Monday, 28 September 2015

REVIEW: Write on Kew

Write on Kew was Kew Gardens' first ever literary festival, running from 24th-27th September. There were more than 80 events running over the 4 days, including talks about fiction, children's literature, gardening and cookery. Located in Kew Gardens itself, the literary festival gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, and other attractions in between talks. It was really convenient to have everything on site, and so close together - especially with the lovely weather, it made for a fantastic couple of days out. I've been quite disappointed in the line-ups of other literary festivals in recent years, and this was the first I'd found since attending the 2013 Oxford Literary Festival where I've been really keen to see several of the visiting authors. We decided to get tickets for Margaret Atwood, David Nicholls, Bill Bryson and Louis de Bernieres. 

Margaret Atwood (25th Sept)
I've been a big fan of Margaret Atwood since reading The Handmaid's Tale shortly after I'd finished my A Levels. I am not a big lover of science fiction, but there's something about the dystopian societies that Atwood creates that I find so engaging, exciting and a little bit terrifying. Atwood's new novel The Heart Goes Last, released only a couple of days ago, was the main topic of conversation. I'm yet to read it but, after having heard her spoken about it and read a couple of extracts, I'm so eager to! It speculates about a futuristic North East USA, where a financial crisis (much like that of 2008...) leaves half the population unemployed and poverty-stricken. The only viable solution seems to be the proposed project Consilience, an enormous prison where citizens take it in turns to be inmates and guards. Weaved within this apocalyptic world, in true Atwood fashion, are some strong feminist characters and a good old love story. 

Listening to Margaret talk about this book, and the other work she's involved in - including the Future Library Project and The Hogarth Shakespeare series - was amazing. She's an eccentric, interesting and intelligent woman, and her passion for her work and ultimately for being involved and progressing the world of literature and publishing is so evident. Seeing Margaret Atwood definitely made me want to go back and read some of her earlier novels (after I've finished her most recent!), and also follow her on Twitter! If she's anywhere nearly as funny online as she is in person, my Twitter feed is in for a real treat. If you ever have the chance to catch Margaret Atwood, be it at another festival or book signing (or on last Friday's Newsnight!) then absolutely do. Not only is she a fantastic author, but a totally intriguing and unique character. 

David Nicholls (26th Sept)
I expected to really like David Nicholls, and I really did. Bill Bryson talked about the anonymity of lots of authors: most, we love their books, but we don't really know who they are, what they look like, but David Nicholls was exactly the person I anticipated him to be. In some ways I was most looking forward to seeing David Nicholls, since he was the only author of whose books I had read every single one (well, all 4). For me, Nicholls is the master of the ideal holiday read: not trashy but not requiring huge amounts of concentration; a love story; good characters; and fairly fast-paced plots. Though I enjoyed Us and One Day (and was pretty unimpressed with The Understudy), Starter for 10 remains my favourite (and my favourite one dramatised) and this seemed to be a feeling shared by much of the audience. He talked about his character development, which I really admire; the work that authors are now required to do beyond writing, like book signings and festivals and radio shows; and how his books, screenplays and films all come into being. 

As both a screenwriter and an author, David Nicholls was able to offer a really interesting and informed perspective on the dramatisation of novels. I learned how about how, often, writers have fairly little control over the direction of the dramatisation of their novel after selling the rights, which was something I hadn't really realised - I'd always thought they were fairly influential in the process. I wasn't surprised to discover that he'd written the screenplay for One Day - but was really curious as to understand more about why he wouldn't do it again. He spoke about the difficulty of having to cut your novel down, which you've already cut down, into 120 minutes for the film: being required to change certain scenes, and cut out some of your favourites, simply because they don't operate on screen nearly as well as they do on the page. Much of this talk was focused around Nicholls' screen writing, and how that's been influential in shaping his career as an author, which was something I really glad to have heard about. He ended the talk by saying how this was the last time he was going to speak about Us in this sort of environment, and that next week he'd be buying his new notebook and pen, and get planning for novel no. 5! 

Bill Bryson (26th Sept)
I left Kew on Saturday night thinking 'I wish Bill Bryson was my grandad'. Undoubtedly I enjoyed this talk the most, completely captivated by Bill Bryson in all his intellect, humour and experience. This one felt more like 'an hour with Bill Bryson' rather than him having come to publicise his new work, which I think I actually preferred; we got a real insight into the things he enjoys, the experiences he has whilst researching and writing, and about his life told through his books. I laughed, almost constantly, for an hour at Bill's tales of being banned from McDonald's by his wife after an unfortunate scenario resulting in 20 Big Macs; of his tales of odious childhood neighbours; and his feelings about Robert Redford playing him in the recent film A Walk in the Woods

Despite instruction from his publishers not to give too much away, Bryson spoke a little about his newest book: The Road to Little Dribbling, which is basically Notes From a Small Island take 2. On the 20th anniversary of Notes From a Small Island, Bryson decided to explore England again - to see what had changed, and what had stayed the same. He said that England is, ultimately, still the same country he fell in love with 20 years ago, but with more litter. As someone who's visited very little of the UK, I'm looking forward to reading it and hope that it informs some of my anticipated exploration! I don't think anyone left the room not having really enjoyed the hour, and feeling totally in awe of Bryson's hilarity, humility and honesty. 

Louis de Bernieres (26th Sept)
I'd spent the days in the run up to seeing Louis de Bernieres speed reading his most recent novel, The Dust That Falls From Dreams, a tale of love amongst war. Although I appreciated the technicality of the novel, enjoying the multiple narrators and the knowledgeable historical element, I didn't love the story itself. Louis spoke in great depth about his inspiration for the novel, and his interest in wartime Britain stemming from stories told to him by his grandfather, a pilot in the war. He is clearly really well informed about that period of history and, interestingly, tends to draw on the stories of normal, everyday people rather than focusing on those of politicians and royals which we so often hear about. During the Q&A session, one member of the audience asked a really provocative question about pain - that lots of Louis de Bernieres' characters were victims of pain and suffering, and how was it that he knew so much about this? He spoke of a really unpleasant time at boarding school as a child and, having also spoken about his young family and love for his children, this really rung quite true and deep - and, I think, touched many members of the audience.

Overall, I really enjoyed my couple of days at Kew. I was so impressed by the general organisation and structure of the event, and I really hope to see it back with an equally exciting line-up next year. There is such variety, even when you're not looking for it. I expected to attend 4 talks about 4 books, but instead learned a huge amount about the authors' own lives, work and inspirations; the other projects they're involved in; their interests and influences in politics and history; and what interesting individuals they all are. I'd 100% recommend the festival, and seeing all 4 of the authors speak if you ever get a chance. 

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