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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.


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