I really only woke up to the Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday when I came to a lull in publicity for The Birth Machine. I sat up and looked around and realized that the festival was already in full swing, so that evening John and I headed off to Manchester Museum to hear the poet Fleur Adcock. We all sat in the Prehistoric Life Gallery under a huge suspended dinosaur skeleton beside a mock-up of a prehistoric forest. The sense of the past pressing in and physically coming to life again was fitting, as the engaging, accessible and pithy poems Fleur read were very concerned with the past, her new book Dragon Talk centring on her own childhood, and indeed she talked interestingly about how as you get older your own childhood becomes a history, linked with the events occurring in the greater world. In fact, the past kept popping up all round: in front of us sat someone who turned out to be poet Tony Roberts with whom I'm reading in a couple of weeks at the Bolton Octagon: I hadn't met him before, but John had met him some years ago. And afterwards we all went for a drink - just like the old days.
Then yesterday I went to the lunchtime event at Waterstone's: Amanda Craig and Michele Roberts. A very good turnout for lunchtime, but only two men in the audience, I noticed, which seems to support the notion that women are the majority of fiction readers. It was a very interesting session. Amanda Craig was talking about her latest novel, Hearts and Minds, a novel concerning the murder of an au pair in a contemporary London which is, after all, not too far from the London of Dickens. I found Amanda a particularly engaging and intelligent speaker: she talked of being struck by how little London has really changed in terms of its underbelly, and how little this is actually addressed in fiction. She told us that the novel came from first her growing awareness that so many people in the services industries in London now come from other countries and then from her own experience of falling seriously ill and finding that those people she needed to employ to help her were indeed from abroad. As a result of her illness, her novel took her seven years, and was, she admitted in answer to an audience question, at times harrowing to write. Some people, she said, had been upset by its depiction of London, which they didn't recognise, but she assured us that, the result of her research interviewing prostitutes and trafficked girls, it was accurate. The beginning of the novel, which she read out to us, was in my view stunning - beautifully written as well as ultimately shockingly dramatic.
Michele Roberts is a writer whom I've always thought of as a fellow spirit - we were after all both published by the same publisher early on. She's a more experimental writer than Amanda Craig, I think: in keeping with her sense of the continuity of London's underbelly, Amanda consciously writes, she said, in the tradition of Dickens, but Michele plays with voice and our concepts of reality, and it seemed when she began talking that the two writers would provide a contrast. Michele was reading from her new book of short stories, Mud: Stories of Sex and Love . Beforehand she talked about how sex and love have become difficult subjects to write about, and that a lot of writers now seem to avoid it: you have to get around the cliches about love and sidestep pornography and the fact that sex and love have become artificially separated in our culture - if you don't use the language of either the clinical or the pornographic gaze, what language do you use? Therefore, typically I think for her, she found it a challenge, and what she's interested in in writing this book, she says, is the complexity of both sex and love - all kinds of love including non-sexual love, and the stories of those whom the language of newspapers objectifies even when taking a positive stance.
Then she read to us from a stunning story in the book about a trafficked girl forced into prostitution and suddenly - since Amanda's novel hinges on the rescue of such a girl - the work of both authors dovetailed dramatically. (I was particularly interested at this point, as my most recently published short story also features such a girl.) The authors agreed wholeheartedly about the transformative power of London, and the way it provides transitional spaces, both in reality for people wanting to start again and as the setting for stories exploring complexity and eschewing the false divisions of good and bad. Both spoke of London as a living creature, Amanda referring (in answer to a question about the effects of the recession) to its heartbeat and its dystolic/systolic rhythms of change of expansion and contraction. Both said that they mined it for stories, Michele giving us a vivid picture of herself trudging in a huge coat and boots and constantly getting chatting on street corners to people who pour out their stories to her.
Both agreed that fiction is both about change and can effect change - something has to happen in a story which brings about change - but also reading a story can change you, shift your perceptions. Stories too, Michele said, can help us to recognise change in our own lives.
Someone asked if in consciously giving voice in their writing to people who didn't have a voice in life, the authors felt an extra special responsibility of authenticity. Michele said that one has to always acknowledge that fiction is making things up and that one's first responsibility as an author is to the story. Amanda, however, did feel that, since the characters of her novel were indeed based on real people she'd interviewed, she felt some responsibility to be true to their experience - and added that much of what she'd included in the novel was only the tip of the iceberg of that experience, in spite of the fact that some people had objected to the 'over-grim' portrayal.
And then it was out into the lovely sunny streets of Manchester and the posh shops of King Street, though it's true that a few of them are now empty, and there weren't that many shoppers about, and there was the Big Issue seller on the corner, and the echoes of the authors' writing following me all the way home...