Hazel McHaffie

Audrey Niffenegger

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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Confession time

I’m starting this post at 2 o’clock on Monday morning. Why? do I hear you cry?

Well, I made the fatal mistake yesterday afternoon of accepting a cup of caffeinated coffee. Now, I know caffeine is a no-no for me; I KNOW it is. My consultant has TOLD ME it is. So why …? Well, I had just fed 30 people Sunday lunch; I had an empty stomach; I was very much in need of a quick boost of energy at that precise moment. Trouble was, I didn’t need to be hyper-stimulated at midnight … and 1am … and 2am … and … So I’m paying the price for a stupid moment of thoughtless self-indulgence.

No point in compounding the iniquity further, I thought; I’ll just use my night (unsociable hours, we used to call it in my nursing days) wakefulness to catch up on writing, and hope to nod off a bit on the train in a few hours time. I was having to get up at 5 anyway to get to the station for the early Crosscountry train to Birmingham. What’s an hour or two extra between friends? So here I am at 2am writing this week’s post.

Where was I? Aha, yes. As I was saying last time … my thoughts about authors who write books I both love and hate … leading to a confession.

Big breath … Come on! I’ve had a whole week to summon up the courage to reveal it … No, I haven’t hit the bestselling list … No, I haven’t sacked my publisher … But … I have done my best to … bury one of my books. There, it’s out.

My first published novel, Holding On? was written in the 90s, before I studied creative writing.Holding On? I’m indebted to Henry Hochland, the publisher who snapped it up while the ink was still wet, for putting my foot on the first rung of the fiction ladder. To my utter astonishment, the book quickly became a set book on degree and professional courses. But – and it’s a big BUT – I’m now so embarrassed by its deficiencies, that I don’t even list it on my website. I just wish I could re-write it, knowing what I know now.

Phew! From private burial to public exhumation in one fell swoop. I feel like I’ve just admitted to a particularly unsavoury addiction.

I wonder, will I be equally unhappy about subsequent books as the years roll on? Time will tell. I do periodically take stock, and I often regret certain publishing decisions. But then, as the sticker on my computer used to say: Perfection is always one more draft away.

All I can do is implore you, if you come across my first attempt, don’t dismiss me out of hand. If you read the second, third, fourth … even sixth, bear in mind that I’m a work in progress. Even Ian Rankin reckons that the reason an author goes on writing is that he knows he can do better; the perfect novel is always hovering just beyond the current one.

In all my periodic analyses though, one resolve remains constant: not to write to a formula. I want to keep the yawn factor – ‘if-you’ve-read-one-McHaffie-you’ve-read-’em-all’ – to a minimum. I prefer to fit the format and genre of the writing to the subject matter of the book. So far I’ve had a stab at romance, crime, family saga, first person diary, and multiple-perspective narrative. I love the challenge of experimenting with new styles (as you know, I’m quickly bored). Maybe I run the risk of alienating readers who are strictly one-genre fans, but at the moment at least, I think it’s a risk worth taking, to be true to my topics. And to date I’ve been lucky enough not to lie awake at night worrying that my readers will have the sort of demands which burdened writers like Audrey Niffenegger or Yann Martel, or Donna Tartt, who were expected to live up to the standard of previous highly-acclaimed novels. Enough to give you writers’ block before you even start pounding the keyboard.

Of course, if one of my books were eventually to emerge into the glare of fame (well, one can always dream!) I might sink my principles, bury all past efforts (metaphorically speaking), and jump with alacrity onto the passing bandwagon. But while I luxuriate in the shadows and freedom of obscurity, I shall cling onto my personal idiosyncrasies, please myself, and enjoy what I do.

Monday evening:
What a difference a day makes.

My mother has taken a turn for the worse, so I’m returning to Birmingham immediately to spend what time is left with her. Which might have implications for my blog. And it has nicely put paid to my interview for radio on Thursday. I hope I’m forgiven.

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