These special episodes of the Bailey’s Writing Tips podcast were released on 11th and 14th April 2011 and the content has never been released other than website links (on my website http://www.morgenbailey.com). The following is a review of my day spent at the Oxford Literature Festival on Saturday 2nd April.
Having dropped my dog off at my mum’s house in Hertfordshire, I then caught a lift with fellow writers friends Jackie and Rachel (who has since become my editor!) and Jackie’s friend Andy before driving on to Oxford’s park and ride (where we joined three more writer friends), and to Oxford centre, arriving just short of the area of Christ Church and the venue for the Literature Festival.
10am: Philip Pullman panel
Set in the beautiful, if not slightly windy, setting of the Christ Church Master’s Garden Marquee, the first event we went to was about ‘voice’ with poets Patience Agbabi and Kate Clanchy and children’s author Philip Pullman. Chaired by James Hawes, he firstly explained why they were wearing purple badges (in support of saving our libraries then introduced the panel.
James started the session by asking Patience where she gets her voice from She said often from long-dead or recently-deceased writers, although some from living writers, in other words she reads a lot. She said finding your own voice is finding your own style but as a writer you are what you read. When asked what is the voice for poetry she quoted fellow poet Bernadine Evaristo and PerFORMance poet (with the emphasis on ‘form’), and likes trying different voices, and voices within voices. She says “Why should novelists have all the fun?” then read out a sonnet from Charlotte Smith entitled ‘Queen of Shadows’ before reading one of hers entitled ‘Problem Pages’ saying that, as the name implies, was inspired by the problem pages from magazines and was written in the format where Charlotte’s feminist voice, Patience said, poses the question and then Patience’s poem answers it. This brought up issue of plagiarism and she explained that she asked permission to use quotes from other poets and had mixed responses from their estates. The TS Elliot Estate, for example, were very reasonable only charging £70.
James then introduced Kate who, like me (and James), is an early-to-bed-early-to-rise author. She told us about her involvement with a school writing project by children with studying difficulties and read out a poem called ‘Some people’ by Jack, a dyslexic boy; a story about his experiences as an excluded child. The poem was part of an anthology of the children’s work that had been published and some of the children had read out at a previous festival. As Patience had, Kate also mentioned about ‘form’ although she said she wasn’t sure it was the same as finding a voice. She said that she usually writes poetry as a first and last line, then fills in in between, sometimes hearing it as music so the poem ends up with a melody to it, as poetry often does. She said that voice often comes from reading (I’ve heard most authors so this, as Patience did) and said that her feedback to authors is often “very good but go and read some more”.
James then talked about his wife reading to her son and really wanted to know how Philip Pullman creates his books. Philip said that it’s all a chain involving 5 or 6 people. There’s the physical writer, the writer that the reader imagines the writer to be (although they are more access these days; photo on the book’s back flap, the internet, live events etc.), in the case of fiction there’s the narrator (who can observe what happens and tells us). Then he spoke of differences between 1st person and 3rd person and said that whilst the narrator is more obvious in 1st person there is also a narrator in 3rd person. Philip then went on to talk about the difference in the voices between His Dark Materials and his fairy tales. He said he doesn’t think about the reader when he writes but then said that actually he must do because he toned down the ‘voice’ in the fairy tales as the audience is younger.
On the subject of ‘voice’ Philip said that he spends quite a lot of time at the beginning of writing a novel looking for the voice. He hears it and listens to it and writes, writing in silence as, agreeing with Kate, he hears music. “Who’s telling me that? Where does it come from?” he asked himself, then said he doesn’t know (to which the audience laughed). He explained that he hears what his characters say and just writes it down. He even impersonates different voices and said that if he writes from the point of view from a non-human (mentioning a ‘sprite’ as an example) he can’t actually think of the character as a human would.
James asked how the other characters feel about the protagonist. Kate said that she makes faces as she imagines the character, imitating them and Philip said that there are characters whose heads you’re allowed to get into and there are some that you’re not, which in any other profession would invite a black leather lounger with accompanying psychiatrist but we all knew what he meant.
