Showing posts with label Oxford Literary Festival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oxford Literary Festival. Show all posts

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Exam time in Oxford, carnations and Inspector Rebus

Just before nine each morning I spot hordes of anxious-looking students hurrying along the pavement below my office.

It’s exam time in Oxford and the undergraduates are on their way to the exam hall up the road. The Starbucks round the corner is full of them, all drinking endless cups of black coffee and poring over closely-typed revision notes. Forget the old saying about policemen seeming absurdly young as you get older. As far as I’m concerned, these students look about 12.

While students at other universities (my daughter included) can wear whatever they like to sit their exams, it’s different in Oxford. Here they look like they’ve come straight off the film set of Brideshead Revisited. They all wear distinguished black academic gowns, the men in dark suits and white bow ties, the women in short black skirts and white shirts. For some reason, I’m not sure why, they sport carnations in their buttonholes – white for their first exams, red for their last and pink for all exams in between. I’m not a huge fan of carnations as a rule but the students cut a real dash in them. And one thing’s for sure, the local florist must be doing a roaring trade.

PS. The best news to come out of the Hay Festival this weekend was Ian Rankin’s revelation that a new Rebus novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, will be out in November. Rankin had hinted as much at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier in the year when he said he felt a sense of “unfinished business” about Rebus. But to have it confirmed is a treat. Like millions of loyal Rebus fans, I can’t wait to read it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Jane Shilling, middle age and House With No Name's birthday

If I’m honest, the main reason I booked to hear Jane Shilling’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival was because she’d been teamed up with Rachel Cusk.

Cusk is the writer whose recent memoir about her divorce, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, has prompted a flurry of criticism and debate.

But at the start of the discussion, the audience (like me, mostly middle-aged and female) was told that Rachel Cusk had had to pull out. No reason was given, but instead, the session on Women in Middle Age would be Jane Shilling in conversation with writer and journalist Rebecca Abrams.

Abrams got the event, held at Christ Church, off to a cracking start by telling us that while Shilling calls her book about middle age “a monument to introspection,” she reckons it's “a call to arms.” She also referenced two brilliant quotes from a couple of Hollywood stars. While Doris Day said “the really frightening thing about middle age is that you know you’ll grow out of it,” Lucille Ball declared that “the secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.”

Jane Shilling began writing her own book, The Stranger in the Mirror, in her 40s, when it suddenly struck her that she was becoming middle-aged. Her frank memoir garnered plenty of headlines when it came out, largely because of its cover (above). There can't be many 40-something women who would countenance posing naked in front of a mirror - but that's what Shilling did.

“It’s very painful to relinquish youth,” she said. “But part of living a good middle age is to embrace it. At some point you arrive at the realisation that what remains is more important than what has been lost.”

And despite newspapers’ stereotypical view of middle-aged women as either desperate to look younger or grumpy old women, she reminded us all that the middle aged are in the majority. Not only that, interesting role models are “coming out of the woodwork” – women like Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett.

Ending the discussion on an upbeat note, a woman in the audience piped up and said she wanted to “put a more positive spin on things.” Middle age isn’t all empty nests and worries about ageing, she said. “I have just hit 50 and there are some very good things to be had."

PS. Today is House With No Name's first birthday! It seems no time at all since the very first post, but thank you so much to everyone who's read House With No Name over the last 12 months and here's looking to the next 12.

Monday, 2 April 2012

William Boyd at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

The massive marquee at Christ Church was full to bursting for William Boyd’s talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday night. The event was a sell-out and fans were so keen to hear him talk about his latest novel, Waiting for Sunrise, that an orderly queue formed outside – just in case there were any empty seats.

In a way, Boyd, with slicked back hair and wearing an immaculate dark suit and dazzling white shirt, was back on home turf. He spent three years as an English literature tutor at St Hilda’s in the 1980s and said his time there coincided with the start of his writing career. In between, he told us, he’d done just about every writing job going – “from restaurant criticism to Hollywood movies.”  He’s written 17 novels to date, along with a myriad of screenplays and short stories, and been awarded the CBE.

