I’d like to start by thanking Charlotte Gosling, Press Officer at The Edinburgh International Book Festival, for inviting me to get involved with this year’s festival as a blogger. As you can imagine, the book festival is my favourite of all the festivals in Edinburgh and I am so lucky living here making easy to see some of the many amazing authors on my doorstep. I had already bought quite a few tickets to see events with family and friends but with media accreditation I have been lucky enough to be able to get press tickets to see quite a few more authors.
Last night was my first visit for this year and I was very excited to pick up my official pass which I proudly wore all the way home! I went to see Sara Sheridan and Lucy Ribchester in the beautiful Spiegeltent then joined the ENORMOUS queue to see Ian Rankin which stretched right round Charlotte Square. Later this week I’m going to see Chris Cleave with Natasha Walker and then Simon Callow with my husband. Next week, I’m seeing so many events that I think I’ll just take my own tent and camp out for the week!
So my first event last night was to hear Lucy Ribchester and Sara Sheridan talk about the amazing women who inspired their most recent novels The Amber Shadows and On Starlit Seas. (Please excuse the rather poor phone photos – I’ll get batteries for my proper camera before I go again!) Lucy’s book focuses on the fictional Honey Deschamps who is working as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during WW2. The story explores what it might have been like working in a place where everyone is keeping secrets and you never know who to trust, perhaps not even your colleagues. Lucy confessed she couldn’t imagine working there as she can’t keep a secret! Sara’s book set in 1842, and although a work of fiction, has a historical figure at its heart, Maria Graham. (You can read my review here) Maria was an amazing woman who travelled widely alone following her husband’s death, was a best-selling author, discovered a way to measure earthquakes and yet has been largely forgotten. Sara came across her while looking through the John Murray archive at the National Library of Scotland where she enjoys spending time looking through dusty old boxes of old letters an journals, saying it’s like a treasure hunt. She described finding Maria’s letters as like striking gold. Sara explained how she felt as though Maria was standing next to her, as if she could really hear her voice telling her story.
What came across strongly from both these authors was a desire to memorialise amazing women. Women often disappear from history. Sara Sheridan pointed out that in Britain there are more statues featuring animals than women! In Georgian and early Victorian Britain, having children was considered more important than anything else for a woman. So journals and letters were often destroyed after their deaths as it wasn’t thought that anyone would be interested in them. Although many people know about the code-breakers at Bletchley through books and films such as Enigma and The Imitation Game, it is rarely women who are the focus. Yet through her research, including many guided tours, Lucy Ribchester discovered that women were involved at all levels from typists right through to mathematicians headhunted from Oxford and Edinburgh Universities. Sara Sheridan pointed out the bravery of women who apparently thought nothing of heading into the jungle, or following the course of a river, or climbing a mountain all without a map. Nowadays we barely go anywhere without consulting Google maps or following a GPS. Yet these same women were still concerned with the social niceties of the day such as having enough white gloves for dinner!
The authors were asked a really interesting question about whether they took liberties with the historical facts in their books. Lucy explained that her main characters aren’t based completely on real people so she she didn’t feel she needed to have every fact accurate. If any characters are real, she tries to keep them as accurate as possible which tends to make them more peripheral characters. The people and events are her inspiration to tell the story. Sara’s main character Maria was a real person and she was careful to make sure that she was only ever in places where she really had been in real life. However, she explained that she feels the atmosphere is much more important in a novel than facts. Who is on the throne at a certain point in time is much less important than reading about the clothes people wore, what food they ate, what was acceptable conduct and so on. She feels you don’t engage readers emotionally with facts, you engage them in the experience of characters’ lives. I loved the story Sara told at this point about her antique-dealer father telling her bedtime stories based on artefacts. Lucy agreed that being able to see physical objects was the most fun part of research. She also said that reading the fiction of a period could be more interesting than reading a history book by a contemporary writer.
It was fascinating listening to both these writers talking so passionately about their books and about why they wanted to feature these strong women characters. If you’d like to read their books you can buy them at the Book Festival shop, other bookshops and of course online. Both ladies finished by saying a little about what they are working on just now and I will definitely be looking forward to reading these books.
The gardens on a lovely evening
As soon as this event was finished, I joined the long queue snaking round the gardens to hear Ian Rankin, author of course of the Rebus novels among many more. A packed Baillie Gifford Theatre spent an hour being entertained with stories from Ian Rankin’s long career. Amazingly it has been 30 years since his first novel The Flood was published by Polygon, a publishing company then newly set up and run by Edinburgh University students and lecturers. They printed only 200 hardbacks and 600 paperbacks of The Flood which seems amazing when you think how many books Ian Rankin now sells.
It was really interesting to hear about Ian Rankin’s career from studying at Edinburgh and wanting to be a Professor of Literature, through a series of varied jobs to his successful career as an author. He said he had no idea what he would have ended up doing if the novel-writing career hadn’t taken off. He was inspired by enthusiastic English teachers at school who encouraged him to just keep going and said that’s the advice he would give to aspiring writers now. He admitted that he might need to offer more than just that advice to students at the creative writing course he’s about to be involved in at East Anglia University!
I was quite amazed to hear that even with about 30 books under his belt, he still is waiting to be found out, to be told that he can’t write! It’s always a relief when readers buy and enjoy his books and he feels that he’s ‘got away with it again!’. I was also really fascinated to hear that when he starts a book he has no idea where it will end. He writes a very rough draft in 30-40 days (which I think is amazing!) and writes in a linear fashion. When he begins to write he has no idea who the killer will be or why and said it was about 2/3 of the way through the new book before he realised who it was! As he said, if he knew the end, why would he need to write the book?
He then read us a ‘world exclusive’ extract of the next Rebus book, Rather Be the Devil, due out in November. Proofs aren’t even in from the publishers yet so he stressed it might not be quite what ends up in the book if there’s further editing. I’ve always enjoyed Rebus novels and already am hooked on this newest book. I’d better get around to reading Even Dogs in the Wild first. One last comment Ian Rankin made which was brilliant to hear. He said that it’s Edinburgh which is the main character in his books. And as Edinburgh is always changing and evolving, there will always be stories to tell.
Oh dear, terrible fuzzy photo!
Well, that turned into a bit of an essay didn’t it and that was only two events! As you can tell, I really enjoyed my evening and am looking forward to hearing lots more authors over the next ten days. No doubt I’ll be adding to my to-be-read list (oh dear!) but I have already read the most recent books of quite a few authors I’m going to see so hopefully I’ll not add too much to the wish list!
The amazing book sculpture just inside the entrance to the Festival site