August always promised to be a busy month. The Edinburgh International Book Festival – officially the ‘largest public celebration of the written word in the world‘ – is one of the highlights in my literary calendar. And it’s on my doorstep! This year it runs from 11-27th, but I always book tickets way in advance, as soon as they’re officially available, and even then some aren’t obtainable – an ongoing mystery to me.
But this year the month has just become a whole lot more exciting because I’ve been invited to be one of a team of official reporters at it! How cool is that? But … How come? I hear you cry. Good question.
Well, earlier this year the ESRC Genomics Forum organised an evening Salon where I was interviewed about my novel Saving Sebastian and the issues it deals with (watchable here). They subsequently asked me to write a guest post on their blog Genotype, which I duly did (here). And on the strength of that these same kind folk have now invited me to dip a toe into the dubious world of journalistic reporting for a fortnight. They were lovely people to work with, so I’m chuffed to be collaborating with them on this venture.
Basically what it entails is attending events – most of which I was going to anyway – and then blogging about them on Genotype. I even get a press pass! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.
In odd moments when I’m not fulfilling all the other commitments-that-I-wouldn’t-have-taken-on-had-I-known-about-the-extra-blogging, I’m trying to read a few of the books beforehand so I don’t come across as a complete twat. Time will tell.
Oh, before I forget, I must share a gem with you from one of them (My Beautiful Genome) which I came across yesterday: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components.’ The author is a self-confessed specialist in sarcasm and bordering-on-cruel-honesty, but I can think of several situations where this knowledge could be applied with great satisfaction. OK, so I have a cruel streak too. I blame my genome.
But for now … well, this afternoon I and my unique double helix are off to give ‘a taste’ of Saving Sebastian as part of the Writers at the Fringe series of evenings organised by Blackwell’s. They’re free events but ticketed; five authors each evening, 6-8pm every Thursday in August.
To get a sense of the event and what works, I went to listen to the four authors and a songwriter who kicked off the series last Thursday. The line up included names like Sara Sheridan and Louise Welsh – and Iain Banks, probably the most famous, is listed for week 3 – so hats off to Blackwell’s for attracting real talent. To find 25 authors willing to commit to this in August is no mean feat in itself.
Is there any better city to be in than Edinburgh in the summer if you’re a writer or book lover? I doubt it.
You may or may not be aware that I’ve recently added a new page to my website: Interviews. Obviously not all interviews are available in an accessible format, but the ones I’ve done this year that were recorded can be seen at the click of an icon, giving folk an idea of what I think and how I come across. Apparently I do a lot of hand gesturing!
Having added a third interview this week, I was watching other interviews on TV with more than usual interest. And one with Fay Weldon, the veteran novelist, jumped out at me – not just because she has very large hands which she uses a lot close to her face, but also because I’ve actually met, and subsequently corresponded with Fay. We appeared together at a Literary Salon at the Brighton Festival many moons ago, and she gave two of my novels very kind endorsements back in 2005. I was particularly pleased with her comment that they were ‘…medical, ethical, romantic and fascinating. An entirely new genre for fiction‘. Back then it lent credence to my contention that there was an unfilled niche in the market for these stories. Fay Weldon said so!
Anyway, she was on BBC Breakfast this week talking about her new book, Habits of the House, and Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid asked her lots of good questions. Some interviews come across as very superficial and rigged, don’t they? but this one wasn’t; they seemed genuinely interested and engaged. I discovered that she chose the title because a much-travelled guest in her own home once said, the secret of being an accommodating guest is learning the habits of the house. Fay’s ears pricked at this: an excellent title for a book. I agree, but I like the concept behind the comment too.
There’s a sticker on Habits that says, if you enjoyed Downton Abbey you’ll love this book. No, Fay admitted, she hadn’t watched Downton Abbey – she was ‘too jealous’ to watch it ‘without pain’ – but she was happy with the caption as a marketing ploy. She was also quick to chip in that she was there first, and this I can believe. Publishers have their own speed of working, and the time lapse between conceiving a book and its appearing in the bookshops is considerable, usually years. It’s frustrating when you the author are then thought to have copied someone else’s idea. I’ve had news items as well as TV dramas mirroring points in my plots before my books reach the bookshelves. However, Fay’s an experienced interviewee, and she managed to make all her responses sound amusing and faintly self-deprecating, and she kept her toothy smile fixed firmly in place.
