Literature Festival speakers. How can they best serve the audience? What makes attendance worthwhile for the writer?
For fans, seeing their favourite writer, or one who has fascinated them, is an exciting and uplifting experience. For writers, writing or research techniques may be uppermost in their minds when they attend to the author speaking about his/her book. There is a variety of approach an author might use, such as at WellsLitFest where the authors used a podium to deliver talks illustrated by their readings. I was privileged to hear Jonathan Bate give the first of his (superb) talks about his just-published Ted Hughes:the Unauthorized Life. As an academic at the pinnacle of his profession, he is an exemplar of this approach. However, the podium speech can be the undoing of speakers without his fluency, confidence and erudition.
Two other recent presentations, both by favourite authors of mine, allow an interesting comparison of approach.
Jeanette Winterson came to a church in Bath, thanks to the excellent Toppings bookshop’s fest, and wowed a packed audience with a theatrical exposition around her latest book,The Gap in Time.
The jazz music increased in volume, the slight figure with an aurora of back curls strode up the aisle. A video of stage, screen and radio versions of A Winter’s Tale then preceded Winterson’s own dramatic performance. The voices of her characters rang out, even their oaths resounded beneath the stone reliefs of dead benefactors. I couldn’t help thinking of the rigidly religious Mrs Winterson, adoptive mother, bridling in outrage. As Jeanette Winterson stood where once there had been a pulpit, the drama around the foundling, pulled from the receiving window of the convent by her protagonist became immediately alive for us. A compelling reading continued for half an hour.
This can truly be described as an oeuvre, a reworking of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as a novel, and brought into the present day to New Bohemia, an imagined area in New York.
With hardly a breath’s gap, Winterson went on to describe the historical and dramaturgical context of her novel. For instance, the changes in theatrical productions at the time Shakespeare had this play showing at The Globe, and how the innovation of intervals affected his play structure. Admirably fluent, she then discussed her own re-creation of the storyline, her choice of concepts and people to fill the character roles, and her powerful attachment to this play. The foundling that she was in her personal life and loved in A Winter’s Tale, led to the making of her novel and for a riveting hour for her audience.
Of most impact for me, however, was the fact that a play was recreated as a novel. The telling of this writing process then became a theatrical production in its own right.
Another winter was presented in a totally different manner at the Budleigh Salterton Litfest. Patrick Gale spoke of his book using the conventional style of the two armchairs, the glass of water, the introduction and intelligent questioning from the discussant. Putting his new novel in its context, Gale chatted about his fortunate childhood and education: the loving parents, the enlightened teacher who allowed an afternoon every week for writerly boys to sit and write without interruption or instruction, his family’s total tolerance and freedom to be himself that contrasted so tellingly with what Winterson had experienced. It was as if we were no longer in Budleigh Salterton’s village hall, but relaxing back on leather armchairs, drink in hand, listening to the urbane author in a post-prandial chat. He is as entertaining in talk as he is on page.
A Place Called Winter is not a soft and gentle story. At many points it is tragic and in some places tough on the emotions.
(This hardback version’s cover I much prefer to the paperback one)
The context of this novel is very personal since the tale is based on the experience of Gale’s grandfather. He went to Canada at a time when land was being given free to those who would live there and farm it. Once there, the new landowners discovered that they were now incredibly remote from any sign of civilization, and that for many months they struggled to avoid being literally frozen. This man left his comfortable life, his wife and children to go. But there was a reason.
Discussion of this reason took us through the Victorian response when facing anything different, especially within the family. Gale captivated his audience with often amusing anecdotes of his own experience, those he had discovered about his grandfather, and had imagined for his protagonist who is an extension into fiction.
Winter is at several levels in this novel. The Canadian town truly is called Winter, and not after the season. Surviving there involved managing the fearsome winter months, the winter of isolation, and of separation from all that is emotionally summery. Further, the protagonist has many reasons to have winter in his heart. Much later in the novel, there is certainly winter in the heart of his closest relative.
Before Gale’s entrance, the person next to me said she had not read any of Gale’s novels. I told her of my favourite (Notes from an Exhibition). After Gale’s presentation, she, like the rest of the audience, rushed to buy A Place Called Winter. ‘My husband will love it.’
I have mentioned striking contrasts in these two author’s presentations of their new works. There is something vital in common. Both introduced contextual and background information that was new knowledge, rich detail set in a story that is totally gripping.
At Litfests it is not enough to talk about a book and its plot or characters. There needs to be a background story to the book, its research, its personal meaning to the author and its underlying theme or issue. We had this with these speakers, and for the writer, the healthy increase in the urge to scour new historic sources.