Writers in Conversation

We have a literary festival on here at the moment and I got quite excited about it and booked up for a couple of events. The one I most wanted to go to took place this afternoon and was supposed to feature Salley Vickers and Rebecca Abrams, two contemporary novelists in conversation. So, my husband and I went along to Newnham College where the event was being held and left plenty of time for the journey. All my department meetings used to take place in Newnham and I tell you, that building is ninety percent corridor. There seem to be no large reception rooms at the front of Newnham, instead you inevitably find yourself trailing through a Kafka-esque box of corridor that snakes ahead to infinity, regularly punctuated by swing doors, until you feel you must surely have entered a time warp. Photocopied notices with optimistic arrows on them say ‘This Way To The Meeting!’ until they lose all credibility. Today was no exception, as we joined a long line of women, almost marching in rhythm, like one of those old caravans of migrants crossing the plains. I was beginning to think I should have brought a thermos flask and some Kendal mint cake for my husband when finally we crossed the threshold into the fourth dimension and found ourselves in the reception area of a conference hall. ‘Am I going to be the only man here?’ my husband grumbled, and indeed it was a markedly feminine gathering. Only one important woman was missing: Newnham’s relentless supply of photocopied notices now informed us that Salley Vickers was sadly unable to make the event due to ill health. A very over-excited publicist was reciting on a sort of internally recorded loop how she had come down with an eye infection. She (the PR person) was wearing a distinctly arty sort of trouser suit and scarlet-framed spectacles and absolutely screamed officialdom from every pore. I would be almost comforted to think these people got their energy from drugs, but no, they may just be born that way.

I will admit that it took me half the meeting to get over the disappointment as I’d really been looking forward to hearing Salley Vickers speak. Perhaps it was just my bad mood but initially the meeting did not seem promising. I don’t go to many of these kinds of gathering because I find it immensely hard to take things in aurally. If I’m supposed to sit and just listen, everything distracts me. The people sitting directly behind me were having a delightfully bitchy conversation about a recent appointment in a history faculty somewhere (they had chosen the wrong person, naturally, and one of the couple was able to make a comprehensive list of said chosen candidates faults), and then there were the latecomers, including the publicity woman, who sat right at the back and instantly struck up the kind of whispering chat that is all sibilant hiss. But I may also have been put off by the reading from Rebecca Abram’s novel, based on the life of the 18th century doctor who found the cure for post-childbirth infections, which I just knew would be gory. Why do authors always pick the most gruesome bits to read aloud? I was taken back in time to the conference I had attended just outside Los Angeles. Over lunch we were read to from a story about postcolonial war atrocities, and over dinner we were treated to a Canadian author describing a prisoner being toasted in the electric chair. Now who thought that would be a good idea? Thankfully, both were in French, which enabled me to tune out with greater ease, although you don’t have to be a great linguist to know what you’re getting when you hear the word ‘crispé’. So, by the time the readings this afternoon were finished, I had counted a total of seven men in the audience, picked at a fascinating stain on my husband’s trousers (toothpaste) and pondered at some length the fact that not enough women check the back of their heads before leaving the house.

But eventually I did wake up to the event at hand when it gradually dawned on me that a wonderful battle of contrasts was being fought most genteelly by two successful, confident and determined women on the stage. I never caught the name of Salley Vicker’s replacement but she was the polar opposite to Rebecca Abrams. The latter was an attractive woman in her late 30s, wearing a wraparound jersey dress and knee-high boots. The new recruit sported shaggy grey hair and was wearing, well, I’m not sure what the technical term would be, but it seemed to be part lock-knit, part sackcloth. She had a mishmash of projects to her name, some poetry, some plays for radio, a rash of creative writing books and I do believe someone mentioned madrigals, but maybe I dreamt that. Abrams was in the distinctly enviable position of having a nicely-jacketed hardback novel to her name. When it came to questions, the rift grew ever wider. Had they found it a difficult transposition to write in male voices? Abrams said she’d found it oddly liberating, the stand-in said she hadn’t noticed it much. How did they know when a book was finished? The stand-in said when it was finished, she just knew it was finished. Abrams said she drove her publishers mad with rewrites. How did they find the process of working with an editor? Abrams said the whole question of finding a first reader was a very interesting one, because you needed someone who was able to understand what it was you were trying to do rather than impose their own interests. But on the whole she had had good editorial interventions and found them helpful. The stand–in told a story about a radio 3 play she’d written that had received two pages of criticism from some impertinent person that she had completely ignored; she never let anyone read her work until it was finished. The publicist woman leapt to her feet and foghorned a question about characters doing things that surprised their author; was that really possible? Stand-in said no, it had never happened to her and you shouldn’t believe anyone who said it had happened to them. Abrams managed to suggest with tremendous diplomacy that she had been quite possessed by the spirit of her 18th century doctor who had occasionally prodded her on a sluggish week to ask when she was ever going to get on with his story; he had, after all, been waiting two hundred years for someone to tell it.

