Aug 29, 2011

The Rest of the Edinburgh Book Festival

Edinburgh Book Festival

As I told you yesterday, my first day at the Edinburgh Book Festival was by far the most exciting, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a wonderful time the rest of the week. This post will be a recap of all the other events I attended, followed by a few pictures of some of my other literary exploits.

It was only when writing this that I realised that with China MiĆ©ville’s cancellation, I attended nothing but children’s events during my whole time in Edinburgh. I could justify this in the name of professional interest, or through the fact that tickets are half the price of those to adult’s events, but my unapologetic love of children’s literature is a simpler and truer reason. I really enjoyed most of what I attended, and came back with a long mental list of additions to the TBR pile.

It was very interesting to notice that so many authors and creators across genres and media said very much the same things. By this I don’t mean that the sessions I attended were repetitive; just that I found the thematic similarities genuinely interesting. They had me wondering what the fact that so many of the authors I enjoy approach writing similarly might say about the reasons why I’m drawn to them to begin with. Some of the things they all had in common were a genuine respect for their audiences; a desire for their themes to emerge organically from their writing; and a complete willingness to give up exclusive authorial control over meaning and encourage readers to create their own. This might seem like a given, but I noticed that the authors whose talks didn’t appeal to me were exactly the ones who didn’t seem to approach writing this way.

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On Tuesday I attended a session by Morris Gleitzman and Jason Wallace, which was unfortunately my least favourite of the week. This is probably inevitable when you’re far more interested in one author than the other and the latter ends up dominating the session. Also – and again this is down to personal preferences – I find that there are much better ways to use a strictly limited one hour time slot than extensive readings. Hearing an author read from their work can be a wonderful experience, but not everyone is Neil Gaiman in this regard.

The problem with long readings is that they take up a lot of time and often leave very little time for audience questions. I find this a great shame in children’s sessions in particular. Having said this, I did enjoy the excerpt of Too Small to Fail that Morris Gleitzman read. This is a new book set against the current banking crises, and it sounded both funny and sad in a very typically Gleitzman sort of way.

One of the highlights of the session was hearing Gleitzman say that ambiguity is one of the things that appeal to him the most in fiction, both as a storyteller and as a reader. He said likes how today’s children’s literature is not about “pre-digested nuggets of moralising”, but instead gives readers the chance to make their own choices and develop their own moral landscape. He also added that connecting with a fictional character can challenge your assumptions about the world almost better than anything else; it gives you a chance to experiment with ideas and perspectives in a private and non-threatening way. This is true for readers of all ages, I think.

Morris Gleitzman signing

Gleitzman believes in the motto, “write what you know”, but only in an emotional sense. If you can imagine what something feels like, you are capable of writing about it – and we all can extend our imagination beyond our immediate experience. Also, he’s interested in the process through which children realise that their parents and other adults are human beings, not infallible superheroes, and don’t necessarily have all the answers or solutions. The fact that he writes about this process so movingly was exactly what appealed to me the most about Two Weeks with the Queen. Finally, he said that adults make a mistake when they assume that children’s feelings lack the depth or complexity of their own. Again, a children’s novelist who truly respects his audience – no wonder he’s so good.

There was a young reader at the end who asked Morris Gleitzman whether he felt that the incredibly tragic ending of his book Then was appropriate for children. He answered that as hard as it was to end the story like that, it would have felt wrong to write about the Holocaust and shy away from it when things like that did constantly happen – and this is true even if your audience is children. This reminded me of what Patrick Ness was saying in his session about telling the truth – otherwise you risk cheapening any hopefulness you might want to offer. My favourite part of the exchange was seeing the girl who asked the question agree: she said she’s heard adults say it was inappropriate, but to her the ending felt absolutely right and necessary even though it made her cry.

On Wednesday I attended a session by Katie Grant (K.M. Grant) and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Somewhat to my surprise this was my favourite after Patrick Ness and Moira Young’s. I say this because I have never read Grant and have only read Crossley-Holland’s retellings of Norse Myths, but I walked away from the Corner Theatre a fan of them both.

Kevin Crossley-Holland is a Carnegie winner fantasy and historical novelist; Katie Grant also specialises in historical fiction, and is one of the members of the excellent blog The History Girls. I loved hearing them speak – both were passionate, incredibly interesting, and provided a session that was a complete delight for any history nerd.

