Aye Write! Glasgow Book Festival 2011
Candia McWilliam and Jackie Kay among highlights of literary festival
2011 is the sixth year of the Aye Write! Glasgow Book Festival, a celebration of reading, writing and storytelling, with events featuring writers from all over Scotland. Held in the stunning Mitchell Library, the packed programme runs from Fri 4 Mar until Sat 12 Mar. Not only are there author events, where you can listen to writers discussing their work in one of the vast lecture theatres, but, with 2011 being the 30th anniversary of Alasdair Gray's classic novel Lanark, there is an extensive exhibition of Gray's artwork in the main hall of the library. World-renowned authors in this year's programme include Edinburgh legend Alexander McCall Smith; crime writer Jo Nesbo; author of Tipping the Velvet (1998), Sarah Waters and fiction and science-fiction author Iain M. Banks, famed for such novels as The Wasp Factory (1984) and The Crow Road (1992).
Mitchell Library appeared to be in full attendance on Sunday 6 March, when the halls were streaming with packs of wandering adults and teenagers, clutching leaflets and Tiki coffee cups as they packed in one lecture after another. Personal memoirs were highly in demand as, firstly, Candia McWilliam demonstrated in her near sold-out talk. Claire English interviewed the author for BBC Scotland's Book Café about the events surrounding her mother's suicide, her struggle with alcohol, her relationship with her children and the recent tragic loss of her sight.
What To Look For In Winter: a Personal Memoir in Blindness (2010) is the result of McWilliam being diagnosed with a rare condition called blepharospasm, which is the result of a malfunction deep in the brain which triggers involuntary spasms of the eyelid muscles until the eyelids cease to open. The incredibly frustrating quality of this illness was that McWilliam was blind, yet not: if she painstakingly held her eyelids open with her fingers then she could technically see, and it was in this condition that she read 260 novels in order to judge the Man Booker Prize in October 2006. When discussing this gritty diagnosis, the writer was genuinely adamant that she was not writing to be commended on her bravery, but she had written the book with her children in mind, to provide the answers to questions they may not be asking now, but might after her death. Since her diagnosis McWilliam had a series of complex and dangerous operations that involved the tendons from behind her knees being removed and used instead to prop open her eyes in replacement of her having eyelids. She passed over these flinching details briskly and quickly set the discussion back onto the main subject matters in the memoir. In her months of functional blindness prior to her recovery she had to become used to an alien form of writing; that of dictation, in order to write the book. What to Look for in Winter depicts her metaphorical journey as her hours in blindness had a subsequent 'unlocking' effect of her memory: she began to recall events from her childhood and desired to relive them on paper.
McWilliams had a traumatic childhood, commencing with her parents' rocky marriage that ended in her mother's suicide and her consequential departure for boarding school. She discussed with extraordinary honesty her turbulent marriages and the lead up to her alcoholism, the cause of her years out of publication as she struggled with all-consuming feelings of self-disgust and guilt as she battled her dependency on alcohol. The years of trauma have taken their toll on the once stunning author, she no longer possesses her Amazonian lithe looks. However, her lovely refined way of speaking is as eloquent as ever and she held immense dignity and grace as she voiced her gratitude for the operations that, while having slightly maimed her beauty, have given her back some of her sight.
Author Jackie Kay was the next Scottish author to participate in a discussion on her latest book, Red Dust Road (2010), which is an autobiographical account about discovering her own adoption as a young child and the journey in her adult years to discover her biological parents. Kay has an incredibly bouncy and open personality, which came across, during her hour-long event in the Main Hall.
Kay discovered she was adopted when she was a very young child, as soon as she realised her skin was a different colour to that of her mum and dad. Growing up in 1960s Glasgow could not have been easy under normal circumstances, but Kay suffered the sting of being different not only in colour from her peers, but by being adopted, unsure of her genetic background and as she grew older, confused about her sexuality. However, none of those past insecurities seem to hinder her confidence today as she shone during her hour of discussion. Kay spoke with genuine love for her adoptive parents, referring to them as her 'real mum and dad' and spoke of her worries concerning them viewing her search for birth parents as a form of 'infidelity or betrayal'. She skilfully put an amusing spin on her dashed expectations when describing how she met her biological father, who had in fact become a born again Christian, who hopped around his daughter for over two hours in a Nigerian hotel room chanting and attempting to cleanse himself of his sin: her. Although laying bear her hopes and vulnerabilities, Kay is still very much in control of the narrative, hence possesses the ability to turn pathos into comedy. Kay's novel discusses metaphysical issues such as questions of identity, the nature/nurture debate (she feel the novel answers her opinion on that score) and gives a new perspective on how we view our relationships with those closest to us, something many of us take for granted. However, Kay happily stated that she had satisfied her curiosity through her search for her roots and that the experience had in no way altered a sense of who she is.
Jackie Kay interview
I was fortunate enough to have a quick chat with Jackie and asked her a few quick questions that she was more than happy to answer, despite just having spoken for an hour and then having spent an additional hour signing a never-ending queue of books. She was incredibly friendly and helpful, and despite having moved to Manchester in recent years, still possesses her lovely Glaswegian lilt.
List: With so many authors choosing to write autobiographically, it makes one wonder if you find it cathartic to write about personal experiences that have been confusing or painful for you?
J.K: Yes, there is definitely a sense of catharsis involved, as you have to go through the form and shaping of an event that has happened to you, and essentially re-tell the story to yourself, which makes you look very closely and analytically at the event.
List: In Red Dust Road you write of your encounter with your birth parents. Was it difficult to write about such a personal chapter of your life in the knowledge that it would be published for the public to read? Do you ever get nervous about essentially bearing your soul on the page?
J.K: Yes, undoubtedly, you do feel very exposed and vulnerable to begin with, but you learn to cope with it the more experience you have through doing this. There are also huge positives concerning being open, in that people in return are often very open with me about similar experiences they have had to my own and by reading my work they feel comfortable to share this with me … so it's a bit like continually opening up conversations and keeping the art of storytelling going!
List: Alasdair Gray read some of your work when you were younger and told you that writing was what you should be doing. Was that a real turning point for you?
J.K: My schoolteacher at the time, very kindly set up a meeting for me with Alasdair at his house and I brought along some of my poetry. He was very helpful and lovely, it definitely helped me lean more towards writing, when at the time I had also been considering acting as a possible career.
List: As an author, do you ever feel like you have run out of creativity, hit a brick wall and panicked? How do you get past this?
J.K: I think you really have to respect the silences as well as the periods of non-stop writing. I definitely see it as a 'rotating the crop' kind of thing, you have to appreciate the periods of rest before the next big labour commences. It can be scary, but as an author you have to deal with a lot of fear and frustration. You need to have a good blend of self-belief and self-doubt … if you take every set-back personally then unfortunately it is unlikely that you'll get very far … but then if you are too cocky then that's not a good thing either!
List: Do you have any plans for your next project?
J.K: I am going to be doing a book of short stories, which is my favourite thing to work on! I find them really good for working on individual ideas. It's called 'Reality, Reality' and it's written really in reflection of how bizarre reality has become, with things like reality TV taking such a dominant place in our culture now.
List: What are some of your favourite reads?
J.K: 'Half of the Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. Some of my favourite short-story writers are Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, E. C. Osondu, Dorothy Allison and Ali Smith.