This long weekend of readings and workshops was the very first Cambridge Wordfest. I attended two events from Saturday's programme and it was nice to see good-sized, appreciative audiences at both. The Festival Director, Cathy Moore, introduced these sessions which took place in the café-bar of the Arts Picturehouse, one of several Cambridge venues used during the festival.
Tickets for some other readings were still available for purchase on the day but the talk by Will Hutton was already sold out.
The art of writing: short stories
They're wee but they have so much space around them.
You could put a short story in a field and it would glow.
- Jackie Kay
Jackie Kay and Ali Smith are both are novelists as well as short fiction writers and Jackie Kay is also a poet and children's writer. However, both read from their short fiction and talked mainly about this, sometimes putting it in the context of their other writing.
Jackie Kay read two stories from her collection Why Don't You Stop Talking. She began with an extract from the title story which she said she was inspired to write to work off her frustration while waiting for her car to be fixed. It concerns a compulsive talker, who discovers at the checkout of a supermarket that "it's harder to take words back than to get a refund."
Ali Smith has published two previous collections of short stories, Free Love and other stories and the wonderfully titled, Other Stories and other stories and was nominated for the Booker prize with her novel Hotel World. She read from her forthcoming collection (published on 24 April 2003) called The Whole Story and other stories. The book contains a story for each month of the year and she offered the audience a choice of the story for February or the one for September. The latter won the show of hands by a convincing majority and so we heard Believe Me about a couple with a very special talent for reading each other. One is a character so discreet (or so she claims) that she has disguised three pregnancies during the course of their relationship in order to hide the fact that she is secretly married with three children. Her lover attempts to avenge this unlikely story by revealing that she is also having an affair with the very same man. Their conversation in bed, as they exchange these implausible confessions, twists and turns as they entertain each other with their stories.
Jackie Kay's second reading was from The Oldest Woman In Scotland. She said that she had been inspired to write this story to examine themes such as the question of whether we really change as we get old and what she described as "the martyrdom of the old." The oldest woman in Scotland is a keen baker, even at the age of 106, and one whose hospitality is still being taken advantage of. There were some extraordinary descriptions of her and her visitors. Her piles were like "big black sour plums", a phrase which Kay admitted to having borrowed from her own grandmother, and with a Glaswegian accent sounds rather like "sewer plumes". The oldest woman experienced her first and only orgasm during the abdication speech of Edward VIII, and it "shook her about like the only shortbread in a tin".
When asked whether they prefered short stories to novels both were emphatic that they did. Ali Smith elaborated on why by explaining..."because they're short" and described the terrifying opression of writing novels, suggesting that it was probably a rather odd and mad thing to do.
When asked why short stories weren't more popular and didn't receive more attention, Ali Smith suggested that there was a 'mindset' which acted against them. Jackie Kay said that short stories are a perfect form for our times but that no one seemed to have discovered this yet. She said that "they're wee but they have so much space around them. You could put a short story in a field and it would glow." She explained that some readers didn't like that because they seemed to want the writer to go on and write more. Ali Smith added that short stories didn't just require more 'active' readers, but more active publishers as well.
They were asked about how much they revised their short stories, and how they knew when a short story was finished. Jackie said that "most of writing is rewriting." You have to find your own way of saying enough is enough. Ali explained that you have to leave things and wait because you can't always 'see' whether a thing is finished when you're so close up and writing it. Jackie likened judging your own writing to trying to assess your own family. Ali said that it was a matter of trust and Jackie added that "The two things a writer needs are self confidence and self doubt."
The two writers differed a little in their answer to a query about how they knew whether an idea belonged in a short story or long. Jackie Kay explained that her ideas came to her "already dressed." She knows the form intertwined with the idea. However Ali Smith said that when she was working on a novel almost anything was to do with that novel, but that some of these things turned out to be blind alleys which very well might be used elsewhere. Nothing was ever wasted, she explained.
Jackie Kay mentioned the short story initiative or 'Save Our Short Story Campaign' going on this year and to include various conferences and promotions for the short form. When asked about the difference between writing for children and adults she said she addressed very similar types of themes and subjects in both types of writing but that to write for children you needed to try to get back to your own childhood where time stretched forever and you were really aware of details which adults don't seem to notice. She only began writing for children once she had her own child.
Asked to nominate favourite short story writers, Ali Smith highlighted Checkhov, Grace Paley, Frances Gapper and Kate Atkinson's first collection of (linked) short stories. Jackie Kay mentioned Jason Brown, Lorrie Moore and also Margaret Atwood's Labrador Fiasco which was a sequel to Jack London's To Build A Fire. Jackie Kay said that "we are what we read" and both writers showed a fierce enthusiasm for reading the form was well as writing it.
Asked whether they knew how a short story would end when they started writing both replied that they didn't. Jackie Kay likened it to a journey in which you seek to surprise yourself.
The art of writing: location
Place is about where you go in between,
at the bottom of the channel.
Place is about the unconscious.
- Michele Roberts
After lunch, Michele Roberts and Janet Davey spoke on the art of writing location. In her introduction Cathy Moore stated that when Michele Roberts is asked what she writes about she says "food, sex and God". In this session she read from her recent novel, The Mistressclass and first time novelist Janet Davey joined her on stage to read from English Correspondence. Both novels have England and France as settings and Michele Roberts also lives in both countries.
Michele Roberts said that for her place was about England and place was about France, but it was also about "where you go in between, at the bottom of the channel. Place is about the unconscious." So that although her novel was set in London in the seventies and 2001 and France in the seventies and 2001 it was also very much about an internal landscape.