Kevin Crossley-Holland and Katie Grant

The session mainly focused on their most recent novels: Grant’s Belle’s Song is set in the Middle Ages and features Chaucer is his role as a spy, and Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Bracelet of Bones is set in the 11th century and follows a Viking girl travelling to Constantinople. Both authors said that concrete objects and places fuel their imagination by making them ask questions about history. For Grant, seeing marginalia on a medieval bible brought the monks who created it to life; for Crossley-Holland, it was seeing a Viking rune in graffiti at the Hagia Sophia. Little details like these make them wonder about the “what ifs” of history, and that’s what starts it all.

What I loved the most about this session was seeing how passionate both authors were about history – I now really want to read their books just because I bet all this enthusiasm really shines through.

The “Quirks of a Teenage Mind” session later the same day featured Kate De Goldi, Julia Donaldson and Ruth Eastham. De Goldi was the reason why I was there, and unfortunately there were once again too many authors reading and too little time. When you have three authors reading from their work, two thirds of the session will be gone before you know it, and there will be little time for anything else. If you really enjoy readings that’s not a problem, of course, but personally I much prefer hearing authors speak about their work, or seeing them interact with the audience. I will say that Julia Donaldson is an excellent and very expressive reader, though – I really enjoyed the excerpt of her novel Running on the Cracks.

Kate De Goldi, Julia Donaldson and Ruth Eastham

Kate De Goldi said that The 10PM Question started with her own child’s anxiety issues, plus with her desire to write about a family where a parent has a mental illness and yet people still get by. She wanted to write about a family coping the best way they could, still functioning despite their circumstances, and to focus on “the everydayness of family life”. I think she succeeded splendidly – I loved The 10PM Question exactly because it dealt with its subject matter seriously but not bleakly, and because it’s filled with humour, humanity and warmth.

I got my copy of the novel signed at the end, and got to tell Kate De Goldi it was my favourite read of the year so far. She was extremely friendly, and asked me what I did. When I said I was in library school she said librarians were her favourite people, and if she wasn’t author she would have been a children’s and YA librarian herself. Needless to say, this made me very happy.

Me talking to the lovely Kate De Goldi

Last but not least, I attended a session by the amazing Shaun Tan, who started by drawing us a very Shaun Tan-ish single giant eyeball creature so we could have a glimpse of the process behind his work. He also showed us excerpts of the Oscar-winning short animated movie “The Lost Thing” and spoke about the process of turning it from a book into a movie.

Tan said his stories often start as vague images – he doesn’t worry about theme or meaning and leaves that up to the readers, who are welcome to come up with their own. He gave the final scene of “The Lost Thing” as an example – he doesn’t know what the door coming down is about, exactly; only that emotionally it feels real. It can be read in different and even contradictory ways, all of which are valid. He doesn’t expect readers to scrutinize his work for any specific meanings he created, but rather to create their own.

He also talked a bit about how drawing is to him a way of creating a powerful imaginary world, and about how he loves the conciseness of picture books – they force him to distil everything to the absolute essential.

Shaun Tan signing. Sadly all my copies of his books are back home.

Again, these are only the highlights of the session, but if I wrote in more detail we’d be here all day. Needless to say, I loved my time at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and would love to go back as soon as life allows it. Another really cool thing about the festival was how easy it was to simply run into authors everywhere. Julia Donaldson was at pretty much every session I attended; if I were less shy I’d have gone up to her to thank her for being such a champion for libraries as the Children’s Laureate. I also saw Neil Gaiman hanging out with Shaun Tan (how cool is that?), Jon Ronson, Jo Nesbo, Mal Peet, David Lodge, etc. I’ll leave you with a few more pictures:

Charlotte Square Gardens

Literary chairs at the festival

Jo Nesbo. I had to take this picture for Sandy and Jill, of course.

Jon Ronson. I finished The Psychopath Test recently and really wish I could have made it to his session.

Guardian panel with reader recommendations. I had to add my own, of course. In case you're wondering, it was Kraken.

The festival bookshop

Exhibition on banned books at the Scottish National Library

Margaret Oliphant Memorial at St Giles' Cathedral

At the Elephant House, "birthplace" of Harry Potter, as per Steph's recommendation!

A lovely bookshop.

Outside the Writer's Museum

Detail of the amazing and very steampunkish Millennium Clock. Many thanks for the recommendation, GeraniumCat!


  1. Thanks for your great post with beautiful pictures. It's a nice way to get some idea of the event. I would have loved to go but it wasn't a realistic option for me.

