A full day at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday, but thanks to the late-night writing session the evening before, I slept in slightly and never arrived until shortly before 11am.
On arriving, I collected my tickets from the Press office and headed over to my first event of the day with Orange Prize winner, Linda Grant.
Rush Wishart was in sparkling form again today as she interviewed Orange Prize for Fiction winner, Linda Grant about her new novel, We Had It So Good. While taking their seats on the RBS Main tent stage, Wishart quipped: “That’s the kind of handbag that doubles as a filing cabinet,” much to the amusement of the audience.
“We baby boomers were the generation that wasn’t supposed to grow up,” said Grant launching into the background to her new book. “We were supposed to stay young forever. In the period between adolescence and adulthood, we think we know who we are—know who the real us is.”
Grant’s reading consisted of a hilarious section about Ivan, an anarchist who is recommending that “LSD is an old-school drug because it takes so much time; 8 hours to do it then another two days to recover! How are you meant to fit anything else in round about that?”
But the larger issues surrounding Grant’s book were never far from being analysed. “Perhaps our parents’ lives were more interesting than we thought they were when we were growing up,” she said. “And at some level we certainly refer to their lives to see how far we’ve come in our own.”
Looking back fondly at the 60s and all it stood for, Grant commented that “the only revolution in the 60s worth its salt was feminism and we were responsible for that—the baby boomers.” When asked how she thought this political view sits with modern girls of the same age, Grant said: “Young girls often say to me that they can’t be bothered with feminism any more, and its not because we’ve done the job. So I say to them, do they really want to go back to the day when they had to get their husband’s signature so they can apply for their own credit card?”
In We Had It So Good, Grant is trying to capture what it is to be married today, to be in a marriage that is not one wanting to develop, but rather fighting to just keep it together. “What’s it like to be in a marriage that you need to hang onto for the love of the children?” she asks. “Besides, I wanted to explore other ideas—you can’t do sexual politics in every book.”
Grant tied up her fascinating hour with confirmation that there will be a sequel to this latest novel and that she is due to start work on it imminently. “The characters are going to be forced to face up to their difficulties,” she said with determination, “and want to follow that through.”
Following Linda, I was in the Press tent writing up and posting the previous day’s blog, when the sound of unbridle hilarity drifted in from the photography pitch outside the author’s Yurt. I looked out and there was ex-political opponents Roy Hattersley standing arm in arm with Menzies Campbell being photographed. That is NOT something you see every day!
Nothing But the Poem – Czeslaw Milosz
Then it was off to the Writers’ Retreat for something very different. In this regular weekly event under the Legends of Modern Literature series at the book festival, participants are invited to analyse two poems by specified poets in a discussion that is aimed at dissecting the poets work in front of them, as well the broader issue invoked within the prose.
Hosted by Scottish Poetry Library director Robyn Marsack, we heard two poems, first in Polish and then in English, before a group discussion about the meanings of the poems and the issues the poet was attempting to throw open.
The best poems, it is often said, are those that are left open to interpretation and that is exactly what one gets with Milosz and the two poems we looked at: The Song on the End of the World and Dedication.
Not one for the casual poetry fan, these sessions are strictly for the dedicated poetry buff, and while one did not need to know about the poet being discussed, it definitely helped if you did.
On the way out from the Writers’ Retreat, I passed the RBS Main tent to a thunderous applause and realised Roy Hattersley event was closing. I decided to hang around to grab a picture of him, and was lucky enough to snap him sharing a joke with festival director, Nick Barley on the way to his signing.
Another quick round of writing and hanging around, posting a few pictures on Flickr and Twitter and such, then it was off out again to see Esther Freud. I still had not had any lunch by this stage but with a couple of hours after Freud and before Ian Rankin, I elected to fit food into my schedule for later on.
On my way to see Freud, another photo opportunity presented itself, this time in the form of Kirsty Wark filming a special for the BBC’s The Review Show. More snapping then I was on my way.
Daughter of Lucian and granddaughter of Sigmund, Esther Freud’s name is synonymous the world over with brains and intelligence; it’s not something she feels is as much of an issue in the UK as it is on mainland Europe for example, nevertheless, she admitted to feeling great to be experiencing the freedom that the people in the UK offer her.
At the book festival she came to promote hew new novel, her seventh since she made the switch from acting to novelist, Lucky Break. It was a move she made after a career in acting that saw her rejected from acting school, “but then acting is all about rejection—it comes with the industry just as it does in writing.” Later she added: “Failed actors often re-train and can be very successful in some cases, but a lot also tend to go into the healing industry.”
The move to writing finally came for Freud after her acting and writing partner qualified with an Equity Card and was soon off to America to make a film. Their acting company, Norfolk Broads, broke up and left Freud unsure how to progress, forcing her to face up to the fact that she would have to write alone for the first time in her life.
This was a real moment of epiphany for her, however, because it was during the writing of this first novel that Freud had her eyes opened. “I realised that I still wanted to tell stories, but to tell them in a different way.”
And just as with writers or artists that are obsessed with their work, be it a novel or a painter, Freud also came to the realisation that actors too are obsessed, “but because their art, their vehicle is their own bodies—hair, weight, shape, etc.—this obsession is often confused with narcissism,” a mistake that she regrets happening quite so often as it does.
