Archive for the ‘Edinburgh Book Festival 2009’ Category

The final word on the 2009 Edinburgh Book Festival is reserved for someone who makes Lizzy’s excesses appear modest. The dedication of Paul Johnston, award-winning crime author, who chairs events covering a broad spectrum of publishing (crime, literary fiction, international fiction, non-fiction) is admirable. He says “living in Greece, I have to make to make a trip to Edinburgh worthwhile”. Let’s see what other stories he has to tell. This is the Edinburgh book festival from the view point of one whose job it is to keep things moving, to ensure that the audience gets its money’s worth.
Paul Johnston (courtesy of www.paul-johnston.co.uk)

Paul Johnston (courtesy of http://www.paul-johnston.co.uk)

LS: From author to chairman at the EIBF – how does that happen?

PJ: I became a chair by starting off doing the odd event about ten years ago and gradually being recognised as a safe pair of hands. The Edinburgh Book Festival is very good about giving chairs advice and developing their profile.

LS: 31 (!) events. How does that happen? Is it a record of some kind?

PJ: I chaired 30 events and had one event promoting my own work.  I don’t know if 30 events was a record this year. I chaired 34 a few years back… I like to do as many as possible to make it worth my while being there. 34 only works out at 2 a day, so it’s not as bad as it sounds…

LS: How do you prepare? How many books did you have to read to cover your  events? Any 5-star reads that you’d like to recommend?

PJ: Preparation is in two parts. First, reading the books (for 30 events, that worked out at over 40 books due to some events having 2 authors), then writing notes – they consist of author biogs and quotes, questions and other relevant info. I also take notes while authors are speaking, to make my questions flow as naturally as possible from what they’ve said. I was lucky enough to do a lot of great writers this year (eg Iain Banks, David Peace, William Boyd, Douglas Coupland). I’d also highly recommend Andrey Kurkov’s books – people were in stitches at his event.

Douglas Coupland and Paul Johnston

Douglas Coupland and Paul Johnston

LS: Were the connections between the books paired at the EIBF always obvious?

PJ: The festival is good at pairing authors who have something in common, although it’s usually possible to find points of contact even if they’re quite different.

LS: Do authors prep answers to the questions you’re going to ask?

PJ: I don’t tell them the questions in advance, to make sure there’s some adrenaline rushing and because I react to what they say during their presentations (the only exception would be non-native speakers of English, who are sometimes not too confident about their comprehension).

LS: Are some events more difficult than others?

PJ: Single-author events are usually more taxing because you have to know more about the book/ writer, although some pairings can be testing. I’ve sometimes done events when the authors speak no English and need interpreters – those can be tricky, but audiences are very tolerant.

LS: Do your events always go to plan?

PJ: Events certainly don’t always go to plan, not least because you never know how authors are going to perform on the day. I had one author this year who said he didn’t want me to chair him as the event was about to start in front of 650 people. Just as well – having seen him in the run-up to the event, I’d decided I didn’t want to chair him anyway… If authors read too long, I sometimes step in and remind them of the time, particularly if another author is showing signs of irritation. I had one author this year who read too much, but I decided to let him go on as the other author didn’t seem concerned and because he’d been longlisted for the Booker Prize. Predictably, a member of the audience complained afterwards…

LS: What gives  you the biggest buzz?

PJ: The biggest buzz is when an author reacts well to questions and the audience show their appreciation – laughter is always a good sign. Some authors are very good at charming crowds (eg Ian Rankin), while others need gentle pushing in the right direction. And then there are the carefully prepared show-offs. I tend to avoid them.

LS: You also appeared as an author this year. Which is less stressful – appearing as an author or as a chairman?

PJ: It probably is less stressful doing one’s own event, although I often feel I don’t prepare enough for it.

LS: How did your own author event go?

PJ: This year, my own event, with my friend and fellow crime writer Robert Wilson, was a bit of a tester – the power failed after two minutes, and we had to get by with tiny torches and loud voice projection. The crowd showed great Blitz spirit, but frankly I could have lived without the hassle.

