My Cheltenham Literary Festival (2015)

In 2014 I flirted with #cheltlitfest, booking only one event. I took my mum to see Danny Baker. He was brilliant, but I was as captivated by the whole set up, and the oceans of books to browse, touch and buy in the pop-up Waterstones tents. It was there I stumbled across Colm Toibin signing books (the book review of late), and got a little star struck… but we’ll gloss over that! Think: ‘I carried a water melon.’

Despite blocking the whole event in my calendar, I couldn’t do the opening (loads of Times/Sunday Times heroes I wanted to see) as our grand daughter’s naming ceremony took precedence, but I was determined to overdose in a couple of days. I attended nine sessions in just over 48 hours. It was perfectly paced, and I enjoyed and took something from each of the sessions that I attended.

I love the format. It was a series of ‘sort of’ literary chat shows. For the authors and journalists that I saw, each was hosted. This took away the practice of reading great swathes from their books, and made for a fantastic ‘user’ experience. It meant that the balance was great, between the latest book for publication, and something of the author… their inspiration/process/struggle. You can imagine that this was all heaven-sent for me, curious as I am about the writing process. What united all the writers I saw was the fragility they have… Like me! The questioning of whether we are good enough, what we write is what anyone will want to read. These incredible writers were a little bit like me – and that is very humbling and very reassuring. I saw Rachel Joyce, SJ Watson, Rosamund Lipton, and Virginia Bailey. All very generous in what they shared.

Alexander Armstrong gave a very entertaining session on his latest venture, the Arctic Adventure (although I’m not sure I’d buy the book, we have to draw some lines!). The most incredible and moving session was part of the Defining Moments series, Rotherham. Andrew Norfolk was The Times journalist who spied the patterns of the sexual abuse of girls, secured three months from the editors to research, and ended up working on the story for four years. He was visibly affected. He was there with Nazir Afzal, the CPS guy in the north west that put the gang on trial. I have such admiration for both men.

I attended a rather mad session on the art of short story writing – at least it was called The Brilliance of Brevity. A panel session, hosted by Edge Hill University, where they included a glass of wine. It was mostly a rambling discussion about the form and whether it was in form, or not. I have a whole list of short story writers that I didn’t have before, so homework too, and some essentials to think about. I want to write more short stories, so perhaps this will distill in my subconscious for a while. I wrote a couple of pages of notes at this one, more than any other session. That surprises me now – I blame the wine.

One session, on travel writing, got cancelled. I ended up seeing Matthew Paris and Oliver James as a substitute. Oh my. It was brilliant. Matthew Paris, ex-Tory back bencher and Times columnist, introduced Oliver James, the left-wing Guardian columnist, as his hero. The two men had such respect for each other, and the debate was fascinating. I’m not particularly party political, and somehow these guys weren’t in the discussion either. They had different views, but the quality of the debate was brilliant. Listening, engaging, arguing, all within the bounds of respect and winning by oration. I could listen to those two more than most politicians.

In between the sessions, I could be found browsing (and buying) in the Waterstones tents, or sitting in The Feast having coffee. It was an isolated experience at one level. I loved sitting in solitude thinking about what I’d heard, so I had no desire for anyone to take up space, but it surprised me that people didn’t chat. Well, they did, because the air was buzzing with the murmur of voices, but it was mostly people who had arrived together, and most people did seem to be in couples or small groups.

I loved every moment of #cheltlitfest and came away inspired and motivated – to write more, to read more and certainly to add #cheltlitfest to my 2016 diary when I get it (7-16 October 2016).

Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

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Nora Webster is a book about…. Well, I wasn’t really sure for a good while, except that it was patently about Nora Webster. The clue is in the title, but there was little else to give anything away on the jacket cover of the hardback.

Rewind a little. I bought this book at Cheltenham Literary Festival 2014. I loved Brooklyn, I joined a queue in Waterstones and got my book signed. And a year later, I started reading it. I love Toibin’s writing, and was enjoying this, when I realised I wasn’t really sure where the book was going. The jacket cover gave little away – actually it said it was about selling a family house, but that happened early on, so the book couldn’t really be about that, just selling a house. Toibin’s writing kept me going, until I was somehow embroiled in the Webster clan (both alive and dead) and was curious to know what happens. Only I never really did find out.

