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Hay Festival 2017: Tony Robinson, Neil Gaiman, And Stephen Fry

A photograph of Tony Robinson at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

Tony Robinson wanted the house lights up so he could see everyone. Lucy Cotter introduced him as a politician and history buff at which point Robinson said “just a bloke doing his life really’. There was a fair chunk of humility that was apparent from the start.

Also setting the tone from the start were the jokes: Robinson’s mother spent World War Two defending the nation’s amateur dramatics. But on a serious note, she did encourage him to do theatre. As a teenager, the actor was understudied as the Artful Dodger and knew enough to get it right… he didn’t know the lyrics of ‘Consider Yourself’. He later went to drama school.

On the subject of school he said, “why does everything have to be a university degree?” He’s passionate about children having an education that is flexible, and said that as we don’t know what will happen in the future (what will be important then) why have just 5 important subjects?

When Robinson first read the pilot script of Black Adder he “though it was shite”, but then at that point it wasn’t what it would become. His letter, inviting him to audition for Baldric arrived very late in the creation process; he knew he wasn’t first choice. He never thought the role would change his life. There was little laughter during production; it was all about collaborative critique. “I don’t think there will be another Black Adder,” he said. The show ended on a high – even if another was written if wouldn’t be as good, nor as good an experience.

Of his TV show, The Worst Jobs In History, he said the worst was making the show; he was constantly ill from all the ‘muck’ and it took him 6 months to recover.

Cotter asked ‘why politics?’ (Robinson has joined the Labour party.) The actor spoke of hating bullying, the outrage about American history, but most importantly he didn’t want to just ‘moan about the world’ and then die knowing he hadn’t tried to do something about it. He talked about power in numbers. He’s active in his Bristol community; whilst it’s all away from his job as an actor he does realise the power of celebrity. People listen to him. He’s criticised Corbyn but says the leader had a good campaign. “We need the most robust opposition we can get.”

Robinson is also an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. His parents both had Alzheimer’s for years; it was the ‘central motif’ of his life outside of acting. He found there was a lack of support for the condition and made a documentary about his mother, for which he received more letters than he had for Black Adder.

A photograph of Chris Riddell, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Marsha Arnold.

The evening after Tony Robinson’s talk, Neil Gaiman took to the stage with Chriss Riddell and Stephen Fry – it just made sense to link the two events together, all the more so as Robinson caused a small stir in the audience prior to the event, taking a seat in the first row. Riddell was there to ‘live draw’ the talk; the sketching was show on a big screen and for the most part Riddell drew his interpretation of the stories Fry and Gaiman were discussing, except the first drawing which was of Fry and Gaiman from Riddell’s literal point of view, a sketch of the side of Fry’s face and the back of Gaiman’s head. It was a fun talk throughout, but it was Riddell who initially set the tone.

The theme of the discussion was mythology, in particular Gaiman’s new book, Norse Mythology. The writer has always been interested in the topic and loved the Thor comics. The book began 9 years ago when he was asked about the subject. He spent several years thinking about how he should write it. It was important to him to write in a voice children could cope with. When it came to Loki and fighting, he stuck to one paragraph; he had looked forward to writing it but found it didn’t work dramatically.

Both author and actor read from their respective myth-inspired works; Fry’s is a book about Greek mythology.

Has Gaiman ever felt like a god, when writing and drawing? The reply: only twice – once when writing a Doctor Who script and including a stage direction, ‘interior Tardis’, and the second 30 years ago when he wrote what Batman might say.

At the end Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer (who was performing at the festival) came on stage to read a poem he had written. All in all it was a much greater event than even the description (and quoted appearances) could have suggested.

 
Hay Festival 2017: David Mitchell And Colm Tóibín

A photograph of Rosie Goldsmith and David Mitchell at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

David Mitchell’s newest book was released last month (July). It’s a translation of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, written in Japanese by Naoki Higashida, about living with autism. Translated by both Mitchell and his wife – who is Japanese – the English language release is an effort towards making autism more understood; their son has it.

The speech and then talk between Mitchell and Rosie Goldsmith – who also has a child with autism – revolved around the condition. Like Steve Silberman last year, Mitchell used the hour to explain autism in real-world terms, breaking down the medical/world barrier. (Good, honest, conversation is something Hay does well.)