LS: To compensate, why not tell us about your latest novel right here, right now.

PJ: The novel I’ve been working on this year is Maps of Hell, the third in my series featuring crime novelist/ investigator Matt Wells. It’s a complete change of direction, being set in the US and involving a new set of very sinister villains. It’ll be out in May 2010. This year saw the republication of my Alex Mavros series, set in Greece.

LS: Thanks, Paul. All the best for the new novel and thanks for your dedication to the cause! What’s next for you as a chairman?

PJ: I’d like to chair at other festivals, such as Hay-on-Wye. Other than that, it’ll be back to Edinburgh next summer…

LS: Indeed.  Only 11 months to go ….


And that’s it for this year.   I particularly want to thank all the author interviewees who made EIBF 2009 such a special event on Lizzy’s Literary Life this year.   I had an absolute blast … I hope you did too.


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One month on and I was back in Edinburgh.  More on that later but yesterday confirmed my worst suspicions.   I discovered why the book festival is in the second half of August.  It is deliberately timed to coincide with monsoon season (or has been for the last 3 years) when it is wet and windy. Visitors are forced into places where their wallets are not safe.

It is not always so.  It was glorious on Princes Street Gardens on the first Sunday in August this year when the castle’s former moat played host to the annual free jazz festival. Look! Rolled-up shirt sleeves, smiling faces, people are dancing in the streets and brollies are in use to prevent sunstroke!

Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2009

Edinburgh Jazz Festival 2009

End of September and another glorious day.

During the festival, however, the elements conspired to shepherd visitors into a specially erected edifice, pleasure dome or den of iniquity depending on the state of your bank balance, the Charlotte Square bookshop.

The EIBF bookshop

The EIBF bookshop

Tell me what chance does a bookworm have?

You may remember that the first week of the EIBF, Lizzy had held the match to a respectable draw.  The second half began with a mini-crime festival and Lizzy took her eye off the ball long enough for the opposition to score two quick goals.  (Lizzy 8: Bookshops 10).  It was the beginning of the end. The EIBF had been saving the best, the big shots, until last.

Enter Sebastian Barry.  His, the reading I had been anticipating the most.   Barry, perhaps the only author who could have read for the whole hour, and I would not have murmered the slightest protest.  I’m convinced that the designer of the packaging for the EIBF exclusive chocolate bar had this event in mind. For the 30 minutes of Barry’s reading was

Pure Pleasue

Pure Pleasue

*** Sigh *** The chocolate wasn’t bad either.

This event no threat on the book buying front (I already own everything Barry has written) but a definite softening tactic.  As was this pile of pre-releases ever so casually stacked on the bookshop floor for the full-fortnight, radiating subliminal “you know you want to” messages during every shower/downpour.

Pre-release me, take me home ....

Pre-release me, take me home ....

No wonder then that when William Boyd, Douglas Coupland and Margaret Atwood appeared during the final weekend at the festival, Lizzy’s defence was no more. The wing backs had flown, the full backs were empty and the sweeper had been run ragged. The goalie never stood a chance.  There was to be no giant killing in this match.  The final score Lizzy 8:  Bookshops 13.  It could so easily have been much worse.

The Big Four

The Big Four

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Suyahl Saadi (courtesy TwoRavensPress)

Suhayl Saadi (courtesy TwoRavensPress)

Suhayl Saadi does nothing by halves.  First he writes a 680-page behemoth of a novel, Joseph’s Box, then he promotes it by creating an amazing website.  He’s a  busy man as you will see in the following interview regarding his appearance at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?

SS: My publisher, Two Ravens Press, informed the EIBF (I think that’s how it happened, but I may be wong!) of the impending publication of my new novel, ‘Joseph’s Box’. It was originally scheduled for publication in October 2009, but when the EIBF expressed an interest in scheduling an event in August, the publication date was brought forward. I appeared at the EIBF from 1999-2006, inclusive, so it was lovely to return this year.

LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with? Is there an obvious connection?

SS: Yes, and refreshingly not because the other author, Rana Dasgupta, was of South Asian origin! Both Joseph’s Box and Solo deal with, among other things, regions and states of being which might be termed, liminal. They also delve into aspects of memory, remembered stories, contested histories, the dead, etc.

LS: How did you prepare for the EIBF event? Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?

SS: I always rehearse for readings, perhaps 14-20 times beforehand, once a day, every day. I have found that most EIBF events – not just mine! –  tend to be sold-out, so I never worry about ticket sales.

LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand? Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?

SS: Ha! I was at work all morning and typically it was – how shall I put it – a particularly challenging morning. Nonetheless, I am a professional and so as far as possible I tend to try and make sure that I’m not too tired or stressed with other matters before a reading, in fact, being bloody-minded, I refuse to allow anything really bother me – a 40-mile train journey or a medium-length walk is a good way of relaxing in these circumstances! I also tend not to talk too much beforehand, to keep my powder dry, as it were. One strong coffee, three deep breaths… and I’m on!

LS: How did the event go?

Well, thanks.

LS: How did you choose which extract to read?

It’s a section of this 680-page novel which to some extent is self-contained. Also, it’s passionate and intense and that kind of style suits my vigorous and emotive reading technique. I am not a ‘Home Counties’ writer, and I am not a ‘Home Counties’ reader, either. It is set in Sicily, which I think audiences might find interesting.

LS:  Which was the best question and why?

SS: Someone asked about how a novel comes together structurally, how much does one have to plan ahead, etc. It’s always quite difficult for me remember exactly how I came to think about a particular strand in a book, but talking – a little – about it can help me codify my own ideas – rationalisations, possibly – in relation to thse dynamics.

LS: Book-signing – love it or hate it?

SS: Love it! The more, the better!

LS: What did you do after the book-signing?

I had to rush to do a photo-session with the EIBF’s photographer and an interview on-site at the EIBF for a podcast. Then I had another event at the EIBF. Phew! But enjoyable!

LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general? The EIBF in particular? Do you consider it part of the day job that you signed up to when you became an author?

SS: I enjoy participating in literary festivals. You get to meet other authors, some of whom you may never have met before, and also readers, likewise! There are often synchronicities between books/events. Also, lots and lots of tempting books. The EBIF is a superb lit-fest – the welcome, the events, the setting, the audiences, etc. Yes, it’s part of the civil life of a literate society, to talk about words and their power and meaning in relation to the world. One can get too much of it, though and it’s important to remember that the core duties of the job are about sitting alone, conjuring-up worlds from sand. I have another day-job, and because of multifactorial economic, historical, artistic and societal aetiologies, I will never be able to just be a writer, so being a writer for half-a-day again is a vignette from the long struggle that is the exploration of the true measure of my potential and of my ability to elucidate truth.

LS: Did you / Are you going to attend any other events?

SS: No. I didn’t have time. I work full time.

LS: Have you ever done a blog tour?  If yes, how does it compare to meeting the readers in the flesh?

SS: No, but I’d like to, especially given the circumstantial limitations now on my ability to travel. I have undertaken sporadic e-mail interviews with arts magazines over the years – Spike Magazine and 3AM, for instance. I think both are fun – meeting readers in the flesh and discoursing with – or simply coming across – their blog personae.

LS:  Thanks Suhayl.  I have yet to open Joseph’s Box but I’ve been following the pre-publication activity  at Two Raven’s Press:  excitement on reading the manuscript, panic at bringing forward the release date to tie in with the EIBF and finally delight at Boyd Tonkin’s review in the Independent.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster in itself and one, I suspect, that mirrors the ride that will accompany a reading of your novel.

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The setting of  Tobias Jones’s first novel isn’t obvious to those whose Italian geography is somewhat lacking.  Although it’s instantly recognisable as Parma to his family. His mother-in-law is quite indignant as cover picture is located in Modena.