What I love about the book is the writing. Toibin’s pared down writing, where every word counts and mirrors the rather evasive protagonist, Nora Webster. I love the ordinariness of the book, that it is paints a picture of everyday life in late 1960s in Ireland. Toibin’s descriptive writing makes you believe you are in the room with the family. Toibin is a master of capturing the time and setting with small, seemingly insignificant details.

What frustrates me about the book is the lack of story. There is no variety in the movement of Nora Webster, the book merely trundles on at the same steady pace, certainly a mirror of her life, and it feels weighty because of it. The book doesn’t end, either, merely draws to a close, after the most moving episode where Maurice (her deceased husband, who’s dead at the beginning of the book, so this isn’t a spoiler) appears in front of her. I finished the book with a massive sense that it wasn’t finished. Not even Nora Webster, but neither for anyone in her family. But perhaps this is a spark of genius too, because there is so much scope to get lost in thought of the characters and the themes. Nora Webster is a study in grief.

Nora Webster has shades of Stoner, both quiet, introverted people, strangers to themselves in many ways. I think that Toibin reveals things to the reader that Nora doesn’t seem to pick up on, and this made me want to shake her at times. Did she really not see herself as attracted to her daughter’s boyfriend? Did she really think there was nothing amiss about sending her two boys to live with an elderly aunt for the months when Maurice was dying with no contact? As Nora begins to find herself, or rather, stumble on herself (she’s too passive to make many stands), she looks back at her relationship with her mother. I wondered if the story were to continue that the same pattern would emerge with her children, and their distance and disdain for her.

Since finishing Nora Webster, I read that Nora Webster is based on his mother, her grief. Someone hinted that Donal might be Toibin. I don’t know if that’s true, but if there’s a shred of truth, perhaps Nora Webster is about exorcising the ghosts of the past, and that Toibin couldn’t bear to finish the story. Perhaps it is his offering of understanding. I love it that a book makes me put it down, in some frustration, and then asks questions of me. Questions that have no answers, only assumptions based on presumptions.

Whatever it is, Toibin remains one of my favourite writers, and I certainly don’t regret the hours spent with Nora Webster. All I ask of him next time is to put the reader back in the picture and allow the book to end, rather than just drift off.

(apologies, I cannot work out how to make the accents on both ‘i’ in Toibin)

Book Review: Eyrie by Tim Winton

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Eyrie tells the story of Keely, a washed up, middle-aged man who is self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs. The book is set in Fremantle, Western Australia, and the eyrie is Keely’s tenth floor flat of the Mirador building, where the book begins. The opening is outstanding, as Keely stumbles about in the midst of the mother of all hangovers, trying to work out what the giant stain is on his carpet. It is both comic and tragic, and so rich in description that you can almost taste the bile in his stomach. The reader quickly realises that Keely is an unreliable witness. He is not only a drunk, but his history is peppered with forgotten conversations and events and his present with confused, waking dreams. There is a story in itself in Keely, but Winton doesn’t allow Keely to remember, recall or even explore much of his past. His fog is the present. The story then isn’t Keely’s but about a girl from his past, Gemma Buck (a girl rescued by his heroic parents when Keely was a boy) and her grandson, Kai. Keely gets sucked in to their life, and the soundtrack of drugs and violence. The story of Eyrie is in the attachment between the man and the boy, both lost souls, both damaged in their own way. It is gritty, dark and at times very bleak.

I loved many things about Eyrie, and yet it frustrated me too. I’m not afraid of a book that makes you think, and there are many things to get lost in thought about. There are big themes – family, addiction, domestic abuse, violence, child development, justice, heroes, love – and these crash about the novel. The frustrations were equally big – wanting to get under the skin of Keely, wanting his past explained more (not merely hinted at) – but the biggest of all was the ending. I had to re-read the last scene to work out what actually had happened, and I am still not sure. It gave no real closure to the story of Keely, Gemma or Kai, and this left me unsatisfied as a reader.