Historically, autism was seen as under the umbrella of clinical schizophrenia, or ‘living with the fairies’. Treatment was psychological analysis; in the 1960s, electrotherapy and LSD was used. The damage from these methods was massive and research into the condition was not worth the name.

Mitchell said, in the context of today, that the more ideas there are, even wrong ones, the more our knowledge will increase. “Just because research is faulty, [it] doesn’t mean there was nothing in it in the first place.” he said of MMR.

The writer uses the term ‘person with autism’ because people with it have asked him to; people made the adjective known to him – it’s fine when it’s a person. But Mitchell with call a person by the term they prefer on an individual level.

He does not like the assumption that a person with autism who can’t communicate is intellectually affected – it’s better to assume the reverse.

A photograph of Colm Tóibín at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Chris Athanasiou.

There were a reported 1700 people in attendance for Colm Tóibín’s talk with Claire Armistead. The two talked about the author’s latest work with ancient texts – House Of Names, a retelling of a Greek tragedy.

Tóibín talked about Antigone and Electra, working with the stories, using voice. He said that what Antigone, the character, says in dialogue is a translator’s dream; well-worded lines. He looked at Electra’s story from the point of view of her mother which gave him a different perspective, helping him with his own novel. In using ancient texts, he could get away from Ireland, the rosaries, tea, and rain – he kept the new book dry in that way. He pointed out that in retelling an older story, you can take just the story, whereas a contemporary novel has to be detailed and move more slowly. ‘Things you can just see in a play, you have to detail in a novel.’

He ended by saying that if you start to feel the weight of the historical work on you, you’re in trouble. (He just took what he needed.)

Armistead asked ‘why this story, now?’ Colm Tóibín responded that Nora Webster had taken many years, then came Brooklyn for another while as there was so much he had to use from his memory, his childhood, that he had to get right. He said that no matter how much you try to resist, some of what you know – your background, studies, and so on – will make it into a book; there’s a bit of Nora Webster in House Of Names.

The author works at 3:30 in the morning for a bit; the morning is useful for erasing bad ideas; one has time to chew on it.

 
Hay Festival 2017: Samanta Schweblin, Hari Kunzri, And Ann Goldstein

A photograph of Samanta Schweblin and Hari Kunzri at the Hay Festival

On the afternoon of the first Saturday, Hari Kunzri and Samanta Schweblin, together with a translator for the latter, gathered on stage with Claire Armistead.

I’d read Schweblin’s book but Kunzri was new to me; his book is about collectors and cultural appropriation, quite different to Schweblin’s look at chemical agriculture but perhaps with a similarity in the way both books care about countries.

Schweblin said that the ‘rescue distance’ of her book (which is the Argentinian title of it) was something she invented rather than anything she knew of people doing. (She likes the English title, Fever Dream, but believes it’s disadvantaged by the suggestion that the dream is more prominent than the worries of the mother for her child. Of the ‘dream’, she said, “I think it’s real… it could be a dream… I would like to play with both up to the end of the book, about the ties that bind us”.)

Armistead asked about the worms in the book. “I was playing with the idea of chemicals,” said Schwebin, “because she [the main character] gets poisoned… the point of your fingers start to feel like worms.” She said the physical effects of the chemicals are very real. The author later said that the novel has not changed anything in the country.

Schweblin likes to put words in the reader’s head that aren’t on the page, words one must figure out and that make you want to asked questions. “I feel I’m a short story teller. Tension is so important.”

Kunzri became interested in the idea of the haunting quality of music. Haunting is both a metaphor and not, he said. It’s an experience and you can never forget the distance in time – static, for example. He spoke of the early days of recording when audio was physical – vibrations created discs. His story is partly about how white people used black music. “I’m interested in who gets forgotten and who gets remembered.”

A photograph of Ann Goldstein taken at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Sam J Peat.

There was much for Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, to talk about with Daniel Hahn. To use a common phrase the stage was a full, if small, house.

