Monday, 9 September 2013

Le Livre sur les Quais

Le Livre sur les Quais

Morges book festival drew to a close yesterday evening. It was an incredible weekend and I thought I'd record my personal impressions of it. In doing so I hope to persuade you to come next year. Not just to meet the authors, but because it is so much fun.

The weekend started for me back in July when I received the first of the many books I had to read. You can see it was quite a pile. Some of these authors, like Vicotria Hislop and Peter F. Hamilton, I had never read before. I also hadn't realised that John Boyne has a whole body of work. I'd assumed that The Boy in the Blue Sriped Pyjamas was his only book.

By the time I had finished the books I felt like a goose force-fed for foie gras – I also felt more or less ready for the festival.

The first session on the English programme was Colum McCann, an author who I have admired for some years. I interviewed him with my friend Laura Spinney, the author of Rue Centrale. We had to translate his responses into French, no easy task. His replies were wide-ranging, articulate and nuanced – the kind of answers that take weeks to fully digest.

What struck me was how he turned details into characters. To give an example, one of his central characters in Let the Great World Spin was a drug-addicted prostitute called Tilly. He went to the Metropolitan Library in New York to look at photos of prostitutes in the 1970's. Then he toured the Bronx with the police to hear their descriptions of the working girls. Unsatisfied with this, he spoke to retired policemen who were around the area 40 years ago to collect their memories. Finally, he found an archive of rap sheets dating back to the era. These were good at recording nicknames and other details. He found Tilly's voice only after doing all this and committed the first sentence on the page....

The next day I interviewed Victoria Hislop, John Boyne and Tom Robb Smith. These are authors who count their book sales in the single figures (1 million, 2 million...) They were all so kind and ready to share their thoughts and experiences as writers. We were supposed to talk about the wars they have written about, but we got onto the subject of the publishing industry, loosely centred around the book Fifty Shades of Grey. Did it really get people to read more? Did it count as reading? How did they feel about its success? We could have talked about this for the next hour... Maybe we should have done.

In the afternoon I talked to Peter F. Hamilton and Stafn Bachmann. Peter's book, The Great North Road, was a revelation to me as someone who never reads science fiction. Just the breadth of imagination and the way he maintains the tension throughout the 1000-odd pages. There is a lesson there for every writer, whatever the genre they are writing in. And Stefan Bachmann, barely twenty, with 2 books to his name, four more on the way and a fledgling career in music composition for film. It was enough to make me feel old and redundant.

In the evening I had the opportunity to interview John Boyne before the screening of the film The Boy in the Blue Striped Pyjamas. How did he feel the film measured up to the book? By the end of the screening I think everyone had agreed that the film was different, certainly not worse and maybe even better. The film enlarged the adult characters in the way the book's nine-year-old narrator Bruno couldn't. The changes they made to fit the film medium changed the story in places but took nothing away from the power of the narrative. It's the first time I have seen an entire audience stay in the cinema until the end of the credits.

On Sunday, I interviewed my old friend Laura Spinney about her book Rue Centrale. We were joined by two of her interviewees, Yago of  free hug fame, and Ruth Braewen, the mid-wife. Hearing them read their interviews brought the book to life and gave us deeper insight into their words.

This was followed by a bilingual reading with David Vann reading in English and GĂ©rald Blocher in French. If you've never heard David Vann speak then I suggest you check him out on youtube. He's so funny, so outrageous. His style is to meditate for about 30 minutes before he starts writing. Then he rereads the previous 30 pages of his current book. Then he writes. He doesn't know what is going to come out, doesn't plan, but he trusts his instincts to write the truth.

I guess I had some revelations during the festival. The Absolutist by John Boyne is a fantastic book. I urge you to read it. So is The Great North Road, this coming from someone who has never read science fiction. I am reading David Vann as quickly as I can get my hands on it. These just conform to my personal taste. You could read any of the authors I mentioned and enjoy yourself.

I also realised that the best writers are the ones who are most authentic, both on the page and in real life.

What suprised me was how few local writers were at the festival. How can you be a writer and not a reader, or not at least curious to hear from other writers?

At the end of the festival someone said that my role in all this was to be a catalyst. I am not sure I agree with this. The role of a catalyst is to trigger chemical reactions and yet remain unchanged at the end of the process. I certainly didn't remain unchanged....

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