The panel was then asked whether they read the words out loud as you’re writing them. Patience answered first by saying “absolutely” and that she can get inside the words better, become the piece or characters, to which James said that sounds very physical and asked it she gets up and walk around? She said that she doesn’t but that Dickens did; she is seated but is vocal. Kate said that she sits in silence while she thinks and Philip was in between; saying he does speak but in whispers. He said there is no need for him to be audible but has to get the words in his mouth, which is an interesting concept. Literature, he said, needs to be vocal and audible as well as oratory to detect things that the eye doesn’t catch.
James then opened up the question to the audience. The first was directed to Patience about observation: about what she reads, her past experiences, do her observations change as you grow older, will she read differently in the future? Having said that she’s currently working on Canterbury Tales (and will be for the next two years at least) she said you think you’ve come up with a wonderful line then realise that it’s already been done and has to check online that she’s not plagiarising
A lady in the audience said that she finds Philip’s idea of sprite as a freedom that new writers are scared to inhabit. She writes scripts and finds the unplanned basis of prose terrifying and wonders about the tension with publishers expecting writers to produce a certain type of novel.
Kate replied that she’s writing her first novel and will be worried about pressure if it’s successful to then follow up to that or a higher standard.
Philip agreed with the comment about script as it’s often predefined, e.g conversion of a novel to a script or if commissioned, but said he loves the unknown of writing prose. He then mentioned the three-act structure of a script and said that when he meets other writers they speak very little about the writing process, favouring to talk about other things. He has to have silence, a secret time, a time for the voice. When then asked whether he’d been involved with the films of his books, he said that film is no place for the writer unless you’re directing as well, which was interesting as I would think that the writer would want to be involved to see how it differs from the original intention.
The question was then put about knowing the style or voice early on? How long did it take the panel to find their voices?
Patience said that she went to an African writing school and studied poetic forms (villanelle, sonnet etc) and found the structure inspired her to define her voice.
Kate explained that she was 28 when she wrote her first poem. It was well-received and so she continued, adding that if it had been rubbished then she probably would have given up and done something different, i.e. away from writing. Although I’d not read any of her work, it was obvious from the audience reaction that they were glad that she hadn’t
Philip said that he’d recognised his early writing as being his style but did feel that it had his voice, then added that he’d made the mistake of reading Hemingway while writing first novel and found his style changed, so reading does have a great influence, and loved Allen Ginsberg poetry when he was writing poetry.
Another member of the audience asked for examples of where voice doesn’t just appear but have had to be revised; built through the writing process?
Patience said that she wrote a dramatic poem which she found very repetitive but lacking so converted it into a sestina and finding that a structured format worked far better.
Philip said that he was really looking forward to seeing her project on the Canterbury Tales to which Patience said she was as well which made the audience laugh.
Kate then talked about voice coming out as she edits rather than in the initial draft which was interesting.
Philip likened it to carpentry; that editing is the reworking done after you’ve created the piece of wood. When he worked on a typewriter he did little editing as it was too difficult to retype etc. and still always writes a first draft with ballpoint pen then types it up. If he finds a piece is hollow/dead (where nothing of consequence happens) then he goes back to where it’s lively and continues from there; otherwise that would be the point where readers put the book down and go and watch the TV.
When the panel was asked whether they write for themselves or for their reader, Patience agreed with Philip where he said he doesn’t write for the reader as he feels that it’s not theirs until it’s published and Kate equated writing a first draft as a splodge on a canvas. You know you hadn’t imagined a splodge and you don’t know what you meant until you redraft and end up getting back to the bones of the original idea, rather than having it fully formed in the first draft and refining it.
The next questions was on writers block; whether they wait for inspiration or ‘write their way through it’?
