Sunday, 30 May 2010

Birmingham Book Festival's 'Spring Thing'

What a brilliant idea to stage a mini-festival in a day. Birmingham Book Festival's main event takes place in October, but yesterday two friends and I attended their 'Spring Thing' at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

This venue is a short walk from what we know as the 'Floozie in the Jacuzzi' (left). The fountain has been dry for some months, but happily the floozie has now had her water turned back on. Yesterday I noticed how nice it is to hear the water racing down those steps in the city centre. But enough about floozies, and onto subjects more literary.

When we arrived at the Conservatoire we were so disappointed to see a poster about last minute changes to the programme. One of my favourite writers, Helen Dunmore, was sadly unable to appear. Also off the menu was Jenn Ashworth. Best wishes to Helen and Jenn, and I hope I may be able to see them in person at some other writing event.

But a big 'well done' to the organisers, who found fantastic writers to fill the vacant slots. Two of these were Judith Allnatt and Clare Clark, who opened the day with a discussion about their most recent novels.

Judith Allnatt spoke about her book 'The Poet's Wife', and also read a short extract. Judith explained how she found inspiration for this novel from reading letters written by nineteenth century poet John Clare during the years he spent in an asylum. As a consequence of his mental ill health, John Clare suffered a delusion that in addition to being married to his wife he was also married to his childhood sweetheart. Judith used this as the foundation for her novel, telling the story from the viewpoint of the poet's actual wife, Patty. This sounded fascinating, and I immediately wanted to read the book for myself.

Next, Clare Clark talked about her latest novel, 'Savage Lands', and again read an extract. This book is set in eighteenth century Louisiana, and was another intriguing subject. Clare had read how French women were shipped out to Louisiana (then a French colony) to marry men they had never before met. Young French cabin boys were also left behind there to act as spies. Clare told us how these two viewpoints captured her interest and became the basis for her novel.

In discussion, both writers talked about the process of research. Judith said research could throw up some real gems of information, but it could also present problems for the novelist. For example, in preparing to write 'The Poet's Wife' she realized she would have three historical characters significant to the story who shared the name John. She got round this by referring to one by his surname, and another by the nickname of Jack. Clare said she tended to research in a fairly unstructured way, until the story crystallized around her reading. This struck a chord with me, as I like the thought of trusting the story to lead you rather than starting out with too fixed an idea of where it will go.

The second session featured a panel discussion with writers Samantha Harvey, Aifric Campbell, and Amanda Smyth.

Aifric Campbell read from her recent novel 'The Loss Adjustor', and described how this was originally inspired by a sense of loss in a house where she had lived.

Samantha Harvey read from 'The Wilderness', a novel which centres on a man suffering Alzheimer's disease. She told us how she wanted to explore how our memories hold us together, and what happens to us when we begin to lose these.

Amanda Smyth read the opening passage from her first novel 'Black Rock'. I found it particularly interesting to hear her talk about her inspiration for this as I had read the book myself in the last few weeks and it was still fresh in my mind. Amanda has a mixed family background of Irish and Trinidadian. She spoke about a family mystery concerning the murder of her great-grandfather back in Trinidad, which she intended to base this book upon. However as she began to write she found herself also influenced by stories told to her by her relatives in Trinidad and the book took another direction from the one she had intended. (I must also say that Amanda had very nice shoes.)

The three discussed the theme of loss, which is present in different ways in their novels.

Aifric made a very good point about how loss is part of life and can also be part of our growth. She touched on how we live in a therapeutic culture which often views loss as a problem to be treated, rather than as a natural event in human experience.

An excellent question from a member of the audience was whether these three writers had to give themselves permission to write. I'm sure many of us who do write have had mixed reactions from other people, and perhaps found our friends and families see our writing as just a hobby until we are lucky enough to be published. I also see a lot of debate on blogs and message boards about what constitutes a proper writer.

I liked Samantha's reply, that writing is an activity and inspiration comes from doing it rather than from waiting around to be inspired. Aifric's response was refreshingly simple. She said you are a writer when you are holding a pen.

After a lunch break the next guest on stage was writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie. Stuart was a very funny and entertaining speaker, and woke us all up for the afternoon. He spoke about what makes a 'Northerner', and how he tried to discover the answer to this by writing his second book, 'Pies and Prejudice'. More recently he has moved on to trying to define so-called middle England in 'Adventures on the High Teas'. Questions from the audience focused on these issues of identity, and Stuart answered them with humour as well as insight.

