It has taken me a full seven days to sufficiently cogitate and ponder the wonders of this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival and come up with some definitive highlights. This glacially slow digestion is both testament to the breadth, depth and range of the festival content and the sluggishness of my overwhelmed brain. But isn’t it nice to be spoiled by literary choice? Explore the full programme and spin out!
The overarching awesomeness of this year’s festival is the tartan tint to everything. Programme Director Rachael King is bringing a wee slice of literary Scotland to our far flung shores (gallus move lassie!) with the likes of:
With several gritty but character-rich mystery series under her belt Denise Mina‘s latest novel draws on a real-life crime from 1950s Glasgow. She is, I have it on good authority, a witty and engaging speaker and will appear at The Great WORD Debate, Whisky Galore! and at her own Masterclass event. She also brings a very impressive hairdo.
His Diary of a Bookseller has been, for me, a slightly surprising hit here at Christchurch City Libraries. Who knew there was so much interest in flogging dusty tomes? I’ve just started reading it and I’m already seeing library parallels, lots of eccentric people buy and borrow books. Hurrah. Shaun is also appearing at Whisky Galore! At a session called For Book Collectors Old and New, and in conversation with Brian Phillips at The Diary of a Bookseller. Shaun is from Wigtown and also has epic hair.
I don’t normally have much truck with poetry (yes, I am a philistine) but Robin Robertson’s session Mortification sounds like my bag. Here a mixed cast of Kiwi and Scots authors will share their true tales of hideous embarrassment. It promises strong language and requires a stiff drink. He’ll also appear at Starry, Starry Night, Whisky Galore! and The Long Take. His hair game is average but as he just got longlisted for The Man Booker Prize I’m sure he has bigger aspirations and he still has more wig than Irvine Welsh!
Apart from all the Scottish loveliness, I’m also looking forward to:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.