I confess my enthusiasm was wearing a little thin at the end of week one. A couple of poor events i.e events with too much reading and not enough chat had left me dissatisfied. I want to hear the authors speak about writing, not read a book I’m capable of reading for myself. But a couple of days rest and respite saw me returning to Edinburgh ready for the adventures of week two.
My first event was with booker-longlisted Mohammed Hanif at WordPower Books. The booking confirmed prior to the longlisting and word obviously hadn’t got around because only 4 people turned up. The good side of this was that we had Hanif to ourselves and could ask him anything we wanted. So we did and I’ll write up a separate blog posting on that.
Back to Charlotte Square via Princess Street gardens and I managed to sneak in an hour’s reading. Although it wasn’t sunny, it was pleasant. As I got up to go to my next event, the heavens opened and the rain was torrential. The weather this summer is minging - even by Scottish standards. I think I can count myself lucky, having dodged the showers to sneak in 60 minutes reading in Princes Street Gardens. In past times the place where witches were executed, thrown from the crag into the castle moat. Morbid beast that I can be, I often wonder how many skeletons were found when the moat was drained to make way for the gardens. (I think it’s because I wouldn’t have rated my own chances of survival highly, had I lived in that era.) Not that normal tourists think of this these days. The gardens are far too pretty for that.
Mavis Cheek spoke with great passion and humour about “The Flanders Mare” Anne of Cleves, subject of her novel Amenable Women. That epithet “The Flanders Mare”, not coined in Anne’s lifetime, but in 1610, long after her death in 1557. Mavis Cheek’s fascination with Anne spawned at the age of 13 and one she decided to play out in this her 13th novel. The facts speak for themselves, she said, there’s no need to sensationalise, although there’s fun to be had when other people do that. Talking of the TV series The Tudors, she asked viewers to remember that the next time Henry’s six-pack is shown rolling around in bed, the man was in reality already 40 years old with a 60-inch waist. Originally Mavis Cheek was scheduled to share this event with Philippa Gregory, who has been criticised for sexing-up the facts in her historical fiction. I wonder if Cheek would have been so outspoken if she had been sharing the stage …
The fact that Anne of Cleves survived her disastrous marriage to the monstrous Henry is not the only surprising thing about her. It is generally assumed that once she was cast off, she lived a quiet life in retirement. Not something Anne would countenance. She received a generous settlement which she used to party, party, party, refusing to behave like the expected stereotype.
A trait Anne of Cleves shares with the mothers in Colm Toibin’s collection Mothers and Sons. The traditional picture of Irish mothers being of a submissive, downtrodden, self-sacrificing breed. Turns out Colm Toibin’s mother was nothing like that either and her son is still trying to work through the legacy! The stories in Mothers and Sons are quite intense and, by the author’s own admission, he waited until his mother’s death before publishing. He wouldn’t have got away with it if she were still alive.
Colm Toibin was sharing the stage with Patrick McGrath, whose character in Trauma is also dealing with the legacy his mother left behind. The pairings of events like these at the EBF are sometimes inspired and this was one of those. The subject material in both books fascinating with both authors in fine fettle. Credit too to Ramona Koval, the chairperson, who knew when to back off and let the discussion flow. As I expected, there was plenty of psychiatry in this conversation. McGrath’s fascination engendered by his upbringing at Broadmoor, his father a doctor at the UK’s main hospital for the criminally insane. However, the limitations of psychiatrists were also acknowledged. McGrath’s psychiatrist in Trauma famously in a worse state than his own patients. Toibin spoke of his friend, a psychiatrist, who may know an awful lot about human behaviour and more about Toibin than Toibin himself. Clever as this psychiatrist may be, he doesn’t know everything …. the sentence structure in the forthcoming autobiography, for example, requiring a semi-colon here, another comma there ….
Concerning the writing process, McGrath of the need to kickstart a novel, of finding that something that ignites the writing. A technique he uses that of gender reversal. He said he does this after the first few chapters ( I think or was it after the first draft?) are written. He changes the sexes of the characters – so a male protagonist becomes female and vice versa. The dynamics injected are quite surprising. Sometimes the novel stays as originally intended and sometimes not. But this exercise always helps.
Toibin spoke of the unspoken. That frequently the most illuminating elements of a story are the things not said. The silence between the lines. An audience question asked about the unresolved endings of the stories in Mothers and Sons. Toibin stated this was quite deliberate. He has written as much as he knows of the events and no more. He wants the reader to project the outcomes. He considers his stories a success if they make the reader shudder and put the book down to reflect on what they have just read. On that criteria he can consider Mothers and Sons a success – but more on that in my forthcoming review.
Audience questions moved us onto the films of McGrath’s books, Spider and Asylum. McGrath generous in his praise of both. He told how the screenplay of Spider presented challenges. McGrath described the book as an internal monologue of a schnizophrenic and his attempt to get the voice onto film involved writing much flashback. The director, however, removed it all and told McGrath to trust him. The result McGrath said is a masterpiece …
as was this particular event, which has set the standard for week two.