I’ve just spent the most fantastic two days at a whirlwind of literary events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The festival itself was awesome; but the company made it. I went with my amazing bookclub girlfriends (written about previously in these pages) which added the sparkle we all need at an event like this, when half the fun is the giggles during the talk and the debate after.
I thought I’d give you a brief flavour of some of what I saw, but there was so much more to choose from and the organisation so slick, it was a pleasure to be a visitor.
Celebrate with Pat Barker
Booker winner Pat Barker was only one of the many heavyweight, first class authors appearing at the festival this year. She was interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrink of The Bookseller in an intimate setting where the discussion centred on how Barker blended fact and fiction to create her Regeneration Trilogy. Inevitably the conversation strayed to include the rest of her back catalogue, including her most recent trilogy.
Her interest in war trauma led her to William Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon and in them she found something which hadn’t been touched on before in war fiction. She described their story as “S” shaped, not a classic full circle story. This kink in their history appealed to her.
Barker’s Regeneration trilogy features historical characters, so when asked about issues relating to writing about “real” people she said she has never found writing about real people a constraint. Her only rule is never to follow her real people into the bedroom, because she owes them that privacy. The reason Billy Prior in Regeneration is so randy, is because he gets to have everyone else’s sex. She continued by saying the best thing about fiction is that a writer can explore the most private elements of a character without anyone getting hurt.
Asked about how she inhabits the world of her characters, she described the job of a writer as creating the reader’s 5 senses on the page as they move through the story. Almost as important is creating the sense of movement, shift of gravity that comes from righting oneself, that feeling you get inside when experiencing something unexpected. This element is what produces the psychological dimension for the reader.
Describing the mechanics of writing, Barker explained that she always does mountains of research before writing and amends the manuscript as she goes along. However, a writer has to be prepared to do all the research and then throw it all away. Even if it is the most fascinating piece of evidence. Everything is at the mercy of the character and their journey, so if the historical research doesn’t fit, it has to go.
She also explained that she never goes back to re-read her previous works for two reasons. It will either be totally awful or much better than anything she is writing at present. Also, her old characters start speaking to her again, imposing themselves and getting in the way of new characters which is a distraction.
When discussing her most recent three books, she was asked whether she knew she was going to write another trilogy. Barker answered this one with an amused tone, saying that having already written one trilogy she suspected as much, but it was confirmed for her by the newspapers.
Offering tips for budding writers she said that every writer has to be a good reader first and must immerse themselves in all sorts of writing. Meeting other readers is also useful as “things happen when you meet other readers that wouldn’t happen in any other way.” Most fascinating though was her advice that whatever writers write about, must be within their emotional range or it won’t work.
Pat Barker was fascinating to listen to. This gives you an idea of the quality of conversation, but she also talked at length about medical research, war literature, trauma and memory and how families and communities deal with absence. I credit her with guiding me towards war poetry, which in turn led me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and re-readings of A Level German texts by Remarque. Reading her Regeneration trilogy affected me deeply when I read it in the 1990s so it was amazing to finally meet the woman behind the words.
Next up Jeanette Winterson