EdBookFest 2011 Diary: Day #10 – Of kids, short stories and American road trips

Note: remember to scroll down to the bottom for picture highlights from the day.

And so began the second full week of EdBookFest, and what a glorious morning it was to wake up to. Today also marked the start of the RBS Schools Programme, and so Charlotte Sq. was throbbing with schoolchildren, as it should be, and seeing them all buzzing around excitedly, instantly puts a smile on the face. All this talk on the news about kids not reading any more? Piffle! If you were at EdBookFest today then you would have seen a different story. Children DO still get excited about books, and it’s all very heartwarming and reassuring to see it.

Childhood Scars
So it was that I found myself in my first event of the day in my favourite place at EdBookFest, the Spiegeltent. It was an event featuring debut novelists, the Russian-born, Vienna-based Julya Rabinowich, and Kalinda Ashton from Melbourne, Australia. It’s difficult enough for me to ignore an event that features two authors in the running for this year’s Newton First Book Award, but when it’s an event that also comes with the subtitle ‘childhood scars’, then it’s pretty much unmissable.

Rabinowich, an acclaimed playwright back in Austria, comes to EdBookFest with her novel Splithead (Portobello Books), which has been described by The Guardian as being ‘a clever, snappy novel suffused with comedy, proverbial wisdom and fairy tale.’

Named as a Sunday Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist of 2010, Kalinda Ashton, who is Associate Editor of Overland Magazine in Australia, is the author of The Danger Game (Tindal Street Press), a book described by Christos Tsiolkas as being ‘masterful, poignant, powerful and true’.

Two very different books form writers in very different fields of expertise, who live continents apart. This was going to be an interesting session.

The readings began with Julya Rabinowich. She had been scheduled to allow her translator to read for her (Donal McLaughlin, you’ll have heard me speak about him once or twice already during EdBookFest :)), but she decided in the end to do it herself. I’m glad that she did. It was a beautiful reading and it said something of the profundity and depth of her novel.

Rabinowich’s reading was followed by one from Ashton, and she decided to give us a little section from each of the three voices in her novel, in order to offer a better taste of her work. It soon became clear that Ashton is very philosophical in her prose, and very lyrical. Her reading was beautiful too, if not a little feminine for me (no bad thing, just an observation).

Following the readings, questioning opened up with host Rosemary Burnett. She began by mentioning that both books were themed around the scars being left over from childhood, and specifically speaking to Rabinowich, Burnett mentioned her novel was partly autobiographical. Rabinowich responded saying that she thought all first novels were autobiographical, because it’s very hard to “start in the strange world and foreign land of a novel” without taking something with you, that you know well. “You of course know yourself the best.” she added.

Ashton admitted that there was a certain mood in her book that was autobiographical, but she said that her book was more political and more about exploring the psychological affects of poverty and disenfranchisement on her characters.

Noting that it brings another voice to her novel, Burnett asks Rabinowich what the character of Splithead means to her. “It is a symbol of repression,” she replies. “Working for a long time with refugees who come from dictatorships, I have seen again and again in psychotherapy sessions, people’s voices and faces changing when they begin to speak about their repression. It is like another being has taken them over, and it is from this that I created the character of Splithead, to perform a similar role in my novel.”

Burnett notes that the characters in Ashton’s novel have a kind of fear of the past which drives them into inappropriate behaviour in the present. Ashton responds by saying that her novel is an inversion of what most people would call a ‘cathartic experience’. Her characters realise that obsessing with the past and trying to understand it won’t bring any relief, it only makes things worse. And what is required instead is an engagement with the present.

Asked how she finds the process of writing a novel compared to that of screenplays, Rabinowich responds, “theatre is something which is very direct in expressing things emotionally but reading is a completely different process. The reader has to create his own pictures in his head, and I find writing in both of these forms to be a very interesting experience. It’s a pleasure to work with words.”

Kalinda is asked if she feels more influenced in her reading as a child. She responds saying that nowadays she reads a huge amount, even for an author, with much diversity and across all genres. However, it was probably the reading she did during her first three years at secondary school. She didn’t like going to school much, and instead spent the time at the local library absorbing everything. It is this reading which has stuck with her the most.

