Hazel McHaffie

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Week 2 of the Book Festival

I’ve now returned to my usual invisible self, my stint as official blogger for Genotype over, my press pass archived.

Two sessions to share with you this time. Friday morning was close to my own current preoccupations. How much responsibility should parents take for their children? How far would you be prepared to go to protect those you love? And when is it right to sacrifice the interests of an individual for the greater good?

Two books were under discussion: The Donor, by Australian Helen Fitzgerald, formerly a criminal justice social worker, working with rapists, murderers and psychopaths, (gives her a head start, huh?) and The Dinner, by Dutch TV and radio producer, actor and writer, Herman Koch. Both dark books with largely unsympathetic, unlikeable characters. Hmm. Do I like unlikeable characters?

Fitzgerald’s novel, The Donor, is billed as a ‘tense thriller’ – genres are rather elusive labels at times and I’d say this was a loose categorisation. It’s about single father, Will Marion, a passive, unproductive man whom one of his girls describes as ‘a rubbish dad‘. His teenage twin daughters are polar opposites, but both have inherited a kidney condition, which means they both need a transplant. Will has two perfectly functioning kidneys. What should he do? Naturally, given my need to read any novel on transplantation, I’ve got this one, but it wasn’t the sentimental tearjerker I was expecting. It’s set in a world of drugs and violence, crime and punishment, dysfunctional families and misplaced loyalties. ‘Gritty’ is my summary.

The Dinner deals with the sombre undercurrents that lie beneath middle-class respectability. Two very different brothers – one a teacher, the other a high-ranking cabinet minister a whisper away from becoming prime minister of the Netherlands – and their wives, are in a smart restaurant, exchanging polite but banal conversation. But behind the empty words lurks an horrific secret: their fifteen-year-old sons were together accountable for an act of terrible brutality. They weren’t identified at the scene of the crime so will the parents report them to the police, or will they protect their own reputation and careers? The actions of any one of them could affect them all.

Both authors talked about the triggers to their stories, their use of humour, how they balanced the story line with the issues – all issues relevant to me. I could usefully compare and contrast their decisions with my own. They too challenge the reader to ask, What would I do in such circumstances?

The Monday session was much further outside my comfort zone: Letting the Genome out of the Bottle. Genomics – essentially the study of all the genes of a cell or tissue at the DNA level – is a relatively new field of enquiry which has raised huge questions for society, and the knowledge it provides has widespread consequences for individuals, for families and for society.

My Beautiful GenomeThe author, Lone Frank is an internationally acclaimed Danish science writer with a PhD in neurobiology. Mercifully I’d read her book, My Beautiful Genome: Exposing our Genetic Future One Quirk at a Time, so I wasn’t completely lost during her talk, even though the sound effect of rain thundering down on the roof of the tent was rather distracting, and I was still suffering from motion sickness after almost 1000 miles on the road over the weekend.

Consumer genetics has been ‘portrayed as a panacea for the plague of diseases, a cornucopia of health and prevention – with the Holy Grail being the advent of personalized medicine, tailor-made for your individual genes.’ Frank was clear: illness is indeed an important aspect of genetics, but it’s only part of the picture. Clarity is something she aims for. And accessibility. She manages to make a complex subject engaging by taking us on her personal journey of genetic discovery. She became a research subject – no easy task given the family history of depression, mental illness, alcohol problems, breast cancer – unravelling the Lone Frank genome with all its strengths and vulnerabilities. She shares the accumulating secrets with her readers. Then, having reeled us in, she broadens the issues through discussions with an impressive array of scientists from around the world. A clever tactic.

The end result is a book that’s at once engaging, informative and intriguing. How about this for a withering aside to a pompous boss: ‘Whether you are a flu virus, a slime mold, a manatee, or a manager, your genetic code contains the same components‘? Or this to prick an over-inflated ego: ‘human beings share ninety-eight percent of their genome with a screeching chimpanzee, sixty percent with a skittering mouse, and even twenty percent with a lowly roundworm a millimetre long‘? Brilliant!

