Esther Woolfson was born in Glasgow. She studied at Edinburgh and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and has a degree in Chinese. Her short stories have been broadcast by the BBC and published in many collections. A non-fiction account of living with birds, Corvus, was published by Granta in August 2008 and her novel, Piano Angel, by Two Raven’s Press in October 2008. News at the festival is that this novel has been nominated for the 2010 IMPAC Literary Prize.
LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?
EW: I appeared at the EIBF in 2008 when my non-fiction book Corvus – A Life with Birds was published in hardback by Granta and I was invited back this year following the publication of the paperback and to talk about my novel Piano Angel which was published by Two Ravens in October 2008
LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with?
EW: For Corvus, I appeared with the distinguished scientist and writer Colin Tudge whose marvellous, comprehensive book The Secret Life of Birds has just been published in paperback. His approach to birds as a biologist and mine as what might be called a domestic observer of birds are different but we got on very well indeed and were able to swap observations and information.
For Piano Angel I was paired with John Aberdein whose book Strip the Willow was published recently. I wasn’t sure beforehand exactly why (apart from the fact that his book is about Aberdeen which is where I live) but it worked out very well. Our books are both new, innovative Scottish works of literary fiction and much of the discussion was about the political and historical aspects of our work – in his case, growing up in a communist family in Aberdeen – the foundation of much of his writing, and in mine, the history of the Hungarian Revolution and the Second World War and well as the tradition – or lack of it – of ‘Jewish’ writing in Scotland.
LS: How did you prepare for the EIBF event? Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?
EW: Staying calm is, alas, something you can’t really prepare for. I read the books written by the people I’m appearing with, if I haven’t read them before. It seems to be both the professional thing to do and a matter of courtesy, as well as giving opportunity for more discussion. I never obsess about ticket sales. I never think about it which is just as well because last year, one of my first appearances anywhere, there was a large sell-out audience and if I’d known, I’d probably have run for the hills. This year, both events were very well-attended. I’m always just delighted to see that people are sufficiently interested in books – and in my books – to be there.
LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand? Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?
EW: Just a bit of routine anxiety, which doesn’t seem to get any better even though I’ve done quite a few events in the past year. Checking to see that I’ve actually got the books with me and pens and specs. No rituals, now that I come to think of it. I just have to remind myself of the basics of public speaking, such as making myself heard, which I usually find quite difficult. This time, it was fine though and no-one yelled at me to speak up!
LS: How did the events go?
EW: Both events were fantastic. The atmosphere was good, the audiences lovely. In both cases, the chairpeople were superb which makes a huge difference. They were helpful and charming and asked penetrating, interesting questions and led the discussions beautifully.
LS: How did you choose which extract to read?
I find that quite difficult. Everything needs some explanation and it’s quite awkward to find bits that keep that to a minimum. The novel was far more difficult to choose from. For Corvus I chose a piece about my magpie Spike. Not the same bit as I did last year in case anyone had been sufficiently hardy to come back for a second year. This time, I read an extract about his behaviour – his propensity for drinking from glasses of wine and for stealing and hiding ice-cubes! For Piano Angel I read two extracts, one about memory, one character’s recollection of Budapest in 1944, and another shorter one about the death of another character, quite a gentle, slow piece of observation.
LS: Which was the best question at the event and why?
EW: I was asked one during the Corvus event about whether or not I feel sad about denying the birds a ‘natural’ life. I’m always glad to answer questions of that sort because I wouldn’t want anyone to think that it’s a matter I take lightly, and the opportunity to discuss questions of mortality and the lack of choice the birds have by the time they reach me, is interesting. I was asked a challenging one at the Piano Angel event about the United States’ potential role in tackling the theoretical takeover of Mexico by communism. That was in relation to its failure to act to help the Hungarian Revolution. Ha! I did manage a reply but probably could have answered more fully had I had rather more time to think about it!
LS: Book-signing – love it or hate it?
EW: Love it. People are so kind and enthusiastic. I’ve had some wonderful ‘corvid’ conversations with people who share my feelings about birds.
LS: What did you do after the book-signing?
EW: Milled around chatting to people for a while then went out for a lovely, relaxing dinner!
LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general? The EIBF in particular?
EW: Book festivals are amazing. I’m always so impressed by the enthusiasm and interest of the people who attend. The EIBF is superb. It has such an exciting atmosphere. There’s a feeling of being involved in something important and truly international. It’s fantastically well-organised too. The people who run the Writer’s ‘yurt’ are terrific and manage to make you feel calm and part of everything.
LS: Did you attend any other book festival events?
EW: I didn’t have a chance. I’m very much limited by how much time I can spend away from the birds. I do have someone looking after them but after a day or so, I like to be back to make sure they’re ok.
LS: Thanks, Esther for such a gracious interview. I’d just like to say that I’ve started your novel. I’m only 42 pages in and the quality of the prose is already quite haunting. Such a shame that I’m a bit distracted by this EIBF whatsit at the moment. I just want to sit down and lose myself in the book. Soon, Lizzy, soon!