A Feast of Francis – An hour with Francis Spufford

Book event blog posts have a formula: introducing the author, setting the scene and then a chronological or thematic account of the literary chit-chat. But I’m feeling rebellious, so no entrée, no mains and straight to dessert. What is Francis Spufford going to serve up next on the fiction front?

Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford at The Piano. Wednesday 7 March 2018. Flickr WORD7March2018-IMG_6594

He is currently working on a new novel (hurrah!) set in South London and starting in the year 1944 when a German V2 rocket fell on a branch of Woolworths in New Cross killing 168 people. Each chapter is set in a different year, so far he has got to 1949, and the volume and diversity of research has been hugely challenging. To date he has had to get his head around the intricacies of lino printing, 1970s reel-to-reel technology, what working on a suicide prevention helpline would be like, Nazi skinheads and being a female backing singer in Los Angeles in 1979…whew!

Back on book blog script – Francis Spufford is a non-fiction writer who has moved into novel writing to great acclaim, winning both the Costa Book Award for first novel and the Ondaatje prize. He appeared as part of New Zealand Festival Writers & Readers in association with the WORD Christchurch. Chris Moore was in the interviewer chair at The Piano and the audience was well-dressed and largely mature female in makeup.

Asked about his late-in-life move into fiction, Francis Spufford replied that as an academic teaching creative writing, at Goldsmiths University of London, he felt ashamed giving advice and guidance on writing fiction without have dipped his own pen in the fiction ink.

He set himself an ambitious agenda for his first novel as he wanted to include: “a duel, a rooftop chase, a trial scene, a love story, bone-crunching violence, rude sex, a mystery and jokes” plus set it in the 18th Century New York and with at least a nod and a wink towards the language and style of the new 18th Century novel. “A mass of incompatible pleasures now but quite in keeping with the period” where “serious intentions and low pleasures could be stuck in together”. It did involve compromise and became essentially a 21st Century novel in an 18th Century manner but one which allows the reader to feel a sense of time travel but without the style being too verbally off-putting.

Francis Spufford and Chris Moore
Francis Spufford and Chris Moore at The Piano. Flickr WORD7March2018-IMG_6587

He included lots of authentic 18th Century slang. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English in particular delivered an abundance of “wonderful, elaborately gross stuff”.

Setting the novel in historic New York was also important to him as he was drawn to the satisfying reversal of the city past and present:

  • The sheer tininess of the place then — some 7,000 people — versus the densely populated urban craziness of today.
  • The fact old New York was parochial versus its current cosmopolitan outlook.
  • That it was pious, Protestant, and ethnically limited compared with today’s predominantly secular and ethnically complex society.

Mr Smith, the mysterious central character, is a city-slicker — a London sophisticate travelling to the small and provincial New York “a Jane Austen sized village”. This New York is highly politicised and on surface level patriotically Royalist but the reader is aware that change is coming and that British influence is waning.

Francis Spufford was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about early US history, his retention of information researched some time ago but instantly recalled was enviable! He drew parallels between early New York and the US today saying “paranoia about tyranny has featured throughout its history” but he also lamented the topicality of his novel. He hadn’t anticipated Donald Trump and the focus on modern America’s paranoia and darkness.

Francis Spufford also spoke about his Christian faith and the process of writing Unapologetic — his response to Dawkins’ God Delusion. His aim he said “was to write a book that wouldn’t convert but would make belief recognisable to the reader” that faith was not “superstition or madness but meeting some human need”. He was anxious about creating a backlash as he wrote it not as “a good-tempered argument between faith and atheism” but in a more pugnacious attempt to show “that religion didn’t belong in a zoo of weird things but was a human norm”.

This was a bookishly warm and entertaining hour and if you haven’t read Francis Spufford,  pull finger and get on with it!

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More about Francis Spufford

 

Dip your pen in your own psyche: An interview with Francis Spufford (WORD Christchurch event, Weds 7 March 7pm)

WORD Christchurch is bringing Francis Spufford to Christchurch, next Wednesday 7 March, 7pm at the salubrious venue of The Piano. Francis is in New Zealand as a guest of New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers. He has written seven books, on topics as diverse as science, history, theology, and politics. The Child That Books Built was a love letter to literature, and his first novel Golden Hill won the Costa Award for Best First Novel – it’s “a rollicking, suspenseful tale set in mid-18th century Manhattan, the novel pays loving tribute to the literature of that era”. Francis Spufford appears in conversation with Chris Moore.

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INTERVIEW

Joyce is heading along to the session, and asked Francis some choice questions:

I read in a previous interview that you wished you’d had the gumption to write fiction earlier in your career. What held you back? And did you ever feel pigeon-holed by your publishers and readers?