And her honesty means she doesn’t shirk the difficult questions about the consequences of biological fortune-telling. There were times when I felt decidedly genetically challenged, but I scribbled furiously, and came away with a rather reassuring picture. Consumer genetics isn’t about checking your genes for a diagnosis of specific diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular illnesses, or Alzheimer’s. Rather it’s a risk assessment; a collection of indicators that compare your chances of getting a disease against the same risk in the general population.  And if you’re fearful of knowing about your genetic underpinnings, remember ‘None of us are free of mutations and genetic weaknesses – the flawless genome does not exist.’ Knowing what these weaknesses are could potentially empower us to protect ourselves from developing those illnesses to which we are susceptible. But analysis of our genes will only take us so far. Exactly what tactics to adopt requires understanding of what turns the genes on and off – the new science of epigenetics to which attention is now turning. So we aren’t there yet. And secretly at times I was wondering if we were any further forward than the days when we simply looked to our parents and grandparents to see what we had potentially inherited.

There are though, many, many other issues to consider in this more scientific approach: privacy, questions of intellectual property, the consequences to relatives, the implications for prospective parents wanting to minimize genetic disadvantage in their children, commercial pressures, the implications for employers using these tests as part of a selection process, DIY genetic testing, surreptitious testing of celebrities, paternity testing, genetic dating … I was left reeling. There were clearly some experts in the audience – they challenged Frank to tighten up her language and thinking. No dumbing down for the uninitiated here!

But the last word has to go to Lone Frank. It was she who put herself in the firing line, exposing her own vulnerabilities for all to see, she who wrote this fascinating book, after all. Her conclusion is that her genome is ‘not a straitjacket but a soft sweater to fill and shape, to snuggle up and stretch out in … it is information that can grant me greater freedom to shape my life and my essence.‘ How comforting is that?

So, the Book Festival is over for another year. And for me it’s been one of the most enjoyable yet. Hats off to all those people who make it possible.



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A festival of good things

Well, our beautiful city has vanished under a welter of posters and stalls and people on stilts and tourists and tents and coffee booths and … well, pretty much anything you can think of. Even a loo for the exclusive use of authors!

Me, I’m lurking with intent amidst the marquees in Charlotte Square, (where the International Book Festival is held every year) and in the true spirit of the Olympics, wearing my ‘medals’ with pride!!Festival passesI have open access to the Press Pod but am rather intimidated by the real journalists who swagger in, laden with cameras sporting enormous lenses, who know everything there is to know about wifi, and type at breakneck speed. I periodically stroll in and out in a nonchalant way, as if this is all run-of-the-mill stuff for me, and that I’m preoccupied with the wording of my next scintillating copy, but then scuttle home to type up my blog on my own computer in the privacy of my own office where no one can see my cack-handed way of negotiating a keyboard. I mean, at least look the part!

Star experience-of-the-week for me goes to a personal first. My novels – MINE! – have featured in the 3for2 sections in Blackwell’s. How grown up is that? I’ve often wandered around these central aisles wondering what authors or their publishers did to get these coveted slots. Now here I am! Cool or what?Blackwells windowAs to the events I’ve attended, well, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at a Festival event as on Tuesday afternoon when I listened to ‘tartan noir’ crime writer, Val McDermid, and the Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, Professor Sue Black, who has a wealth of experience in the identification of bodies in places like war-torn Kosovo, in Sierra Leone, in Thailand after the tsunami. They are obviously great friends and sparring partners, and we had a fantastically entertaining as well as instructive hour.

Forensic science may be a regular part of our popular culture, thanks to novels, television and films, but developments in the world of pathology, and understanding of DNA, and related technology, proceed apace. Weaving today’s possibilities into a novel can make it out of date tomorrow. Even the criminals catch up and learn how to avoid incriminating behaviours. So how do authors keep up?

Sue Black may be a top-of-her-tree professor but she has a remarkable facility for reducing complex science to understandable and graphic images and language. We learned so many astonishing facts. Did you know that an embalmed pubic scalp looks like ‘tinned tuna with hairs on it’? Or that a body retrieved from a bog after 200 years resembles a ‘leather bag with a face on it‘? Or that the back of one’s hand is as unique as a fingerprint? Or that it is possible to tell from bones and teeth where in the world your mother was when she was pregnant with you? Or that when someone gets a tattoo, some of the dye is deposited in the lymph nodes, so that even if the limb is cut off, it’s possible to say unequivocally, this person had a tattoo which was X, Y and Z colours? Well, you do now!