Finally both were asked, given that they had much experience as creative writing teachers, whether creative writing was something that could be taught. Rebecca Abrams said that yes, creative writing could be taught – although whether it could be learned was a different question. She favoured the approach of teaching it as a craft, isolating specific technical devices. But she said she wasn’t sure that you could learn the mindset needed to be a writer – the endlessness of it, the long hours, the loneliness, the resilience required; that might have to be innate. The stand-in said yes it could be taught – as a subject. But she was completely against the workshop principle, thinking it brought nothing of use to the fledgling author to have their writing critiqued by other learners. I thought this was a bit tactless, given that Rebecca Abrams was due to give a workshop the following morning on fictionalizing historical characters, but this is England and all remained tremendously pleasant. Abrams couldn’t resist saying that most candidates on writing courses were women, who needed the camaraderie to find the courage to write, not to mention the time, and that anything that gave women confidence was a good thing in her book. And with that the meeting drew to a close and the audience gave a very hearty round of applause.

As we left, my husband spotted an emergency exit door, and, even better, the button hidden in the wall that you needed to press to make it release. This is why I like to take him places. We found ourselves outside in the fresh air with unexpected alacrity, abandoning the other attendees to their long, long hike back to base.

‘They were chalk and cheese, weren’t they?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ said my husband. ‘And I know who I warmed to.’

‘It was the boots and the dress that did it, I’ll bet,’ I said, and my husband gave a happy sigh. So it turned out interesting in the end, and we both had thoughts to reflect upon as we drove home, although I still wish I could have seen Salley Vickers.

18 thoughts on “Writers in Conversation

  1. You always write so interestingly and amusingly about all these events and meetings you attend, even when disappointed. I’ve got to say that I would eagerly have gone to see Salley Vickers and have bolstered the male contingent. I would also have been sadly disappointed at her not being able to make it. I’ve never been sure about whether a person can be taught to write – or learn by being taught, when it comes to fiction. I suspect those who attend such courses and then go on to write in a major way, might well have gained support and encouragement, but would probably have succeeded anyway. Any other interesting writers coming up at this festival? Are you going to see anyone else?

  2. Wonderful! Please go to more of these and report back – I am totally unable to go myself as I spend all my time there being consumed by raging jealousy, dammit!!

    :))

    Axxx

  3. Bookboxed – I did think of you, because of the Salley Vickers connection! Oh it was such a shame she couldn’t make it, but her eye infection did sound nasty. As for courses, I read somewhere (and forget where exactly) the opinion that they can tidy up and focus natural talent, but might not be able to start from scratch, as it were. I wonder whether that might be the case, although I am sure that people differ in their notions of what natural talent looks like! As for more events, we’re going to hear a bunch of publishers discuss the current climate tomorrow, and may possibly stay on for the new writers’ panel afterwards. I will certainly let you know! (and thank you for the kind words – much appreciated)

    Anne – your day WILL come, I am absolutely sure of it.🙂 I look forward to covering it and saying ‘Anne Brooke gave a marvellous reading during which some members of the audience were overcome with emotion and had to be carried out.’ In the meantime, I will continue to cover the small fry.😉

    Big hugs! xoxox

  4. What a wonderful tale! You described the whole event so perfectly, I felt as if I were right there with you (toothpaste stain and all). I would have loved to hear Sally Vickers take on some of those questions- she’s bound to have been marvelously analytical.

    As for the ability to “teach” creative writing…I tend to look at the teaching of creative arts from the musical perspective because that’s where most of my experience lies. And I imagine you can teach at least the rudiments of creative writing, same as teaching voice, or piano, or the bassoon. But I still believe there’s a god-given spark – call it talent, or the “it” factor, that makes a writer great, rather than simply good.

    Thanks for sharing your afternoon adventure🙂

  5. “Photocopied notices with optimistic arrows on them say ‘This Way To The Meeting!’ until they lose all credibility. ”

    And this sentence is why you are so wasting your talents on academic prose.

  6. You do have a knack for describing these events–I almost feel like I was there, too. Sorry to hear Salley Vickers wasn’t there as I know you’ve written about her, but hearing two such different authors talk sounds like it would have been pretty amusing. I don’t think you can teach someone how to write (from the perspective of someone who doesn’t and can’t write-well, like they mean anyway), but I’m sure if there is some innate ability I would think it could be refined and molded. Have fun at the rest of the events.

  7. I’m sorry to hear about your initial disappointment, but glad you wrote it up so amusingly. I’m heartened to know I’m not the only one who thinks of some other people:
    “I would be almost comforted to think these people got their energy from drugs, but no, they may just be born that way.”

  8. Fantastic! There’s always something wonderfully dynamic about getting two authors together – my favourite format of literary event by far!

