This is the third year that I have taken you to the Edinburgh Book Festival and I was aware that my view from the audience might begin to feel a little bit sameish. So this year I’ve invited some EIBF authors to tell you the story from their chair on the stage. I’m absolutely delighted that Maggie Gee, an author who has been entertaining me for a decade, has agreed to participate. Could this be the blog equivalent of 101 things you wanted to know about the Edinburgh Book Festival and were afraid to ask? Let’s see …..
LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?
MG: I was invited through Kelly Pike, publicity director of my publisher, Telegram Books, and then the Edinburgh Festival team made the date of my appearance coincide with the event where my husband, Nicholas Rankin, author of Churchill’s Wizards (Faber), was talking about deception and camouflage in World War 2. So we travelled up together and shared a room at the George Hotel.
LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with?
MG: I was appearing with one of my oldest and dearest friends, the Turkish writer Moris Farhi, author of the beautiful and heartbreaking Young Turk, and most recently of the bold, ambitious A Designated Man, about the cycle of violence in blood feuds. Over the years my family and I have talked about everything under the sun with Moris and his brilliant wife Nina, who died this year. They are my daughter’s godparents. So talking in public together was no problem.
LS: How did you prepare for the EIBF event? Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?
MG: I re-read Moris’s book and made sure my reading from My Driver was exactly 7 minutes long — nothing worse than writers who drone on for ever. I did not think about ticket sales — have done too many of these events and would be happy to perform for 3 sympathetic, interested people.
LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand? Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?
MG: I must admit I wished I were in a room of my own, so two authors were not preparing in the same room! Nick worries too much about whether I might be late (I am almost never late.) But no rituals. I am tense but I just get on with it.
LS: How did the event go?
MG: Super, thoughtful audience, who listened, and smiled when I needed it, asked good questions and bought books. The underlying ( but I hope not obvious) truth was that I was in a bad mood, because dreading a tax home visit three days later – my suitcase was full of the last documents I had to sort in the ‘tray’ table to my airline style seat on the train home, and my heart was full of dread. Typical human being, we always worry about the wrong things and look in the wrong direction (a big theme in my books): the tax visit seemed to go off without incident. Now I am a happy woman.
LS: How did you choose which extract to read?
MG: I chose an extract from a scene two-thirds of the way through where Trevor goes and sees the great profusion of animals along the shores of the Kazinga Channel in the west of Uganda, and loves it, and thinks ‘It’s like those old pictures of ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’. Then he goes into the hotel bar and finds a death’s-head of a man telling the true story of the tourists who were kidnapped and macheted to death in the forest not far away, a decade earlier. I just thought, ‘Choose something interesting, which reflects both the dark and the bright in the book’ – because it shows a lot of happiness and physical beauty, but also the darkness of war and violence on the edge of Uganda.
LS: Which was the best question at the event and why?
MG: All questions from the audience are good questions, because someone has had the courage to ask them. I enjoyed the question from the woman who asked how Moris and I knew each other, because (unusually) there was a real friendship on stage at this event, and I could publicly acknowledge my love and admiration for Moris and his wife Nina, and also thank him for what he did for me as a writer back in 2001, when thanks largely to his recommendation, our joint publisher Saqi accepted my ‘problem’ novel about racism in the UK, The White Family, for publication. It went on to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the International Impac award.
LS: Book-signing – love it or hate it?
MG: I really enjoy meeting readers, particularly the ones who have liked my work enough to go out and buy the new book and who are about to enter my secret world. I feel grateful to them. Signing books is very easy compared to writing them, so much shorter. My only problem is stopping talking to one reader I am signing for, in order to sign for the next. I don’t like rationing my attention.
LS: What did you do after the book-signing?
MG: I went back to my hotel room, ate ravenously (brain work always makes me starving hungry) and then started preparing for a big event I was taking part in at 2.30 pm for the Edinburgh International Festival up at the Hub, where a panel consisting of me, a professor of philosophy and the director and writer of Optimism (a new stage version of Voltaire’s novel Candide) at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre, were discussing dystopias and the Enlightenment. Nick and I went to see the play the night before. Probably because of my aforementioned bad mood, I had a good argument with the writer and director before the event started about why they had a) cast Voltaire’s sympathetic black character Cacambo as a white guy, and b) why they had cast the sufffering slave in the original novel (who changed the hero’s whole outlook on life) as a farcical figure played by a white actor in blackface makeup. This was not a tactful way to behave just before we all went on stage together! I think I had a point, but actually they were both intelligent, sympathetic blokes and had their reasons, even if I didn’t agree with them. I regretted being so frank afterwards, as I usually do. I am just not English in these respects, I do tend to express my feelings, but at the same time I always regret it if I upset people. However I think the audience would have been completely unable to detect that this argument had happened, as we all got on well on stage. I talked mainly about my two most recent dystopias, The Ice People and The Flood (both also published by Saqi Telegram).
LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general? The EIBF in particular?
MG: As long as people are interested enough to buy or read my books, the events are well worthwhile. Reading aloud in public is always a useful exercise — you get a sense of what people like, and where perhaps you should have made some cuts. This may be why my books get more and more pared down and pacy as I get older! I love the Edinburgh Festival because I love the city, its complicated, romantic skyline and the wonderful National Gallery, where Nick and I rushed to see the new ‘Discovery of Spain’ exhibition. (DO NOT MISS IT!)
LS: Did you attend any other book festival events?
MG: Usually I use up too much adrenalin to go to other events. Before my own event I am too preoccupied, and afterwards I just want to relax.
LS: Thanks, Maggie for your time and your frankness. I hope you don’t regret it! I’d just like to add a note about my favourite moment of your event during which Moris Fahri made some controversial statements about religion and patriarchial societies. At one point he referred to one of the three dedications in his book A Designated Man. “To Womanhood – the only blessing that can save the world from its armoured people”. Oh thought Lizzy, having read your novel, The Ice People, Maggie’s response to this will be interesting. I hope I paraphrase this correctly.
MG: Right, Moris, I love you dearly but this lovefest is over. That’s too much for us. A maternal society cannot embody goodness. We’re too busy in the immediate – cooking, child-rearing – to solve the big issues.
LS: At which point, scores of hands – mostly female – shot up to comment …. and the compere called time. Grrrr – you and Moris must returnnext year so that we can pick up where we left off!