I was impressed too by the lengths McDermid goes to to authenticate her stories. She sees it as something she ‘owes to the dead‘ – an unexpected and moving notion from such a flamboyant character. But recently she’s been given an opportunity to give something back for all the help the forensic scientists have given to crime writers. Dundee University needs a new state-of-the-art morgue, where bodies can be embalmed using modern techniques to keep them flexible. The professor was promised a £million if she could raise a second million. She turned to her crime-writing friend for help. McDermid’s approach is robust: we shall almost all require surgery at some stage in our lives; we want the surgeon to be as nifty with the knife as possible; let’s give him excellent corpses to learn on, not something that ‘resembles a three-day-old turkey’. Together they are campaigning to raise that sum – details at http://www.millionforamorgue.com/. For £1 you can vote for the new institution to be named after your favourite crime writer (anyone but Lee Child ‘because you can’t have a Child’s Morgue’!).

Another star turn was Professor Michael Sandel on Monday. He’s been described as a ‘rockstar morallist’, and he is hugely charismatic with a most engaging style of drawing the audience in to discussion as he explores difficult ethical and philosophical issues, forcing them to confront their own assumptions, biases, and lazy thinking. This week it was: What is the proper role of markets, where are the boundaries, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that money cannot buy? Based on his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy.

He brought the subject to life within seconds with his accessible tales of cash incentives to drug-addict mothers, inducements of room-upgrades to prisoners, advertisements for Viagra. Clear, immediate and humane. He outlined actual examples of financial incentives being used: to overweight people to get them to diet and eat healthily; to a Swiss mountain village to encourage them to accept the dumping of nuclear waste close by; to homeless people to get them to queue and boost sales of different commodities; to children to encourage them to get good grades or read books or write letters of thanks.

And through the entertainment of these exercises, Sandel teased out important philosophical issues, demonstrating that money can change the value of the goods being exchanged – for example, the concept of gratitude behind a letter of thanks; or a kidney donated by a poor peasant in India to a wealthy American businessman; or a prostitute fuelling her drug addiction. Cash incentives can crowd out higher motivations like civic duty, family welfare. Society, he concluded, must ask how important these core intrinsic values are, and then decide where market incentives fit in.

Sorry, this is an extra long blog this week – and I could go on about all the other amazing events I’ve attended, but enough’s enough. I’m having a ball, keeping up to date with the official blogging, (Genotype), and amazingly it’s been dry almost all the time – a rarity for this Festival! What more could a body ask for?

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Official – in possession of a press pass!

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.

My Beautiful GenomeOh, 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.


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Three strikes and you’re …

Phew! That’s the Book Festival over for another year. And I confess I’ll be quite glad to stop this gallivanting into town for performances and parties at all hours.

But I’ve had some interesting experiences, and learned a thing or two about how to seduce an audience. (I come to these events with two agendas: what can I learn about this author and this book? And what tips can I take away for my own appearances at literary functions?)

The Festival brings in some cracking chairmen. Journalist, Ruth Wishart is one of my favourites and she’s a whizz at getting the best out of authors whilst bringing her own style of wit and banter to the event. She was chairing for Lionel Shriver this time, so I knew we were in safe hands.

Lionel Shriver. Hmm. In the flesh, and talking about her personal experience of losing a dear friend to cancer, she seemed somehow more fragile and vulnerable than I imagined from her writing. And she spent a fair bit of time assuring everyone that her latest book, So Much for That, dealing with disease and death, is ‘fun’, and that her unlikable characters are ‘fun’, and that spending her working life writing about objectionable people is ‘fun’. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. ‘Fun’ certainly isn’t the word that I’d apply to her books myself.

Nevertheless, I loved We Need to Talk about Kevin; We Need to Talk about Kevin-book-coverdark, macabre even, but brilliantly conceived and executed. It’s written in the form of letters from Eva to her husband, Franklin, about their teenage son, Kevin, who has committed a series of gruesome murders. She’s a wonderfully flawed character, and positively ruthless in exposing her own doubts and failings. Her musings explore the origins of evil, the responsibility of parenthood, and the old nurture-nature debate. And then there’s the brilliant twist to the tale at the end – sent shivers up my spine. A clever book, both gripping and thought-provoking, and a very worthy prizewinner. It launched Shriver’s career.