Philip said that sometimes he thinks “I ought to write and get on with it” and quoted Northern Lights, the first of the trilogy His Dark Materials, saying that as he was writing, he found out something about the character that he hadn’t realised was missing?
In answer to the next question, the panel then talked about the pressures of being original, coming up with original ideas?
Patience said that she felt none as a poet because there is less pressure generally, which gives her incredible freedom. She did say however that she finds it more difficult if she’s impressed with the original inspiration (e.g. a section of Canterbury Tales) but less so if she doesn’t like it so much.
Philip felt that there’s nothing wrong with imitation, but not plagiarism obviously, and that he’s all for it. Quoting that fact that there are supposed to only be 7 stories in the world… although he knows for a fact that there are 11 (to which the audience laughed). He admitted to loving Neighbours (as do I) and has been watching it for years, he said that there’s lots of repetition but it’s humanity… then quoted the Archers having used a queried paternity story line at least twice.
Regarding the panel’s emotional commitment, to write passionately in the voice (playful or not) they were asked whether they have to be deeply involved in the character they’re writing about? Philip said that it’s very important to be emotionally committed and has written passages that made him cry and laugh. (I can relate to that, although not quite to the crying stage). Kate added that no artistic idea comes without emotions and that emotion equates to strong inspiration.
With Patience she generally has the form first, and content afterwards. There’s a bit of you in everything you write, she said.
Philip loves form, and agreed that it’s very important, saying you can be passionate about the form, quoting sonnet as an example.
James concluded with his thanks and the authors were led to the book signing area within the bookshop area of the marquee and then the audience followed them out. As my friends had nothing planned until 1.30 they headed for the local coffee shop while I typed up these notes, chatted to a lady about Simon Winchester’s session (on at the same time as our ‘voice’ panel) then headed back to the marquee for the midday session.
12noon: Roald Dahl ‘Funny Prize’
This was supposed to be a panel consisting of Michael Rosen, Shabi Khorsandi and Louise Rennisen but unfortunately Shabi couldn’t make it so another lady joined them whose name, unfortunately, I didn’t catch.
Returning to the Christ Church Master’s Garden Marquee, I picked (quite accidentally) the perfect seat. Despite being 8 rows from the front my view of the stage, was only obscured by young children so not actually obscured at all which was great.
Nicolette Jones talked about her being one of the judges of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize then introduced the winner of the 7-14 age category: Louise Rennisen (then mentioned that Louise Yates ‘Dog Loves Books’ won the picture book prize for children 6 and under). Nicolette then asked Michael to explain how the Roald Dahl Funny Prize came to be. From the off he was hilarious, saying he’d got loads of children but couldn’t remember how many. He’d noticed that his children preferred funny books and when he approached the Roald Dahl Estate to create a Funny Prize they were very supportive and the Book Trust administers it.
Nicolette pointed out that funny is often viewed as trivial to which Michael quoted Terry Pratchett as saying that books can be funny and serious, and she agreed.
Michael then praised Louise’s character, a teenage girl, and the serious topics that she deals with while still having the humour running through it. And said she won on a ‘gag’ count = one gag per page and sometimes three.
Michael, a fan of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye said it was very funny but with serious issues then told us about when he was younger he’d acted out the plot with brother and had is in stiches.
Louise talked about her first book Angus, Thongs and the Full Frontal Snogging and that she’d been writing for a newspaper and has been asked to write a book about a teenager, by an editor had read some of her previous work and had said that her writing was so childlike.
Louise said that she went to an all-girls school with 1000 girls and one male teacher (the rest being female) and didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to be funny. Then she told us about going to a fancy dress party dressed as an olive; had to go down the stairs sideways. She’d got to her father’s car and couldn’t get in so her father suggested she walked to the party with him driving the car beside her which she said was pointless; they took her costume apart in the end to get her there.
