Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh Book Festival

Festival gems

I’ve done far less than usual in the Festival this year because I’ve been committed to raising money for Africa and had visitors to look after. But I thought I’d share a few gems from the Book Festival – just so you know I DID go when I could!

Audrey Niffenegger (Author and graphic artist who found fame with The Time Traveler’s Wife.)

She was asked how she knew when a book was finished. She replied that she interrogates her characters. Who are they? What did they do? Why did they do it? How did they feel? When she has no more questions for them, she’s ready to close the story.

A cool answer, I thought. I might borrow it some time.

Stuart Kelly (Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday)

He was chairing in the main theatre marquee, and raised the subject of libraries struggling for survival. A bit later in the evening there was a blast from some fireworks clearly audible in the tent. ‘Ah, they’re bombing the local branch library,’ he quipped. Later an aeroplane roared over the tent. ‘That one’s for the National library!’ he laughed. The audience loved it. In other circumstances such comments would have been enough to get him arrested; in this context it just felt perfectly pitched. How I envied him that kind of speed of thought and presence of mind. A good chair can really lift an event.

Anthony Grayling (Philosopher)

A Secular BibleHe began by talking about the source of moral authority in a most eloquent introduction to his new publication: The Good Book: A Secular Bible, which he’s been compiling for decades. He described it as ‘a resource for people who are making up their minds about how to live.’ Chairman, Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, said he’d particularly liked the section called Lamentations, and wondered if it sprang from Grayling’s own experience of sorrow and suffering. The response was measured and gentle. We all need to be well informed, passionate about what we believe in, and sensitive to others. Letting someone know you understand their suffering is the greatest gift you can give, Grayling responded. How true. And ’to be a good guest at the feast of life is to be a good listener as well as a good speaker.’ Exactly!

Listening to him speaking without a single note, or hesitation, or infelicitous choice of words, it’s quite hard to think of him as a victim. But Richard Holloway questioned him about the ‘horrible monstering’ he’d received from his friends recently, because of his promotion of a private university. Grayling of course defended himself robustly. His new university will embrace three key desirables, he said: the liberal arts tradition of America; one-to-one indepth tutorials; a collegiate atmosphere where individuals are really known. It’s designed to produce really good thinkers who ask profound questions. Hmm. A bit like clones of Grayling then?

I took three pages of notes during his hour and came away buzzing. Imagine having this mighty thinker beside you at a dinner party. I’d be thrilled and terrified in equal measure.

AL Kennedy (author and stand-up comedian)

I’ve heard Alison Kennedy speak several times before, but this year I was seriously underwhelmed. She says she’s been ill. Sadly it showed in her performance. In a convoluted way I took heart from this. After listening to brilliance I can feel very inferior. Seeing an accomplished speaker having a bad day gives me renewed hope.

Only one event with AS Byatt and one literary party left to go. But thoughts from this week’s sessions are still buzzing in my head. What a gift. And I always learn something about presentation – even if it’s what not to do.

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Festival fever

At this time of year I have a sort of love-hate relationship with the city. Edinburgh, I mean. Because the festivals – no, THE FESTIVALS – are in full swing.

The city itself is a crazy hugely over-populated maze splattered with lost motorists who don’t understand British road markings, suicidal tourists who find the only place for that perfect snapshot of the castle is the middle of the road, single minded art-loving enthusiasts charging from Gallery A to Theatre B to Exhibition C in defiance of time and all impedimenta, and hundreds of performers in costumes, masks, and sundry guises thrusting leaflets at every passer-by. It’s chaos mixed with bedlam liberally laced with artistic overload. And I confess I go out of my way to avoid the centre whenever possible during August.

But on the other hand it’s a paradise for artists/writers/ theatre-lovers/musicians. As I heard one famous comedian say on the first day of The Fringe Festival, ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.‘ Yes, there’s a glorious and diverse choice of events to attend. And a magnificent backdrop against which it all happens.

The Book Festival is, naturally enough, top of my personal list, and this year I’m sitting at the feet of luminaries such as AC Grayling, Audrey Niffenegger, AS Byatt, AL Kennedy, in awed wonder. (I’ve just noticed they all begin with ‘A’! Well, that’s merely the start.) Simply walking into the tented wonderland of Charlotte Square transports me into a world far away from all things humdrum. I wrote my first creative writing assignment about it, so it has fond associations going way back. And even after a long day on my feet working in a charity cafe (which our church is running this week for Send a Cow) I can still manage to stay wide awake and engaged in that darkened theatre listening to two folk chatting about writing.Cow-shaped biscuits for sale

It is so reassuring to see so many folk browsing in the bookshop, queuing to hear authors, asking such intelligent questions. Paying good money to do so, what’s more. Then once those lights go down … and the show begins … Yep, I love it. All those tourists and cars clogging up our fair city are forgiven and forgotten.

And this year, compared to the bloodshed and devastation of the riots in London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, this is positively cultured disorder. We have much to be thankful for.

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Different kinds of busy

I’m feeling very fortunate. I’ve recently been talking – well, no, actually I’ve been listening – to people who’ve either given or received organs. It’s all part of research for my current novel, which has a working title at the moment of Over my Not-quite-dead Body.