Stylistically it is inspired by American hard-boiled fiction.  Interviewed at the recent EIBF, Jones returned again and again to his admiration of Ross MacDonald and his creation, the private investigator, Lew Archer.  A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that MacDonald’s works often turned on Archer’s unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. There, in essence, is a summary of  Jones’s The Salati Case.

Castagnetti has an unusual commission.  When Signora Salati dies, he is asked to provide evidence that her long lost younger son is actually dead so that her elder son may inherit.  Presumed dead isn’t dead enough for inheritance purposes. Nor for those who know more than they wish to be revealed.  Even Signora Salati had secrets that are about to surface cause more hurt than she ever could have imagined. Hard-boiled with a soft centre would be an accurate description of  the plot which contains real sadness.

Castagnetti is an orphan who has fought his way out of the mean streets of Milan.  As he investigates this complex family case, he ponders on the meaning of family … and, because he can’t read situations accurately, he makes mistakes.  He’s a thin character, deliberately so says Jones, in the mould of Hammett’s The Thin Man. MacDonald’s Lew Archer was so thin you could hardly see him.  While this may be so, it does mean that there are moments when Castagnetti’s actions defy rationality and his violence (there are a couple of instances when he completely overreacts) is incongruous with the personality depicted elsewhere.

Such as Castagnetti, the beekeeper.  Jones has given his P.I.  his own hobby.  For many reasons.  1) He didn’t want anything as cosy as Brunnetti’s love affair with food (Donna Leon).  2) He wanted to avoid the modern tendency of  overloading detectives with disabilities.  3) He didn’t want anything that would cause him additional research as a writer.  4) Beekeeping provides an interesting metaphor for the workings of society.

It’s not the only metaphor – the winter fogs of Northern Italy working in the same way as the fogs of London in Dickens’s Bleak House.

You can already see from this that Jones has ambitions for his sleuth and his series.  The 2nd novel is on its way.  Should have been with the publishers by June but they’re being very understanding.  Well, I just want him to hurry up because it sounds more complex than the first.  It takes on the tangled subject of Italian politics and Jones has also promised more flesh on Castagnetti’s bones.  He said – and this is the author’s own words – that it is better than the first novel.  Which means that there’s a mighty treat in store because the first isn’t bad at all!

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WIth 750 events at the EIBF to choose from, it’s possible to have many festivals in one.  I might one day go to the Harrogate Crime Festival but then,  why travel, when there is plenty of opportunity to indulge in the not-so-respectable side of life right in the heart of Edinburgh’s very respectable New Town. During the second week, things got a little shadier !

I had been looking forward to a mini German literary festival but Julia Franck and Daniel Kehlmann both cancelled.  So I was all the more delighted when the crime-writing queen of German literature, Andrea Maria Schenkel,  did arrive and read from her chilling novel Ice Cold, in which a prisoner is executed at the end of the second chapter. As the punishment is exacted by the Nazi regime, the auto response is that this is an innocent man.  The novel answers the questions that this raises.  Schenkel also discussed her first novel The Murder Farm and explained the conflicts that arose as she wrote it and discovered that all her sympathies lay with the murderer!  Mine too!  I reviewed both novels here.

Gunnar Staalesen and Andrea Maria Schenkel

Gunnar Staalesen and Andrea Maria Schenkel

Schenkel was accompanied by new-to-me Gunnar Staalesen from Norway, who has been writing detective fiction for 25 years.  Consorts of Death is his fifth to be translated into English.  Not released until 24th September, it was there and available to purchase right after Staalesen had convinced me that I needed to read it right away!  (Lizzy 8: Bookshops 9)

It was the same story the following day.  This time Swedish Hakan Nesser used his powers of persuasion regarding Woman with Birthmark.  Nesser writes literary fiction as well as stand-alone crime novels.  It  is his Inspector van Veeteren series which is available to English readers.  I particularly liked his arguments that crime fiction need not be less literary than literary fiction and I sincerely hope that the proof of that is in the reading. (Lizzy 8 :  Bookshops 10)

Tobias Jones and Hakan Nesser

Tobias Jones and Hakan Nesser

The Salati Case is the first published novel of  Tobias Jones, author of the non-fiction work The Dark Heart of Italy.  I had just finished reading this prior to the event and a full review will follow tomorrow. 

