholders to get past obstacles, saving details for later. And that’s also when she removes unnecessary details. The most she’s ever written in one day was 8000 words. Maria sets a goal of perhaps 2000 words, because she is lazy and she needs to have something to work towards.

Asked about how to deal with writer’s block, Alwyn said she always carried a notepad, and she would listen to people on the bus, and write things down, and she’d look at people and practise writing descriptions of them. ‘Me and my art,’ she called it.

Regarding writing ‘real’ books instead of fantasy, the answer is that if you don’t like reading those ‘real’ books, then you can’t write them.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

Another question was how to explain what a fantasy world is like, if that world is the norm to those living in it. The best solution is to introduce a newcomer, like Maresi, who then describes what she learns about the island. Or you take an outsider like Gulliver and put them in ‘a situation.’

I hope Alwyn’s fans grew as interested in Maria’s books, as I did Alwyn’s. And there really is something about fantasy fans.

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Day 4

The days are getting shorter. Well, I suppose it’s that time of year. And it felt like even the long trains were also shortening; unless there really were that many extra daytrippers yesterday, being a Sunday and that.

DSCN0184

I didn’t quite make it to see Jo Nadin or Tony Ross at their signings, but you can’t have everything. I was there for the event with Maria Turtschaninoff and Alwyn Hamilton, chaired by the little known Daniel Hahn. It was in the new Bosco Theatre venue, out on George Street, and this was my first time. What I will say is that Theresa Breslin was spot-on earlier in the week, when she said it was lovely, but not for wearing stiletto heels in. At the time, Keith Charters and I looked at each other, both fairly secure in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be.

The other thing about the venue is that the signing tent is very small. No room for Bookwitches wanting to take pictures, except for this close-up of Alwyn’s handbag contents. But I dare say it wasn’t made with me in mind.

Alwyn Hamilton and Maria Turtschaninoff

I joined Daniel Hahn outside instead and forced him to sign a book (one he had edited, so I wasn’t being totally unreasonable) and then he made me want to go to Denmark with him in October…

After this fantasy event I wandered back to Charlotte Square, catching William Dalrymple signing for a queue of fans, after what looked like a full Main Theatre event. I feel I know, as I stood there trying to take photographs of Chris Close’s picture display, and I tried at just the wrong moment, when the whole tent walked past, very slowly. Well, obviously it wasn’t the actual tent that moved, but the people who had been in it.

William Dalrymple

Hoped to see Ross Collins and Claire Barker after their event, but they must have been busy chatting to admirers, as they hadn’t emerged when I had to make a move.

Because, dear readers, I had an interview to conduct, and was meeting Maria Turtschaninoff in the gap between her own event and seeing Jonathan Stroud. We sat in the sunshine on the deck outside the authors’ yurt, chatting about mothers and books and how arrogant Sweden is towards the other Nordic countries. I mean, I said that. Maria is far too polite to.

And as she went off with a bagful of Lockwood books, I walked to Waverley again, prepared to fight the other festival-goers, but struck lucky by finding an unexpected train going my way a couple of minutes later, and it wasn’t even full.

Bosco Theatre

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.

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.)

ScotsWrite

How would you feel about having a luxurious weekend at a hotel in the Scottish countryside, hanging out not only with likeminded people who want to learn to write better, but with the authors who are there to give talks on how to learn?

Yeah, I know. Me too. It sounds lovely.

The Society of Authors is organising a weekend at the end of September, at a hotel not too far from me. ScotsWrite at the Westerwood Hotel seems like a most worthwhile couple of days.

You know how it is. You read the programme and you try to decide what you’d choose if you were going. Well, I’ve done that. Tried, I mean.

Joanne Harris as keynote speaker with dinner the first night… In fact, when I’d got that far I wasn’t sure how they could better that offer.

But Saturday manages to look pretty good too. Denise Mina for a session in the morning. Except, well, at the same time there is Daniel Hahn and Ruth Martin talking translations. So that would have to be me.

Then another keynote talk just before lunch from Charlie Higson. They know how to keep those ravenous writers under control. And after lunch the not so easy choice of science fiction, how to charm a publisher, or ergonomic workspaces with Caro Ramsay. I’m so charming already, that it’d be a toss-up between sitting nicely or hearing about science fiction.

Before coffee there is no question but going for Emily Dodd and Celia Rees. For me, I mean. If I go. If I can. And between the coffee and the gin tasting (yes, really) a debate with Joanne Harris, Sam Eades and John Jarrold.

After which free time might well be required as there is dinner and a ceilidh before the day is over.

Sunday morning – after breakfast and Tai Chi – we have Joanna Penn talking about How to Make a Living with your Writing, followed by mental health for writers, graphic novels, commissioning, writing for radio and television, children’s books, poetry, plus some insider secrets before you go home.

Well, that sounds all right, doesn’t it?

Quest – the Aarhus 39

Quest is the ‘younger’ half of the two Aarhus short story collections, edited by Daniel Hahn. I use quotation marks, because I am less convinced of the age ‘gap’ than has been suggested. Yes, it is a little younger than Odyssey, but I felt many of the characters in Odyssey were not proper YA material; they were children who tried out older behaviour.

It’s not important, as both collections offer a great range of stories from all over Europe. As with Odyssey, the authors are occasionally quite famous, and so are the illustrators, and I’ve come across several of the translators before as well.

Quest - Aarhus 39

Of the 17 short stories in Quest I chose to start in the middle, because I just had to read the one by Maria Turtschaninoff first. I might have a crush on her. The story, The Travel Agency, did not disappoint. In fact, I could want to read a whole book based on it.

It’s unfair to pick favourites, but I did enjoy Maria Parr’s A Trip to Town, about a girl and her grandma. And as for Journey to the Centre of the Dark by David Machado; you’d do well to have a hand to hold. In the end it didn’t go quite as far as I kept being afraid of, but I’d be happy to offer my idea to anyone who feels like writing scary stories.

The Quest stories are not as dark as in Odyssey. Maybe that’s why they are offered as children’s stories. And perhaps that’s why they suited me better. But, in short, I can recommend these two collections as a starting point for fun with unknown [to you] names in children’s literature.