Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

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Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

Current favourite #BookMeme

The choice of author name is particularly amusing, given the apparent beef between the two 80s alternative musos 🙂

Book meme

Must-read: This biography of South Africa’s legendary ‘Afro-saxon’ muso, Syd Kitchen

You may not know of him, but everyone from Durban, like me, does. Thankfully, a just-published biography by Donvé Lee introduces readers to the poetic misfit who mentored many musicians.

mural-syd

A mural of Syd, which was at Durban’s old Corner Cafe

When I heard that a biography of Syd Kitchen was being published,  I immediately marked it as a must-read. I’d seen him perform at Splashy Fen, where he played every year from its start before he died, and had seen him around. With his long hair, floppy hat and bare feet, he looked the quintessential hippie muso − no doubt with plenty stories to tell.

Here’s the book’s blurb:

“Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which −‘Fool in a Bubble’ − premiered in New York in 2010.”

scars-that-shine-cover

The book’s title is a reference to Syd’s poetry collection of the same name, published in 1974. I have a signed copy – I pounced on it when I spotted it at the Milnerton Flea Market several years ago. See below … I wonder who the mysterious Michelle was?

 

Syd Kitchen poetry book

“Michelle, Thanks for the past help regardless how small. You’re a pretty lady. Luv on ya. Syd”

In the foreword, the late veteran journo Owen Coetzer, who helped run the Durban Folk Club back then, wrote:

“Syd Kitchen is the poet. The seeker. His touch is masterful. His omni-luminescent eyes see it all. His words tell the rest. But more important, he is a musician in the tradition of the ancients – the storyteller who journeyed from land to land singing of the past, the present and the future. The minstrel who laboured for love, and who found peace and satisfaction in the giving of himself and his art.”

When Syd passed away early in 2011, many obituaries followed. In one of them, Owen’s daughter Diane, a music journalist, shares her childhood memories of Syd, and laments the fact that he never received proper recognition, both when alive and at his death.

“To a child, he was a fascinating creature: His hair was long, he sometimes struggled to talk through a stutter, he wore outlandish clothes and, even for children used to being around musicians, Syd seemed to us to carry with him something magical …”

“[His] remarkable 40-year music career, filled with live gigs, songwriting, and albums […] simply never benefited from the mainstream business – not just the labels that never signed him, but retail outlets that never stocked his records and radio that never played his songs […] And, looking at the artists who’ve emerged from under his wing in KwaZulu-Natal especially, it’s easy to see where Syd’s musical legacy will reside, outside of his recordings and songs.”

This is where the book comes in. At the launch at the Book Lounge, we were treated to a performance of Syd’s song Walking, by two muso friends of his. Then Donvé was interviewed by Stephen Segerman, one of the men who ensured ‘Sugar Man’, the musician Rodriguez, finally got his story told.

Donvé spoke of the research she did to compile the book – interviewing over 120 people, pouring over Syd’s lyrics and letters to an old girlfriend etc. – and how she tried to make Syd’s voice prominent. In the “magical process of giving over to his voice,” she admitted the boundaries at times blurred: Syd was under her skin, in her head.

donve-lee

The biographer

This seems appropriate, given that Syd once asked her to write a book on him. In response to an audience member’s question about the ethics of creating Syd’s ‘voice’, Donvé said the book is “artistically true, not literally so. I put words into his mouth, but they’re what he could’ve or would’ve said … I think he would approve.” At this point, Syd’s daughter, Sev (I think), nodded from her front-row seat.

The biographer had the full support of Syd’s family, and she didn’t shy away from depicting the good, the bad, the ugly. “I had to make it honest,” she explained. And “in the darkness, beauty has its depth”.

syd-kitchen-b-w

Syd’s lack of acclaim and recognition was mentioned, as was a high point in his musical career: Travelling to Scotland to be one of the featured artists (along with the likes of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Beck, Morcheeba, Snow Patrol and Paolo Nutini) on a tribute album to the late John Martyn, who was a Syd Kitchen fan.

It’s hoped that the book will revive interest in Syd’s music, and apparently the Kitchen family will soon be in talks with Robin Auld to see what can be done about, perhaps, getting his music reissued.

For now, you can get the book at all major SA bookstores and online. Or follow the links below to learn a little more about the man and his music.

Here’s a clip of Syd with Die Antwoord.

Here’s the trailer for the documentary on him, called Fool in a Bubble.

You can listen to the MixCloud tribute to him by Mabu Vinyl (called ‘The last of the bohemians’) here, and there’s also plenty more to read on him here.

fiab-flyer-front

I’ll leave you with a short but sweet poem, from page 15 of Scars That Shine (1974).

SPOKE THE WIND
By Syd Kitchen

You have your eyes
as green as the sea,
you have Life
you have Love
you have Word
speared by me.
What more could your soul
set its sights on to be,
but a creature so fair,
so lost,
yet so free?