  9. Oh, this was fun! I know just what you mean about not liking these events because of having to take them in aurally — I’m not a good listener at all and need to see something to make sense of it, so I’m often bored. But I do go now and then, just to lay eyes on famous people — so I’m sorry you couldn’t see Salley Vickers! It IS kind of fun to observe the audience, but not as fun as staying home to read a book. But the best benefit of you going is that we get to read the write-up — thank you!

  10. What a hoot! It just goes to show how vastly different people’s creative processes are … which is one of many reasons why I would say that creative writing actually can’t be taught. It can be guided, perhaps, but not taught.

  11. Tee hee, LL!! Perhaps the more accurate report is that “some members of the audience thought they were going to hear an informative talk about art from the well known American artist, Anne Brooke, and had to be carried out fainting when they were given an in-depth view of the gay fiction scene instead …”

    ==:O
    🙂

    Axxx

    PS I do get her emails sometimes, and she gets mine – we’ve learnt to swop politely and with wry virtual smiles!!!

  12. “Crispe” made me laugh out loud; I wanted to offer my sympathies on behalf of all Canadian writers. This was wonderfully described. I get distracted by sounds around me, too. I find it hard to read while waiting for an appointment or even around my h & children unless they’re reading, too.

  13. Becca – thank you so much! And I think you are quite right with your music analogy – that strikes me as very apt. I did laugh that you’d noticed the toothpaste stain – you’ve seen those pictures of apes picking fleas off each other? I think I have a very unevolved part of my brain. I reached a sort of zenith of pleasure on the sole occasion my son had nits and I could spend an evening combing his hair, searching for eggs! It’s a sickness, I’m sure.🙂

    Emily – oh big hugs! Thank you for that, it means a lot coming from you.

    Danielle – I do rather enjoy telling the story of events I’ve witnessed – part of the fun of going is thinking I might blog about it afterwards!🙂 I wish I’d had the time and energy to go and see more people speak. But this was interesting. I think you write beautifully, btw, or else I don’t know why I always leave your site with at least three more books I HAVE to add to the tbr pile!😉

    Sarah – oh I am happy to have found someone who thinks like me, too! My husband has a huge battery life, but even having seen it close up for all these years, I don’t understand how that super-energetic thing works.🙂

    Ali – it was extremely interesting to see how very differently they approached their work. I wish I’d had the time and energy to go and hear more writers; there were so many events that looked good!

    Dorothy – a woman after my own heart indeed. My first thought when I heard Salley Vickers wasn’t coming was: I could be at home reading right now. I mean, it’s a compelling weight to put on one side of the scales, and there has to be something good on the other side to balance it out!🙂 But it’s also fun to blog about these events, so I was pretty sure some entertainment would come out of it.🙂

    David – The differences between them were rather entertaining – and as you say, it does go to show that there are absolutely no rules. I tend towards the belief that you can work on the craft aspects of writing (and I mean these are the places where you can apply work and hope for a result). But I do think there’s something abstract and ineffable, a germ of creativity, that elevates writing into an art, and that either is or isn’t part of the soul.

    Anne – no how funny! Another academic in college shares my name and we get each other’s mail. But I might like to witness the scene you describe even more than the one I thought of! Now that really would be worth blogging about.🙂 xoxoxo

    Lilian – I know where you are coming from! My husband can read as if he is inside a nuclear bunker, whereas I leap to attention at every single sound -lol! Canadian writers were instantly collectively forgiven as I generally love them – Atwood and Shields I love, but also Anne Hebert and Gabrielle Roy. I’m still looking forward lots to reading you, too!🙂

  14. Oh my goodness Litlove. Have I told you lately how much I love your sense of humor? The photocopied signs, the comment about not enough women checking the backs of their heads before they leave the house, picking at the toothpaste stain on your husband’s trousers, and the “battle” between the two authors. Sorry you didn’t get to see Sally Vickers, but you got a great post from it!

  15. “Crispe” and several other things made me laugh out loud too! Litlove, I think you should be a professional festival goer – these are such fantastic posts, really funny as well as insightful and considered. Can’t you just do this for a living?! I would have been disappointed about Vickers too, but it sounds like you still got your money’s worth. Oh. On the gory bits. One of the Darklings was reading a section of her novel at a festival recently, and her agent advised the most gruesome scene of the book. She and I were mystified – it wasn’t by any stretch an example of her best writing – but she ultimately felt she should do as she was told, and I think that must happen a lot.

  16. Sorry you didn’t get to see Salley Vickers, but at least you found the humor in the situation. I agree with Stefanie, I love your sense of humor. And your eye for absurd detail. And your ability to find the humor in the worst situations. I hate to say it, but I love it when you’ve attended something awful, because I know there will be a great story afterward! And sadly, I’m sure authors are advised to read the gory bits because those who sell things think that sex, violence, and gore sell best!

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