I can’t begin to tell you how rich and rewarding my Edinburgh Book Festival was. Although, in the spirit of this blog, I kept in the main to crime writing sessions, you’ll see that one or two of my other personal passions crept in.
If you have ever thought about going to the Book Festival, and are not sure what to expect, Lainy’s blog here is an excellent introduction.
I loved being in the midst of so many book lovers and authors. I was bowled over by how much effort has gone into making the Book Festival a child friendly place, from the Children’s Bookshop to the Imagination Lab.
As someone with mobility issues, I found the Book Festival staff to be immensely helpful and accommodating and they made my life so much easier.
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is a place you can go just to soak up the atmosphere and have an ice cream (or a gin!) and is just my favourite place in Edinburgh during Festival time. An oasis of culture in a garden square.
Friday 17th August 2018
Thomas Enger and Alex Gray chaired by Al Senter
As you’d expect from among the two gentlest crime writers I know, this was a session of reflection and positivity. Alex writes about Glasgow because (oddly for a crime writer) she wanted to address some of the bad press about her native city. Thomas Enger enjoys reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Oslo. Both enjoy the fact that crime writing is what puts the world back together again and shows that justice can and will be served.
Thomas’ protagonist is a journalist, because he likes the old adage, write what you know and journalism was his profession. Alex likes to write about the police because she thinks that people are really curious to know what goes on behind the scenes. She has made many good contacts with (now) high ranking police officers and has been able to learn loads from them.
Both writers have quite labyrinthine plots. Alex isn’t a plotter, she finds it very hard and is envious of someone like Sophie Hannah who can deliver a 40,000 word synopsis. Alex wanted to write about people trafficking and was fortunate that this coincided with a joint Slovak-Glasgow policing operation.
Thomas also has a Balkan angle in Killed. He wanted to base his story in reality and there is a significant central and eastern European presence in Oslo.
As to advice for aspiring writers? Persist! Keep writing! It took 15 years for Thomas to become an author; his advice is never to stop writing and not to rest on your laurels.
Helen Bellany – The Restless Wave chaired by Richard Holloway
I really wanted to hear Helen Bellany. Her now deceased husband John, whom she married twice, was one of my favourite contemporary Scottish painters and I am lucky to have one of his watercolours.
Well known for his robust enjoyment of life and not a little bit of hell-raising with contemporaries Alan Bold and Alexander Moffat, John was a tremendous talent.
Bellany was 18 when he left Port Seton to go to Edinburgh College of Art. He had come from a fishing village steeped in religion and superstition – no singing or whistling for these citizens. Helen and John met at Art College. She describes him as a Janus figure. He was 2 people; immersed in religion and had respect for it, but also he was full of joie de vivre and hungry for life and these were warring factions.
Bellany visited Buchenwald with Alan Bold and Sandy Moffat and this was to have a profound impact on him as he contemplated the darker aspects of the human condition.
John was offered a position with the Royal College of Art and Helen, despite being 7 ½ months pregnant, encouraged him to go. They were poor but felt very privileged.
The years after, when Helen and John separated and John remarried were very difficult, and Helen says she felt very lonely as John became immersed not just in his painting but in the social life of artists in London.
What shone through, though, was the immutable love these two people had for each other. The immense belief Helen has in John’s talent, and the loss she feels without him today. Though I can imagine there must have been times when he was hell to live with, the joy in her face when she talks about him is worth a million words. Listening to her talk, you can tell these were two matched souls, and whatever pain they went through, they were meant to be together.
Lilja Sigurdardottir and Hawa Jande Golakai chaired by Lee Randall
My last session of Friday was a joy for different reasons. Lilja Sigurdardottir is an Icelandic crime writer in a country where the murders average out at around 1.5 per year. She entered a competition run by a big Icelandic publisher to find ‘the next Dan Brown’ and she and Ragnar Jonasson were the winners. Sadly that completion just preceded the big financial crash, so they never did discover which of them was destined to be the next household name.
Lilja’s protagonist is a woman caught in a desperate trap. Iceland has just beenhad a major financial crash. There have been two volcanic eruptions in a row and there is a sickness in the herring that is causing the industry to go into sharp decline. Iceland is experiencing unemployment like never before and people are desperate.
Lilja’s protagonist in Snare, published by Orenda is having an affair with a woman – a woman who is having difficulty accepting that she is in a lesbian relationship. Lilja wanted to contextualise a situation where people could be involved in large scale financial criminal wrongdoing and yet feel that they were doing nothing wrong and yet feel shame at being themselves in a relationship. (She succeeds brilliantly).
