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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.

Reading Life: 9th June 2017

A photograph of flowers

Earlier this week I made the decision to get back to books I haven’t finished and the almost unheard of (for me) decision to allow myself to abandon, for now, books that I’ve started but have made little progress in. I’ve several books on my list now that are unfinished and it’s becoming a bit of a reading burden as well as just a bit silly, effectively creating an inflated number of books read. Subsequently I finished a book I’ve been reading since last month – I’m not setting any limits on how long the book has to have been on the list.

This has led to another effort to finish Tender Is The Night. I didn’t really feel like picking up a ‘current’ read yesterday, so I opted to try once again to read Fitzgerald’s higgledy-piggledy novel and, pun intended, I have turned a page. I’ve reached that point I’d heard about wherein the narrative becomes clearer and more active, the plot is a lot more linear and thought through, and I read a good number of chapters. On book two of the novel it’s turned into something akin to the term people have been using to refer to Tom Malmquist’s book, ‘autobiographical fiction’, wherein a diagnosis of schizophrenia had been given to a main character prior to the start of the book, whilst she was in hospital.

The book I finished before that was Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride. I’d been steadily continuing it alongside others, but decided it was time to complete it (I’d paused because I’d started reading it for a planned event that was then cancelled). It’s a different sort of book to others on similar subjects/tones in that the person of honour, so to speak, is being talked about by a third party and that third party is fictional, but it’s been a very interesting reading experience – the cover and general expectations pointing to more of a historical romance but the reality being more about the politics with lots of details about battles and the French-England conflicts. The book’s title is the part to base your expectations on.

Despite my prior dislike of Madeleine Thien’s work, albeit that it was a while ago, I have bought her latest, award shortlister. Her event at the Hay Festival was absolutely brilliant, I was completely won over to the point of getting the book there and then. I’m hoping to start it shortly. I also got a copy of a book I regretted not getting last year – I had found a hardback of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane but unwisely chose to mull it over a bit, losing it to someone else. I was particularly interested in a hardback which at this point is difficult to find but I found another this year and didn’t hesitate.

In terms of current reads, Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck is a priority, however as I’ve said before it’s a long book and when I opened it I discovered small text and small margins so it’s going to take longer than I’d thought. It’s looking a bit like an updated Vanity Fair at the moment, in terms of heroine personality, and a bit prone to extensive detailing. Still the plan is to finish it sooner rather than later.

In the near future I’m looking at Meike Ziervogel’s The Photographer and the book she commissioned for Peirene Press, The Cut. The former is inspired by the lives of Meike’s grandparents in war-torn Germany and the latter was commissioned last year – a book about the divisions in the UK in regards to Brexit.

How is your reading life?

Interview With Laura Barnett

A photograph of Kathryn Williams and Laura Barnett

I’m delighted to welcome Laura Barnett to the blog today (she’s the one on the right – on the left is Kathryn Williams who Laura tells us about). Laura is the author of The Versions Of Us which I reviewed a few years ago – even if it really doesn’t feel that long ago! – and her latest novel is out this month. She’ll be at the Balham Literary Festival this Friday and more details are at the end of this post.

How did the move from journalist to novelist occur?

Slowly! Writing novels was always my primary ambition from about the age of five, and I wrote novellas and short stories throughout my teens. But after graduating from university, I didn’t feel ready to sit down and write that big first novel – I felt like I needed to get out and experience life a bit first. So I trained as a journalist, and spent the next few years working hard on staff at the Telegraph and the Guardian. I was still writing in my spare time, but that time was in short supply – until, in my late twenties, I took the opportunity to go freelance and dedicate myself more fully to writing fiction. It still took several years – and a lot of rejection – before I actually saw my first novel published, and could finally allow fiction to take precedence.

The ‘versions’ in The Versions of Us aren’t all that dissimilar to each other, there are no extreme differences, and each is a very regular life. Had you considered bigger differences? (I thought the lives as they were worked well.)

The Versions Of Us book cover

Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to distinguish the three versions, but I knew I didn’t want them to be too different – to see Eva, say, become a zoo-keeper in Atlanta in one version, and a librarian in Burnley in another. I wanted the novel to consider the smaller permutations of our decisions: the ways in which life draws us down one path over another, changing certain aspects of our circumstances, relationships and personalities, while keeping others the same.

Do you have any ‘what if…’ moments of your own you could share with us?