Goldstein recently quit her job as a copywriter after 45 years; though it was not stated, one can assume this was in part due to Ferrante’s success overseas. She did not learn Italian until her mid 30s; her speaking skills are not as good as her written skills. She goes to Italy a couple of times a year and is always translating something. The job role itself was an accident; a book had been sent to her newspaper editor and she read the book and liked the idea of working on it. The finished result was published in the New Yorker.

On the subjects of problems when translating Italian to English, Goldstein noted gender; the syntax is more flexible in Italian. Her feeling is that Italian is a musical language and hard to capture. Sometimes English has to fill in, she said, and Italian has suffixes that can change a whole meaning so you have to be careful. You can never find a word that will have all the same nuances, or syllables. You have to decide what is most important. Hahn summed it up: it’s never as simple as changing words for other words, and different people privilege different things.

“If I haven’t read the book [prior to translating]… I’m typing and reading at the same time and that is exciting,” Goldstein said later. The first time round you miss things. When Hahn pointed out, in regards to translation decisions, that a person may have no idea what might happen in later books, Goldstein replied that that is true in her case. She couldn’t get ahead of herself in the story. The later books hadn’t yet been published – in any language – for her to be able to know what would happen.

The translator had to go through editors to get information about Ferrante’s translations. She still does, even now. Hahn noted that Ferrante has said she trusts Goldstein and Goldstein said she had read a translation of one book but not the Neapolitan novels. ‘I thought it was important for [Ferrante] to have a voice, a public voice, in English. So many people liked her books, even if I couldn’t speak for her, I could speak as someone who knew them.’ This is why she goes to festivals.

In the USA, 30% of published books are translations; that hasn’t changed. But that lack of change is good when there are more books being published overall. In the last 15 years, the UK sold 5.5 million books and a very good percentage were translations.

 
Hay Festival 2017: Olivia Sudjic, Peter Ho Davis, And Madeleine Thien

A photograph of Georgina Godwin, Peter Ho Davis, and Olivia Sudjic at the Hay Festival

In the small, dark tent called The Cube, where some of the most interesting conversations are held with lesser-known authors, Georgina Godwin introduced Peter Ho Davis and Pushkin Press début writer, Olivia Sudjic. Ho Davis’s newest book, The Fortunes, looks, in a fictional manner, at the life of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong of the black and white era. Sudjic’s book, Sympathy, is a look at the way social media can create obsession and fictional identities. They are two very different works but the questions about ancestry and ethnicity, using these and other forms of identity in fiction, made for a fairly unified conversation.

Godwin asked about identities, the different types there are. Ho Davis brought in the academic angle, thinking in terms of how we show ourselves to others. He said that to choose either ethnicity or nation is to deny the other, or at least it feels like it. What interests him is the way we struggle against imposed identities. “All writers are interested in outsiders,” he said. He looks to write characters like that; a yearning for ‘place’ drives the main character of his book.

Sudjic, who said she pronounces her own surname in the wrong way but has come to learn the correct way, didn’t want to take the microphone from someone who had the mixed race experience; she let identity unfold throughout the novel to “lure the reader into identifying her”. The lure of social media for Sudjic’s character came from wanting connection; the obsession of ‘making it’ makes the character more isolated. A reader who distances themselves from her will see the creation of her online identity.

Ho Davis said that Anna May Wong’s acting stereotypes worked for her in America but she was hated in China for it. The writer reclaims racist jokes in the book. He also spoke of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the American rail road, how they were different to other immigrants in that they had planned to go home, and how we are identifying how many people worked based on bones – bones of those who died were kept, all pieces in individual bags.

A photograph of Madeleine Thien and Jemimah Steinfield at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

There were a great many events happening whilst Madeleine Thien stepped onto the Starlight Stage, a lot of competition for audience numbers, but from the feeling in the room it would be hard not to say that those not there to listen to the writer talk about Do Not Say We Have Nothing did not miss out. It begun quietly, a short discussion of present day China away from the context of the book, and grew to something very special. In conversation with Thien was Jemimah Steinfield who has worked as a journalist in China for many years.