Hawa Jande Golakai is a crime novelist and medical immunologist from Liberia. Her novel The Lazarus Effect is the first in the Vee Johnson series and features a crime fighting investigative journalist. HJ’s work is published by Cassava Republic Press.
HJ always had an interest in the scary, the ugly, and the disgusting which is whyshe also has an interest in science. She likes to push the boundaries. So her career choices have that in common – the fact that there is a mystery to solve.
She wanted to be a forensic CSI, but found that to do that in South Africa, she was required to be an S.A. citizen. Talking about her decision to turn to crime writing, she says that in a way it could have been any genre, as women go through so much . But she sees crime as a fleshy genre and felt that a lot of it had become formulaic – like she says, one big phallus – so she was determined to write something quite different.
Asked about sexuality in crimes Lilja says she also enjoys a love story and likes to create beauty in an otherwise ugly story. She says there are so many untold stories involving race, class sexuality, gender that are new and unexplored. H.J. also has a gay woman in her novel – not as a statement or a political act, just an exploration.
Both authors have lived in a number of different countries and use these experiences when writing. H.J. enjoys phoning up the local morgue when she is in a new place and asking if she can do an autopsy….(whatever floats your boat)!
I already know and love Lilja’s writing, but of course I have had to buy The Lazarus Effect and I can’t wait to get stuck in!
Saturday 25 August 2018
Roxanne Bouchard and Ragnar Jonasson chaired by Michael J Malone
A brief return to Edinburgh today to catch a couple of authors, Roxanne Bouchard and Ragnar Jonasson. In a session chaired by Michael J Malone, Ragnar was talking about his new trilogy with protagonist Hulda Hermansdottir.
When Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir of the Reykjavik police is forced into early retirement, at the age of 64 she is told she can investigate one last cold case of her choice – and she knows which one. The case of a refugee previously investigated by a male colleague of Hulda’s in what she regards as a pretty shoddy fashion.
Ragnar wanted a challenge after writing 6 books in his Ari Thor series, which is why he opted not just to have an older female protagonist but to write about her life story in reverse.
Roxanne used to crew on a fishing boat and was always amused by the way fishermen exaggerate their catch. She wanted to write about someone trying to find the truth in a village of liars.
Roxanne’s book We Were The Salt of the Sea, is set on Quebec’s outlying Gaspé Peninsula, where the truth can be slippery, especially down on the fishermen’s wharves. Interviews drift into idle chit-chat, evidence floats off with the tide and the truth lingers in murky waters.
Her characters are richly described and magnificently portrayed on the page. She writes her characters with distinct verbal characteristics which means the reader always knows who is speaking without her having to continually identify the characters.
The poetry and rhythms of the sea are reflected in her book and we look forward to seeing Joaquim Morales find another dead body in the Gaspe Peninsula soon.
Ragnar’s next book goes back in time as part of his Hulda Hermansdottir trilogy. The next one is set in the 1980’s as he deals with Hulda’s life in reverse. Ragnar enjoys writing about this period because there’s none of that pesky technological innovation like mobile phones to get in the way of a good story. Before he started writing, Ragnar had Hulda’s character all mapped out from birth, so he’s done the groundwork in order to be able to write backwards chronologically.
For Ari Thor lovers, though, there is also good news and we hope for a new book in that series in the future.
Sunday 26th August 2018
Gunnar Staalesen and David Mark chaired by Russell D McLean
My penultimate Festival day. (sob) More crime to kick off the day with David Mark and Gunnar Staalesen.
Gunnar talked about his literary references. He reads Chandler for humour and dialogue and Ross McDonald for plotting. Gunnar has written 18 novels about hisP.I. Varg Veum, with a 19th to come. He likes being able to use a P.I. as his protagonist because this is someone who can reflect society and its problems through his assignments. His protagonist can also use black humour and sarcasm in the face of the absurdly rich or overly bureaucratic.
David Mark also enjoys the ability to inject humour into his work. He likes being ‘the God of my own little world’ in which he can feel free to take the piss out of anyone.
Both authors use their knowledge of their home towns to advantage and Bergen and Hull are very much characters in their own right in their books. They both have that same issue with the murder quotient though – Gunnar has written more Bergen murders than have actually occurred in the whole of Norway and David is getting a bit concerned about the Midsummer Murder effect in Hull, though he laughs when asked if he is going to portray the impact of the cultural renaissance in Hull.
