After a long day of flying and waiting for flying and not enough sleep, my Edinburgh International Book Festival experience began! I found myself outside of the Charlotte Gardens venue at 9:20am, not realising it opened at 9:30. So there I waited with lots of young children in a line that proved entirely pointless when the gates opened and we all rushed in together.
I was surprised by how small the venue is but it’s intimate and friendly. There are tents all around for all the speakers, two bookshops, a cafe, a bar and a signing room. Everywhere you go there are places to sit down and read, including heaps of deck chairs in the centre lawn.
My first event of the day was a short reading by children’s author Elizabeth Laird who read us a story based on a night she spent with wolf conservationists in Ethiopia. It was vivid, almost painterly, contrasting brutal images of horse dissection with the lonely, cold silhouettes of wolves. And it ended with free shortbread! An excellent beginning to any day.
Next I was off to an event with young adult authors Celia Rees and Sally Gardner. Amidst a sea of teenagers and coloured Converse (must remember mine for the next YA event) they talked about the difference between writing historical and contemporary stories and ways to avoid writer’s block. Gardner talked about her struggles in school due to the dyslexia she now describes it as a gift, as it allows her to see the world differently. Although both women were bright and engaging, I was struck by the slight awkwardness of their teacherly style in talking to the young people in the audience. Rees stumbled over the word ‘hot’ (she wasn’t sure if it’s what ‘the kids’ are still saying) when trying to describe one of her characters and I felt that both were a little condescending when talking about the intensity of adolescent emotion.
After some confusing circumstances involving changing accommodation and mistaken addresses I rushed to the Colm Tóibín event where they REFUSED TO LET ME IN because I was SEVEN minutes late. It was so unbelievably crushing, I almost cried. Really. But I did return later to have him sign my copy of The Master and made a friend in the line. We discussed the perils of what to say to authors at signings when you know they’re secretly bored. I had nothing of interest to say to Colm Tóibín but he was very polite and I was very glad to have my book signed!
The next day I returned in plenty of time to catch Hilary Mantel who was an absolute delight. She began by telling us about how, as a child, she wanted to grow up to be a knight. She then ran with the metaphor to describe the necessity of challenging herself as a writer (like jousting without swerving at the last moment, fyi) as well as the court of Henry VIII as Camelot. Her perfect sense of timing beautifully animated a reading from Bring Up the Bodies and she went on to describe her incredibly detailed research and her role as mediator between history and romance. She said she aimed to bring contingency back to the story, for readers to feel as though they were sharing an open future with her characters rather than judging in hindsight. Mantel was witty, warm, animated and completely lovely when I told her how much I’d enjoyed the event.
I finished my night with an extremely intense reading by Alice Oswald of her novella length poem Memorial, a reflection on The Iliad. She recited for 80 minutes (from memory!), listing the names of the ordinary men who died, contrasting their brutal and bloody deaths with similes of fields and mountains, forests, streams, storms and animals of prey. The audience was silent, almost motionless, as we focussed on the haunting images she so beautifully conjured up. The oral form was perfect for the poem, the repetition of Oswald’s sometimes complex similes allowed time for them sink in and be properly imagined. I hadn’t heard of Oswald before and may never have come across her poem but the experience of hearing it read by the author was something special.
I had such a wonderful time at the festival and I can’t wait to go back tomorrow! Stay tuned for Man Booker long-listed Michael Frayn, Alexandra Harris and John Mullan and Patrick Ness. And let me know if you think of anything exciting I can say to authors during signings! It is a constant source of worry to me…