Freud read a passage from her latest novel (it was such a good reading I would recommend her for any audio recordings of books), a book she says was very difficult to write after it was “rejected by my own husband,” she joked. “He said it wasn’t true to what acting was about, and sure enough when I re-read it, I could see that I had lost sight of what acting is about. So I re-wrote large chunks of it.”
Freud closed up with a statement that would appeal to actors and writers the world over, when she remarked: “Whatever way you approach it, writing a novel is hard work!”
By this point I was beginning to lag and had grown quite hungry so I took myself off-site for an hour to get some food and write-up the rest of the day’s events. I nipped round to Costa coffee on Castle Street and found a quite spot to work while I supped my cappuccino and munched on my ham & cheese panini.
That took the best part of an hour then I headed back to the Square and took refuge in the Press tent. I snapped a picture of the in-joke given the amount of rain we had last week; a rubber duck with the Press Pod (its official name) reworked to indicate the wet theme.
The scene was set for Rankin’s first of two main appearances at this year’s book festival, as first the Rolling Stones followed by John Martyn’s Solid Air, accompanied his arrival in a packed RBS Main Tent.
He explained that as well as the song being key to his Desert Island Discs choice some years ago, the song actually meant much more to him in that it was always the first song he played—on vinyl—when he moved into a new house.
As far as his most famous literary creation goes, his music tastes used to differ to that of Inspector Rebus. “Rebus used to be a jazz fan,” said Rankin, “until John Harvey came along. I soon realised that by making Rebus a fan of what I liked, I could research it further and build a music collection that was tax deductible,” he joked.
Rankin wrote his new novel, The Impossible Dead in the first two months of this year but it won’t see publication until October 13th. “All I have is this dust jacket,” he said, holding one up. “The title wasn’t my first choice but the publisher’s liked it.”
Talking a bit more about his writing process, he explained that he is a firm news junkie: “I read several newspapers a day and always have the news on, and it’s from this that stories just keep leaping out at me.” With that, he briefly held up a newspaper cutting that he said had provided the inspiration for the new book, but later refused to divulge any more about what the book was about. “It’s about jugglers going mad in Belarus,” he joked.
Rankin’s latest novel was written in the public spotlight through Twitter in January and February. His followers were able to accompany him on the highs and lows as the novel developed, and he is believed to be the first top author to open the door in such a way. “As well as it being a kind of diary,” he explained, “it also highlighted to me that my life is actually quite mundane—it’s not all glamour like people are inclined to think—but in my head it’s a fairground ride.”
He continued: “I don’t see the point in being a full time writer if you have to spend your whole time writing,” referring to the amount of procrastinating that became visible through the Twittersphere.
Turning his attention to the greater body of his work, Rankin admitted to still getting a buzz from opening the jiffy bag to be able to hold the first physical copy of any novel he has written. When asked by Richard Havers what he does then he replied: “I usually go to the pub.”
And of his success as a crime writer, Rankin also admitted that he wishes his parents had lived to see past the first few published books, and to have enjoyed his success. “It would have been good to show them that it is possible to make a career from making stuff up.”
My final event for the evening saw me scooting off to the smaller and more intimate surroundings of the Scottish Power Studio Theatre to see Don Paterson.
Paterson’s latest work, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is a mammoth collection and tonight he read several, not in any organised pattern or flow (it seemed), but which I thought lended the evening to a more informal guide through Shakespeare’s work. It was rather like an audience with The Don as he talked about the poems he fancied reading to us at the time.
Paterson began by explaining what he thought a sonnet could be described as: “Sonnets are like Spock playing 3D chess with himself while on-board the Starship Enterprise.” No, that didn’t make it any clearer for me either.
His view of what literary criticism is though, was much more palatable: “Literary criticism is not like doing algebra; it should be fun.” And commenting on the scathing review he recently received, his only remark that hadn’t already been said in the strong letter of response he wrote, was that “the biggest surprise about ‘that’ review was when I found out the poor chap was still alive.”
“Poems are not perfect,” explained Paterson, “and it’s up often to the Gods. Take Shakespeare—the reason we’re all here—even his stinkers are still better stinkers than everyone elses.”
Rather bizarrely, Shakespeare sexuality also came into the discussion, with Paterson’s assertion that although it was widely thought he was bisexual, “personally I think he was predominantly homosexual,” which he then proceeded to prove through the reading of several male-oriented poems.
Wrapping up, Shakespeare’s misogynistic tendencies came under the spotlight, which also provided me with a fascinating titbit of information, when Paterson, on dissecting one particularly misogynistic verse, explained that the use of the word “hell” is actually Elizabethan slang for “vagina”.
Book Fest Podcasting
You may be wondering what on earth happened to the regular book festival podcasts I said I was going to do. To cut a long story short, I’ve simply not had to time to put together a show on a regular basis what with all the events, meetings and writing I’ve been doing. However, I have still been actively recording and all of these little snippets will be assembled into the form of a book festival review podcast, whish I’ll produce and make available at the end of the book festival.
Book Fest Media
Catch up on all my reviews and articles on my sister site, the (Unofficial) Edinburgh Book Festival Blog
For visual enjoyment of the Edinburgh Book Festival, click over to my constantly updated photograph feed at flickr.com/colinthewriter
For audio enjoyment, why not subscribe to my Book Festival podcast on iTunes or listen to the stream on SoundCloud.
Ciao for now!
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