Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 interview: Shaun Usher, Simon Garfield and Ben Harrison

This article is from 2014

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014 interview: Shaun Usher, Simon Garfield and Ben Harrison

Simon Garfield / Photo: Chris Close

The blogger, the author and the theatre director discuss the value of letter-writing

In a world of instant messaging, traditional letters are a disappearing art form. Claire Sawers chats to a few Book Festival names dedicated to keeping snail mail alive

Roald Dahl was once sent a dream in a bottle by a young reader named Amy. Kurt Vonnegut spent Christmas in 1944 locked in a tiny box car en route to a Dresden work camp. Anaïs Nin believed sex doesn’t thrive on monotony. Katharine Hepburn had conversations with her lover Spencer Tracy nearly two decades after he died. Winston Churchill’s wife pulled him up on his ‘sarcastic and overbearing manner’ soon after he became prime minister. Gandhi pleaded with Hitler not to go to war, a month before World War II. Groucho Marx and Woody Allen were close friends who shared a love of cold cuts. How do we know these things? All these trivialities, revelations and secrets have come to light because they were written down in letters.

‘It’s not dramatic to say that letter writing is probably in huge danger of disappearing,’ says Shaun Usher, who runs the website Letters of Note, and compiled all the choice nuggets above in his book of the same name. ‘It’ll never die out completely, but it’ll become a niche hobby,’ he laments. Together with fellow writer Simon Garfield, who’s traced the history of correspondence in To The Letter, Usher hopes to rekindle our love for the letter, as part of a letter-themed string of events in this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

‘Nowadays, we are communicating more than ever before,’ says Garfield. ‘But it’s in ever shorter bursts. I love emails and Twitter and I use them all the time, but letters allow for a far more uninhibited type of conversation; a more private, considered transaction. A letter is something special. Are we prepared to let that go and leave our thoughts and historical archives locked behind firewalls and passwords?’

Inspired by both authors’ affectionate looks at the dying art of letter writing, their publisher, Canongate, launched LETTERS LIVE last year in London. Since it began, Russell Brand, Rob Brydon, Caitlin Moran, Benedict Cumberbatch and others have lined up to read letters aloud at the Southbank Centre and Hay Festival, and Edinburgh audiences are about to get the same earful of carefully penned words, delivered by a secret lineup.

‘The response to the live events has been incredible,’ says Garfield. He has pulled together a collection of letters for Edinburgh that might just include words from Iggy Pop, Mark Twain, Mick Jagger or Virginia Woolf. Yet Garfield says the standout favourites with audiences so far are from two complete unknowns: romantic notes between WWII army signalman Chris Barker, stationed in Cairo, and his girlfriend Bessie Moore. Garfield and Usher are now working on a new book, dealing only with Chris and Bessie’s letters, this time in more detail.

‘It’s a long-distance relationship with long gaps between letters,’ says Garfield. ‘The pauses lead to the inevitable misunderstandings, then jealousy, and ultimately passionate outpourings. People have got really hooked on those letters – because it was their only source of contact, and they had to express every feeling in them.’

Continuing the theme of the mighty pen, the Book Festival has commissioned a special promenade theatre piece, Letters Home, which will be performed around various spots in Charlotte Square.

Four international writers were all asked to write new pieces of fiction in the form of letters: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer of Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah; Glasgow-via-Jamaica poet, Kei Miller; Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie; and Australian-Greek writer Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap. The four works have been adapted by Edinburgh’s acclaimed Grid Iron Theatre Company into a nightly theatre show that’s part music, part film, part installation.

‘The writers’ brief was pretty loose,’ says Grid Iron co-artistic director Ben Harrison, who directs Tsiolkas’ piece. ‘Still, I think we were all pretty surprised to see how far they ran with the letters theme. Chimamanda’s piece examines the role of women in Nigeria, the others have taken a more political or military angle. All have responded differently, but they’ve clearly all written from the heart.’

In Tsiolkas’ case, he took an ancient, biblical slant, writing an imagined letter conversation between Cain and his mother Eve. ‘They were the first dysfunctional family really,’ says Harrison. ‘The first murderer, the first exile: Cain knows his mum may not want to hear everything her estranged son has to say.’

Playing on the letter format, Tsiolkas’ characters don’t deliver the messages by traditional pen and paper: instead two slaves deliver their masters’ messages, acting out their words. Just as directors know their audience, and guide actors through a play, Harrison says Eve and Cain give very specific instructions to their slaves on the gestures and delivery for their words.

‘When you compare these ancient messengers to, say, a Skype conversation, or an abbreviated text message, it’s crazy how our human interactions have been revolutionised,’ says Harrison. ‘They all have their merits – things have certainly got cheaper, and faster. But that organic, time-consuming process of committing words to paper, that’s a real gift. Both the writing and the reading of a letter is a pleasure.’

Simon Garfield: A Love Letter to Letters, 9 Aug, 3.30pm, £10 (£8).
Letters Live with Simon Garfield & Shaun Usher, 9 Aug, 8pm, £10 (£8).
Letters Home, 11–25 Aug (not 12, 19), 6.15pm, £15 (£12). Previews 9–10 Aug, 6.15pm, £10.
Kei Miller, Kamila Shamsie & Christos Tsiolkas: Writing Letters Home for the Theatre, 13 Aug, 10.30am, £7 (£5).
All events at Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888.

Kei Miller, Kamila Shamsie & Christos Tsiolkas

  • 3 stars

Letters Home, a Book Festival collaboration with award-winning theatre company Grid Iron, began with us commissioning stories from four exceptional authors. From the Garden of Eden to contemporary Nigeria, these stories span the history of humankind. In this event, three of the authors discuss how their prose was…

Simon Garfield

Letters play a central role in countless contemporary novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and A S Byatt’s Possession. Why? Because even if they have become unfashionable, letters are revelatory, evocative and deeply personal. In his fascinating and entertaining new book, To the Letter, Simon Garfield explores…

Letters Home

  • 3 stars

A verbal, visual and musical journey in and around Charlotte Square Gardens. Working in partnership with multi award-winning Scottish theatre company Grid Iron, Edinburgh International Book Festival commissioned four writers to produce brand new pieces of short fiction in the form of letters which have been adapted into a…

Letters Live with Shaun Usher

The act of letter writing has been usurped by direct messaging and similar quick-fire correspondence. Shaun Usher’s utterly fascinating blog (and now book) Letters Of Note platforms the humble magic of a lost art, including Ghandi’s plea to Hitler, the Queen’s recipe tips for President Eisenhower and the first reported…