Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Notes from Write On Kew

I went to the inaugural Write On Kew literary festival at Kew Gardens over the weekend. Not the whole thing - that would have become very expensive over the course of the four day programme - but I did spend all day there on Saturday. In each of the sessions I attended, I scribbled notes of things that particularly struck me. Words of wisdom, or interest, or curiosity, from writers who are more successful in their genres than I seem to be, and my observations about them. Providing I can decipher my lap-leaning scrawl, I'll reproduce the notes for you, here.

Melvyn Bragg - discussing Now Is The Time, his novel inspired by the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

  • MB is a small man with enviable hair. He has leather elbows on a tweed coat ["Is that the best you can do?" - Ed] and speaks very fast - ideas tumble out.
  • MB draws repeated parallels between the social and political circumstances that led to the uprising of 1381 to those prevailing in the UK now.
  • MB: "[The peasants' revolt was the] ... seeding of a radical line in this country".
  • MB is absolutely embedded in the history of this period, demonstrating a rich knowledge with detailed anecdotes. He studied this period at school and also read history at university.
  • MB: "If you're doing a job you like - really, really like - it gives you energy. If you're doing a job you don't like, it takes your energy away." (When asked how he manages to write so much, fiction and non-fiction, whilst maintaining his broadcasting work)

Pat Barker - discussing Noonday, the concluding part of her Second World War trilogy.

  • PB: "We all write our own histories."
  • PB: "Talk to the two people in a divorce - Russia and America have nothing on it." (On illustrating the above)
  • PB: "A writer never wants the full story."
  • PB: "Your genetic inheritance is waiting for you in the mirror." (On becoming more like her parents with age)
  • PB: "[It's very important for] ... any child who's going to be a novelist to be a detective."
  • PB: "There's no such thing as a normal family, only families we don't know very well."
  • A woman (Helen Duncan) was tried for witchcraft in the UK in 1944.
  • PB: "We need empathy, and we need tolerance as we have never needed it before."
  • PB: "History tends towards generalisations. Only fiction can be particular."
  • Whilst enthusing about keeping diaries, PB recommended The Assassin's Cloak, an anthology of diarists.
  • PB: "When she's writing at speed, she does capture something that is lost in her more ornate prose." (On Virginia Woolf, despite the tense)
  • PB: "It's very difficult to write virtue without attaching a flaw."

Turning to crime - Sophie Hannah, Stuart Prebble and Paula Hawkins in conversation with Mark Lawson.

  • PH: "[I am] ... fascinated by the terrible things people do to each other."
  • PH: "People can behave in extreme ways we can't being to imagine." (On plausibility)
  • SH: "People are weirder than we can possibly imagine, and when we put them under pressure they become even weirder." (On plausibility)
  • ML has a nervous twitch in his left eye, but it stops when he is speaking.
  • SH: "I try to have a plot hook and a theme in every book."
  • SH: "Readers really dislike certainty."
  • SP: "I used to go to the keyboard to find out what happened next." (On plotting/planning)
  • SH: "People undervalue plot, so don't use their imagination's ingenuity."
  • SH: "Psychological thrillers should have non-transferable motives." (On distinguishing psychological thrillers from thrillers)
  • SH: "Any constraint is also an opportunity."
  • PH: "On Amazon and GoodReads, 'I don't like the main character' is a one-star thing." (On the merits of (un-)likeable protagonists)
  • ML: "The Great Gatsby is essentially the tale of a fraud narrated by a crashing bore. It's also the perfect novel and I re-read it every year." (On the merits of (un-)likeable protagonists)

Simon Armitage - discussing Walking Away, his account of reading poetry for his supper on a long, coastal walk.

  • The hall is packed, busiest session I've been to all day.
  • SA has a relaxed, measured reading voice - unhurried.
  • The host/compère, Christina (surname?) seems a bit doe-eyed around SA.
  • SA mentions the Lyke Walk, a 40-mile walk to be completed in 24 hours. Successful walkers are awarded a badge in the shape of a coffin.
  • SA: "As a writer, I have a tendency to get a bit solipsistic, a bit introspective, and so a bit negative."
  • SA: "The more distracted I am, the more I seem to notice." (On noticing surroundings)
  • SA: "It becomes a very intimate thing, walking, especially if there's just two of you. You end up telling each other things. One of the reasons you share so much when you're walking is that you don't have eye contact, so become less guarded."
  • SA: "Cornwall is a bit like a Christmas stocking - the biggest nuts fall to the bottom."
  • Christina: "Graham Greene talked about 'the chip of ice in the heart'." (On honest detachment)
  • SA: "Poetry is not a front-line art form. It takes itself more seriously than other people take it ... [but] ... there is still a market for it."
  • SA: "Poetry has huge potential that goes much wider than the printed page."
  • SA: "I still find poetry bewildering on occasion. I know it's an odd thing because I've seen the look on people's faces when I tell them that's what I do."
  • SA: "I think we still have, in this country, this person called 'the Constant Reader' ... less and less in other English-speaking countries ... [where] ...poetry has imploded into the universities."
  • SA: "In Ezra Pound language, I transpose the Underworld into Poundland." (On his poem, Poundland)
  • SA: "There is only really one piece of advice - to read! I'd take it further - you need to find people you can imitate. People you're so jealous of, you have to write your own versions. One other bit - don't! I don't need some young smart alec snapping at my heels." (When asked by a teenage girl in the audience for one piece of advice for a young writer)
  • SA: "I always talk about Ted Hughes in answer to that question ... through Hughes, Larkin, Thomas [indistinguishable], Sylvia Plath ... American poetry of the Fifties and Sixties ... poetry that arrives in a voice, speaking to you in some way. American poets of that time had more conversational language. If someone had lobbed me in the deep end with Chaucer, I probably would have drowned ... my favourite poets at the moment are all dead, and the longer they've been dead the better." (On being asked, from the audience, which poets had inspired him)

What else can I tell you? Kew is a terrific setting, not least because you can take in the gardens between sessions. The Princess Of Wales Conservatory was fascinating, as was watching the largest grebe I've ever seen wrestling with an eel for a good ten minutes in the little lake by the Palm House. The grebe won, in the end.

Anyway, Write On Kew will doubtless happen again next year. I'd go if I were you - I think you'd like it.

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