Michael asked her what the teachers thought of her; she said “not a lot”. Nicolette asked her about the German teacher in the book; Herr Kameyer and Louise admitted that he was not only based on her teacher but she’d used his real name as she’s too lazy to change it. She added that she found the German language ‘funny and talked about a trip they went on, diesel train, Herr K opened a door on the wrong side of the train and disappeared. Fortunately there was nothing coming in the opposite direction so he’d managed to get back on.
Nicolette asked if there was anything in her books that hadn’t happened in real life and she said “no” then asked Michael whether the same was for him and he agreed. Then Louise said that her friends had found it endearing to start with but are now more careful (but thinks they’re still actually flattered).
They then talked about Louise’s latest book ‘Withering Tights’ and talked about the plot; a school girl called Tallulah based in an amateur dramatics college in Yorkshire, Northern England.
Nicolette then asked what Louise enjoys reading and she mentioned Just William then what she finds funny and she mentioned The Banana Splits, a TV series from the 1960s.
Michael said his older brother would read funny books to him and had a trait to share everything he learnt, which sadly, being 4 years older, was calculus and Beethoven symphonies but that he was highly intellectual (modulating and capitulating) but it was the funny stories that stuck in Michael’s brain; like a home theatre that his brother (now a palaeontologist in charge at the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London; and has been published first book was on Coral Reef called Reef Encounter!).
Louise was then asked whether she was involved in the film of Angus which proved to be a sore point and she had been approached to be but Hollywood had decided to use two male script writers who’d never been to England and they changed so much (e.g. the setting from Leeds to Brighton, the romantic interest from Dave the Laugh to Robbie the Romantic. Louise has watched it and has come to like it for what it is; a different story.
The questions were then opened up to the audience and the first to Louise was which of her books does she like best? She said that she had originally been worried about the humour of the first one so a relief when it was warmly received, although she really enjoyed writing the latest one. Nicolette then told us that Louise had done an Irish jig when it was announced and she had to collect the award (and was then asked to repeat it on the stage, which she did!).
She then talked about her audition at an art & performance college but was told that she’d not done enough dancing but she’d retorted that she was going to college to learn and wasn’t there to learn something she could already do but then she’d not great feedback while she was there but it had at provided the inspiration for Withering Tights.
Michael was then asked whether picture books are easier to judge than older children’s fiction to which he said the fiction is easier really because . With the picture books you have to put your mind in a child, did test on their Michael’s children and Bill Bailey’s son (Bill being one of the 2009 judges). In 2008 (Year 1) they’d had an illustration judge (Chris Riddell) and whilst Michael hadn’t thought the illustrations so important, Chris had said the illustration should be good which does make sense as young children do love the pictures. Nicolette added that it’s difficult to measure how funny a picture is.
Louise was then asked what’s the funniest thing that was said about her.
She couldn’t think of a direct answer but was told that she likes ecstatic chaos.
Michael said he was studying medicine at Middlesex Medical College (incidentally mentioning that his parents were teachers) and was late for a lecture wearing a lumberjack-type jacket and when he arrived he was mistaken for a plumber which he found hilarious and has always stuck in his mind.
The next question was to which non-typically funny (i.e. not comedian) would the panel give the funny prize?
Michael said either Blackpool Manager Ian Holloway / Former Manager of Man United Tommy Docherty.
Louise said Boris Johnson because of shape of his head and it makes her laugh when he gets on his bike.
Nicolette recalled a recent event she’d been to where amateur poets were over dramatically miming the simplest of words as they read out their poetry.
The rapport between Louise and Michael throughout the session was hilarious especially when Louise said that her family were Irish and Jewish (Michael calling her ‘Irish Stew’).
As before, the panel left first and headed for the bookshop and the audience followed afterwards, many heading in the same direction to get their book signed.
With one of the Highland Park keynote speeches starting at 1.30pm there wasn’t much time to spare and my friends were already milling by the time I came out. To ensure seats, we headed to the area and it wasn’t long before it started.
