Hazel McHaffie

Ruth Wishart

Virtual bonanzas and bonuses

Wow! What a treat for these strange restricted times. The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020 in virtual form. No queuing in the squelching mud and drizzle around Charlotte Square, no impatient hanging about between events, no debating the wisdom of a working day taken up travelling to attend a disappointing session. The rain is certainly hammering down as I write, but I’m snug and dry in my study, watching interviews with the great and the good, sipping excellent coffee as I take notes.

And when I say ‘the great and the good’ that includes famous faces and distinguished wordsmiths who have generously entered into the spirit of this year’s answer to lockdown and given so much of their energy and expertise. I’ll just give you a flavour of the ones that appealed most to me.

A regular contributor to the EIBF is Val McDermid. This year she appeared with real-life partner, Jo Sharp, sharing excerpts from their edited book Imagine a Country: Ideas for a Better Future, in which a cohort of Scottish writers imagine what would/could improve our nation. And aren’t we all looking at our lives and our country this year, wondering whether we could bottle the valuable things that the pandemic is teaching us about what it truly valuable, and carry them forward beyond Covid?

A highlight of their session was playwright Jo Clifford giving a dramatic reading from her contribution about respect for everyone, regardless of their orientation or origin or differences – an extra powerful message coming from a trans-woman who has endured more than her fair share of disrespect.

I was hugely impressed too by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who believes all politicians should read fiction, and demonstrated her own love of reading by her well-informed and fluent hosting of an interview with the first black woman writer to win the Booker Prize: Berndardine Evaristo discussing her book: Girl, Woman, Other. A stimulating hour with both.

And then there was veteran Festival speaker, Richard Holloway, formerly Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, who has, through the years, shared his doubts and loss of faith with festival goers. This year he was talking about Stories We Tell Ourselves: Making Meaning in a Meaningless Universe. He has now returned to the church – without it he felt homeless – and is trying to live by the story that makes us disconcerted and uncomfortable and self-questioning, that in turn makes us seek to be kinder and forgiving and more compassionate in our lives. Well, that’s a laudable aim at least. But he laments the way some people take literally the great religious myths and stories that tell eternal truths: instead they should be read seriously and intelligently, and interpreted in their own context, so that they enrich and liberate the reader. Holloway is now 87, and journalist  Ruth Wishart – one of my favourite interviewers – couldn’t resist asking him if he believed in an afterlife. He promised to do his best to come back and tell her if such a thing existed. Please do, she countered, it’d be an ‘awfy good scoop!’

All three of these events offered much to ponder about the big questions in life, and the things that really matter, which is why they ticked my boxes.

Better still, in the midst of this feast of literary brilliance, I could whip up to Clackmannanshire on a lovely sunny day and savour the tranquillity of the fabulous Cowden Japanese Garden without missing out on the literary bonanza. What a bonus!

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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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