But before I went to hear her I decided to read something else she’d written: Double Fault. What a disappointment. In fact, it fell squarely into the category of ‘a real slog’; only my obsessive tendencies made me persist with it. It’s a story about a young couple whose lives are ruled by tennis, and the effect of success and failure on their characters and relationships. Admittedly, I was starting it on a train with a little girl sitting beside me playing an electronic game with the sound up. (Sigh. Yes, in the Quiet Zone. Where else? Don’t get me going on that subject. But the kiddie had just hopped off the lap of her disabled mother slumped in her wheelchair in the space opposite. Only a heart of stone would have deprived that little soul of a few hours of innocent pleasure.) But I duly gave Double Fault a fairer crack of the whip by reading more on the return journey with fingers in my ears, and then at home in the absolute silence of my study. It didn’t improve.

But it got me thinking. Very few authors can be brilliant all of the time; or appeal to all readers all of the time. How much does a reader persevere once he/she becomes uninspired? Do I give people a second … or third … or more chance? Well, in my case I guess it varies.

I’ve read loads of Jodi Picoult’s books because she writes about ethical dilemmas: My Sister’s Keeper; Nineteen Minutes, Plain Truth, The Pact, Handle with Care, etc. My kind of subject matter. Though I do occasionally get a bit Picoulted-out, (well, her writing is rather formulaic, isn’t it?) and some books haven’t really lit my fuse, I’ve remained loyal, and even travelled to Glasgow to see this phenomenon, who produces bestsellers so prolifically, in the flesh. But then I read one of her earlier works – before she hit her stride: Songs of the Humpback Whale. It left me feeling very jaded. Another hard slog. So why do I give her another chance? Because I’ve enjoyed lots of her work, I admire what she’s trying to do in opening up important debates, and I know she’s not a one-book wonder.

Audrey Niffenegger’s another phenomenon. She’s both a visual artist and a writer – so talented you’re not sure whether to envy or dislike her on sight. She hit the headlines big time with her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife … sickening, eh? But seriously, I still stand in awe of her ability to juggle all those time-frames so expertly. So I came to Her Fearful SymmetryHer Fearful Symmetry with high expectations. Oh dear, oh dear. It’s one of the least appealing books I’ve ever read. Two dimensional, static and totally unbelievable. But in Niffenenegger’s case, I’m in no hurry to return. It feels like she’s forfeited my loyalty.

OK, I know that I, more than most, ought to be more forgiving. After all, I don’t want people to be too hasty to dismiss my work if they find one story that doesn’t appeal. Sigh. It’s all so subjective, isn’t it? But the reality is, there are just too many books out there; we can all afford to be fickle fans. Which leads me to make a confession … I’ll tell you next time.


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A festival of books

It’s a curious thing. With all the rumours about the decline of book publishing, easy access to e-books, the increase in DVDs, book festivals are still enormously popular.

This is the second week of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and Charlotte Square, with its landmark marquees and wooden walkways, is positively seething with visitors paying good money to attend the hundreds of events. And yet there have been no publicity campaigns, no flyers being thrust into reluctant fists, no headlines emblazoned on the sides of buses, no billboards. Indeed, I haven’t seen a single advert for the event.

No, people just know it’s on. As soon as the box office opens they queue for hours to snap up precious tickets; they travel huge distances; they brave the inevitable rain … simply to listen to authors talking about their work. Shows are sold out – sometimes before tickets are even available to the masses. Devotees queue to buy books at full price; they earnestly discuss their favourite authors at chance meetings. Books are truly valued.

And in return, those attending get to be up close and personal with the big names. Luminaries like Alexander McCall Smith, Will Self, Philip Pullman, Simon Callow, Margaret Drabble, Iain Banks, AS Byatt … are within touching distance. They are to be seen strolling between the authors’ yurt and their venues looking to all intents and purposes like ordinary mortals; they chat amiably as they scribble personal inscriptions on fly leaves; they engage in eye contact with members of the audience whose tongues untie soon enough to ask questions.

Yes, there’s no doubt that in the capital this month the book is very much alive and well. Indeed, this particular festival is the largest celebration of the written word in the world!  And thanks to my Edinburgh publisher, two of my books are there on the shelves in the famous tented bookshop. How privileged am I?

More about specifics next week, when the frenzy dies down and we go back to our ordinary personae.


Dementia? Think again!

With my own book about Alzheimer’s safely published, and my mind more to grips with the fact that I’m now living with dementia in my private life, I’ve had space to go back to reading about the subject. Facts this time, more than the fiction I’ve warbled on about before.