Charlotte Bronte is a character in her novel and Michele Roberts told the (true) story of how Charlotte had written besotted letters to Monsieur Hege. He had thrown them away without reading them but, apparently, Madame Hege had rescued them and they are now in the British Library. From this starting point Michele Roberts had written further letters from Charlotte. She described the personal subtext of the one which she read as being about the feeling of wanting to write. In the extract the fictional Charlotte writes about "telling sanctioned lies, writing fiction" and "the best book in the world is the one not written yet".
Janet Davey began her talk by relating the story of a writer who had told her that he couldn't get his characters in and out of doors. She said that although location is critical in writing, with a bit of luck you might never need to mention doors at all. She explained that "thoroughness doesn't do the trick" and long descriptive passages may be very beautiful, but can't on their own convey location. Location works by "being there", by the characters inhabiting it and using it to their own ends. The reader and the writer don't see the same locations anyway, one writes from their own view of place and the reader supplies a different image from their own memory and imagination. In translations there is an additional layer to deal with as well.
The location for English Correspondence was chosen because she wanted to find her 'voice' in "neutral territory". It is set in a hotel, in a rural, transient part of France where most people don't stay for long. The population density is fairly low and is the sort of place where a character can get 'stuck'. She described it as location as a burden, not just as somewhere that you happen to be but somewhere you can't get away from.
The main character in the novel, Sylvie, leaves the hotel she is running with her husband and goes to England after her father dies and the letters from him cease. The extract read describes the character's return to France and the peculiar sensation of returning home to discover herself absent, there is no one in reception to greet her because she's not there.
Michele Roberts & Janet Davey - Cambridge Wordfest, 29 March 2003
Both writers were asked whether story or location came first for them. Janet Davey said that for English Correspondence the story came first but that the location came along with the story. Michele Roberts said that all her novels tended to start with "a dead body", a haunting.
Asked about their muses, Michele Roberts said that she had begun with her mother as muse and that an absent mother was actually a great inspiration. Subsequently her father had been a muse, other members of her family and then her lovers. She described it as writing "cargoes of love" sent out to seduce someone. Janet Davey said that she definitely wouldn't want to write for any of her family but that if she had a muse she supposed it was some mythical, intelligent, knowledgable reader whose attention she sought to engage. Michele Roberts added that she used to write about saints but now she writes about dead writers instead.
I asked whether either had written about a location that they were new to or didn't know well as an inspiration and setting. Janet Davey said that her novel's location was neither wholly real nor imaginary. Michele Roberts said that her locations were often a mixture of a real landscape and an imaginary one. They were often about mapping memory onto reality. She said that memory and imagination are linked and that your own dreamlife and fears get imprinted on a place and a character carries those around with them wherever they go. She felt that the muse and landscape overlapped. Neither writer could imagine writing about a wholly imagined location, although the locations they used were already a composite of real and remembered places.
Michele Roberts was asked about the role of the French landscape she lives in. She commented that it influenced not just for its beauty but that also because landscape was a site of politics and there was an urge to mourn the depredation of the landscape and way of life there.
They were asked whether they saw place as a way of unravelling characters. Janet Davey replied that "we all come from somewhere" and even when you move on from a place of childhood you carry it with you. You take 'place' with you wherever you go. Michele Roberts added that often idyllic-looking places such as those around the Mayenne area she lives in concealed great tragedy and horror. There were old French farmhouses where the places looked calm but had been the scenes of inbreeding and abuse.
Someone asked whether writing was a way of owning a lot of different experiences and places. Michele Roberts was very struck by this question and joked that she might have to go away and write a novel to address it. She said that it is a matter of connecting things up. She sees writing as a quest. Janet Davey added that many artforms are a journey. Our own lives are not necessarily enough but other people's lives give us places too. Michele Roberts ventured the rather paradoxical image of the imagination as "a silver invisible lassoo" which is casting yourself into the unknown. And the unknown is "what you've got in your net".
They were asked whether their chracters had ever just "gone off somewhere". Michele Roberts replied that George Sand had popped up in her novel and Charlotte had felt compelled to go and visit, so as the writer she simply had to follow. Janet agreed tht her characters do what they want to and she wouldn't want to hold them in, they go where they have to go, it's always open. She couldn't imagine writing a book where she'd written a gound plan and would have to stick to it. Michele Roberts added that writing is about "currents of bodily energy" and that sometimes it helps if you forget about yourself.
Both the talks I attended on the art of writing were lively and good-humoured with lots of interesting ideas that I think would strike a chord with anyone who writes themself, whether or not they entirely agree or disagree with the views expressed. Even though no hands went up initially to ask questions after the readings, there were plenty which followed the initial questions from the organiser, which had been astutely prepared to get the ball rolling. This meant that the discussion parts of the sessions were as interesting as the talks and readings. Perhaps my only criticism of the venue and organisation was that the sounds of the coffee machine at the bar and the background noise of people in the area below made it difficult for some of the audience to hear at times, despite the amplification
If future Wordfests include events of this calibre I think it will easily be up there with the other dates on the literature festival 'circuit'. The proliferation of literature festivals these days sometimes leaves me feeling rather somewhat under-enthused but I think they are still well worth attending if there are presentations on subjects, or by writers, in which you have an interest.
The Free Press pub - Prospect Row, Cambridge
My day out at the Cambridge WordFest was accompanied by a splendid Thai curry for lunch in the pub next door, plenty of glimpses of the architecture of Cambridge colleges and a quest on behalf of another writer to discover the whereabouts of the grave of W.H.R. Rivers. The whole day was rounded off with a convivial drink and meal in another Cambridge pub with an appropriately writerly theme, The Free Press.