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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.

Hay 2017

A photograph of one of the lawn areas of the Hay Festival, in which there is a tent, a big Hay logo, and several people reading

Every spring the Hay Festival commandeers the town of Hay-On-Wye, the ‘town of books’. For 11 days from late May to early June, the festival site is abuzz with people.

It’s very inclusive. Many residents of the town get involved – I would assume all the residents like books; you’d be completely out of luck if you didn’t. Likely many join the festival itself but what is particularly great is the way the home-owners along the road running between the town and the festival site make use of their properties; front lawns and driveways become pop-up cafes and clothes shops, people sell breakfast and fish and chips cooked outside.

And the festival is incredibly diverse. People of all backgrounds, ages, colours, religions, fashion styles and, something I noticed particularly this year, abilities. In a world where disability is still ‘other’, Hay is a wonderful outlier and equaliser, and for the past two years now, at least, there have been absolutely spot-on talks about autism and acceptance.

A photograph of the rows of fiction books in the Oxfam tent

Some of those who set up shop at the festival this year were the Quakers, the Woodland Trust, a cable tidy company, a furniture maker, a dessert group, and a university. The usual Oxfam bookshop is in a fairly large tent, at least when compared to the other shops, and then the main Hay festival bookshop is set up at the back of the site, devoting its place to the books of the current festival’s authors. And of course there are comedy sets and concerts, this year including Andy Parsons, Reginald D Hunter, Amy McDonald, and Amanda Palmer.

There are plenty of places to eat on site and then there are all the places in town. The town is decked out in bunting, effectively joining it to the festival. The main attractions here are the bookshops – there are many – and the overall beauty of the place. Sadly Hay Castle is currently closed but you can walk around it, and Barbara Erskine’s book on the place is a suitable substitute.

This year it felt as though more time had been given to political sessions, understandably. Due to recent events in the UK, there was a fair police presence and extra security in general. The camaraderie at Hay increased.

Something the festival has been promoting this year is the latest international festival in Aarhus, Denmark. I mentioned it last year as I’d got talking to people involved in it, but this will be its first time running. Aarhus will be a children’s literature festival and a couple of anthologies of short stories were released early in the 11 days. I’m working on a post about the books and the related events and information and will share it once it’s finished.

A photograph of one of the lawns at the Hay Festival

The last things I should mention here are the Hay, Brecon and Talgrath Sanctuary for Refugees which had a place at the festival, and the festival’s funding of the town’s library. Hay Festival has effectively taken on the responsibility for the library remaining open. Library hours have been cut but it’s still there.

Have you ever been to a festival, whether literary or otherwise?

Hay Post Preview

My intention for today’s post was to detail happenings here and to post lots of photographs, however something that can’t be banked on is internet connection – I’m typing this in a valley area where the wifi is poor. So here are a few photographs, made small; I’ll post in detail once I’m back.

A photograph of Helen Fielding talking to a fan at the Hay Festival

A photograph of Samanta Schweblin and Hari Kunzru

A photograph of a banner in Hay town that says, books are a uniquely portable magic, the Kindle is dead, long live the book!

A photograph of a tent on a green

A photograph of Madeleine Thien signing a book

A Book Launch, A Multi-Author Event, And A Visit To Southampton Old Cemetery

A photograph of Meike Ziervogel reading from her latest book

It’s been a very literary weekend.

Friday evening saw the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s fourth book, The Photographer, at Waterstones Piccadilly. Longer than her others, Meike is calling it a novel rather than a novella. The book was inspired by her grandparents, one set in particular, and their lives during the Second World War. It’s about the people of Germany – Meike was aware that she was of a generation that could write about that time; those prior could not.

There were a couple of readings and a general discussion with chair Rosie Goldsmith, and Stephanie Bird of University College London: thoughts on German documentaries and films regarding the War; literary fiction and the way that plot is important to Meike because actions speak louder than words; how the four of the books are connected, having written one to get to the next and so forth. I picked up a copy of the book – it’s only a tentative plan, but I’m hoping to review it soon. And I got it signed, which in regards to Meike’s work was a first for me.

A photograph of Choc Lit authors Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas, and Laura E James

I spent Saturday afternoon attending the Southampton stop of publisher Choc Lit’s author tour. Choc Lit are visiting a few different cities and the authors at the events are those nearby; this time it was Evonne Wareham, Jan Brigden, Liv Thomas (one half of the writing duo published under the name Isabella Connor), and Laura E James, in the order they are sitting in the photograph. There were a number of us and the afternoon consisted of a good introduction and discussion by and between the authors, lots of time to talk to everyone there, and a quiz to finish. And a fair amount of chocolate, cake, and books. During the latter section there was an opportunity for the writers amongst us – those other than the four mentioned – to pitch their work.

A photograph of a tombstone and a monkey puzzle tree at Southampton Old Cemetery

Sunday was a free day. I read – little surprise there, I think – and decided to get out and enjoy the sunshine visiting the old cemetery we have in Southampton, an activity a lot more peaceful and positive than it might sound. Situated in the middle of Southampton Common, the cemetery was opened in 1846; nowadays the only burials are those added to existing plots, a few a year. Very tall statues abound and there’s even a small mausoleum. Most of the stones have corroded to the point of illegibility and some areas are so old and overgrown they look empty, but in the context of a historical space, there is a lot of beauty to be found in it… and there’s also a monkey puzzle tree, as you can see above. Here are more photographs:

A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery A photograph of tombstones at Southampton Old Cemetery

How was your weekend and what was the last event, literary or otherwise, you attended?

My Event Report: In Conversation With Elizabeth Fremantle

A photograph of Charlie Place and Elizabeth Fremantle

© Photo:Gerry Walden/ 2016

It’s a weird feeling shifting from the role of press to the role of host for an evening. I spent a very good few hours at our latest event but coming home without photos and notes is a strange thing. I’m glad for our photographer and the writer from Southampton University who came to cover the event for us.

Our evening with Elizabeth Fremantle last Thursday was a roaring success. We commandeered the comfy chairs. The majority of seats were taken and more people turned up than we knew were coming; a wonderful surprise.

Elizabeth told us of her journey to publication, her background in fashion writing; her research methods – visit Hardwick Hall! – and all four books which we ended up discussing in reverse chronological order because we got talking about her latest book and it seemed to make more sense to me in that moment than jumping from subject to subject (the books all stand alone but there are links).

This time we recorded it. Fathers who own camcorders are very useful when you discover that your plan to use your DSLR isn’t going to work. You’ll find the video at the end of this post.

A photograph of Charlie Place and Elizabeth Fremantle

© Photo:Gerry Walden/ 2016

Many, many thanks to Elizabeth and her friend, Glyn, who also joined us; Rachael from The Edge and Wessex Scene – read her pre-event piece here; and our photographer, Gerry Walden. Having finished it I’m feeling rather odd without promotion to do; I’ve started the planning for January.

Here’s the video, complete with my silly bumbling. I’ve cut the introduction a bit due to microphone issues.


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