Sitting at the feet of greatness

In Someone Else's Shoes . . . Jackie's first children's picture book

Why listen to writers talking about their work? JACKIE KAINES is blogging for the 2016 Berwick Literary Festival

There’s something about sitting at the feet of published authors that is totally compelling. But what is it?
Why do we scootle along to literary festivals, writing workshops and book events in droves? Is it for the pearls of wisdom gleaned from authors about the writing process: when they write, where they write, what implements they use?

Or is it to discover how much research they do, where their ideas come from, what they think about point of view, what they eat while they’re writing? Copy them and we might get the same results, perhaps be inspired. . . or maybe we simply like to bask in a little celebrity sparkle dust?

Often we invest writers with a kind of mystique, a special insight over and above the not inconsiderable skill of being able to articulate opinions and stories in a compelling way. Certainly, Victorian poets Wordsworth and Shelley felt they had a calling – that they had been singled out, if you like – to express the human condition with an almost prophetic perception. I’m not saying this is the case for every writer, but we’ve all read things that have touched us in a way that feels beyond expression.

These are the thoughts and questions I’ve been pondering since I volunteered to be co-blogger for the third Berwick Literary Festival in October this year (21st-23rd). I’m looking forward to working alongside my blogging partner, Dawn Tindle, a tea and book addict from Newcastle. And I’m keen to hang out with fellow writers and festival goers alike to hear their take on the meaning of life, the universe and, of course, books and writing.

Maybe I’ll also get to answer some of my many questions. In my experience, writers and readers gathered together in a room guarantees fascinating conversations. Whatever the gen, I shall share all on the Festival blog. Some of this I’ll be doing from my home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and some from the Festival hub, the Corner House Café.

I love chatting to fellow writers and authors and hearing them speak about their work. One of my biggest thrills was popping along to the Cheltenham Literary Festival a few years back and bagging an interview with Radio 4’s James Naughtie (read about that experience here). Naughtie was discussing The Great Tapestry of Scotland with novelist Alexander McCall Smith and historian Alistair Moffatt.

By coincidence, Alistair Moffatt (born in Kelso and a former director of the Edinburgh Fringe) will be closing the first day’s events at this year’s Festival, no doubt chatting about his History of Scotland which The Scotsman dubs ‘commendable’ and ‘a very readable, well-researched and fluent account’. Moffat’s recent appearance at the Borders Book Festival – and his impromptu solo talk after Gordon Brown had to pull out following the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox – has been described as a ‘tour de force’.

David Starkey: whatever your take, you have to listen!
David Starkey: whatever your take, you have to listen!

Berwick also has a plethora of local writers, historians and illustrators to call upon. The blend of visiting speakers, local/community historians and authors (such as poet Katrina Porteous who’ll be doing a recital with Northumbrian piper Alice Burn, novelist Margaret Skea and children’s writer/illustrator Helen Stephens), informal events such as the drop-in poetry café and schools talks is a huge strength. I shall be tracking down Festival organisers and authors and anticipate sharing more details about writers and events between now and October on the Festival blog.

Meanwhile, what about my literary (or not so literary) credentials? In my mid-20s I was a copywriter at the BBC and wannabe author. I read ‘How To’ books about writing poetry, children’s fiction, novels, radio plays. I wrote copiously in tiny notebooks. My jottings were barely legible. I scribbled down thoughts about “the man on the Tube with the trellised face and bubblegum nose”; anecdotes about what my toddler said; details of the habits of the rakish blackbird in the back garden.

I went regularly to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, now in its 68th year. I met fabulous people there, some of whom I’m still in touch with 30 years later. I listened to and questioned many authors – from Mills & Boon writers, to historians, to poets, to children’s authors – some well-known, others less so. Swanwick week was littered with interesting conversations, plenty of beers, much hilarity and some heartache. The return home was marked by fevered writing sessions late into the night and the rustle of pages of the ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook’ seeking vital info for ‘when the time comes’.

By some miracle, in 1991 at the age of 29 I agreed a deal with Blackie Books (an imprint of Penguin) to publish my first children’s picture book. I’d made it!

In fact, I hadn’t. Getting number two book accepted proved difficult – okay, impossible. Despite the haste with which I’d joined the Society of Authors and got myself a literary agent, my first picture book proved to be my last (so far!). A few years passed and I was contracted to write a couple of pre-teen novels, one of which never saw the light of day because the publisher was bought out just before ‘Star Crossed’ (yep, highbrow stuff) went to press.

Getting books published was hard then and still is today. That’s one of the reasons it’s so fascinating to meet and listen to people who’ve done it. It’s as if for just a moment we step through the magical membrane that separates us, the readers, from them, the writers.

As we read a book we might be touched by its themes or subjects, we may believe we could have done a better job or simply wonder at the cleverness of it all. Through the act of reading and engaging with the work we become part of the story, but the story is not ‘ours’. It’s engaging with the author that somehow gives us a greater stake in their work and their lives as writers.

And that’s why I can’t wait to meet the story tellers who will share themselves and their work with us in Berwick during three all-too-brief days in October. I hope you’ll join us.

Berwick Literary Festival
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