I was surprised when Stephen started speaking because, although I knew he’d written A Year in The Merde, I hadn’t expected a distinctive French twang. It turns out that although he’s English, he’s lived in France for 18 years so not surprising that it’s rubbed off on him. The talk was entitled ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know about Paris’ and the first thing he said was to say “Bonjour” explaining that before anything you do anything. The second was that when a waiter asks if you are ready make sure you are otherwise as punishment, that he will look up to heaven (even if he doesn’t believes in God), then leave for 10 minutes ignoring any attempts by you to attract his attention until he’s ready to serve you. Thirdly when you’re in a restaurant he recommended that you don’t say that you are a vegetarian or have any food allergies. He said that Parisians only care about what they want and know. Everyone says “Pardon” because they are polite even if they’re thinking I’m going to elbow you and when they do they say “Pardon” afterwards. One way to annoy Parisians… if in a queue and the cashier says “Aprez vous je suis fermé” (after you I am closed) then it’s your responsibility to tell the rest of the queue which Stephen soon learnt to either stand facing the rest of the queue until it’s his turn to be served so anyone who might be waiting don’t miss out or, perhaps simpler, he joins another queue. Fourthly if cycling, assume that everyone wants to kill you. Cycle lanes are shared with buses and taxis and they always think it’s more their right to be there than you.
Lastly he talked about romance and how people believe that Paris is romantic. He then talked about Robert Doisneau’s Lovers with Leeks (shot outside L’Hotel de Ville) and described it in gorgeous detail highlighting what’s in the picture and imbibing the atmosphere of it.
He then summarised the rest of the book, for instance saying why it’s a fashion capital and that it was actually British designer Charles Worth who had invented haute couture, by opening a shop and rather than the customers saying what they wanted, which was the norm up to then, he had told the rich ladies of Paris “this is what you are going to be wearing”, added a label, turned away some customers to heighten the covetousness of his products and it worked. Stephen also talked about the history behind the 300+ traditional newspaper/magazine kiosks in the city, saying that they are paid on commission only (18% of sales) and have to pay €500 per annum for their site. They earn nothing from the advertising on the sides of their kiosks unless they’re advertising magazines, which would boost sales and that should they be approached for directions, don’t be surprised if they’re rude as they’re too busy with trying to make a living.
He then ended his talk by comparing Paris to a screen actress projecting a romantic evocative and seductive illusion. We had to leave for the 2pm talk as the question and answer session then begun and the first question he was then asked was whether the rules for living in Paris are true wherever you are. I heard him say that they mainly were but then started talking about the areas the city but didn’t catch any more.
2pm David Constantine ‘BBC National Short Story Award
Set in the intimate room of the Festival Room 2, an off-room of one of the grassy courtyard of the Christ Church University, the room itself was packed soon getting rather stuffy.
Having already read the ‘winning’ short story and being rather unimpressed, I was interested to see how the story would be received by the audience. Introduced by novelist Jem Poster, the first thing David said was that it was short and probably why it won which set the tone for the hour. The Midland, he explained, was based on The Midland at Morecombe on the Lancashire coast of England. He then described the hotel and its views.
One question I’d had when reading the piece was why Odysseus featured and this was answered when he said that it was a wooden frieze by Eric Gill on one of the walls in the restaurant. Then he read the story itself. I must admit that having heard an explanation of the history behind the story did make it more understandable, that and hearing it read by the author (my third reading of it in total).
After the reading, Jem said that it manages to pack so much into a very small space. Having explained that David is widely known as a successful poet, Jem asked about the differences between David’s poetry and short stories. He said that he struggles with all forms of writing and in this instance started with the image of the frieze and the surfers. Jem highlighted the fact that there is a lot going on beneath the surface then the talk turned round to the mythology of the story; the sacred law, as David put it, of the island to not save shipwrecked sailors. He doesn’t like stories that tie off with a neat bow so leaves his stories with the aim of his readers to think further. To the woman, the surfers represent a freedom that she doesn’t have; even though she’s a mistress and could leave the relationship at any time.