Like everyone, I have many! Perhaps the most significant is the fact that I was very nearly not born at all… My mum had a fiancé when she was twenty-one who decided to move to America. She broke off the engagement as she couldn’t see a future for herself there; had she not done so, I’d never have existed. We can probably all look back and imagine versions of our parents’ lives in which we would not have figured. I find the thought both disconcerting and intriguing.

Where did the idea for Greatest Hits come from and can you tell us about the decision to bring real music into it?

Greatest Hits book cover

Of course. As so often with a novel, or any creative project, it was the coming together of several different ideas. After The Versions of Us, I knew I wanted my next book to be what we might call a ‘long-view novel’, centred on a character in later life, looking back over her experiences and trying to make sense of them. And I also knew that I wanted to somehow expand the reading experience beyond the page – to work with another artist, from another medium, to forge something really new and original.

From there, it was a short step to deciding that the character at the centre of this new book would be a musician – and that therefore the best way to expand the reading experience would be to work with a real-life singer-songwriter to bring the character’s songs to life.

Can you see yourself working with other medium in future?

Yes, absolutely – I’m really open to anything, and I’ve hugely enjoyed the process of collaborating with Kathryn Williams, not least because novel writing is usually a pretty lonely process! I’m very interested in the visual arts, and I have several ideas about combining fiction with photography and painting. I’m also really excited about the possibilities offered by the recent explosion of interest in podcasts and audiobooks. In fact, Kathryn and I are planning to launch our own podcast soon, so watch this space…

My thanks to Laura, and to Ashton of FMCM.

Laura Barnett is the author of Greatest Hits (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and will be speaking at Balham Literary Festival on Friday 9th June. If you’re in London in two days time and would like a literary start to your weekend, I would say it’ll be a good evening, and tickets are still available. The festival as a whole runs from tomorrow until Sunday and it’s been created by Dulwich Books.

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?

May 2017 Reading Round-Up

It’s very unlike me to post a round up before the month is over, in fact I think this is the first time, but it’s unlikely I’ll finish any more books today. True to last year’s form I’ve read very little whilst at Hay. Other than this, however, I’ve read a fair amount. As soon as the sun comes out and the weather improves I find myself reading a lot more and this year is no exception. I’m having a reading ball.

The Books

Book cover

Tom Malmquist: In Every Moment We Are Still Alive – When Tom’s pregnant wife is diagnosed with late-stage Leukaemia he faces the likelihood that he’s about to become both a widower and a new single father. You’ll find this book in the fiction section because it’s being called a fictional autobiography but everything in it is true; as much as one can use the word it’s a good book.


Book cover

Emma Cline: The Girls – In the 1960s, a young teenager spent her time with a group of women lead by a charismatic man, and looking back at the horrors this later caused she reflects on her life. There’s not much here that is original.

Book cover

Joanna Cannon: The Trouble With Goats And Sheep – Mrs Creasy disappears during the 1976 heatwave and the village thinks Walter must have something to do with it; meanwhile Grace believes that if God is everywhere he must be at a neighbour’s house and she plans to find him. A great book about discrimination and stereotypes against a backdrop of supposedly perfect domesticity.

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Juan Carlos Márquez: Tangram – A tale of red herrings and seemingly-unrelated stories that culminate in a murder. A very clever use of characterisation of playing with the reader’s assumptions.

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Kit de Waal: My Name Is Leon – Confused as to why he can’t stay with his mother as he is doing a good job looking after her, Leon is taken in by a foster carer whilst his white brother is adopted. A fantastic look at the British social services in the 1980s and the wider issues involved.

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Nicholas Royle: An English Guide To Birdwatching – Silas and Ethel have handed their undertaking business to their son in exchange for a relaxing retirement by the sea, and meanwhile an unrelated Stephen Osmer is hammering out diatribes on his computer keyboard, but both stories are woven together in the form of their unfortunate connection to a literary critic called Nicholas Royle who has unwittingly upset them all. A brilliant piece of meta fiction by one of the two writers called Nicholas Royle.

My favourite this month was the de Waal. It will make my ‘best of’ list; it’s absolutely excellent in every way. The Cannon and the Royle were both pipped to the post; both were a lot of fun. Cannon’s book could have done with a slightly stronger ending, and Royle’s book is only held back by the amount of attention and consideration it requires – it is a great book but de Waal’s is arguably easier to enjoy.

Looking forward, I’ve some books from Hay to read; whilst the usual case of a reader not getting to every book they acquire will likely prevail there are a couple that have gone straight to the top of my list. I’ve the 600 page Christina Stead to get to and get through and I really want to make June the month I read Sarah Perry’s novel. We’ll see!

What book are you currently reading?


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