This article is from 2007.
This year’s batch of debut authors is rich and varied. Suzanne Black finds that while some of them may be escaping from a successful parent’s shadow or scripting identity dramas, they ultimately have one thing in common
What qualifies an author for inclusion in the Book Festival’s First Fiction line-up? For some of the writers appearing to talk about, discuss or read from their novel, it’s their first publication. For others it marks a drastic career change; for a few, it’s the continuation of success in other writing forms. For one solitary scribe it is the latest in a long line of novels, but the first to be published in the UK. And then there is Julian Clary.
Among the 19 writers appearing in this line-up, similar trends and areas of interest can be observed. Obviously, judicious programme selection plays a part in this, but these similarities are also indicative of wider trends. In zeitgeisty fashion, the new crop of writers are focussing on sinister Scottish-based fiction with a supernatural bent, responses to war and exile and introductions to philosophical concepts. Combining topics that have piqued the public’s interest with their own particular skills, backgrounds and interests, the featured writers manage to be at once accessible and original.
One of the most interesting characters and someone familiar to those with an eye on international publishing is Nury Vittachi. He is the editor of Asia Literary Review and the author of many titles for adults and children (who know him as Mr Jam). But it is the publication of The Shanghai Union of Industrial Mystics that brings him to Edinburgh. The fourth in a series of crime satires starring the Feng Shui Detective, it has already proved popular around the world. When asked to describe the novel, Vittachi says, ‘I’m a multi-tasker so I bully my books into multi-tasking too’. He then goes on to list the various elements of his latest book as ‘an entertaining story with an original plot’, ‘an allegory of east and west’ and ‘a window on the real Asia’.
Multi-tasker is an understatement: Vittachi is a children’s author, stand-up comic, newspaper columnist and Feng Shui expert. His background is similarly multiform with a Ceylonian birth, British wife, Chinese children and a Hong Kong address. So when he says: ‘I soon realised I was born with a mission to bring east and west together,’ he is uniquely placed to understand what that means.
Luckily, Shanghai Union is also a jolly good yarn, uniting a young British/Australian woman, the detective (whose job involves restoring harmony after a crime has taken place) and a plot involving a bomb located in an elephant.
Vittachi emphasises differences and meeting points between the cultures, all with an awareness of post-colonial language. ‘The characters in my novels speak a variety of globalised Englishes,’ he says. ‘They constantly misunderstand each other, but only win when they co-operate; clearly there’s a lesson hidden in there, and not hidden very deeply.’
Artist-turned-author Roma Tearne seeks to provide a similar message through all the media she works in: ‘What I am interested in is making the “other”, the Asian, a familiar figure by not showing the differences but showing the similarities.’ Also born in Sri Lanka but having left for the UK at the age of 10, her first novel, Mosquito, is more obviously personal than Vittachi’s. Tearne’s story of unsought yet unavoidable love amid the civil war of Sri Lanka is a cathartic return to traumatic events of her past, only made possible by her physical distance from them. ‘It was a little bit extraordinary in that clearly I have been going towards writing this novel for a long time. Someone saw paintings and photographs of mine and asked me if they were about loss. I was very upset when he said this and within a few weeks I’d started to write the book.’
Mosquito is a rich, effusive text. It’s very visual, as you’d expect from an artist, and even includes reproductions of her paintings. Tearne’s appearance coincides with an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland and an ongoing project involving blindfolding public statues. Both her art and writing focus on the concept of memory and revisiting the past, something that a negative reaction to her book in Sri Lanka has precluded her from doing physically. Luckily the resurfacing of memories, including sights of torture, has been ‘more therapeutic than horrific’ and her next project will continue the theme while working with an artist stationed there.
In The Floating Island, Anna Ralph also tackles the subject of memories resurfacing, almost literally. Set over one summer on the island where 15-year-old Matt lost both his brother and use of his legs, a bucket load of pain is now being dredged up. Also succumbing to overwhelming emotions are Matt’s new carer Sarah and his therapist, as they enter a messy love triangle. Despite the young protagonist, Ralph hopes that the novel will appeal to adults as well, and a depth of emotion, sparing imagery and frank sexual episodes suggest this.
Perhaps Ralph’s biggest challenge is the fact that her mother is the widely acclaimed novelist Pat Barker who won the Booker Prize in 1995 with The Ghost Road. She says she didn’t read her mother’s books while growing up but feels that the experience of living with a writer still managed to seep into her consciousness. Now, after paddling around fiction writing with a career taking in journalism, bookselling and organising the Durham Literature Festival she has taken the plunge ‘like an alcoholic admitting she has a problem.’
There was no such traumatic visitation of the past for Lucy Eyre, also the daughter of a famous parent, theatre director Richard Eyre. Her first novel is the pop-philosophy romp If Minds Had Toes which places the 15-year-old Ben in the World of Ideas (‘a sort of limbo for dead philosophers’) where Socrates and Wittgenstein teach him philosophy to settle a bet. Eyre’s plan was to provide an accessible version of the big ideas in philosophy, and is a return to the subject she studied at university. ‘My own philosophy has moved beyond this but it is the book that I would have liked to have read before I knew anything about it.’ The result is similar to Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, although less rigidly structured and more irreverent. ‘I didn’t want to compare the ideas of Socrates and Wittgenstein, I wanted to know what would happen if they lived together,’ she says. ‘Would they just argue about philosophy or maybe they’d argue about their choice of music as well?’
Like Anna Ralph, throughout Eyre’s previous careers in TV, radio and as an economist, fiction was clearly calling. ‘I’d always wanted to write but it took me a while to have the confidence,’ she says. ‘Once you step out of working every day you think “OK, this is what I’ve always wanted to do, why is it so scary?”’
Scary, yes, but not uncharted. Eyre is tapping into an established public appetite for philosophical and supernatural elements in fiction, as evidenced by the popularity of Harry Potter, The Matrix and an abundance of superhero films on cinema screens. In this vein, the Book Festival also welcomes Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. Hall has already enjoyed a share of media attention due to Nicole Kidman’s expressed desire to star in a film adaptation. It would make a great movie: Eric Sanderson wakes up into a Memento-style memory puzzle and it transpires that a conceptual shark has been feasting on his identity. Like a more intelligent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, these adventures take Sanderson into a hidden world of ‘unspace’ and back in time through memory.
With a degree in fine arts and an acclaimed short story collection (Stories for a Phone Book) already under his belt, this is Hall’s first full-length novel. It manages to incorporate the themes that seem to be cropping up again and again on the publishing lists: longing for a lost place or the effect of landscape; pop-science or pop-philosophy encapsulated in narrative form; and the addition of supernatural elements to the mundane. The Raw Shark Texts combines all these and adds an immense readability.
More than themes and genres, what all these writers have in common is a shared attitude. Vittachi sums it up with a novel analysis: ‘For years I wanted to be an author but it was only after I wrote some books that I feel I truly became one. There are loads of authors out there who are wondering why they haven’t made it, not realising that it’s because they haven’t actually written any books. Ask them.’
Steven Hall, 16 Aug, 6pm; Lucy Eyre, 19 Aug, 2pm; Roma Tearne, 19 Aug, 7.30pm; Anna Ralph, 20 Aug, 7.30pm; Nury Vittachi, 21 Aug, 6pm. All events take place at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, £5 (£3).