 

Author and poet Sophie Hannah on poetry and dealing with the dark side

A couple years ago, when I was still working at O, The Oprah Magazine SA, I was lucky enough to interview the British psychological crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah about the books that made a difference to her life. In this transcript of unused material, she discusses writing about the dark side, and the poetry collection that made her decide to write poems about contemporary issues of the heart…

sophie-hannah_hc_72

I’ve always written both mystery fiction and poetry. The two were always side by side; I’d write poetry one day, fiction the next. But I got published as a poet first. And I think my poetry became mature much sooner than my fiction did. I mean, I remember a moment when I wrote a poem and thought, ‘That’s significantly better than anything I’ve written before. I’ve turned a corner.’ And from that moment onwards my poetry was on a certain level. At that point, my fiction was certainly nowhere near. Perhaps it’s because you need to write a certain number of bad poems and novels before you can write a good one. And it just takes so much longer to write a novel than a poem.

Wendy Cope is my favourite living poet. When I read her poetry for the first time, it really was a eureka moment, because I’d been studying poets like TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes at university. They wrote serious nature poems or serious fragmented modernist poems. While I could see there was literary merit in it, I could also see that it was not the sort of thing I would ever read for fun. I would never take The Waste Land and lie on a beach reading it. Round the same time, my mum bought me Wendy Cope’s first collection, which was called Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, and was full of poems about relationships and the urban modern world. I mean, she writes about things like the difficulty of finding the perfect parking space and what to do if your boyfriend turns up without a bunch of flowers, saying he nearly bought you a bunch of flowers but decided not to… all these kind of things that I identified to and related to real life. All this other poetry I’d been reading didn’t have anything to do with my life, and it didn’t seem particularly enjoyable to read. So this collection made me realise that I could actually be a poet, writing the kinds of things I was actually interested in. Previously, I’d imagined that if I wanted to be a poet I would have to stop writing what I wanted to write about and instead write about windswept moors and dead sheep… that sort of thing.

At the same time, I discovered the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She’s probably my favourite dead poet. I discovered her collected sonnets in the library, and it was a huge eye-opener. Her poems are all about love and broken hearts and dodgy boyfriends, basically. It felt such a coincidence, because I’d always written poems about my love life. The Edna St. Vincent Millay Collected Poems was a hugely significant book for me, and I kept it out from the uni library for the three years I was there. I just kept renewing it. Nobody wanted to take it out other than me because she wasn’t on the poetry course. She wasn’t considered high-brow enough, because she writes rhyming metrical poetry about love. At the time I studied, it was about the most unfashionable type of poem you could write. The sonnets are all 14 lines and they’re brilliant. There’s one that begins. “Time does not being relief; you all have lied…” Basically someone has told her that it she gives it time, she’ll get over a man. But she’s given it time, and has avoided all the places that remind her of him. Yet every time she goes to a place that has nothing to do with him, she stands there and thinks ‘This has nothing to do with him,’ and then thinks of him anyway. That’s paraphrasing, but it’s an absolutely brilliant poem. All her poems, although they’re written in slightly archaic language, are about emotions that everyone recognises. I think she’s much better than TS Eliot.

For me, a poem has to be musical. It has to work in the same way that a song works. Think of a piece of music: You hear the beginning and it creates that expectation, so you want to hear the rest. You get hooked at the level of melody or music. For me, the most important thing when it comes to writing a poem is ensuring there’s as much music in it as there can be. That’s where the bestselling album at any given time will sell millions of copies, because music is something you wouldn’t want to live without. Now, a lot more people will quite happily live without poetry, and I think that’s because so much poetry that is being written now doesn’t have that kind of melody. Rhyme is quite unfashionable, traditional metrical forms are unfashionable. But why can’t you use rhyme and metre in a non-old-fashioned way? I mean, you can. I do. Wendy Cope does, as well as a few others, so it can be done. But a lot of people think there’s that danger that a rhyming poem will be “Thou art my one true love, sent to me from heaven above.” They throw the baby out with the water, thinking that rhyme and metre have to mean that kind of archaic poetry. They don’t at all. So I tell new poets to try and make sure there is music within their poems. It’s quite hard to do, because poetry isn’t a musical form. How do you do it? Well, that’s the key. I can’t explain how you do, but if you try to do it…you will write a better poem.

A poem I wrote that I’m rather attached to is called ‘In the Chill’. It’s a love poem, and the rhyme and metre is very traditional. It’s made up of four verses of four lines, so 16 lines in total. It looks like an old-fashioned poem and it even uses seasonal imagery to talk about love blossoming and so on, but it is absolutely a contemporary poem and it expresses exactly what I wanted to express about my feelings at that time. It came out almost fully formed; I didn’t need to labour over it. And you don’t have to be a poetry person to love it.