Steinfield wanted to look at language in the context of Thien’s book. She noted that music is a kind of language and asked ‘are there any safe languages?’
‘The private self,’ replied Thien, after a pause. “It’s astonishing what people risked their lives to hide… music, a book, a diary…. If you could hide it away you could come back later and retrieve it.” She continued, saying that revolutionary language has its own register – slogans, for example. It becomes the way of thinking and restriction; permissible language and thinking become the same thing and old words are considered to hold things that need to be removed. You learn to speak the public language so that you can hold on to your space in it.

Thien said that on a student level, people believed the revolution was good – the Red Guard, for example. It was said Mao was being compromised by the older generation, and as much as the older generation were good they were carrying around ‘old stuff’ and that had to be changed. It was therefore up to the youth to take the revolution and be the ones to change things. The appeal was to their goodness, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Thien wanted to look at not just the oppression but at that desire to make the world a better place. She said that it was seen as a politic that would finally put things in action. She spoke of watching the events of 1989 on TV and the way the feeling she had then contributed to the book.

I have not yet read Thien’s book but from my pre-event position as a person who had read one of her books and very much disliked it… well, at the end of this talk I joined the crowd on their way to the bookshop and bought a copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Those of you who’ve read it may see that as the obvious conclusion; certainly I’ve already started to see why many said it should have won the Man Booker.

 
Hay Festival 2017: Victoria Hislop And Paula Hawkins

A photograph of Victoria Hislop

Early on Saturday morning, a fair audience gathered in the Oxfam Moot tent to to hear from Victoria Hislop, at Hay to discuss her latest book, Cartes Postales from Greece. Rosie Goldsmith introduced the book and, putting it into context with Hislop’s backlist, she pointed out that all the books, bar one, were love letters to Greece. Hislop speaks fluent Greek and is famous in the country; not a visit goes by without recognition.

“When you’re writing about contemporary Greece,” said Hislop, “you can’t just write about the beauty”. She went on to talk about how it would be disingenuous to have written her latest without referring to the darker elements of what is going on in the country and remarked that Greek people are very good at making ugly things beautiful.

Hislop often wrote whilst travelling; her photographer did the driving, and this work set up was different for her. It felt logical to Hislop to include the photographs in her book, to really show the places she was writing about. The book began as an idea, she said, as she turned on the projector screen to show a photo of a young boy in a silver suit, the atmosphere of the picture making him a little ghostly; it immediately gave her an ‘in’ to the story. In this vein, a photo of a man on a mountain top was used for the end of a chapter, but like the ghostly boy, it was also a beginning moment insofar as the idea.

The author said that Greece will be her inspiration for the foreseeable future.

A photograph of Paula Hawkins at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Joseph Albert Hainey.

That evening, Paula Hawkins joined Georgina Godwin in the small, sparkly Starlight tent to talk thrillers. Both author and chair are originally from Zimbabwe, and so the conversation started with Hawkins’ childhood. Born when the country was still Rhodesia, she spent her early years there before moving to London for university. Her home in Zimbabwe was, in literal terms, far from the war, and so she insulted from it, but she learned what was happening at school.

Hawkins said she had wanted to get away from Zimbabwe, her life of privilege as a white person in the country, but upon moving to England she found it difficult. There were so many white people in England, she found it weird. Weird, too, was the relative lack of space. Public transport was new to her, and it was a train journey from Putney to Earl’s Court that inspired The Girl On The Train; she wondered what would happen if she saw something interesting out of the train window. This journey melded together with her childhood and the feeling of being an outsider, that disconnection that has to some degree remained with her.

The success of the book surprised her in its extent. Relief followed the bidding war as she realised she’d be able to keep writing and pay her bills. Asked why we enjoy thrillers, she said, “we can explore fears in a safeish space”. Not a fan of the term ‘grip lit’ and those like it, she is happy to label herself a crime writer.

Is the book about gaslighting and manipulation? Maybe, but it’s also about the way we can tell made-up stories we think are true. “I’m of the degree that all first person narration is unreliable,” she said later, adding that we manipulate things and forget what really went on.

Hawkins wasn’t very involved in the film process, but she was confident the director would get it right. The location change wasn’t a problem for her; the film and the book are very separate things and are “different people’s visions”.

She has no plans at present to write about Zimbabwe in case she “gets it wrong”. The lasting point was that there are enough white people telling stories about Africa.

 

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