There was a three-course menu from Salt on offer at EIBF 2013. With dishes from last year’s Booker-shortlistee, Alison Moore, thIs year’s Not The Booker Prize short-listee, Meike Ziervogel and an author from my completist list, Alice Thompson, how could I refuse? It was a menu seasoned to perfection.
Alison Moore talked about her recently published short-story collection, The Pre-War House and other Stories, a collection many years in the making. All were started, if not finished prior to her Booker-shortlisting for her wonderful debut novel, The Lighthouse.Many were written following the death of her own mother, which accounts for the prevalence of absent mothers in her fiction.
The stories in this collection vary in length – from flash fiction pieces to a full length novella. The flash fiction pieces were written for competition and are portraits of a moment. Generally though Moore knows what she is trying to do and the length of a story is determined when its shapeis right
Asked about the impact of the Booker shortlisting, Moore replied that she had found it quite frightening. There she was “tinkering” away in her bedroom, when suddenly she found herself thrust into the middle of the biggest literary circus in town. However, it has since allowed her to become a professional writer with no need to sign a contract for her second novel until the first draft is completed.
Meike Ziervogel’s debut novel(la) shares Moore’s preoccupation with mothers – only this time they are very much present alongside the fraught relationships with their daughters. The facts about Magda Goebbels are well-known and they are included in my book said Ziervogel, I had to blend them with fiction to present a psychological portrait of a very deluded woman. Of course, while I was thinking my way into her head, I could not think of her in that way. She had to be a rational being and I had to understand her, if my portrait was to ring true. It is also important to realise that the Nazis committed these crimes because they were humans, not monsters. If we consider them monsters, we cannot learn the lessons from history.
However, for all the research – she read a lot of Nazi literature and authors who had influenced the Nazis – Magda somehow remained elusive. The voices of Magda’s mother and her eldest daughter, Helga are 1st person. The sections written from Magda’s point-of-view are in third. Does that mean I failed to get close enough to her?, asked the author.
Ziervogel read a section from the end of the novel, just after Magda has killed her six children. It was a powerful reading – the author’s standing erect and projecting her voice through the auditorium. It may not have been Magda in 1st person, but it certainly sounded as idealogical and certain as Magda would have been. Scary as hell.
I’d like to make a suggestion about that 3rd person narrative – was it perhaps a subconcious defence mechanism on the author’s part?
I was gratified to see a long queue forming for Alice Thompson’s session in the writer’s retreat – quite the longest I’ve seen for any session there this festival.
Burnt Island, her 6th novel, is a deliberate attempt to construct a horror novel – heavily influenced by Stephen King’s The Shining. I’m not a literary snob, said Thompson. I like the challenge of writing something in a different genre. There is a missing mother as per Moore and a very strange parent-child relationship as per Ziervogel, Only this time the focus is on the father-daughter relationship. Not that you can necessarily believe everything you read because at the heart of this novel is an unreliable narrator, a literary author determined to cast literariness aside in order to write a commercial bestseller.
That conflict is apparent in the writing. The first half is a highly comic satire on the writing life which becomes increasingly surreal as the protagonist, suffering from writer’s block, goes insane. Unable to flee the island (there’s no transport), he is trapped inside his head – as indeed is the reader. The unexplained images, visions, delusions – I edit all the explanations out, said Thompson, because I don’t like to be told what to think – pile on top of one another until, well, the inevitable. A tragedy and a comedy rolled into one.
I couldn’t resist asking Thompson if anyone had fallen out with her .. No, they haven’t, she said. I’m glad the literary establishment got the joke.