Today marked my first visit to Guildford Book Festival, an institution now in its 30th year. So beloved has the event come that 2019 sees the launch of the Festival’s first Spring Readers’ Day, attracting a stellar line-up of authors.
I adore book festivals: what’s not to love about seeing your favourite authors come together to talk about their shared passion? Today, Elizabeth Noble, Seni Glaister, Sophie Hannah, Lucy Foley, Erin Kelly, Marianne Kavanagh and Prue Leith all chatted and joked about the trials & tribulations of being an author.
It was a fantastic day, interspersed with Prosecco and lashings of wit and humour: I can’t wait to return in October. Here, though, are my thoughts on today’s first panel discussion, hosted by Fanny Blake and featuring Elizabeth Noble and Seni Glaister.
Elizabeth, or Lizzie, as she prefers to be known, needs no introduction from me. Her first novel, ‘The Reading Group, was an instant bestseller and her career has gone from strength to strength. I love her warm, intelligent writing and her perceptive take on the human condition and am very much looking forward to reading her latest novel, ‘Love Iris’, whose protagonist, Tess, is coming to terms with her grandmother’s dementia. It’s a subject becoming increasingly relevant to our society – and one that scares the bejesus out of most of us.
‘Mr Doubler Begins Again’ is Seni Glaister’s second novel. She found phenomenal success in a previous life as founder & CEO of The Book People, which she left in 2015 to launch WeFiFo. The latter came about, Seni told us, because she kept meeting “astonishingly talented” home cooks who couldn’t find a platform when they wanted to challenge themselves or make some money from their skills.
WeFiFo was also inspired by the fact that one half of all meals in the UK are eaten alone – indicative, Seni believes, of massive changes in our society. The online platform brings people together to eat with no hidden agenda nor fear of stigma.
This theme of loneliness permeates ‘Mr Doubler Begins Again’, which was written while Seni was “thinking a lot about people on their own and trying to get into their heads”. Here is a character who lives alone on his potato farm, but is making a successful living – from gin, the audience was tickled to hear. He is a pedant, and can be annoying – but readers, Seni told us, fall in love with him because of his knowledge and his love of food (and gin). An important theme of the book is Mr Doubler’s relationship with his housekeeper, with whom he forms a strong telephone bond after she is taken ill. Through her eyes, we come to see why Mr Doubler is who he is.
Lizzie approached ‘Love Iris’ from the perspective of someone whose husband lost both his parents to dementia. In the latter stages of their respective illnesses, she recalls, there was the sense that each time he saw them a little bit more of them was lost; that inexorable disappearance of people you love coupled with the regret of questions that will forever remain unanswered. In Tess’s case, she loves her grandmother dearly and isn’t ready to let her go; dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and “flaky” mother (Donna), she strikes up an unlikely friendship with the middle-aged Gigi. All of these women are keeping secrets, Lizzie mysteriously informed us.
A number of years have elapsed since the publication of Lizzie’s most recent novel: why is this, when all her books have been so successful? The gap, she told us, coincided with a difficult period in her life, made worse, as she approached the age of 50, by that fear that so many women speak of: becoming invisible.
It was simultaneously comforting and terrifying, hearing such a clever and talented woman talking about that fear: what a world we live in. It made her wonder, Lizzie continued, whether people would still be interested in what she had to say…but gradually, the character of Iris lodged in her head and stayed there.
The term “Up Lit” was a new one on me today – and on Lizzie. I don’t know who invented it, but apparently it has been applied to both Lizzie’s and Seni’s work – the latter responding that, whilst not a fan of labels, she understands why, in this time of seismic change – and following a long period of “dark” fiction – people are seeking comfort from the books they read.
She is less keen, as is Lizzie, on the deeply irritating “chick lit” moniker. “It’s reductive”, commented Seni – and I fully agree. What a patronising term – and an insult to those who write and read women’s fiction. Why can’t we just enjoy books for books’ sake? I fully agree with Lizzie when she says that literary snobbery is (a) wrong, and (b) never applied to theatre, art or TV: “Sometimes you just want to read a book that you can get lost in and isn’t too “difficult” – and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Hear hear. I’m currently reading ‘The Invitation’ by Lucy Foley, one of the authors present today – and it is excellent, featuring an intelligent plot, well-drawn characters and strong knowledge of 20th century European history. Yet, its cover depicts a Barbie-esque blonde woman with improbably thin thighs reclining by a swimming pool in a way that has nothing to do with the important themes of the book. I don’t know whose interest the publisher was trying to capture, but they’ve immediately ruled out a large chunk of the population.
Rant over, and back to our two authors – and the way in which they approach their writing. Seni, not surprisingly for someone with so many commitments, is very disciplined and goes for a 40-minute walk every morning, during which she “writes in her head”. She aims to capture these thoughts as quickly as possible, be it at the hairdresser’s or on a train, before editing “in a more controlled environment”.
Lizzie, who describes herself as a “professional procrastinator”, takes a less structured approach and fills her time with cleaning the cutlery drawer or doing the laundry…then, 20 minutes before she needs to go out, begins writing. “I have to wait for the tipping point of a novel”, she explained, “and then I know it’ll be OK”. She does, however, know where her characters will end up, because she writes the introduction and final chapter first; Seni, on the other hand, has no idea how her plot will evolve, but forms her characters fully before she puts pen to paper.
Stay tuned for Post 2 from Readers’ Day, in which Erin Kelly meets Lucy Foley.