Mark enjoys writing scenes where something lovely is ruined – so he is in the right place!
Gunnar and Mark talked about the genesis of their protagonists and what had brought them to write about the P.I. and the policeman respectively. Gunnar talked about the changing nature of Bergen and what happened to it when oil was discovered – how it went from being a normal town to the home of huge oil HQ’s with big villains to write about. He has always written Varg Veum chronologically so now Varg is 60 and Gunnar is writing more or less historical novels, or at least 20 years behind.
David Mark is also keen to reflect on what’s happening in society and the wider world. A feature he read in National Geographic about the plight of Mozambique farmers who had been horribly exploited has now made its way into his current novel. What makes him angry he puts into his books and kills! (note to self not to make DM angry).
But then, as Gunnar points out Sophocles Oedipus is the original murder mystery and MacBeth is a crime story. In the end, are all books not about love, death and the fight for power and money?
Since the Martin Beck books of Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö, pretty much all Scandi crime fiction has been based on real life crime.
Gunnar describes Varg Veum as his best friend and says that he is Varg’s only friend.
Characters live in David Mark’a head and he says “I just imagine stuff”. His protagonist, Hector McAvoy, blotted his copy book with brother officers early on when he exposed a corrupt super cop and took him down. Mark describes him as ‘a bit of a boy scout’ with good instincts and a slightly angelic quality. But then Mark thinks writers do have a slightly childlike openness to the world.
There are more books to come from both authors, and a hint of something slightly different coming from Mark. Whatever it is, it’s bound to be fascinating!
Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman aka Ambrose Parry chaired by Sara Sheridan
The dazzling debut of Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, was launched in this panel session with the husband and wife team of Brookmyre and Haetzman. The Way of All Flesh is based around the remarkable story of James Young Simpson who discovered the anaesthetic effects of chloroform. Simpson and his colleagues used the tried and true method of sitting round his dining room table and sniffing different concotions until they found one that worked. They were known to make themselves quite ill on occasions.
Discussing the most disturbing and graphic scenes from their book (and yes there are a couple that don’t easily disappear from the brain), Chris claims that all the really gruesome medical scenes come from Marisa.
“Is this too gruesome?” asks Marisa Haetzman of Brookmyre. “No, it’s box office,” says Chris.
It is a fantastic book, reviewed by me here. The book started with Marisa, who was doing a PhD in the history of anaesthesia (she is a consultant anaesthetist) and she was thinking about how difficult and barbaric surgery had been without it. Not only that, but there were other objections. There were those who held a biblical objection to its use in obstetric medicine, believing that the bible says that women are born to suffer in childbirth. And then there were those who felt it disinhibited women and encouraged them to use bad language.
Researching for her dissertation, Marisa was struck by the chaotic nature of Simpson’s household, but also by his warmth and humanity and his ability to transcend the Old Town and New Town divide of Edinburgh society.
Asked what they disagreed about, Marisa said that although they were using a truthful and verifiable framework for their story, she still had a bit of an issue when Chris said to her “its fiction, just make it up”. She was constantly warring between the two different perspectives of factual and imaginative.
They worked separately and together, Marisa writing the female protagonist, Sarah Fisher and Chris writing Will Raven. They would meet and discuss the book, the plot and the characters and not leave the kitchen table until they knew where the book was going. Then Chris would go off to his laptop and Marisa would take her pen and pad and each would write.
Marisa was the one who established the voice early on, getting the language right – historical but accessible.
The character of Will Raven allows Simpson to be explored and explained, while Sarah Fisher is the subject of the social hypocrisy of the time – subjected to female oppression – and she and Will are both characters that readers can identify with.
Marisa says that there are so many stories that she found during her research that they have at least a further two Ambrose Parry books to think about – and that can only be good news!
Jo Nesbo chaired by Lee Randall
Rather brilliantly chaired by Lee Randall, Nesbo was on good form talking about Macbeth, written as part of a project to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in which contemporary authors retell the Bard’s plays in prose for a 21st century audience.
Shakespeare wasn’t that big in Norway when I was growing up, says Nesbo, but Polanski’s film version did leave its mark on the young writer.
He said he would undertake the project only if he could write Macbeth because “Macbeth felt very modern— it manipulates you. You sympathise with the character. It’s like what they do in Breaking Bad.“
He says that he likes the idea of a struggle around hard choices and that an audience is trying to understand, to make excuses for him but is constantly caught on the wrong side.