And it’s rainbow time.

But before I antagonise anyone by seeming too idealistic, let me hasten at the outset to acknowledge a basic reality. No-one wants to develop dementia. No-one. Neither patient nor family will embrace it willingly. If it does snake its way into our lives, it’s natural to be sad and to grieve for all that is, or will be, lost. But the very fact that we can’t reverse the process makes it doubly rewarding to learn that the glass can still be half full, or maybe a quarter, or … And having been through a kind of grieving process myself this year, I want to share something of that discovery.

I’ve read too many things to bore you with anything comprehensive, but three books make me want to send an email to everyone who is dealing with dementia in any capacity. They are

Contented Dementia by Oliver James
And Still the Music Plays by Graham Stokes
I’m Still Here by John Zeisel

All three are
– written by people with real hands-on experience
– built on the premise that understanding the inner world of the person with dementia can have a considerable effect on the lives of all concerned
– designed to be read reflectively not quickly
– starting points that prompt contemplation, questioning, and perhaps even a little experimentation.

You might find aspects of them irritating at times – I know I did! But I’m an impatient ratbag anyway. Bear with them anyway. Why?

Contented Dementia describes in detail a method of responding to someone with dementia in such a way as to minimise confusion and distress, and to steer them into a safe and happy place. The strapline captures the sense: 24-hour Wraparound Care for Lifelong Well-being. It puts a different slant on behaviours that are potentially trying – even the endless repetition! – and shows how they can be made to work for good. This book is written by a psychologist, and I was much struck by his introductory comment at a session I attended in the Edinburgh International Book Festival: ‘I’m probably the only man in the country who, if I develop dementia, would like to be cared for by my mother-in-law!’ Some recommendation, eh? But it was she who devised the Specal scheme outlined in his book.

And Still the Music PlaysAnd Still the Music Plays is a series of very readable stories about people exhibiting challenging behaviours. It provides insight into what might be causing someone to wander, to be agitated or aggressive, and how to channel that understanding so as to prevent or reduce distress. This one is the easiest and most entertaining read of the three, but gives a way through the most demanding of experiences. And it offers a glimmer of sanity for carers at their wits end trying to deal with violence and severe hostility.

I'm Still hereI’m Still Here offers a gentle, artistic approach, describing ways of connecting with abilities and emotions that remain intact, and of enhancing the quality of life of the person with dementia (and their loved ones) by maintaining those connections with people and the wider world. There’s more medical and specialised language in this one but it opens up avenues to pursue which are accessible and available to most of us – art and culture, drama, meditation.

So, to anyone who is working alongside or living with people with this illness, I recommend one or more of these books. To everyone else I say, if you avoid contact with people with dementia, or have a horror of the disease yourself, give it a whirl. It’s possible that knowing more could just reverse your opinion, increase your capacity for compassion, and even enhance your own life.

As for me, I’m lost in admiration for the people in these books who have cared enough to search for understanding, and who have enriched the experiences of those who would otherwise have been left anxious, agitated, apathetic or aggressive. I salute them all and hope their philosophies will percolate far and wide, and make the world a better place to live in.

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A question of genes?

I’m always on the alert for authors and books with something to tell me for my own writing, so when I saw a session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week with two authors discussing my sort of themes, I thought: Ahhah, double whammy; this one’s definitely for me.

Sleeper's WakeThe two books were Samantha Harvey’s Wilderness (about a man with Alzheimer’s) and Sleeper’s Wake by Alistair Morgan (about a man regaining consciousness after a road accident, to learn that his wife and daughter died in the car he was driving). Both debut novels. Both prize-winners.

First salutary observation: tiny audience. Hmmm. Is it true that in this climate of a global recession the public don’t want to read about depressing subjects in their fiction? I asked the question – minus any tactless reference to the size of the audience, of course.

The answer? Morgan said he didn’t himself want to read about relentless cheeriness and everything going well, because it’d make him feel he was somehow substandard when his own life wasn’t wall-to-wall perfection. Hmmmmm? Harvey said she was always conscious of the potential to be depressing so she worked at introducing levity and humour. I’m with Harvey on that one. With care, though, so as not to mock the seriousness of the reality.

