Held a fascinating event tonight. Orange Prize 2011 judge, Liz Calder came to Browsers to talk about the experience of being on the panel of five and reading from a list of 150 titles to choose this year's winner.
Actually, she didn't read all 150 (although the head of the judges, Bettany Hughes, did apparently). Each of the judges had 30 books given to them in December, and had to report back to the panel in March. From this discussion, the longlist was chosen, and all the judges then had to read these books.
Liz said that she learned as a publisher that the only way to get through a big pile of books was to get up early and, before the business of the day is started, do your reading. Now retired (although still involved in organising the annual literature festival in Brazil and running a new publishing company based in Suffolk), she found she was able to clear the decks and read constantly for the six months, and some books she read two or three times in order to be sure she had made the right decision. She believes she has read 70 books and it has been 'exhilarating'!
When I first saw the shortlist, though, my heart sank. There was nothing there that appealed to me. I thought I ought to read them in order to be better informed for Liz's visit and what a treat this turned out to be.
I've read four of the six titles (pretty poor considering Liz's tally), and they all surprised me. 'Room' was amazing. I really didn't want to read it, but thought it was very well done. But my favourite - so far - is 'The Memory of Love'. Every time I picked it up I was transported. Not that the subject or location was a particular draw for me, but the writing and the pace was so relaxing and enjoyable. I felt that I was being looked after by someone clever and gifted. It felt a privilege to read it every time I turned the page.
It looked like a perfect event to organise. An award-winning children's author had set her latest book around Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, and wanted to come to the area to launch the title.
But Harriet Goodwin was visiting when the state schools had a PD day, and the private schools were breaking up for half term. Not one school could send pupils to Sutton Hoo for the event!
Fortunately Harriet travelled down to the area earlier in the week, so we managed to arrange for her to go into one of the local primary schools to talk about 'Gravenhunger'.
Dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt, Harriet looked fairly unassuming. She told the children she was a mother of four and a professional singer, who made time to write by not having a television in the house and not doing any ironing! The adults in the room may have been more interested in this insight into household affairs and priority-setting, but no one could fail to take notice when Harriet demonstrated her singing ability. Classically trained, she showed the children how she would warm up her voice before a performance. They all had to put their fingers in their ears, such was the volume of her voice. Stunning.
For 30 minutes, Harriet spoke in depth about the writing and publishing process for her first book 'The Boy who Fell Down Exit 42'. It was very interesting, but I was getting increasingly more fidgety, thinking she needed quickly to move on to 'Gravenhunger' - the book I had brought along in large quantities to sell, and with the link to the history of Sutton Hoo as the reason she had been invited into the school. I needn't have worried, though, as Harriet had paced her talk perfectly. By its conclusion, the children were stumbling over each other to buy their copy of 'Gravenhunger' and have it signed by the author.
At our Book Group meeting last week, we discussed 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie. Unfortunately it wasn't generally liked and, interestingly, we found ourselves discussing our perceptions of the author almost as much as the content of the book. Of course Rushdie has had a higher profile than most authors, but I do have to confess that my knowledge of an author (however slight), or the story of how a novel was inspired and created, can influence my approach to their work.
This weekend I attended the Charleston Literature Festival. I had booked just one talk on each of the three days of my stay and hadn't been adventurous in my choice. The sessions, then, were entertaining and informative, but not particularly challenging. But there was one surprise: Edward St Aubyn. I knew nothing of him or his writing, but my friend she hadn't got on with the one book of his she had tried. He spoke of his new book alongside Esther Freud and they proved interesting foils.
St Aubyn, with a drawling voice, and eyes fixed to the floor or some distant corner of the book tent, seemed at first to find attending such an event beneath him. But, as the session continued, it became apparent that he was ill at ease with making himself available for analysis. He writes about things he cannot bring himself to talk about, he explained when the interviewer wanted to cross-examine him about the autobiographical content of his novels. And the process of producing the books seemed to be quite tortuous. Revealing a wry, self-deprecating humour, which was more and more apparent as the session continued, he explained that he had to lock himself away in a windowless room, painted dark blue, in order to attempt to complete the books at all. He was an intriguing character and, while I am not still not immediately drawn to his books, I feel now that I should at least give them a try.
Had a great attendance for Robert Radcliffe at Browsers this evening, talking about his latest novel Dambuster. The author talks always draw more men than the book groups I hold at Browsers, but it was just about 50:50 this evening due to the nature of the subject.
I had the privilege of 'interviewing' Robert this evening (though really it was more a case of giving him chance to take breath and a sip of water). He was a very confident speaker even when battling to be heard over a pack of squealing, fighting dogs outside, and seeking to swat a fly which wanted to steal the limelight.
It was interesting to hear a different perspective on the writing process from Robert. He says he plans very carefully and knows exactly what is going to happen next; there is no danger of the characters taking the story in another direction for him. In fact he writes cvs for all his characters, he says. He writes from 6am to 4pm five days a week, and each book takes a year - six months research and six months to write.
I really wanted this evening's event with Amanda Hodgkinson to be a success because I so enjoyed the book - 22 Britannia Road. And with the author coming from Suffolk (and looking so familiar in her publicity photo!), it seemed even more important that it should do well here. Unfortunately there weren't huge numbers in attendance but actually it was a lovely gathering. This was Amanda's first event. But she's speaking at Waterstone's in Ipswich tomorrow and then goes on tour of independent bookshops in America! She gave a thoughtful and informative account of how the book came about and everyone left clutching a book and eager to start reading.