Talking about the sparseness and sharpness of the male character, Jem then moved on to Eric Gill’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Gill) private life and the discreetness of him (I since read that little was known about the intimate nature of his life until the 1989 biography by Fiona McCarthy) and the way the characters themselves are very discreet. A comparison was made to David’s use of this and DH Lawrence’s Women In Love. Continuing on the theme of the characters and how we inevitably warm with the woman rather than the man.
Moving on to punctuation (which I was going to ask about), David said he stopped using speech marks so that it wasn’t obvious whether the characters were talking, thinking or whether it was the narrator’s viewpoint. He said that some people may have been annoyed by it (I wasn’t a fan of its absence). Literature, when it works, enables you be less trapped and entertain other possibilities. To me this is definitely more of a poetic slant.
Jem asked David to comment about the quest for truth in writing and David talked about the recent Arts Council funding budget decisions (which I’d known about as I’m a member of The National Association of Writers in Education and had only just received emails about this issue a couple of days before). He said he has some sympathies with politicians as they are bound by their office.
David then shared with us that Helen Simpson’s publishers wouldn’t allow her titles to include ‘and other stories’ so that people might think they were novels and presumably buy them without realising. This does annoy me when I go to buy books from anywhere other than an organised bookshop where they have anthologies in a separate section.
The historical aspect of David’s story was then discussed with Jem comparing it with another of David’s stories ‘In Another Country’ which talks about a 20-something year old who’d fallen down an iced crevasse and preserved there. His son (a young child at the time of his disappearance) still lived in a neighbouring village and was an 80-something when they found his body. We was then asked to go and see his father. This is the sort of story I love, the quirkiness of it, so would be interested to read it.
Jem mentioned the misdemeanours by the characters and of Eric Gill and asked how much we, the readers, could forgive of characters who are flawed. David said that in life we have to make choices but literature is much more freeing, although it has to be realistic.
Jem said that there were likely to be writers in the room (which I knew there were) and if your characters do not seem to have come to life then perhaps you’ve not given them enough of a voice. In David’s story, he said, the voices of the two characters are very distinctive.
We were then invited to ask questions and the first was “Do you vocalise your writing?” Definitely he said, and referred to the anthology as having some great voices but said he had no ability for different voices (accents) other than his family’s background of Manchester so plays it safe otherwise.
I then asked how long he had been writing short stories and did he write any other genre? He said that he’d been writing short stories for a long time and enjoys both although has no desire to write novels. I thought that too but now love writing them.
A lady from the audience said that she had been speaking to a novelist and asked her if she would submit a story to the 2011 BBC National Short Story competition and she said she could never do that as it’s (the short story form) is too temperamental, clearly more suited to writing longer forms. David agreed as many readers prefer novels because they want backstory etc. but he prefers the shorter, tighter form, as you would expect poets to.
Jem then added that you shouldn’t feel that any form of writing hasn’t been padded, that it should always have energy.
It’s very clear that David is well-read as he often quoted passages from many classic and more modern novelists and poets.
Jem then concluded by thanking David and invited the audience to buy his books and get them signed. I bought the 2010 BBC National Short Story collection which David signed for me and I’m especially looking forward to reading Jon McGregor’s story as I met him a couple of years ago and have all three of his books, the latter of which ‘Even the dogs’ was one of this year’s SpecSavers TV Book Club shortlist.
After a quick look round the cathedral next door, we caught a bus then headed back to the park and ride and back to Tring. Although I wasn’t on the inside of the festival and therefore didn’t get to chat to the authors, other than with David very briefly, it’s made me want to go to more events and my application to the Winchester Writers Conference in July is now winging its way to them.
Update: I went to Winchester Writers’ Conference and had a wonderful two and a bit days including interviewing crime novelist Sally Spedding for my podcast (http://wp.me/P18Ztn-c3).
That’s it. Thanks for visiting – a list of the other transcripts and summaries can be found at http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/bwt-podcast.