There are some people, who, as long as their lives continue to be safe and happy and reasonably normal, just don’t think of the dark side, as if it doesn’t exist. But I’ve always been quite aware that all the good stuff in life is sitting very close to all the bad stuff. You can be sitting on the train and reading a novel on your way to meet friends for lunch, and next to you the person could have lost their whole family in a house fire. Or someone commits a crime and all the neighbours say, “Oh, he seemed so lovely and polite.” That dark side and the danger of people who aren’t quite who they seem to be is always there. My preferred response is to tackle the darkness in books, because I can’t pretend it’s not there. And once I’ve got it out of my system, then I can be jolly and happy. People are often surprised when they meet me: While my books are quite sinister and dark, I’m happy and chatty. They say, “How can you write those books?” A lot of it is a kind of therapy, a way of processing the negative things that comes up in life.

Funnily enough I don’t, I don’t creep myself when writing my novels. I find other people’s books scary, but with my own, I’m usually thinking, ‘Should I say silver or should I say silvery,’ in terms of the glint that is coming off the psychopath’s knife. If you’re focusing on that level, it’s hard to find it scary. Plus, you know you’re making it all up.

I never get scared when doing background research, either; it’s just so fascinating. For the scary parts of novels or films to be scary, you have to be caught up in the pretence; pretend that it’s all real. The creator of the work can never be caught up in that, because they are creating it.

thenarrowbed

Sophie Hannah’s latest novel, The Narrow Bed (Hodder & Stoughton) was released in the UK this week.

Writerly tips from author Patrick Gale

British author and screenwriter Patrick Gale was one of the international acts to join this year’s Open Book Festival. The Oxford-educated novelist is an avid gardener who lives near Land’s End in Cornwall, where he and his husband farm.

Patrick Gale

By Dan Hall (www.dan-hall.co.uk) from the author’s website.

Gale, whose books have previously made it onto Richard and Judy’s list of summer reads, is currently promoting his 17th novel, A Place Called Winter. The novel, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice, is described as follows:

To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

A place called winter cover

In a panel talk on researching time and place, Patrick generously shared some tips and tricks with the aspiring writers in the audience.

On the limits of research
Patrick described how A Place Called Winter came about. When his mother decided to move into an old-age home, he inherited her set of Georgian drawers, stuffed full of old Vogue patterns, mismatched knitting needles, years of correspondence between his mother and grandmother… and his grandmother’s unfinished life story.

When asked why he decided to fictionalise his family history, rather than writing a biography, he said: “Fiction is very useful to get to the emotional truth of a situation that you won’t find with only historical research”.

He also confirmed that old adage that you should write from what you know, saying: “The glorious realisation you’re a novelist comes when you suddenly realise no experience is wasted”.

On the subject of researching when you’re a new novelist, Patrick said he believes a lot of the extraneous research is about the writer’s need to gain confidence. “But sooner or later,” he said, “you must trust your ability to tell the story”.

He also suggested that new writers follow advice he’d heard another author give: Try tell as much of the story you want to tell before you research it, even if only in note form, as “it’s easy to get overwhelmed by research with your first novel.”

On archiving your past, and your stories, for the future
Gale keeps all the notebooks from his old manuscripts, but he hands them over to an archivist for safekeeping. The first time he did this, the archivist was pleased he did things the old-fashioned way. Apparently, with technology changing so much, paper lasts more than documents on memory sticks (which you may not be able to read from in a few years), so archivists always print out any digital material authors hand them.

He also reiterated something my Irish great aunt Margaret told me: It’s really important to write the names of people on the backs of photographs for the sake of leaving an accurate record of your life as legacy.

On the value of writing in ink
Extending the writing-like-gardening analogy he mentioned at the start of the talk, Gale said the reason he makes his writing students have “inky days”, with no electronic note-taking or writing allowed, is because “the mess that comes with scratching out and so on is hugely fertile”.

His own preference? Gale writes in Toffee Brown ink (the one that “looks like dried blood”) as archivists say that’s the tone that lasts the longest.

On what writers talk about
“People think when writers get together, they talk art. We don’t. We talk about backing up,” Gale quipped. When I tweeted this, writer Jenny Colgan replied: “and VAT and writer’s arse and unfair car insurance premiums.”

Gale, still generous with his writerly tips, replied to say “I beat writer’s arse by investing in a sort of brain surgeon’s chair − the Hag Capisco: lets one lean forward”.

The Hag Capisco is environmentally sound (the seat is made from recycled car bumpers and waste household plastic packaging, and its plastic components are labelled to help sorting for recycling) as well as ergonomic. Here’s what the chair looks like, and where to learn more about it.

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Top tweets from the Franschhoek Literary Fest 2015, Day One

It’s a recipe for success: The annual Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) gathers authors, opinion-makers and book-lovers deep in South Africa’s winelands in the autumnal season…

This year’s programme is the festival’s best yet, and international authors participating include Sarah Waters and John Boyne. Follow the action online using the Twitter hashtags #FLF15 or #FLF2015. Here are my favourite tweets from Day One:

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