The short answer is cowardice. I was and am a great believer in the scope for non-fiction to do adventurous things, revealing things. I never felt pigeon-holed or limited by non-fiction. But still, it seems to me that fiction draws much more directly on the writer’s understanding of human character and human behaviour. When you write a novel, you dip your pen in your own psyche, inevitably. You have to. And for a long time I was afraid that I didn’t know enough to write imaginary people without making a fool of myself.

The sex scene in Golden Hill was particularly squelchy, torrid and memorable! Traumatising as a reader, how on earth did you manage to conceive the scene and write it?!

Good! I wanted it to be clear that both parties were doing something completely disastrous, carried away by different kinds of fear: but which was very pleasurable to them both in the moment, in a greedy kind of way. I wanted the reader to be peeking through their fingers going ‘No! No!’ yet also feeling the gross turn-on of what they were doing. And to this I could bring the pre-Victorian novel’s ability to be a lot lewder than you were expecting, complicated by the grossness being channeled through a very book-dependent narrator who, though mischievous, is really not enjoying themselves at this point. That’s about six literary ambitions for one episode of torrid squelching.

I loved the contrariness, passion and conviction of your youthful characters, especially juxtaposed with the complacency and corruption of New York’s elder figures. Do you see that generational gulf in action in modern society too?

Isn’t it permanent that youth is contrary and passionate and idealistic, and age is complacent and corrupt? (Or at least corrupt-seeming to young people.) Having said that, I do think this is a moment in history when, in the U.K. and the US at least, the fears and the weaknesses of the middle-aged and the old really have led us into stupidities at which young people are rightly gazing with horror – because they’re stupidities at their expense, at the expense of the future. As a fifty-something writer I enjoyed getting to be, temporarily, twenty four-year-old Mr Smith and nineteen-year-old Tabitha.

Golden Hill portrays a young New York and embryonic America, with considerably more time passed do you see the USA as a successful society?

I think America grew up into a reservoir of idealism and principle which the world needs, and has benefited by incalculably. But I think that contemporary America, like the embryonic America Mr Smith visits, is also a culture which is not very self-knowing: a place which, to a dangerous degree, contrives to forget the darkness which has always been the flip side of its virtues.

Quickfire Questions!

Last time you cried?

While watching *Coco* at the cinema.

Book you wish you’d written?

Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD.

Favourite biscuit?

I’m a slut for the chocolatey ones.

Describe the role of public libraries in 5 words

Portals to past, present [and] future.

Thanks, Francis!

 

Fife-ing it up with Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.

Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin
Marcus Elliott and Ian Rankin. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0127

Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.

Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.

Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds

he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.

The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.

He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!

Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin: Writing Rebus. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0140

Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!

Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.

Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.

There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.

The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.

Ian Rankin signs book
Ian Rankin. Charles Luney Auditorium, St Margaret’s College. Sunday 14 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-14-IMG_0150

WORD Writers & Readers Festival 2016 – Bringing the BIG names to town!

The biennial book binge that is the WORD Writers & Readers Festival is back for 2016, and the programme launched tonight at The Press building on Gloucester Street is bursting with authorial tastiness.

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Christchurch will play host to over 150 writers and speakers over four crazy, crazy days and nights on the 24th to the 28th August. The range of events embraces the standard hour-long author talk, panel debates, poetry readings, book launches, a comedy panel show, Pechakucha night, exhibitions, workshops, storytelling, the Ngaio Marsh Award Ceremony for Best Crime Novel, lectures, family events, a historical walking tour and a fringe festival. Blimey.

Literary Director Rachael King has put together a programme with themes that cover the full torrid schmozzle of humanity: life and death, gender, sexuality, indigenous rights, migration, the climate and yes, even the F-word …feminism.

image_proxySome stand-out events include:

No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers
Young Adult novelists David Levithan, Ted Dawe and sex-therapist Frances Young discuss with chair Mandy Hager the role of sex in literature. What are the risks and rewards?

2050
Tim Flannery, Mai Chen, Bronwyn Hayward and Shelia Watt-Cloutier chaired by Kim Hill paint a picture of earth in 2050 with reference to climate, diversity, indigenous rights and citizenship. Utopia or dystopia?

Busted: Feminism & Pop Culture
Debbie Stoller is the co-founder and editor of BUST magazine and authored the Stitch n Bitch craft series. She talks craftiness and feminism.

Oratory on the Ōtākaro (Avon River)
Join Joseph Hullen for a 40 minute tour and discover the rich shared Māori and European history of the river Avon.

The programme is positively bulging with energising, stimulating and inspiring book-ish events, so unleash the Christchurch culture vultures!

Spring is sprung!

Have an eyeful with this bouquet of blossom reads:

Book cover of Blossom street brides Book cover of Rose harbour in bloom  Book cover of The blossom sisters 

Dark and Chilling – Northern lights

WORD-Web-Event-DARKCHILLINGThe lovely criminal duo of  Yrsa Sigurdardottir (go on do have a try…ỨR-suh SIG-ur-dar-daughter..easy!) and Liam McIlvanney chatted with Crime Watch blogger Craig Sisterson.