 With crime on the agenda, it was time for a second attempt at tracking down Ian Rankin’s fictional detective.  Let’s start from where we went wrong. Walk another 116 steps down Young Street and we arrive at the Oxford Bar.  Inspector Rebus’s watering-hole. Entering inside, turn right at the bar and come to the wee snug.  And who should we find there ….

Peter Guttridge


Peter Guttridge, Crime Editor at the Observer, and chairman at most of the Edinburgh International Crime Festival. Tucked away quietly enjoying a cider and a book, preparing for his next event.   Or he was until Lizzy accosted his solitude and do you know, not once did he say “leave me alone, can’t you see I’m reading!”  Before you know it, we were debating crime fiction set in Italy, why Michael Dibdin was so brilliant (at least until Blood Rain), Donna Leon is too cozy, and why Tobias Jones is one to watch ….

The final course on the criminal menu was dished up by someone who didn’t even want to discuss his novel.  Richard Price, author of Lush Life, said he is now bored with it and that he’s still trying to write the ultimate New York novel.  Under duress he read a section, at the end of which, he literally threw the book away.  He was far more interested in his new work – not that he knows what the story is at the moment.  He moved to Harlem 12 months ago and is currently  observing and trying to capture the essence of life there.  He read a couple of “spot-writing” pieces from his laptop. Pieces that were not yet publishable but still had a very distinctive voice – that of a prophetess. 

Richard Price

Richard Price

Price said that his laconic was natural but he slaves over it.  The easier something reads, the more blood has been spilled into it.  He echoed Hakan Nesser by not accepting that crime writing is a genre inferior to literary fiction, acknowledging only that a detective story gives the book an automatic structure.  Nothing else.  It’s an interesting thought.  Do you agree?  And do you have any examples of literary crime fiction that you particular recommend?

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Julia OFaolain

Julia O'Faolain

Julia O’Faolain was promoting her novel Adam Gould at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. Her novel No Country for Young Men was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980.  Entirely appropriate, therefore, that she was paired with Adam Foulds, at the time of the event longlisted (now shortlisted) for this year’s Booker prize.  Here’s how it went from Julia’s point-of-view.

LS: How did you become part of the 2009 Programme?

JO’F: My publisher, Telegram Books, forwarded the invitation from Edinburgh International Festival which I happily accepted.

LS: If you’re part of a double-bill, what do you think of the book you’re paired with?

JO’F: The connection is indeed obvious. Each of our books portrays an asylum in which a writer is confined, so I was  intrigued by the emerging parallels. Some of these are quite small perceptions such as  the fact (?) that the mad tend not to have a sense of humour. See page 34 of The Quickening Maze  where Dr Allen says “Madness has no sense of humour. Similarly,Adam, in my Adam Gould (page 33), reflects that “in the asylum jokes rarely worked. There was no norm there to bounce them off.” Some of the inmates’ delusions are similar too. The big difference between the two books is that all Foulds’ characters, if I understood him correctly, were historical figures, whereas many of mine are fictional, albeit composite or partly based on real people.

Like everyone else, I admire Foulds’ prose, his vivid imagery and his clever evoking of  a larger outside world which, like mine, is  full of characters who try to grasp more than they can hold and might well end up in an asylum themselves. His ability to see nature with Clare’s eye is impressive.

LSHow did you prepare for the EIBF event?  Have you obsessed about your ticket sales?

JO’F: I reminded myself of the political background and decided which passage to read. There’s no point worrying about ticket sales when you’re not in your own city.

LS: It’s the morning of your event – what happened beforehand?  Are there any rituals to be followed before you step on the stage?