For me, the most enthralling part of Boyd’s hour-long talk came when he outlined the details of how he writes. Famed for his amazing settings – from 1920s Berlin to Africa to Vienna before the First World War, he admitted that he doesn’t necessarily go to these places before writing about them.

“It’s the power of your imagination that makes it work and makes it feel real,” he said. “I send my imagination as a proxy traveller, and recreate a city in my mind. I have never worried about visiting a place. I do it from my armchair. Sometimes the use of imagination is more true than the documentary evidence that your eyes and ears provide you with.”

He reckons you need three things for a novel – the ability to express yourself lucidly, a relish for observation (“I take enormous pleasure in the cinema of everyday life”) and a well-functioning imagination.

It was fascinating to hear that before Boyd writes a word of his novels, he’s often spent two years planning them and thinking them through in very precise detail.

“I have a particular working method,” he explained. “Iris Murdoch talked about periods of invention and periods of composition. I have a long period of invention and maybe two years will go by before I start writing. I maybe travel a bit, acquire a small library of books that will help me, fill notebooks of ideas and think about the characters.

“It’s only when I know precisely how the novel will end that I start on page one and the period of composition begins. I write with confidence because I have done all my thinking and have a very clear plan. I add flesh to the bones but the actual writing of the novel is done, not with ease exactly, but with peace of mind.”

Unlike many writers and thanks to his tried and tested method of writing, he never finds his characters suddenly doing something he hadn’t expected them to do either. “My characters are my creatures and do my bidding,” he said firmly.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Elizabeth Noble, Jane Fallon and Fiona Neill at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

Three bestselling writers. Three great novels. And three very different pairs of shoes. Those were the first things I spotted when I went to an enthralling Oxford Literary Festival talk by Elizabeth Noble, Jane Fallon and Fiona Neill yesterday.

So, just for the record, Noble wore beige ballet pumps, Fallon sported strappy Louboutins (the distinctive red sole was a bit of a giveaway) and Neill was in Converse.

The trio have given talks together before and this one, chaired by Oxford academic Sally Bayley and titled Emotional Flashpoints in Women’s Lives) was a cracker. I’ve read novels by all three novelists and they really are at the top of their game. Fallon was there to promote The Ugly Sister, her book about sibling rivalry, Neill spoke about What the Nanny Saw, set during the banking crisis, while Noble’s latest, Between a Mother and her Child, explores the impact of grief on a family.

The conversation flowed easily as the writers talked about the backgrounds to their novels, how much research they do and how they write. “I write erratically,” admitted Noble. “I am more productive in panic - I have very tidy drawers towards the end of the writing process.”  Ex-journalist Neill sits down to write once she’s taken her children to school and says she “bores” friends by talking about her plot-lines (I’m sure she doesn’t). Meanwhile Fallon, whose partner is Ricky Gervais, doesn’t show anyone a word till it’s finished. “At the very end I give it to my best friend Anna,” she revealed, “because I know she’ll never criticise anything I’ve written.”

Fallon writes in complete silence, Neill sometimes writes in a local café (a la JK Rowling) and Noble often switches on the TV and works with her back to it because she likes “ambient noise.” 

When it comes to planning their novels, all three women write a synopsis before they start and know what their endings will be. Asked for tips by a wannabe writer, they came up with the following insights:

Neill: “Write a five-page plot synopsis and make sure there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Write three chapters and then start getting feedback.”

Fallon: “Keep writing. I spent years saying I wanted to be a novelist and writing bits of novels. There came a point when I just had to keep going.”

Noble: “Let your work be read. It’s not going to get published if you leave it in your knicker drawer. Come up with a clever idea of explaining your book and find an agent.”