  2. This was fun to read about. Again, I am so glad you had fun!

  3. Gaaaah! I totally feel like booking a flight to Edinburgh next year! (well, I've felt that way for a long time, book festival or no!) And how amazing that it doesn't look as claustrophobically crowded as American book festivals - it looks like it would actually be enjoyable to be there just as a place to be! Thanks so much for helping us experience it vicariously AND for the picture of Jo Nesbo (did you drop him my address?) and the video of "Neil" singing and all of the wonderful highlights (they all were highlights, really) of these posts!

  4. I love that you included what Morris Gleitzman said about "write what you know" so much I pasted it in a message to my daughter, a sometimes-aspiring writer. Thanks for the armchair tour of the events!

  5. What a fun, fun event! I want one of those chairs. I think I would have had to buy more of Tan's books just to get his autograph. I adore his work.

  6. Ah, this is incredible!!! I think I would've been upset too to hear so many you, I'd much rather hear an author talk. But it sounds like what they all DID have to say was wonderful. Love the Gleitzman panel from what I heard through you :) And I just love so much that you got to meet all of these people :D

  7. This all looks so lovely and interesting. I've never been to a festival like this, would really like too though.

  8. Lovely post as always:) The lit fest looked like it was very cosy and laid back (just how it should be!) and I'm glad you got some sunshine!

  9. So great that you posted some wonderful pics and included discussion points! Makes me feel better about not having been there myself. Hope you're feeling reenergized after taking a break from the thesis :)

  10. Shoot, how did I end up in tears again? What an amazing festival, Ana! I'm so glad you went and that you took the time to share the experience with us. I LOVE what Morris Gleitzman had to say; I could seriously hug the man.

    Again, thank you for sharing this with us! I felt like I was right there with you :)

  11. Leeswammes: I hope you can make it one day! Meanwhile, I'm glad you enjoyed the pictures :)

    Kelly: I really did. I wish you guys could have been there too!

    Jill: You would love it! It was definitely not claustrophobically crowded - even when there were queues that went all the way around the square, like for Neil Gaiman and Jo Nesbo, there was plenty of room to move around. As for your address, I'll remember next time ;)

    Jeanne: You're most welcome!

    Kathy: I was VERY tempted to, but the trip itself had already put too much of a strain on my finances. Hopefully I'll have another opportunity in the future!

    Chris: I so wish you'd been there with me!

    Jessica: It was such a lovely experience :)

    Sakura: It really was! And although I did get some rain, overall I was incredibly lucky with the weather.

    Bina: I am, yes! And what I'd written still made sense after I came back, which is always a good thing :P

    Emily: I wanted to hug him too! Have you read Two Weeks With the Queen? If not, do asap! Thanks for reading - it's lovely to be able to share the experience with you all :)

  12. No, I haven't read it! In fact, I'd never even heard of Morris Gleitzman until I read this post! I will read it soon, I promise :)

  13. Thanks for taking te time to recap your Edinburugh trip Nymeth, I'm enjoying attending vicariously.

    I've loved Morris Gleitzman since reading Misery Guts as a kid, and coincedentally read a past interview with him only this week- you might find it interesting, particulary as the session was disappointing.

    I bought The 10pm Question on your recommendation and must read it soon!

  14. Emily, I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

    Sarah: Thank you so much for the link - that was a fascinating interview! The only reason why the session was a let down was because Wallace ended up dominating it and I didn't find myself nearly as interested in his work/insights. The Gleitzman bits were all brilliant - if only there had been more of them! Also, I really hope you enjoy The 10PM Question :)

  15. Again, this festival sounds so wonderful. I love that there are authors out there that believe, that "adults make a mistake when they assume that children’s feelings lack the depth or complexity of their own." I have found this to be so true with my own son. He has always had such deep and analytical observations of things from a very young age.

  16. Everything about this trip sounds fantastic and I've enjoyed these posts enormously, because your enthusiasm is so catching.

  17. "Some of the things they all had in common were a genuine respect for their audiences; a desire for their themes to emerge organically from their writing; and a complete willingness to give up exclusive authorial control over meaning and encourage readers to create their own." All of this. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Wow. Just wow.

  18. The pictures made me salivate! The books, the authors, everything was just perfect! Loved your pictures, Ana, and thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  19. Is it crazy that I JUST learned about this festival the other week (and now I'm seeing it here on your blog)??! I've been thinking about going next year (good excuse to travel, no?) and here you are giving it a personal review! Thanks for the info and the insight. :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.