Habits of the House is about a large household with servants and rich masters. I haven’t read it (yet) but the first paragraph sets the tone:
In late October of the year 1899 a tall, thin, nervy young man ran up the broad stone steps that led to No. 17 Belgrave Square. He seemed agitated. He was without hat or cane, breathless, unattended by staff of any kind, wore office dress – other than that his waistcoat was bright yellow above smart striped stove-pipe trousers – and his moustache had lost its curl in the damp air of the early morning. He seemed both too well-dressed for the tradesmen’s entrance at the back of the house, yet not quite fit to mount the front steps, leave alone at a run, and especially at such an early hour.
I draw a veil over the scathing comments my editor would make if I used that many adjectives and parentheses! But then I don’t have Fay’s credentials or track record or sales figures.
She was asked, why this subject? Haven’t upstairs/downstairs stories been done to death? (Now, you might not know it but this question had particular resonance because Fay wrote the first episode of the legendary BBC film, Upstairs Downstairs, broadcast in the 1970s, a fact which I’d forgotten.) Not a bit of it, she said, we’re all interested in injustice, and the haves and have-nots in these large households are just one expression of that kind of inequality and unfairness. Besides this, her personal fascination with the period around the turn of the 20th century, fuelled by her grandmother’s stories and her grandfather’s writing, make such choices natural ones for her.
Habits is the first of a commissioned trilogy and Fay has already finished the second one, so Bill asked her, did she know what happened in the third book? No, she admitted, she had no idea. Wasn’t that daunting? ‘Very frightening!’ Fay admitted. But her laugh and bounce said she would soon crack that little conundrum. And indeed, I know myself that by the time you’ve written two books about characters, they’ve got passports and birth certificates; indeed it can be hard to keep pace with their antics and decisions.
Watching this interview I concluded that I should try to
- write an episode for a landmark TV series
- sit on my hands, or at least keep them low
- find a very good manicurist
- come across as warm and witty and humble
- pretend I’m all at sea and it’ll take a miracle or my huge talent to resolve this situation
- make sure interviewers give my credentials not me
- read Fay’s book.
Garrets have long had a romantic appeal for me, conjuring up images of impecunious geniuses scribbling furiously, driven by their talent to endure hardship and isolation for the sake of their art – floor littered with discarded paper, fingers blotched with ink, hair dishevelled, meals and sleep forgotten … Then there’s the whole business of using pseudonyms to hide talent, refusing worldly acclaim … well, it’s the stuff of martyrs and heroes, isn’t it? Childhood fantasy.
Though they don’t exactly languish in crumbling attics, certain famous writers alive today have been known to grumble that they only ever see other authors at memorial services. Writing just isn’t a convivial occupation.
However, it occurs to me that that very isolation can help to preserve something of the glamour with which we invest the big names. Attendance at book festivals demonstrates how much we like to actually see and hear the person behind the book, obtain a signature (yes, we were that close!). Competition for seats can be fierce. Tickets became available for the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week and by Day 2 lots of events were already sold out – four of them ones I’d hoped to attend.
Last year I was speaking at this same festival, which meant that I had open access to the hallowed turf of the authors’ yurt – breathing the same air as the great and the good, sharing the same couches, nibbling from the same tables. All sorts of well-kent faces came and went – most of them a lot less glamorous close-up in the flesh than I’d pictured, it must be said! – but I still sat in awe. A small child seeing giants.
And perhaps that explains why a schoolgirl was celebrating this week. She wrote to thank me for being interviewed for her school project. She’d chosen as her subject, ‘Books’, and thought she might have an edge if she contacted ‘a real live author’. (Basic credentials – living and breathing – so I’m not reading personal acclaim into any of this, I hasten to add.) For her there is something mysterious and compelling about the secret world of writing; something she clearly managed to convey, because her project won the prize! Well done, Esther!
But maybe something of the mystique would be lost if she saw the ordinariness of the study where I write. So … we’re about to have a second opening cut into the attic of our very old house – maybe I’ll put in a personal bid for the cobwebs and clutter after all. Much more romantic obituary material … ‘wrote most of her books squirreled away in a garret’ … don’t you think?