Lessons learned?
– I’ll lose some readers who don’t want ‘dark’.
– I need to stress the positive, upbeat side of the story on the jacket in my next book, Remember Remember (about Alzheimer’s).
– I need to go to more sessions with such authors and really listen to and learn from their answers to questions. Gain without pain.

Interestingly. someone else asked the authors if, having written ‘dark’ books they’d do the same again. Answer: they’d both determined to be ‘jolly and light’ next time round. Me too. But found they couldn’t be; hence more of the same forthcoming. Me too! I gave my ‘happy’ version to two of my preliminary readers and they were emphatic: it just wasn’t me.

Is it something in our genes?

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Festival City

The world’s largest public celebration of the written word, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is in full swing, and it’s right here, slap bang on my doorstep. Lucky me! It’s the one annual event I book tickets for, the day the programme comes out. Reminds me of the olden days, people queuing from dawn for the summer sales!

For those of you who don’t know, the EIBF takes place in Charlotte Square in the heart of Edinburgh, which is full of marquees for the occasion. It hosts 17 days of events – hundreds of them, and lots of famous names. And it always rains! But nobody cares about the puddles and drips, or the sound of each thunderous deluge on canvas. Or even ploughing through the maze of roadworks caused by the coming of trams to our fair city at some future date – which incidentally keeps receding like the pot of gold at the foot of a springtime rainbow. No, the rewards for coming far outweigh any minor inconveniences like that.

Every year I’m utterly staggered by the thousands of people who turn up to listen to authors – both the famous and the unknown, and the calibre of questions they ask. This time I’m not presenting, so I haven’t got to quiver and quake in the authors’ yurt in anticipation of a barrage aimed directly at me, but I’ve just had the pleasure of helping to host the Society of Authors in Scotland party in the Party Pavilion Tent. What a venue! At the very core of this major festival of words; a celebration within a celebration. A fantastic chance to meet so many interesting people – authors, publishers, agents, festival directors – over wine and dips.

I’m awash with news, wine, business cards, advice, goodies from sponsors, enthusiasm. And even renewed resolve to tackle the bits of publishing I’m allergic to. (I’ve just spent an hour doing exactly that before sneaking back into my comfort zone with this blog.) Hearing from fellow-writers about mutual struggles is empowering as well as energising.

And what’s more, I’ve still got a fistful of tickets to take me through the snarled-up traffic, over the sodden grass, past the uniquely helpful EIBF staff (they must be hand-picked), and into all my chosen events over the next glorious fortnight. Can this be called ‘work’?



Garrets and unsung heroes

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?

As if!

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Celebrity and courtesy

It’s not every day that I receive an envelope bearing the House of Lords crest. So perhaps I can be forgiven for tearing it open casually without noticing – and ruining the envelope in the process! But anyway it was the contents that prompt me to tell you about the experience, not the crest. A charming throwback to a byegone era.

The letter was from Baroness Mary Warnock – probably the best-known moral philosopher in the country, for those of you who don’t instantly recognise the name. The Warnock Report? Ring any bells?

I’ve read lots of her writing; heard her speak. But I finally met her in person at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year when we appeared together at an evening event about assisted dying. We’d both brought out books on the subject within weeks of each other (her’s: An Easeful Death; mine: Right to Die). She’s in her eighties now but a wonderfully switched-on lady who still sparks controversy in the press periodically (mary-warnock). Good for her. I don’t always agree with her but I hope my synapses are still crackling as merrily if I ever reach that age. Anyway, at her request, a few weeks ago I sent her a copy of my latest manuscript, Saving Sebastian (about a family seeking treatment to have a baby of the same tissue type as an older child with a fatal illness). ‘Sent her a copy’ – sounds casual, doesn’t it? In reality it was a heart-in-my-mouth sensation posting it. Because not only does this amazing woman have a planet-sized brain, but she has committees named after her – distinguished committees on related topics.

And this envelope held her response. Big breaths. Steady the racing heart.

The endorsement was very encouraging. Very kind. So, why do I mention this here? Because the letter itself was exceptional: hand-typed (complete with uncorrected errors – lots of). The crested envelope was hand-written. This famous and brilliant lady took the trouble not only to read the book within a fortnight of receiving it, but to personally and laboriously write a proper courteous letter to me about it – no dictation to a secretary, no hasty email. That kind of attitude towards ordinary people impresses me more than any prestigious awards – and she’s had her fair share of those.

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