Ilkley Literature Festival review: Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg

Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.

Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.

Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.

During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.

Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.

One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Writing and Reading in the Digital Age

More from New Writing North this evening, as Claire Malcolm chaired a discussion on connecting readers and writers in the era of the internet. Book blogger/podcaster Simon Savidge, author and book vlogger Jen Campbell, and Rachael Kerr from Unbound (crowdfunded publisher) shared their views on reviewing books, the dominance (and distance from modern reality) of mainstream publishers and national newspapers, and lots more besides.

An important point made about blogs/vlogs (incidentally, vlogs and vlogging are hard to say and ugly to write – is there another term out there?) is that the reader/viewer can get to know the personality and taste of the writer/presenter in a way that’s not possible with sparse (often faceless) book reviewing in print media, and in this way come to know which recommendations to trust. This can help people read out of their comfort zone, which is probably a good thing.

Despite dire predictions, people are continuing to read print books, children are reading more than they have in years, and book sales are up lately (though no-one on the panel mentioned that that might just be a result of closing libraries…). Jen offered the interesting snippet (from her new book on the history of bookshops) that a late medieval bookseller in Florence declared the advent of printed books ‘the death of the book’ and shut up shop, so basically there have been dire predictions for about as long as there have been books.

The other part of the discussion (though really everything melded together quite well) was about crowdfunding, and that direct link between author and readership. On the face of it (having not had time to look into it at all) Unbound sounds like a great idea: authors submit a manuscript or book project idea, if Unbound decide they like it they set a funding target (the cost to print X number of copies, or for instance the cost to print plus the cost of giving the author a couple of months off the day-job so they can finish the thing) and interested readers pledge money. Anything made over the funding target gets split fifty-fifty between Unbound and the author, and they’ve already had some critical and commercial successes like The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

I came away with many things to think about, some of which I may write about here soon. Or perhaps I should branch out into podcasting. Don’t expect me to make videos anytime soon, however.

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Review round-up

There’s a new review from me at The Bookbag, of Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral (an Albert Campion novel). Probably worth a look if you like your crime semi-cosy and irreverent (Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey for instance). I’m taking a short break from The Bookbag to concentrate on the Ilkley Literature Festival for a bit – I’m still reading books I got interested in via last year’s festival, and this year’s is less than a week away.

Cover of The Good Children by Roopa Farooki

I recently read The Good Children by Roopa Farooki, which has been on my To Read list since I saw her at last year’s festival. The novel was long and engaging, essentially a family saga of four siblings (two brothers, two sisters) from Lahore. They’re born into an ‘old money’ Muslim family before Partition, and the novel follows them for sixty or seventy years as they spread out and develop their own lives and families, yet are still caught in their mother’s web back at the ancestral home. I found some of the siblings more fleshed-out as characters than others, but I like the way chapters are from one sibling’s point of view, and there may be another sibling’s view of the same event given in another chapter which doesn’t always match. Read it if you’re interested in Partition, culture clashes, the effects of separation on family ties, and the intrinsic similarities between apparently different siblings.

I also read some poetry (gasp!), as mentioned here recently. Specifically I read Glad to Wear Glasses a 1990 collection from John Hegley who I couldn’t get tickets to see at his last local event (probably Bradford Words in the City earlier this year). I’ve heard (and enjoyed) his quirky, gently funny poetry on BBC radio plenty of times so I thought reading this collection might be easy and fun. Sadly, much of it felt to me like reading the script for someone’s stand-up comedy show. Without his delivery (which for some poems I remembered hearing, and for others I could at least imagine) it fell a bit flat, and some poems were more like one-liners anyway. Disappointing, but I’ll just file this in ‘poetry that I don’t enjoy reading’, stick to listening to John Hegley on the radio, and move on to reading some other stuff.

Expect more reviews or mini-reviews of books related to the Ilkley Literature Festival over the next couple of weeks, and possibly reviews of the events themselves. Since The Pickled Egg festival review website is no more (felled by a virus, too expensive and complicated to cure) reviews will probably appear here rather than anywhere else. Phew, now to go rehearse my story for our Fringe event again.

An Explosion of Northern Literature Festivals

Regular readers will have been disappointed at the lack of post last weekend (so I tell myself). It was either because I was so busy dancing through my wildflower meadow after Corbyn’s leadership success, or because I went on holiday and forgot to schedule anything. I’ll leave you to decide which. However, now that I’m back at my computer, refreshed and mildly pinkened by the elements, I realise with a lurch of dismay that the Ilkley Literature Festival is less than two weeks away.