With an interesting session drawing to a close, with plenty to think about it was off for a well earned cuppa (for me, not the authors :))

The passion of the short story
My second event of the day was one based around the short story form, and damned excited I was about it too. Although I’ve yet to read either of the authors scheduled to speak, I have heard very good things about both of them. I was expecting an event that celebrated the short story with a passion, and that’s exactly what I got.

Andre Mangeot is based in Cambridge. He sounds wholly French, but is actually English. Perhaps better known for his poetry, Mangeot has written two short story collections to date, both published by Salt – A Little Javanese and True North. It is this later collection – which, like first collection, features stories set in different countries around the world – that Andre chose to focus on during this event.

Bulgarian writer, Miroslav Penkov comes to this year’s festival as a Newton First Book Award nominee, with his debut short story collection, East of the West (Spectre). His book contains a number of short stories, all themed on the subject of his native Bulgaria.

Mangeot read from his collection first, choosing an extract from two different stories (Rain and Tajine with Madonna), to offer more of a flavour of his cosmopolitan theme. He read well, really well, and it’s clear that he is a trained poet, both from the lyrical quality of his prose and his method of delivery.

From his collection, Penkov read Buying Linen. He said it’s a story that he’s quite sick of now, but he’s never read it in public before and it would be good to get discover the reaction. The reaction? A wholly positive one. Everybody seemed quite thrilled by it. Penkov shows he has a real richness to his prose and a profound love of his native Bulgaria. And like Mangeot he demonstrates a supreme skill in the art of storytelling.

With the two fantastic reading complete, Host Emma Turnball began questioning with a question directed towards Penkov, asking why it was he chose to set all of his stories in Bulgaria. Penkov responded saying that it was a reaction to him moving to the US, where he became incredibly homesick. It was that homesickness that took the shape of him writing stories about Bulgaria.

Turnball turns the question over to Mangeot, asking him why he chooses to set his stories in so many distant and far out places (a complete contrast to Penkov, of course). He responds, saying that it’s his interest in other places and cultures which drives him to write in such a cosmopolitan way.

Mangeot also states that he cannot write poetry and prose at the same time. He adds, “but while I’m writing prose I still have to hear rhythm and music and I have to read all of my stories out aloud, just like my poetry, to make sure it sounds as right as it reads.”

Penkov then impressed me hugely by revealing a love for Chekhov. “Chekhov probably has 15 distinct ways of ending his stories, and they are all very masterful,” Penkov said. He added, “Chekhov chooses a character and then disappears from story, surrendering himself completely to that character. His endings do not serve the author, but instead the characters, and that’s what I try to do that in my stories.

Mangeot said that like Chekhov he didn’t like to tie up the loose ends of his stories, preferring instead to end a story in a place where it feels right for his characters.

Asked about the state of the short story in Bulgaria, Penkov said that there is a very strong tradition of the short story in his native country, and that the Bulgarian short story is stronger than the Bulgarian novel. Conversely, Mangeot admitted that he was lucky in that he was picked up by a publisher (Salt), who seem to put more value into the publication of short stories than most other UK publishers.

That’s the main points of this session folks, but I don’t really convey to you just how much love was shown in this room for the short story form. Just as with the Stuart Evers and Clemens Meyer event (you can read my report on that, HERE), there was a real passion shown for the form by these two writers, and they impressed me greatly.

You all know of my love for short fiction on RobAroundBooks, and this was the kind of event that really played up to my own love of it, which was hugely satisfying. As a consequence of sitting in the presence of these two passionate and hugely charismatic writers, you can guarantee that I will be featuring both of them quite strongly here on RobAroundBooks in the very near future. And if you like short stories yourself then I urge you rush and buy the collections of these two writers. They both have something very special, believe me.

Well, it’s at this point that I should really be telling you about my final event of the evening, featuring the brilliant American, Dinaw Mengestu (author How to Read the Air (Jonathan Cape)) and the equally brilliant Australian, Kirsten Tranter (author of The Legacy (Quercus Books). Fact it is, it was a deep, meaningful and insightful event and one which I haven’t really got my head around yet. What I don’t want to do is sit here waffling one without having made sense of my notes first. So I’m going to close today’s diary entry with a promise that this event is going to be the next full report that I write up. A bit of a cop out I know, but such is the hectic and manic pace of EdBookFest.

Here are a few photo highlights from the day (click to enlarge):

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).