The emotions are still powerful years after the actual transplant, and some of the donors as well as the recipients weep as they talk. I feel immensely privileged to be trusted with their stories. But I’m also awed by their generosity. Every single one of them so far has been a busy person, involved in all sorts of activities and campaigns, and yet they find space for someone like me.

But they (as in inventors of aphorisms) do say, if you want a job done, give it to a busy person, don’t they? And that’s certainly my experience. Every time I write a book I send it out to various experts to check its accuracy and authenticity; and ‘household-names’ provide endorsements. It’s rare for anyone I approach to refuse no matter how famous and busy they are. Best-selling authors, celebrities and peers of the realm, as well as full time policemen, journalists and medical consultants – they’ve all been incredibly generous with their time. I salute them all.

Speaking of busy … Edinburgh is absolutely heaving with folk at the moment. It’s Festival time. Buses take ages to creep along Princes Street, tourists crowd the pavements blocking routes, thespians and artists of every hue vie for one’s attention. Ordinary life is hampered at every turn.

But metamorphose into a festival-goer, and everything changes! It’s an exciting place to be. I’m slotting in events here and there in between doubling as a waiter/cook in a charity café run by our church this week. (Will my feet ever be the same again?) We’re collecting for Village Water Zambia this time. The very idea of relying on scoop holes in the ground for all your water, the disease, the infection … makes you shudder just thinking about it.

The monologue: An Evening with Dementia, I told you about was superb. Poignant as well as humorous. So much truth conveyed so artistically. It certainly rang true for me.
– Yes, people do use unspecific phrases and words to cover holes in their memory. (My mother can still dredge up an occasional bright smile and ‘Hello, dear’. Chance visitors tell us encouragingly, ‘Oh, she knew me instantly.’ But we, the family, know better than to confuse a reflex cover-all reaction with genuine understanding.)
– Yes, there is a fine dividing line between reality and imagination. (The actor peered at us and debated with himself whether we were actually a real audience, or he was inside the virtual theatre of his mind. And I see this doubt sometimes in the eyes of a friend I spend time with.)
– Yes, we all need to be more aware of how we react and speak; people with dementia can be aware at all sorts of levels. (He summed up humbug and obfuscation from relatives and staff perfectly.)
Well worth a visit if you’re in the capital.

And I’m just back from the Book Festival listening to Candia McWilliam. She’s a novelist (she describes herself as ‘intensely Scots’) with a colourful past who’s won several awards herself and judged the Man Booker Prize. The process of judging involves reading about 120 contenders for the title at a rate of about a book a day. No wonder, you might think, that after a while she had to force her eyelids to stay open with her fingers. But this was no normal fatigue. She had developed a condition called blepharospasm, where the brain instructs the eyes to close, though the eyes themselves are working perfectly normally. By the time of the Booker Prize evening she was ‘functionally blind’. After conservative treatments failed she had surgery to insert tendons from her leg to peg her eyelids to her eyebrows. Her book, What to Look for in Winter'What to Look for in Winter' cover is both a literal and metaphorical journey through not only physical blindness but also the experiences of alcoholism and betrayal of her second husband.

I didn’t dare ask a question, though I was wanting to. It was stressful enough watching others silenced by a quelling one-liner! Unusual in the Book Festival where authors tend to bend over backwards to make what they can out of any question that comes their way – even the ones about inspiration and technical process and why-did-you-write-this-book that they’ve answered a thousand times before. Not this lady!

But that aside, tonight it was a particular treat to just sit still with nothing more demanding to do than listen. My joints and legs have unilaterally decided that the sedentary life of a writer is a doddle compared to the life of a waiter. Well, it’s a different kind of busy. And I’m certainly not complaining. What’s a measly week on my feet all day compared with a lifetime of feeding your children contaminated water from a scoophole?

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Current writing

I’m using this time waiting for the next two manuscripts to metamorphose into books to catch up on reading and to plot my next novel on organ/tissue donation and retention. Lots of thorny issues there.

It’s been a good week for reading this week; I’ve had two whole days travelling. Eighteen uninterrupted hours. In the Quiet Zone of the train – where else? Not so much as a squeak from a mobile phone. If you’re interested in what I’m reading why not join the loyal band of ‘friends’ who exchange reviews and chat about what they’re reading on the goodreads website.

Plotting, now that’s a more sensitive activity and details of what I’m thinking about my new characters remain a secret known only to me at the moment. As Ted Hughes once said, ‘If I talk about anything I’m writing, that’s the end. I can’t write any more … All the steam goes out of it.’ It occurred to me today as the train hurtled northwards and I read about the experiences of families facing organ donation that in the event of a major train crash my ideas might die with me but my organs live on. Hmmm.

I don’t always share the experiences of famous authors but I was gratified to read a quote by Alexander McCall Smith a few weeks ago in The Daily Telegraph. He said that any fiction-writer will tell you that an author doesn’t need to tell his characters what to do or say. Not the view of Mann-Booker winner, John Banville, who I heard scoff at this ‘amateurish’ idea at the Edinburgh Book Festival the year he won the big prize and thought he was unassailable. But it’s my experience. When I just take dictation, that’s when I know the characters are real. They’ve got their birth certificates; they’re telling their own story. I’m not at that stage yet with the next book, but watch this space.

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