JO’F: No rituals. I had never travelled before from Heathrow Terminal 5, and the lack of information as to how to  get there by tube took all my attention.  Signals kept flashing up “Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 4” with no  mention of 5 at all. Only when we reached Hounslow West did all become clear.

Julia OFaolain and Adam Foulds

Julia O'Faolain and Adam Foulds

LS: How did the event go?

JO’F:  I thought it went all right. The audience was lively which is the main thing.

LS: How did you choose which extract to read?

JO’F: There were very few ten-minute bits which could be detached without tedious footnoting.

LS: Which was the best question at the event and why?

JO’F: The question about historical novels was good, but by then we were too close to running out of time for a discussion. One thing which makes such novels relevant is the cyclic nature of some peoples’ history. Ireland ‘s is one example of this; another is the eruption of religious struggles after long periods of calm.

LS:  Book-signing – love it or hate it?

JO’F: On the whole, I  like seeing people’s faces and the chance for an exchange — oh and the unexpectedness of who may turn up.

LS: What did you do after the book-signing?

JO’F: I had a glass of white wine with another Telegram writer.

LS: How do you feel about book festivals in general?  The EIBF in particular?

JO’F: It’s a perk, stimulating, convivial and a break in the isolation of the writer’s life. The EIBF is enormous, efficient and impressive. I’m full of admiration.The most enjoyable festivals, though, are those where you get to know the other people attending. Sitting beside them at dinner achieves this. The Toronto Festival,  which I attended a long time ago, was  particularly good in this regard — but then we all stayed for days. The formula was different.

LS: Did you attend any other book festival events?

JO’F: I attended the Dublin Writers’ Festival in June and will attend a small one at the Irish Center in Paris in early October.

LS: Thanks, Julia.  Good luck with your novel,  Adam Gould, which I read and enjoyed prior to the event and will review once the blog catches up with itself!

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I have been remiss.  I have yet to read beyond the 1.25 books I had read when the longlist was announced ….despite the Booker panel’s ever-so-generous accommodation of my wishes.  I did however, spend some time in the company of two longlisted authors at the Edinburgh Book Festival.


 Adam Foulds shared the stage with Julia O’Faolain, who will be telling us more about that in a My Event special tomorrow.  In a true case of serendipity, the event happened on the day of my successful hunt for a Moxon Tennyson.  I had no idea that Tennyson turned up as a character in Foulds’ novel.  So at the after-event book signing, I asked him which poem he would recommend reading  in connection with his novel.  If you’re looking for inspiration about the forest, he said, Tithonus is the one to read.



Sarah Hall flew solo and the hour passed in an instant as she described the anxieties experienced while writing,   How to Paint A Dead Man.  The four characters came to her separately and she became really anxious when she realised the stories weren’t novel-length.  But the characters then began to appear in each other’s stories and eventually she realised, to her great relief,  that she was writing a novel after all!  Asked what kind of novel she thought she had written she was almost apologetic when she used the word existential … but she explained that it is a novel of 4 artists examining who they are, how they are and how they project themselves to other people.  Fundamentally existentialist then.  Many of the questions from the very knowledgeable audience related to the technicalities of the novel which had taken her 5 years to complete.  At one point she expressed regret at not having kept a writing diary as an awareness of her own process would have helped her through this particular session – which at times did feel like an interrogation.  I’m sure it was an audience comprised mostly of other writers.

I now confess that I stopped reading How to Paint A Dead Man at around page 100.  I was struggling to find the connections within the stories.  But after the event I realise this stitching is very light and I’m now going to adopt a different strategy.  I’m going to read the four strands as individual stories.  Starting with Peter whom I find the most interesting.  Funny that, the author said she felt closer to him as a character.

So, as it is Booker Shortlist day, here is my preferred shortlist.  2 that I have read or started to read, 3 others in the TBR and one reserved at the library, which I might get my hands on in January of next year if I wait my place in the reservation list. 

Mr Naughtie, are you listening?

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