Edinburgh Report 2: Was that the real Michael Frayn?

Day three of my Book Festival experience was a beautiful sunny day. As I stood in line for the Michael Frayn event I heard someone behind me say: ‘we do love queuing here don’t we’ – people start queueing half an hour in advance for sessions that aren’t even sold out. I think Michael Frayn’s session was fully booked though, or at least it was very full inside.

Though (I now know that) he is a prolific and award-winning author of novels Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festivaland plays, I hadn’t heard of him and only knew about this event because he was long-listed for the Man Booker. His talk was way more prepared than the others I’ve been to – he had cue cards and a whole thing prepared instead of the question and answer format that seems to be more popular. But he was playful right from the start, joking about his public liability insurance and fears of boring audience members to death. His latest novel Skios is based on a mistaken identity: a man at an airport goes up to someone holding a card with a name on it that isn’t his. Frayn linked this to a surprising range of mistaken identity stories, from his friend Michael ‘Dumbledore’ Gambon being mistaken for a janitor to the franchising of the performer Little Richard (apparently there was a time when there were six people performing shows under the name). Along the way he wove in deeper issues such as the way we create characters for ourselves, the changes in personality that come with these roles and the act of remembering, touching on subjects as varied as neuroscience, Greek mythology and existentialism.

My overall impression was of an extremely witty, educated and sharp man, using jokes to get at interesting issues. He had great fun with the idea that he wasn’t Michael Frayn but in fact an impostor. How many of us, he asked, knew what he was meant to look like? We were trusting in his name badge and his host but we didn’t know his host either. As he pointed out, to some extent we all rely on trust, taking people at face value.

My next session was with Alexandra Harris (author of a new Virginia Woolf

My life is pretty sweet right now

biography) and John Mullan (author of What Matters in Jane Austen? Answer: everything). Harris was exuberant, almost gleeful, about her subject and her talk was complete with a slide show! A fun one, with pictures of snails and clocks and Virginia Woolf looking happy. Harris bemoaned the cult of miserableness that has surrounded Woolf and instead focused on her ability to communicate pleasure through what she calls ‘everyday ordinariness’. Mullans was equally enthusiastic and came prepared with a quiz which I thought would be really lame but turned out to be surprisingly fun. His questions and answers all pointed to the details in Austen that reveal so much more about her characters than a brief reading would suggest. I learnt that the only married couple to call each other by first name do so only to contradict each other. I learnt that the casting people are often completely missing the joke when choosing the ages of their actors. I learnt that only horrible, licentious things ever happen at the seaside. And I finished eager to go back and reread my Jane Austen.

When my shoes broke (stupid coloured converse, my fault for trying to conform I guess) I ended up chatting with a Book Festival staff member in a shoe shop. She told me about working at the Melbourne writer’s festival last year. Small world! She thought the experience compared pretty well with her Edinburgh job so far, except that the Edinburgh Book Festival has the drop for actually paying their festival staff. Dream job.

But the highlight of the day was meeting Patrick Ness, one of my favourite Young Adult authors. He gave us the latest on his new book for adults, coming out in April. He said he hasn’t really talked about it before so here is some (maybe) breaking news: The Crane Wife is based on a Japanese folk tale (you can read about it here) that has fascinated Ness since he first heard it as a child. He talked about his recent argument over whether children’s books should carry age restrictions (they shouldn’t) and the way authors of teen and genre fiction are suddenly expected to have opinions, or ‘become an oracle’ as he put it, in a way that other authors aren’t. He spoke sincerely about the privilege he feels being published write and the fear that every book will be his last. He was also refreshingly acerbic about other authors (including mocking comments on Will Self, GP Taylor and Stephen King). Ness traded good natured banter with his host and friend Keith Gray and gave heartfelt and considered responses to the questions from his young audience. And he’s the only author so far who has actually looked like his press picture.

Next time: Kirsty Gunn and Elliot Perlman, Ali Smith and Nathan Englander, then Nathan Englander again with Junot Díaz.

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