Saturday 22.08.09

Event 1 – Henning Mankell

Meet homo narrans – the man who tells stories – or crime-writing superstar, Henning Mankell, visiting the EIBF to discuss his novel “Italian Shoes”, allegedly.  There was no reading.  He spent 10 minutes maximum talking about the novel he wrote in 2004, the purpose of which is to redress the injustice in the Western myth that young is good, old is bad.   He also made the point that of the 40 novels he has written, only 25% are crime novels. Mankell has many stories to relate.  On how living in Africa has broadened his world view, how Africans are not just dying but are living and loving in the same way as you or I.  How African crime literature has only just discovered the detective genre and is trying to understand the rules of engagement. So too is society because the police force has existed for only 40 years.  Mankell tells an amusing story of the day he observed a policeman escorting a thief who was under arrest.  The policeman decided it was time to get his shoes polished and asked the thief to run an errand for him while that was happening.  The thief did so and once the shoes were clean, they carried on with the business of arrest. 

Mankell attributed the success of his Wallander stories to his detective’s humanity.  He changes throughout the series.  Giving him diabetes was a masterstroke says Mankell.  Readers could relate to him.  Mankell is very complimentary to the recent TV series in which Kenneth Branagh plays Wallander.  Branagh has, he says, stripped Wallander and his Sweden back to the basics and created something cool, something pure. It is fully deserving of the awards it is now receiving and the good news is that Branagh is currently filming another 3 episodes.

Mankell wouldn’t name his influences.  He did, however, say that there were lots of ideas that could be stolen from Arthur Conan Doyle!  Asked his opinion of fellow Swede Stieg Larsson’s novel, he was refreshingly honest.  “The first one was good.  The rest not so good.”

The book-signing queue was very well-managed.  How many people fit in the main tent?  1000?  We were only allowed to present one book for signature.  I chose his gold-dagger winning novel “Sidetracked”.  Not my favourite Wallander novel – that accolade belongs to “The Fifth Woman” – but nevertheless a keeper.  The murders in it grisly but I can handle that in Mankell because the plots are so tight and the writing is good.  In the 30-seconds that it took for him to sign my book (thanks to the queue management, I didn’t have to wait too long), I asked him if he had invented the gruesome murders in those two novels.  No, he said, those things have  really happened.

Event 2 – The Art of the Short Story

Nadeem Aslam, James Lasdun and Valerie Martin in conversation with John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine about the craft involved in creating a successful short story.  Nadeem Aslam: It should focus on material against which a reader would rebel if extended into a novel. James Lasdun:  It should deal with hammerblows – a single act of cruelty – a single act of self-discovery.  Valerie Martin said that a short story was to the novel what chamber music is to a full orchestra. 

D H Lawrence received overwhelming praise.  Wintry Peacocks was approved by both Aslam and Lasdun.  Valerie Martin is a fan of the later Chekhov stories.  She particularly enjoys the longer 100-page novella.  (I detect a kindred spirit.) Modern proponents of the form worthy of mention: William Trevor and Alice Munro, who has apparently said that she could transform any novel into a short story.  (There’s a gauntlet if ever I heard one.)  The craft of Raymond Carver was revealed to be the combination of a wordy writer and a ruthless editor, who simply chopped off the last 7 paragraphs of the story!  Further revelations were made about the New Yorker which often insisted that writers change the endings of stories to be published.  Authors would often reinstate the original version when the story was later published in a collection.

Once again no readings  which allowed a full hour of  superior writerly discussion.  Nadeem Aslam was particularly interesting as, after 3 novels, he is just starting to write short stories and his explanations of the technical challenges were those of a writer grappling with the new form.  The best event of the festival so far for me and one which prompted me to buy the books thereafter.  (Lizzy 2 : Bookshops 5)  In the book-signing queue I asked the authors to name their favourite short story of all time.  James Lasdun:  The Blind Man – D H Lawrence, Nadeem Aslam: The Fiddler and The Reels – Thomas Hardy, Valerie Martin – ??? by Anton Chekhov. See  I can’t even remember 3 story titles for the two minutes it takes to find pen and paper.  Is that a senior moment or just an indication of seniority approaching?  Now where did I put that gingko biloba?

One final surprise – we each received a gift from Granta, sponsors of the event.  A lovely book bag containing two editions of Granta magazine, including the special 100th edition.  I am  now all prepared for Short Story September.  C B James – are you hosting again this year?