Asked how he dealt with the supernatural element of the witches, he said that “the problem with Macbeth is the 3 witches— why is there a supernatural element in the story? In my original version, I didn’t have any. But I put them in there to make things add up. Every time I tried to keep them out, it fell apart.” So in the end he pretty much followed the play act by act, scene by scene (though, of course, he added things)
He has given all the characters deep and full backstories, which helped him to explain why characters – and especially Lady – act as they do. He says that he is used to writing a long synopsis before he starts writing – it’s just that this time, William wrote the synopsis. “ I like to have the feeling when I start writing Chapter One that I have a great story and I know exactly where I am going, so you can trust me. I like that as a writer and also as a reader— that the author has a plan.”
His setting he says is a mixture of places – Bergen (where it always rains) and the Newcastle depicted in Get Carter – grey dark, industrialised rife with unemployment drugs and corruption and criminal gangs.
Does power always corrupt? Randall asks Nesbo. “I have talked to people in power, and asked them, do you get corrupted by power. Most of them say, in my case no! But in other cases definitely. It’s difficult to say exactly when and how. But it does happen.”
On the existence of evil he says that the problem is defining what evil is. Is it the absence of good? Or a passive evil – of the sort where you just follow orders. Or is evil a natural state and good is what you have to work at. “Is evil like the cold? In that it doesn’t exactly exist, it’s just an absence— cold is the natural state of molecules. And warmth is when they move. Is that what evil is like? Is evil an absence of good? I don’t know. I’m just a just a guy that writes crime novels.” “What we can do is to ask interesting questions”.
Nesbo talked a bit about his charitable foundation which supports literacy projects for children in a number of developing countries – for example putting young Indian girls through 10 years of school – a massive commitment. Education and health are his priorities and the foundation commits 5-6m euros to that purpose.
For those who need to know – Harry Hole will be back next year in The Knife.
Monday 27 August
Kjell Ola Dahl and Denzil Meyrick chaired by Philip Ardagh
This was without doubt the most fun session I attended. Philip Ardagh was an excellent chair, managing (only just) to keep Denzil Meyrick on topic.
Kjell Ola Dahl has written 9 books in his Oslo Detective series, of which 6 have been translated into English. Gunnarstande, one of his main characters, started off as a very grumpy individual, but over time he has got nicer. Kjell likes to spend time with his characters, to get to know them better and then to see how they react under pressure.
When you write a series you are punished by the circumstances and place, he says. Oslo is my city and I like to explore it. It’s always changing. That’s very inspiring. The city becomes a character in its own right.
Denzil Meyrick writes about Campbeltown, though he calls it Kinloch. It’s one of the most unique places in Scotland—far away from the main centres of population, but still on the mainland. It has this feeling of being in the 50s or 60s. There’s a sort of otherness there, he says.
He is pretty scathing about the merger of forces into Police Scotland. He reckons it isn’t working because its run by city cops who have no idea about rural life. Homogeneity, he says, doesn’t work. “You only have to look at Campbeltown on a Saturday night v Glasgow on the same evening to see that they are completely different.
Denzil likes each of his books to come from a different perspective and Kjell has different detectives at the forefront of his books. There is Kjell says, always a different angle to the truth.
“One of the fascinating things about detection is you try to find the truth. But I am fond of things we don’t know, like the underworld, the small people who live there. I write about society and people in society. They are affected by politics and other people’s decisions.”
Kjell Ola Dahl says his influences encompass Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and of course, Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Denzil is a big fan of William McIlvanney’s work.
Kjell Ola Dahl s next book is TheCourier … a stand-alone set in WW2 which will be out in 2019.
Denzil says he will shortly be starting a Brian Scott twitter feed…..
And so that’s the summary of what I attended complete. Except that I haven’t mentioned the exceptional Amnesty International sessions based around Writers in Prison – part of Freedom – a main strand of the Festival. These were moving and passionate and really well attended I’m glad to say.
Also of serious note was the astonishingly good and innovative photography of Chris Close, on display throughout the festival. I loved his imagination and the great photos he brought out of the authors. Here’s a couple by way of example. You can follow him on Instagram @author_pics
Also, my thanks for the company to the wonderful #teamOrenda and their fairy godmother, Karen. It was lovely to spend some time with you all as well as to see Jackie Collins, Kelly Lacey, Joanne Baird, Lainy Swanson, Olga Wojtas and so many others:) .
Of course, I may have bought the odd book while I was there…
Finally, huge thanks to the efficient, friendly and highly professional staff in the Press Yurt. Frances, Rollo, Christine & Lisa, you work so hard and seldom see daylight. Thank you!