I adore Winton’s writing. His prose is so dense that it’s sticky, and this is unfailing page after page. There is great tension throughout the book; the pace is relentless in an absolutely crazy way. The dialogue is excellent, bringing dark humour to brighten the shadows of the novel. The metaphor running throughout the book, the birds of prey, is wonderfully woven.

I think that Eyrie is a book about questions, not answers. With that in mind, I think it frames it better for a reading experience. Do I recommend it? Yes, for the writing masterclass. If you like every thread neatly sewn up, then step away. Am I glad that I read it? Oh hell yes!

Is it the taking part that matters?

The HHOR trophy for the slowest boat..
The HHOR trophy for the slowest boat..

So here’s the thing. Is it really the taking part that counts, or winning? This is the refrain that has been rolling around my head this week, ever since the gig race at the weekend. Race number two of my gig rowing journey, and I was marginally less terrified than the last time. I was in a mixed crew of juniors/novices, and was more apprehensive about being whipped by those a third my age (one was nearer a quarter), and letting them all down by not keeping up. I actually held my own (phew), but it was an epic race… so much so for us that we crossed the line as the slowest boat in the race, taking 51.54 minutes.

We crossed the line as slowest boat but I loved it (when I’d got my breath back). I loved the endurance, the teamwork, the crew, the cox, the testing conditions, the adrenaline rush, and I didn’t care that we hadn’t won. I laughed when we were presented with an award (the photo) for the slowest boat over the line.

How does that translate to the writing of the novel, the WIP. What is the prize? Will it be seeing it completed, or is it about seeing it in print? I’m not sure. I’m battling away at the moment (55,000 words and counting), but hot after a few days at Cheltenham Literary Festival, the thought occurred to me that it might not be good enough to see anything other than my bottom drawer. If I’m like other novelists, then odds are it will languish somewhere. That, surprisingly, didn’t depress me (even after 18 months on this thing), so perhaps it isn’t really the prize/the winning, but my own journey with it.

As my world has gone rather glittery at the edges with Strictly, I wondered the same for the contestants. Two sportsmen have gone, and I wondered if they were truly gutted, because their worlds are rather about winning and losing. I can’t help think that when someone like Carol Kirkwood, or Daniel O’Donnel, goes out, they’ll be disappointed, but will delight in what they’ve taken from it. Perhaps I’m being disingenuous to the sportsmen, but I’ve never been that good at sports! Ah, but perhaps therein lies the thing that matters to me…

A year on from my TLC Literary Adventure

On Facebook this week I saw a photo of the terrace at Casa Ana where we spent most of the sessions on our Literary Adventure. The scene looked familiar, but there was something wrong in the picture. It wasn’t us, the Alpujarra Seven. How can it be that a year has gone by? It got me thinking and reflecting. What’s changed in that year?

I know that two of the seven have published books. David Steele’s brilliant e-book “Observation on the Government of the Russian State of the that I reviewed here, and more recently Karol Griffiths has one just published about script editing (can’t wait to read it and learn!). The rest of us are more work-in-progress!

I know that the experience gave me a great dose of confidence, and a sense that when the time was right, I’d go back to TLC in help in getting my novel through the editing process. That still is my intention, but I’m some way off.

I came back from Spain knowing that my work was flawed, and the narrative arc needed a great deal of attention. I’ve worked hard on that, again and again! I’m still not convinced that the narrative voice is right, but at least I haven’t changed my mind in the last 15,000 words. I have 47,000 words of a first draft. I am so proud of this! As the words are accumulating, the story is taking off, and I am really enjoying the process of writing. My 1,000 words a day are now edging up to 1,500 and in the last couple of days 1,800. When I look back, the early days of writing the actual first draft were tricky, but now it is enjoyable. The characters are leading the way, and it is exciting.

I have another retreat lined up, and I want to go with 75,000 words, because the story will have peaked, or will be peaking, and I think that would allow me to gain more from the week. That’s the next milestone, about six weeks away. However, I absolutely believe that I would not be where I am without the experience, and support, from the Literary Adventure.