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Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 3

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I am crap at this business of posting regularly.  It’s been over 2 weeks since I saw Kate Atkinson at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and I’ve still not managed to write-up her talk or anything else for that matter.  Having said that, everything she talked about was so fascinating I don’t think it really matters how tardy I’ve been with getting this out.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has been an ever present feature of the last 20 years of my reading life.  I have read all her novels in almost the sequence they were written, except this one.  Whilst waiting for Atkinson to take to the stage, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  We chatted as festival goers do; what have you been to? what have you got coming up? I told her my “I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s books except this one” story, whereupon the man in front of me, clearly earwigging the conversation turned and said “oh you just must, it’s divine.”  And I guess this is the thing with Kate Atkinson.  She appeals to a broad range of readers, because life in her varied stories is recognisable. She writes about every day, ordinary observations with such vividness that it plays out in my head like a film in glorious technicolor.  Her novels feature her trademark dry wit, always bringing a smirk to my face – they cheer me up.  This was the first time I’d seen her talk and she was no less interesting in the flesh than on the page.

A God in Ruins is a companion book to Life After Life, featuring at its centre Ursula Todd’s brother, Teddy. Atkinson said she knew Teddy would have his own book.  She was saving him for it.  Asked about the timeframe of this new book, she told us the second world war is endlessly fascinating for British people, we can’t seem to leave it behind.  She has always written about being English and this book is no different; it is really about gaining a sense of Englishness in a post war setting.  The reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from her coronation to her golden jubilee, provides the framework for the book although this may not be immediately obvious to a reader.  Atkinson said that when she wrote Life After Life she really inhabited the Second World War period and had done significant research, so when it came to A God in Ruins she already knew how her characters would behave, what they would say and how they would say it.  She had been working with wartime vocabulary for a long time, so everything felt immediately familiar and she did minimal research.

Atkinson also talked about her writing process.  Interestingly, she generally starts a book at the beginning and writes in sequence.  She tends to write the first chapter over and over (sometimes only the opening paragraph) until it is right, then she will move on.  As the book nears its conclusion, she tends to write almost constantly and her work flows more easily.  She holds the whole book in her head, so she knows where she is at any one moment.  Writing sequentially stops the temptation to write all the good bits first and leave the difficult stuff till last – which can only lead to disaster.  She finds writing beginnings and endings simple, it’s the middle bits that cause her problems.  My ignorance of the writing process became obvious to me when Atkinson was asked how long it had taken her to write the passage she read aloud (no longer than 4 pages).  I thought, maybe a morning? It took her a week to get it perfect!  She realises she has an odd attitude to editing and re-writing.  She loves doing it and sees it as a process of constant improvement.

Having an authentic relationship with her characters is vital to her as a writer.  She said “Characters require authenticity and the reader knows and can see when a writer fails at this relationship.”  Her characters always appear to her fully formed and are immediately in her head in all their amazing roundness before she starts a new book.  She is a writer who loves plot and structure, but character is everything to her and the driving force behind her work.  She also said that all fiction is about fiction and identity.  As readers we know we are reading a book, a work of fiction, so we want art, not reality; the skill is in making that art real.

Her final thoughts were on reading.  She told us that when she writes, she never thinks about her readers in terms of what they may want.  There are too many readers to satisfy them all.  Her advice was “You have to be your own best reader first, if the book is good for me as a reader, then I am happy.”   She added that she has spent most of her life reading.  Reading is the best apprenticeship for any writer.  In fact she said “If you want to write, you have to read everything ever written”  I’d better crack on then!

Other Kate Atkinson stuff

Jackson Brodie & Me

Life After Life

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 2

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Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson

The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker.  The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.

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She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it.  She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage.  Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death.  Clearly, a new direction for the bard.  Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular.  “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”

Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips.  It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery.  There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).

You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow

What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.

I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all.  But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.

Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation.  She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.

Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze.  She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances.  She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past.  She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.

Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded.  She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire.  She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page.  She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.

She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago.  It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard.  As the angel fell, he folded in his wings.  He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die.  This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche.  She finally managed to get it into this book.

She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself.  But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently.  She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer.  “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now.  Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”

I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV.  This latest encounter has only made me admire her more.  We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.

Next up – Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 1

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015 pt 1

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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