Liam McIlvanney was scheduled to appear in the 2010 Press Christchurch Writers Festival but the Darfield Earthquake put the kibosh on that. Four years later he has published the second in his Gerry Conway trilogy Where the dead men go and recently won the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.

The panel talked at length about the importance of setting in crime fiction. Liam uses Glasgow, the crime capital of Western Europe, as his backdrop and believes Scotland’s history of dour Calvinism has developed into a dark obsession with sin. Scotland’s complex relationship with England particularly prior to devolved power has also allowed crime writers to pose politicised questions about wider society without the necessity of providing answers.

Yrsa acknowledged Iceland’s unforgiving climate lends itself to the idea, if not the reality, of murder. With no real crime to speak of in the Iceland she has to work hard to make her fictional crimes seem authentic and uses social and political context “to add meat to the bone”. Yrsa also plunders Iceland’s long-standing fascination with the supernatural to great and creepy affect.

Cover of Where the dead men goAsked about memorable early reading experiences, Yrsa admitted to being fascinated by her father’s textbook on gruesome infectious diseases. Horrific but enthralling. Liam’s rather more pedestrian fare included Ray Bradbury and Robert Louis Stevenson. Current crime reading included Sophie Hannah for Yrsa while Liam mentioned David Whish-Wilson and Peter Temple, who he credited as the best crime writer in the English language.

Both Liam and Yrsa hold down day jobs; Yrsa is an engineer working in hydro-electric generation while Liam holds the Stuart Chair in Scottish Studies at Otago University, an academic occupation which could be viewed as “boring and nerdy” but which allows him time to write about evil and achieve cathartic release.

Not particularly dark or chilling but instead a rather cosy and engaging peek at the craft of crime writing.

WORD Christchurch:

Courting controversy: recalling and retelling the First World War – WORD Christchurch

WORD-Web-Event-HOWWEREMEMBERWriters and historians Anna Rogers, Paul Diamond and the totes delightful Harry Ricketts discussed the First World War, the individual stories of participants and the ways in which New Zealand has remembered, fabricated and re-imagined the events and legacy of the war.

Contributing essayists to How we remember. New Zealanders and the First World War Anna and Paul both related stories of individual Kiwis. Anna told the tale of Fanny Speedy, a Hawkes Bay nurse who saw over 4 years service in Egypt and Western Europe. Paul Diamond revealed the scandal of closet homosexual and “war shirker” Wanganui Mayor Charles E MacKay who in 1920 shot and wounded blackmailing poet Walter D’Arcy Cresswell. Yes, even more scandalous than Michael Laws!

Both writers subscribe to the view these individual vignettes can help illuminate the larger story of the war, the attitudes, fears and actions of the nation and wider world. Paul Diamond also praised Kirstie Ross and Kate Hunter’s book Holding on to home: New Zealand stories and objects of the First World War where “the objects unlock stories” both on the home and war front.

Paul Diamond drew interesting parallels between the First World War and the Canterbury/Christchurch earthquakes both with a vast diversity of experiences, attitudes and stories. Luckily for future historians these Canterbury memories and experiences have been handy-dandily captured in the UC CEISMIC digital archive. If only accessing primary sources for the First War World was so easy.

Harry Ricketts concluded by calling for controversy over the next four years of First World War focus. He and the panellists hoped for fresh eyes, new perspectives, and raw, not traditionally accepted and polished tales of the First World War. New stories and research that can help shape and evolve our understanding of warfare and its role in the history of New Zealand.

For more on the First World War:

  • Canterbury 100 – Telling the story and experiences of Canterbury people during the First World War.
  • WW100 New Zealand – The centenary of New Zealand’s participation in the First World War will be marked from 2014-2019 through commemorative events, projects and activities in all parts of the country
  • Christchurch City Libraries – First World War resources, events, booklists, postcards and links.
  • 100 Stories project at Monash University – The darker untold stories of returned  Australian soldiers and their families.

WORD Christchurch:

 

Sadly, I read it my way

Diary 1985Reading regrets, I’ve got a few…

As this diary page from my “yoof” clearly illustrates. Desmond Bagley! Alistair MacLean! Gavin Lyall! And the pièce de resistance Jeffrey Archer!

To be fair I was 15 when I was reading these über macho, high-octane thrillers but shame still stings my cheeks especially regarding the naughty Lord Archer. What was I thinking?

All of these authors have completely fallen off my reading radar and I suspect with the exception of Dick Francis and the perjuring Lord Archer of Weston- super- Mare most of these scribblers are largely unread today. Fiction is indeed a fickle mistress.

