This one’s for those of you interested in hearing from the writers!

Last month I made my first visit to a literature festival. Full of excitement and anticpation I made my way to Cheltenham early on the opening day. I had booked myself tickets for ten speaker events and one writers’ workshop over the course of four days.

Perhaps it was the speakers that I chose to see, but the over-riding theme of the festival for me was the impact of the author’s own life experiences on their fiction writing, resulting in elements of biographical or confessional fiction, and upon the creativity of their non-fiction works. Starting out as a writer myself, it was enlightening to discover storytelling from the perspective of the authors and, in this post, I thought I would give you a flavour of my three favourite speakers at the festival (sorry it’s a bit of a long one!).

1. John Sutherland and David Lodge – Lives of the Novelists

My very first speakers were John Sutherland and David Lodge discussing the former’s new book Lives of the Novelists’. This is an extraordinary work in which Sutherland provides short biographies of 294 novelists, with emphasis upon how their lives have influenced their writing. Lodge (A Man of Parts, Deaf Sentence) joined Sutherland on stage reiterating the importance of confessional writing and biographic influences in creating fiction which is both convincing and realistic. The speakers discussed novels as works of art, in which raw facts, aesthetic tactics and strategies are combined. This inevitably led to a discussion about sexuality and an incredibly interesting debate about the dichotomy between an author’s desire to protect his/her privacy with the openess necessary for realism. Did you know that Charles Dickens and Henry James burnt their papers, most likely in an effort to preserve their privacy after death? It was argued by the floor that this in fact created yet more speculation about their private lives and has probably led to false conclusions. This was a wonderful discussion and I’m certainly going to dig out the works of Sutherland and Lodge in the next few weeks.

 2. Peter Conradi and Mark Logue – The King’s Speech

Having seen the film a couple of times, I finished reading the book during the festival itself, just before this event. For me, The King’s Speech turned out to be one of the most enjoyable events of the whole festival. I firmly recommend the book, especially to anyone who has seen the film. Although a piece of non-fiction (and so not strictly the focus of this blog!), the friendship described in the book between the King and his speech writer is powerful and as beautiful as in any work of fiction.

 Both excellent speakers, Logue and Conradi described the great dramas encountered in writing the book to tight deadlines which were set by publishers to coincide with the release of the film, whilst working with a constantly growing archive of papers. The writers stressed that the book is not a companion to the film, and I have to agree, but rather the true story behind the dramatised events shown on screen.

Their discussion provided an insight into the film-makers’ choices in telling the story of the King and Logue. For instance, cramming a relationship which lasted more than two decades into little more than a year of film time resulted in a period of non-contact between the King and Logue being attributed to a ‘falling out’ when in fact it was merely the result of the King’s increased confidence. A lot can be learnt about the art of storytelling by studying the strategic choices made by the film’s creators.

Although the film-makers made such tactical decisions in their storytelling, my own reading of the true story in the book led me to believe that on the whole, the characterisation of Logue and the King was well reflected in the film version. From listening to their debate, it appeared to me that Logue and Conradi were of the same opinion and felt that the film-makers had made a true effort to keep the characterisation accurate. This biographical realism has undoubtedly been a key factor in the believability of the characters and success of the film. At the end of the event, however, a simple poll was taken and I was saddened by the stark contrast between almost 100% of the audience having seen the film compared to around 15% who had read the book. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read this book, the true story is even more remarkable than its film counterpart.

3. Stephen Poliakoff

A final highlight of the festival for me was hearing Stephen Poliakoff discuss his work. Poliakoff is one of my favourite television and film screenwriters. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s written and directed one off dramas for the BBC including Capturing Mary and The Lost Prince and has written films for the big screen including Close My Eyes and Glorious 39. His stories are intense and have a strong psychological element. You can get them reasonably cheaply on Amazon and I definitely recommend them to you.

The main focus of his talk was his new play My City showing at the Almeida Theatre in London. The plot centres on a young man in his twenties who encounters one of his old school teachers on a park bench in London. Poliakoff’s twelve year absence from theatre has led to My City being awaited with keen interest and the play appears to use some interesting storytelling devices. For instance, Poliakoff  discussed how different stories require different mediums (television, film, theatre) and described how during ‘My City’ the theatre audience would themselves become pupils, addressed directly by the teachers in the play’s school assembly, immediately putting the audience in an alternative mindset.

Poliakoff spoke about his own personal style, the influence of his own life in his work, his preference for directing his own work and the differences between screenwriting in Britain and America. I found this latter discussion incredibly enlightening, highlighting the financial power of networks such as HBO which are able to fund expensive new drama series such as Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, and the emphasis that is placed upon the writer’s vision in America which often rewards them with producer or co-producer credits.

On the whole, the Cheltenham Literature Festival was a rewarding trip, giving me a exciting insight, not only into biographical and confessional literature, but also into the publishing, television and film industries. I will definately be returning next year. Please get in touch with your experiences of literature festivals you have attended this year, I would love to hear from you.

For more information on the festival click here
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