Dismay? (I hear you cry) What’s to be dismayed about? Well on the one hand, nothing at all – it’s a packed two weeks of wildly varied events, many of which are free to attend, on my own doorstep. I’ve got tickets to see Stuart Maconie, Mark Thomas and Paul Mason, as well as Jami Attenberg (whose novel Saint Mazie I’ve just got out of the library along with a novel I didn’t get round to reading for last year’s festival) and a few other events less organised round a Name. On the other hand, of course, it means there’s not much time left for me to rehearse and polish the reading of my specially-written story Down to the River (sort of a Springsteen reference, largely due to it featuring a river and an older brother, Big Brother having got me into Springsteen many years ago). This year we’re in the ‘proper’ theatre upstairs, with a curtained-off backstage, and separation from the audience. An exhilarating prospect (I think it’s exhilaration. Dry mouth, sweaty palms, thumping heart – you know the one I mean).

Ilkley Writers 2015 flyer

Artwork by Alex van Zomerplaag, with lots of references to the stories – I think the bridge is from mine

It also means it’s not long till the Morley Arts Festival or the Durham Book Festival, and Wakefield Lit Fest has already begun. I wish I could make the comic art festival in Kendal but it clashes with the final weekend of the Ilkley litfest and I’m booked up. I was in Kendal last Saturday (damn, that’s given you a big clue to the first question) and it felt like such a good place to hold it. No more holidays for me for a while though, I’ve got too many books to read.

Petrified by proper poetry

A good five years ago I thought I’d lost my affinity for poetry, though more recently I decided maybe I’d just been reading the wrong kind of stuff. In the meantime I started using haikus as writing exercises but that was as close to writing poetry as I got.

Recently we talked about poetry at an Ilkley Writers meeting. There were a couple of poets present, but a few of us were in the ‘frightened of poetry’ camp. Frightened of the rules, frightened of getting it wrong, of being found out by ‘real’ poets, sounding pretentious and making fools of ourselves. We’d all been put off poetry at school, with sonnets and rigid rhyming schemes, then looked at ‘grown up’ poetry with no rhyme or reason (sorry…) and felt completely adrift. I quite like rhyming poetry, I said, and someone else (who’s keen to start writing poetry) agreed. I suggested, if she wants to write poetry and is having trouble, why not try rhymes? Rhyming poetry’s for kids though, she replied. And there lies one of the problems.

If anyone’s familiar with the Hancock’s Half Hour episode The Poetry Society from 1959, they will know where I’m coming from. Proper poetry for grown ups must be deep and serious, must not contain any rhymes, and absolutely on pain of death must not be intelligible to the casual reader on the first run through. If performed, it should be intoned with plenty of pauses and a frown. The casual listener (of which there will be few) should be made to feel like the dunce at the back of the English class.

Thankfully, this is not universally true, as I’ve been discovering lately, but it’s been true often enough (or has seemed true, at least) that some of us have taken it on board and shied away. One of the group (not a poet, but not frightened of poetry, in fact he’d just written a humorous rhyming poem about Charles Darwin’s sojourn in Ilkley) pointed out that popular poetry, the stuff that engages audiences and sells festival tickets, is usually funny and may or may not rhyme, by the likes of John Hegley and Roger McGough (he didn’t mention Pam Ayres but I guess she’s a popular entertainer poet too. Personally, I’ve never got past her accent but I applaud her use of it – more people should keep their regional accents). A poet in our group told me lots of modern poetry rhymed: WH Auden and Tony Harrison to name two. Tony Harrison had come up in conversation elsewhere that week, to do with dialect (of which undoubtedly more later) so I ordered a book of his poetry at my local library and I’ll see how it goes. While I was there I picked up a slim volume by Helen Burke, whose poetry I’d enjoyed at a reading a few months earlier. I may be beginning to lose my poetry fear.

John Hegley and Helen Burke poetry books

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

Or An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, as it seems to be called. I read this a couple of years ago (another illustration of the benefits of free out-of-copyright books for e-readers) but with all the Corbynomics kerfuffle it seemed a good time to mention it.

I read it in the spirit of Know Your Enemy, since Adam Smith seems to get blamed/credited with everything free market from Thatcher onwards that I oppose, but I was pleasantly surprised. His views were not quite what I expected, I even agreed with a fair bit of it (though some might have worked with a smaller population and a different system of banking etc but isn’t applicable today. And sometimes he seems almost naive in thinking people will do what’s fair or best for the country rather than what provides most short-term advantage to themselves).

He’s by no means a socialist but the provision of a living wage and progressive taxes seem to fall naturally out of his style of pragmatism. He doesn’t have much time for the idle rich, or greedy merchants who whisper in government ears to make sure their own interests come before those of the nation. Which I’m sure would come as a great disappointment to half the people who point to him as the foundation of their economic beliefs, but haven’t actually read this book.

What’s the moral of this tale? That Tories aren’t always as bad as you think? Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far… However, go to the original source whenever possible, that could be one lesson to learn. Like reading Corbyn’s economic policy for yourself instead of believing the doom merchants.