I’ve just returned from a few wonderful days at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I think I picked the right year to go as many of the talks were truly inspirational and also put me back in touch with things that I’d forgotten, things that can have a positive impact on your day to day life.
I really enjoyed learning about the different techniques that many writers employ in order to write a novel. All the author talks reinforced that there is no set pattern, that each writer has to find their own way from the beginning to the end of the process, and that it is a hard slog, especially for those who strive to reach a particular standard of writing, but a worthwhile one.
Author Simon Van Booy said that he would have given writing up long ago if he didn’t have this obsession to get a sentence right. I have to say that the obsession shows in the quality of his writing, as reading The Illusion of Separateness was like listening to a symphony of words for me. I told him that I’d never realised what was possible within a sentence until I read his work as he signed my copy of his new novel Father’s Day.
Simon was on stage with author Kit De Waal (author of My Name is Leon) and both authors have used their success to create writing opportunities for others. Simon founded Writers for Children in 2013, a project which helps young people build confidence in their literary abilities through annual writing awards. Kit has created the Kit de Waal Scholarship, which is a fully funded scholarship opportunity for a budding writer to hone their skills at Birkbeck, University of London. She revealed that one of the first recipients is a young boxer who used to hide his poems in his boxing gloves. I found Kit’s talk enlightening as she highlighted the good work that many social workers are doing in challenging circumstances but which often goes unrecognised.
Author Benjamin Johncock explained how he writes with pencil and paper, line by line, perfecting each one before moving on to the next, and as he said this the whole construct of his novel fell into place for me. The Last Pilot took Benjamin six years to write but there’s a stunning evocative fluidity to the writing that demonstrates just how much care he took. It was also fascinating to hear how Judith Claire Mitchell had written A Reunion of Ghosts, which despite dealing with the emotive topic of suicide is also surprisingly funny. One of the sections she read out was a fantastic word play around the word ‘then’.
If you’re editing, you need to deconstruct. Take your work apart and you’ll know which pieces to leave on the floor.
It was also an absolute joy to listen to authors read their new novels along with personal insights that fed into their work. Author Donal Ryan’s new novel All We Shall Know (published 15 September) features Irish Travellers and when Donal was asked if he knew any he told a story of one encounter with them. A Traveller had come to the family house and his mum had donated the scarf his sister had made to them, but the scarf was part of a project for school so he had to go and get it back. This led to him sitting round a fire being told hair-raising and fascinating Traveller tales while trying to negotiate the return of his sister’s scarf. Donal made it sound like such a craic, his voice bubbles with Irish wit as does his writing, which is also filled with beauty, truth and compassion.
I also enjoyed the reading by Philip Hensher, as he has a dry wit and an ability to bring colourful characters vividly to life with just a few words. I’ve never read his work before so I corrected that after the reading and bought Tales of Persuasion. One of his writing tips was to write a pastiche of a well known story or novel to liberate the imagination and free it of constraints.
Joanna Cannon’s reading from The Trouble With Goats and Sheep showcased her natural sense of pace, ear for dialogue and how the actions of characters can evoke a powerful sense of place and time. Ywenande Omotoso, author of The Woman Next Door, also has a similar gift. Both writers were fascinating as they explained how they wrote their books and created the characters within them, characters that were so well drawn they were instantly recognisable, ensuring you immediately understood the underlying tensions within each story.
Joanna also shared some personal experiences during the NHS Debate which generated empathy for the struggles of young doctors and the medical profession in general, where empathy can sometimes be lacking both towards themselves and their patients due to certain constraints and expectations.
There was a lot of discussion around mindfulness during the NHS Debate and the positive proven neurological benefits it can have. This was also highlighted in the talk by Dr James R. Doty who has written a wonderful book called Into the Magic Shop, which I read from cover to cover the day before his talk, nodding in recognition at key passages.
James explains how as a child he had an alcoholic dad who vanished regularly and a mother with mental health issues, and how he felt shame and fear on an almost daily basis due to the lack of money and his parents instability, until the day he walked into a magic shop to buy a product to do a trick and was invited to learn about a magic trick that could change his life.
If we focus on healing wounds of the heart, society will change.
Dr James R Doty
That magic trick was mindfulness and was the start of a life-changing journey, one that led him to become one of the most well respected neurosurgeons in the world. This was by far the most inspiring talk I attended, as I have personal experience of how well mindfulness can work. I was pleased to hear about the Global Compassion Initiative, which is a new Initiative between the Global Health Academy and the Stanford Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, as I believe they are moving in the right direction.
I was also moved by Philippe Sands QC, author of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, who said: “Individuals can make a difference in relation to the big issues of the day.” His journey of self-discovery was not dissimilar to Dr James R. Doty’s in many ways, it all comes back to mindfulness, being aware of the suffering of others and feeling compelled to do something about it. Sometimes the tiniest gesture can have a big impact.
During the many talks I attended I learned how Shakepeare’s First Folio was a coveted status symbol when it was first published. During the fascinating talk by Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare studies, it soon became clear that people have not changed much in the way that they personalise books by their favourite writers by making annotations and corrections in the margins, or in marking them in someway to denote ownership and status. Like when you have your books signed by authors, as I have done above. I remember feeling inordinately pleased when Donal Ryan added the date and venue, as this kind gesture will anchor my happy memory of hearing him read in this time and place.
I also loved learning about the origins of democracy in Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge and how Shakespeare’s ideas are relevant today in a time of globalisation during Professor Richard Wilson’s passionate and engaging talk about his new book Worldly Shakespeare.
The strength of the Edinburgh Book Festival is in how the sheer diversity of speakers and talks available can open your mind to new ways of thinking and of being. I picked the right year to go as the whole experience was illuminating, even as I sat with friends, both old and new, appreciating how everyone I came into contact with, or simply listened to, was adding to my life in some way.
I thank you all for that.
The option to make a change in your life is the very definition of freedom. It’s about not being put in your place.