Saturday, 30 April 2011

Oxford Literary Festival Part 3: Romantics, Interiors, Meteors - and David Nicholls

Magnolia blossom in front of the University Church of St Mary
After soap-boxing a bit in my last post, this final report from the Oxford Literary Festival is all about fun. In addition to always being on the look-out for information to help my writing students, these events were chosen for my pleasure and interest, starting with Daisy Hay's talk on the Young Romantics, at the Divinity Schools of the Bodleian Library on Sunday 3rd April. It's worth paying for an event at the Divinity Schools just to see the location, with its stone, many-bossed, fan-vaulted ceiling. Daisy's book is about the circle of Romantic poets, with her chief focus on Shelley, so it made a good tie-in with the recent Shelley exhibition at the Bodleian. I have always loved Keats and one day hope to visit the Keats-Shelley Museum on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome - and Keats' grave, with its poignant epitaph: 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water'. The book-signing afterwards was in the Convocation House, which was ironic, as this was where, in 1811, the authorities of the University decided to expel Shelley for atheism.

Jacques in the Festival Book Tent
On Tuesday 5th April, my son and I went to see David Nicholls: I haven't as yet read One Day, but Jacques loves it - and as he's not normally into reading, this is major! David's talk was held in the Marquee at Christ Church and was extremely well-attended. He was a witty speaker with a nice line in self-deprecation. He'd tried to make it as an actor, had gone into screenwriting (he was involved in Cold Feet, adapted Much Ado about Nothing as a modern version starring Billie Piper and wrote the recent adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles), and hit immediate succes with his first novel, Starter for Ten, because it was chosen as a Richard and Judy book club read. One Day, of course, is the big one, having now sold 650,000 copies (so glad he was a likeable man as this sort of success is hard to bear!) and, he claims, was a genuine word of mouth hit, which is the best sort.

He talked of the differences between writing novels and writing screenplays - he's adapted One Day for the screen himself, and is currently adapting Great Expectations - and the main difference is that of calculated design. A screenplay demands the blocking out of scenes and sequences in advance of the writing of those individual speeches. With a novel, you can choose to do that too, of course, or you can opt for a more instinctive 'flying by the seat of your pants' approach. This distinction, appealingly known as the 'planner versus pantser' choice, is something I'll be dealing with in my fictionfire course next Saturday, Essential Story Construction, because I feel it's important to explore which technique works best for you.

David also talked of how there's a difference in terms of autonomy between being a novelist and being a screenwriter. As a novelist, your book, he said, is like your house, which you personally designed, and there it is. A film is where you build the house, then a whole troop of people march in, knock walls through, redesign. It's more 'combative' and he dislikes that aspect, though clearly, as a genial and engaging person, I think he has his ways of holding onto his own designs without too much in the way of overt hostilities breaking out.

In the Festival Marquee
In the book-signing tent afterwards, he signed Jacques' books - I look forward to reading them in the summer when I'm allowed to read for pleasure's sake.

The next day, I attended Lucy Worsley's  If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home - the TV series of which is now running. She was intensely perky, with blonde bobbed hair and a Head Girl confidence. She quoted Henry James' opinion that 'We're each of us made up of our house, our furniture, our garments ... these things are all expressive of us.' She had an excellent Powerpoint presentation supporting a range of quirky facts about the past - how we slept, how we bathed (or didn't, because of the fear, in the 16th and 17th centuries, that water penetrating the body would cause illness), how the propensity of Victorian females to pass out was not only because of the corsetry but the lack of oxygen in their houses, as the new-fangled gas-lights sucked it up.

Fan-vaulting at Christ Church
Finally, I tacked on Ted Nields' talk, with the superb title (also the title of his book) Incoming! Or, Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Meteorite. When eventually, we got to hear him, after one of those inordinately long LitFest introductions from an aged enthusiast, he discussed the various mass extinctions which have occurred in the earth's long history, and the fear we have of meteor impacts. His view is that we're not at any particular risk as a species from the Big One hitting us and obliterating us - he contends we're managing to do a fine job of self-extinction through messing up the ecology of the earth, thank you very much. He told us there's no evidence that anybody has ever been killed by a direct meteor strike  and informed us that the chances of dying as a result of being struck by something from space are about the same as that of 'death by firework' - around 1 in 600,000, apparently. Worryingly, these are far better odds than those of winning the Lottery. Them's the breaks.

So, that's it for another year - as I said at the start, I'd have liked to have attended more events than I did but time and money prevented.

Next week, I'm delighted to announce an interview with Mark Edwards and Louise Voss, who've published their thriller Killing Cupid, on the Kindle - we'll be talking about why they did it and how they did it - and whether they'd do it again!

And here's a crucial reminder that BOOKING CLOSES midday Friday 6th May for my fictionfire course Essential Story Construction, which takes place a week today. Booking for Creating Narrative Perspective and Voice will close midday Friday 20th May and the course runs Saturday 21st May. Full details of the course and how to make your booking are on my website Do join us!


Patty said...

Great info, Lorna--thanks! Watching If Walls Could Talk--fun show. My husband calls LW, "Miss Jolly Hockey Sticks"!!

Lorna F said...

He's absolutely right, Patty! Glad you enjoyed the post.