At the end of Stuart's session we had a brief introduction by Jo Bell and David Calcutt to a very exciting writing project called Bugged. Do go to the website for more information (after you finish reading this). It's a project we can all take part in, and I am already looking forward to it.

Jo Bell stayed on stage to read some of her wonderful poems. I admit I knew nothing about her as I do not tend to follow poetry as much as fiction. I was so impressed by her work that I now really want to read more.

Interspersed with Jo's poems were readings by Nick Walker from a short story which appeared in an anthology published by Birmingham's Tindal Street Press called 'Roads Ahead'. Nick is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, and had stepped in to fill the gap in the programme left by Jenn Ashworth. He was fearless and engaging in his delivery of his story, about events in the life of an escapologist working in a booth on a railway platform. Again we were laughing until the seats shook.

For the final session of the day, a silence fell across the room as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy appeared. She read some poems from her book 'The World's Wife', and told us how she still feels close to this particular collection even though it is now ten years old. She went on to read some more recent poems, including ones about the death of her mother. One of her comments I found interesting was that as a poet you look at something which seems incoherent and through the process of writing you find a clarity. I think that can apply to fiction too.

By the time we left the 'Spring Thing' and walked back out into the rain, I felt we'd had a thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling day. I had discovered new writers and seen some I already knew about.

My motivation levels for my own writing had certainly been topped up. I can't wait to see the programme for the Birmingham Book Festival's main event in the autumn. I'm sure we'll be booking up for something.

The Festival also runs a short story competition, deadline July 10th (my wedding anniversary!). It is on the theme of loss. Details will be posted on their website in the next week.


Old Kitty said...

Oh my goodness Joanne! There is so much to digest here - I'll have to find a printer to print this off to re-read again. Thank you so much! It sounded like a really fun day (floozies in jacuzzis notwithstanding!).

I must hold my hand up and admit that apart from Carol Ann Duffy (wow!! you've seen and heard her!!), I'm not familiar with any of these writers and I should be tarred and feathered immediately!

But I like how you summarise the talks they gave and my interest in peeked!! I would really like to think my reading is quite eclectic but I would really like to expand on my historical novel reading. Savage Land and a Poet's Wife may be right up my street!

I did go to the Bugged website (thank you again!!) and have bookmarked it. I am a nosey person at heart and have to qualms about eavesdropping (very discretely of course!! I have manners!! LOL!)on other people's conversations so I may give this a go!

I can't remember which blog I read (I think it was Rebecca of Diary of a Virgin Novelist) who was questioning how far fiction writing is a hobby or work or both or what is it exactly. I think it's almost akin to asking whether writers give themselves "permission to write". So the replies here from these fab writers couldn't have been more apt.

Anyway! Thank you for such a fab piece about your day - I really felt I was there with you!

Take care

HelenMHunt said...

That sounds like a fascinating event. Glad you enjoyed it.

Joanne Fox said...

Thank you both for visiting. I could probably have written a whole lot more about the day, but felt I'd gone on long enough. Also my scrawled notes are so messy that there are some even I cannot read! Do keep the Bugged project in mind, it could be really interesting.

Joanna said...

This was a really absorbing post and an amazing day. I like the idea of being a writer when you are holding a pen. I can never say that I am a writer if someone asks what I do. They always look disbelieving or disappointed when they realise they haven't heard of me. If my daughters are there at the time, they happily announce I am a writer and wish I believed it too.

My husband has been enjoying Stuart Maconie's books. He seems a very intelligent and entertaining writer.

Bugged looks a lot of fun and very inspiring. I'd like to try it.

Many thanks Joanne for a fascinating post.

Joanne Fox said...

Thanks Joanna.

If anyone asks what I do then I tend to talk about the day job. If the conversation goes on longer and they find out I only work 2 or 3 days a week then I sometimes drop in that I 'write a bit'. Their next question is usually 'are you published?', as though publication is the only way to justify the writing.

Bugged does look like fun. Have a go!

Suzanne Jones said...

What a brilliant event. I'm waiting for The Edinburgh Book Festival brochure, due out this month. I wasn't going to go this year, can't afford it, but it's calling out to me already.