Cover of The Child that books builtI do love bookish memoirs recounting formative reading experiences, I’m thinking particularly of Francis Spufford‘s The child that books built. Spufford re-read his favourite childhood books discovering “both delight and sadness”. In my case this diary has triggered both profound embarrassment and amazement that I had the audacity to study English at university! If these are the books that build the adult I am today I’d be a gun-toting, flares wearing, libidinous space-rogue. Life on Mars’s DCI Gene Hunt in a spacesuit.

If I could re-write the past I’d display a more accomplished and precocious reading list, maybe a little Proust, James Joyce or Dostoevsky.

Or maybe I just need to be satisfied that the thriller and science fiction schlock I read of yesteryear was nonetheless sufficient fodder to set me up on a longer, more accomplished reading journey.

To help ease my humiliation please feel free to share your most shameful formative reading experiences in this public forum!

Learning to love fiction

Search catalogueWhat is not to love about fiction…I am hoping to hear you ask…?

Horrifingly, several times in my library career I’ve been utterly dumbfounded to hear customers say they don’t read novels. What?!!! After several breathless squeaks  followed by a bout of dismayed spluttering, I’ve asked why ever not?

The puzzling reply has always been that they read for knowledge, want real facts and don’t have time to waste on make-believe or fantasy (I feel a panic attack coming on just writing these horrid words).

Search catalogueGoodness me, do real facts even exist? There has to be some room for doubt given all we’ve heard about fabricated memoirs ( Yeah, you James Frey), optimistically embellished science and medical research (Ben Goldacre) and if we accept history is written by the victors, the whole truth schtick is looking a bit shaky.

I am on a mission to convert non-fiction readers to fiction.  Throw away your computer manuals, biff  interpretative history and say adiós to self-help bibles, but I need you, our faithful blog readers, to provide the compelling and irrefutable reasons for why fiction does matter.

To get you started here is my 10 cents worth:

  • Novels are steeped in human truths, often with immaculately researched and detailed plots embedded in real events.
  • Good novelists provide the creative spark which can allow fact to take flight, taking readers into the interior lives of both real and imagined people.
  • And finally, isn’t it healthy to walk in other people’s shoes ( Jimmy Choos and Hush Puppies) and attempt to see life through other people’s eyes, or from another perspective?

Fiction lovers bring it on … why should we all read fiction?

More: Why I still love reading fiction Roberta

Writing from the heart: An hour with Chris Cleave

What has been the best day of your life?

What has been the worst day of your life?

What do you hope for?

What do you fear?

These are the questions Chris Cleave poses hapless interviewees during the exhaustive formal research he conducts for each of his novels.

His informal research he characterises as “quite creepy” and involves stalking innocent members of the populace foolish enough to have heartfelt conversations on public transport.

Like any great hunter, Chris uses disguise and cunning, he sits behind his targets wearing unconnected ear buds, nods his head in time to the imaginary beats and captures their vocabulary, grammar and idiom. You have been warned. Stay alert for insanely grinning Englishmen, they want to pinch your charming Kiwi-isms.

Host Kate de Goldi, who described Chris’s books as “politicised, moral and completely readable”, asked Chris about his debut novel Incendiary. Written as an open letter to Osama Bin Laden from a grieving mother whose child died in an imagined London terror attack, it was due for release on 7/7/2005. Two thousand pre-publication posters depicting a smoking London city-scape and the words “What if?” were plastered all over the London Underground. Then that same day, the real London attacks kicked off, and Cleave, with his publishers, had the novel pulled from the shelves. This was for him a “fraught, frantic and complicated decision” but he still believes it was the right one.

The Geodome audience then paused for a few minutes while a bumble-bee drunk on the aroma from some onstage freesia was corralled and dealt to by festival organiser Morrin “No8 wire” Rout.

Chris next talked about the influence of parenthood on his work. Incendiary was written to mark the occasion of the birth of his first child and engaged with themes that previously had been purely abstract: grief at the loss of a child, injustice and the task of keeping loved ones safe in a potentially volatile and dangerous world.

Chris now dislikes his pre-fatherhood writing and characterised it as smug, self-reverential, full of ridiculous pyrotechnics and hubris. His youthful writing was in the pursuit of glory and was as a result terrible.

This self-analysis prompted New Zealand product design writer Michael Smythe to ask whether this was exclusively auto-critique on Chris’s part or whether another party had nudged him towards this realisation?

Cleave gleefully admitted that yes, several rejection letters for at least two full length manuscripts had eventually caused him to reconsider the direction of his writing. The fate of these rejected masterpieces, The Roadkill Cookbook and Tequilla Mockingbird, was not alluded to but the “rather charming” publishers’ rejection letters are filed in Chris’s big envelope of bitterness.

This was a delightfully wise and witty session from an author of compassion and curiosity, and from a man who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. I’m going to ask myself some of Chris’s questions but I suspect they will, rather like his novels, make my heart hurt.