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ian Rankin at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

The sun’s shining, the blossom’s out and one of my favourite literary events of the year is underway.

The Oxford Literary Festival always attracts a galaxy of writing superstars and this year is no exception. Last night I hurried down to Christ Church to hear bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin in action. He was there to talk about The Impossible Dead, the second in his gripping new series featuring Inspector Malcolm Fox, a cop who investigates other cops. But he also spoke about Inspector Rebus’s retirement, his view that “a cop is a good tool for dissecting society” and his long abandoned PhD on the novels of Muriel Spark.

Like me, several members of the audience did a double-take when they walked into the grandly-named Master’s Garden Marquee. Ian Rankin was already ensconced onstage but instead of looking at notes he was busy filming us lot. The reason, he explained later on, was that Alan Yentob is featuring him in a forthcoming edition of BBC2’s Imagine series and has given him a video camera to capture his writing life. Considering that novelists spend most of their time shut away by themselves, Rankin reckoned that a film of him out and about in Oxford would make more interesting footage.

Tantalisingly, Rankin waved around the first draft of his new novel, due out in November. The contents are so top secret, he said, that he’s not even allowed to reveal the title yet. But he lessened the blow by giving us a different exclusive. He read an extract from a short story set in 1930s America, the first draft of which he’d finished the night before. “I loved doing it,” he said. “I didn’t realise what fun it was writing American PI (private investigator) stuff.”

Other revelations along the way included the fact that he chose the name Rebus because it means puzzle – after all, if Inspector Morse’s name is inspired by a code, why shouldn’t Rebus come from a puzzle? He revealed that his new protagonist, Malcolm Fox, is far more like him than Rebus. “I like writing about his family – his dad and his sister,” said Rankin. “And Fox is open to seeing Edinburgh as a beautiful city whereas Rebus sees it as a series of crime scenes.” Most telling of all, Rankin admitted that he feels a sense of unfinished business about characters like Rebus, his sidekick Siobhan and the notorious Edinburgh gangster Cafferty. Does that mean they might one day reappear in his work? Like millions of Rankin fans, I do hope so.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

A brilliantly-written love story

“If you’re after a brilliantly-written love story that never slides into sentimentality, David Nicholls’s One Day is just the ticket. Nicholls trained as an actor before switching to writing - his first novel, Starter for Ten, was made into a film starring James McAvoy and Rebecca Hall and he wrote the recent TV adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. His third novel is a funny ‘“will they, won’t they?’” romance tracing the relationship between university friends Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew on the same day each year for 20 years. I read this book in one delicious go and it did everything a novel should do. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me think. Don’t miss it.”

That’s what I wrote when I reviewed the hardback of One Day soon after it was published in 2009 – and I stand by every word. In the intervening years, the book has become a bestseller, largely through word of mouth. It’s sold 650,000 copies in the UK alone, been translated into 37 languages and the film version, adapted by Nicholls himself and starring Anne Hathaway (some One Day devotees aren’t convinced by her casting as the awkward, insecure Emma) and Jim Sturgess, is due out in the autumn.

In a giant, wind-buffeted marquee at the Oxford Literary Festival this week David Nicholls told a packed audience how he came to write One Day. He attended the same sixth form college as Colin Firth before going on to study English and drama at Bristol University. After eight years in the theatre, largely, he said, working as an understudy, he switched to writing screenplays and novels. Modest and self-deprecating, he claimed he wasn’t sure if “I gave up acting or it gave me up” and that the success of One Day, his third book, had come as a “huge surprise.” He found inspiration, he revealed, in a passage from Tess of the D'Urbervilles, an interest in looking at the way our lives change between the ages of 20 and 40 and a determination to write a "different" kind of love story.

More recently he’s been writing a screenplay of Great Expectations, his favourite novel, but he’s now begun to work on ideas for his eagerly-awaited fourth book. I, like thousands of other One Day fans, can’t wait.
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