I went to ChipLitFest in Chipping Norton for the first time on Saturday. This popular book festival has been running for about five years and attracts a wide range of authors. In fact I had huge problems choosing which panels to go to because there were so many good ones going on at the same time. In the end I plumped for three that were in the same venue as I didn’t know the town at all. Now that I’ve been, I can see how close the venues are and how easy it would have been to get around. I know now for next year!
Looking through my notes, I’ve realised that I took far too many. I listened to three one hour panels and I’m in danger of writing something that could take three hours to read! So, instead I’m going to choose my favourite bits from each panel and just give you edited highlights.
Firstly, New Voices with debut authors Fiona Barton (The Widow), Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats And Sheep) and AA Dhand (The Streets of Darkness) and chaired by Sue Cook. To the question – how and where do you write – the answers were varied and a little surprising. Joanna Cannon can write anywhere in the house as long as there’s silence. To make sure of that, she gets up at 3 am to write for a few hours, then walks her dog, writes a bit more and after that, off to work. AA Dhand writes between 11pm-2am in a little alcove on his landing. He did have an office but he prefers the intimacy of the alcove. Fiona Barton though is a duvet writer! (I like the sound of this!) She starts writing as soon as she wakes up around 7am. As she said, it’s a bit Dame Barbara but that’s what works for her.
Competitions have worked well for the debut authors. AA Dhand signed with his agent after entering a novel competition. Joanna Cannon took part in a book pitch comp at a literary festival in York on a Friday evening. She won and by Monday she had seven offers of representation. Fiona Barton entered the Richard and Judy Novel competition and was shortlisted. She didn’t win but found her future agent (Madeline Milburn) in a Google search.
The next panel was Liar, Liar with Lucy Atkins (The Other Child), Amanda Jennings (In Her Wake), CL Taylor (The Missing) and Hannah Beckerman (The Dead Wife’s Handbook) chairing. The authors were discussing their favourite fictional liars. Lucy chose Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, Amanda – Ian McEwan’s Briony from Atonement, Cally – Gillian Flynn’s Amy from Gone Girl and Hannah – F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
Are they liars that we love to hate or is it possible to have sympathy for them? All the panel had sympathy for Gatsby. He just wanted to get the girl and so his lies were almost justified. Amy could never live up to Amazing Amy, created by her parents, so her whole life became a lie. Ripley was vulnerable, damaged and would take umbrage at other people’s lies . Briony was a naïve 13 year old and believed she was doing the right thing.
I think for me, the most interesting thing about this panel was understanding the unreliable narrator and how he or she should be written. As CL Taylor said, readers don’t like being duped but at the same time, it adds mystery to the book. The reader doesn’t know if the narrator can be trusted. I certainly know that after reading Gone Girl, I’ve approached books in a different way and wondered if I can trust the narrator. Sometimes I spot it but sometimes I don’t!
The final panel was Criminal Violence with Eva Dolan (After You Die), David Mark (Dead Pretty) and Stav Sherez (Eleven Days) with Mike Gayle as chair. As the panel was called Criminal Violence, Mike Gayle posed the question – do you think your books are violent? Stav said yes but went on to say that he uses historical violence so it’s already happened. He thought it would be wrong to soft peddle it as it would then lose its consequence. Eva said that she didn’t like gratuitous violence and if used, it had to be justified. She’s far more interested in showing the after effects of crime and she’s careful to not titillate the violence or diminish the suffering. As a former Crime Desk journalist, David Mark has covered over a thousand murder trials and believes that deep down, everyone is capable of killing someone and compared to what’s written in a book, much worse happens in the world.
Mike Gayle asked how does it feel to write crime? For Eva, it’s just a technical process and she’s more aware of how it’s going to be perceived. Stav said that it’s just words, it’s important to get the right sentence and that he’s more emotional when thinking about it and researching it. It’s the bit of writing that David likes least, he prefers reading it back.
My favourite quote from the session came from Stav – crime novels aren’t about violence but about justice, that readers love the intellectual game of looking for clues and solving the crime.
And I guess that’s why I, and millions of other readers, keep coming back for more.