Dublin Writers Festival 2014: On Making Artful Fiction Out of History

Little can put you more in the proper mood for book-minded conversation than the faint drizzle and grey skies of Ireland.
Anne Carey

Above: Dublin signpost image from Shutterstock.com.

On the Sunday of its first weekend, the Dublin Writers Festival was cloud-shrouded in an atmospherically light rain. Sunshine and a warm breeze might make the heart beat faster, but little can put you more in the proper mood for book-minded conversation than a faint drizzle and grey skies.

This is Dublin, after all, which proudly carries its status as UNESCO City of Literature, and where the odd plaque on an undistinguished townhouse near St. Stephen’s Green reminds you that Bram Stoker lived there, and the Gate Theatre just happens to be staging An Ideal Husband by the Dublin-raised and -educated Oscar Wilde.

The event locations were mostly clustered within an easy walk of Temple Bar, making one conveniently never far from a restorative tipple. The offerings ran the gamut from workshop-like conversations with would-be writers to themed readings and music and poetry galas. By the end of even just one day, if you didn’t already have a novel or cycle of poems in the works, you would feel as though you were somehow missing out.

At the Irish Writers’ Centre, sitting just across from the Garden of Remembrance, author Jo Malone held a talk about the art of writing historical fiction. In an attentive and near-filled room, Malone read from her novel Longbourn, which retold the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective. The selection itself was a finely detailed domestic scene, laundry day, which cleverly folded in both a handful of plot points and the odd piece of historical background (referencing Napoleon being “put on the back foot” in the war in Spain) without feeling schematic.

Malone, a well-practiced speaker who flowed easily from talking about her book itself to the larger process of writing historical fiction, emphasized the importance of using research of what a writer doesn’t already know alongside what they do. For her, writing Longbourn was helped first by her lifelong love of Austen’s work and the details of her life (“a general nerdiness [was] very helpful”) but also just by having been raised in a Georgian-era village and having a grandmother who had been a housemaid.

All of those elements quite naturally came together in a novel which was in part about just how distant Austen’s characters were from those servants who made their lives of drawing-room chat and romantic entanglements; “their priorities are different,” Malone said diplomatically, while saying that ultimately she wanted to make sure that the servants were allowed “as much of a story as the posh folk get.”

After an audience member mentioned a William Trevor quote about writers needing to have a “magpie” instinct for detail, Malone picked up on the thread and talked more about how the act of gathering what you can is very “grounding” for an author, allowing them to confidently craft a story set in a different time and world than theirs. After spending two years on writing the book, and possibly a half-dozen years on research, she was able to speak with both authority and alacrity about making artful fiction out of history.

Malone told the writers in attendance that while extensive research is key, it can’t be the end-all, be-all of the book. “Make it up,” she laughed, pointing out that once they have done their due diligence, writers are “at liberty [to] fill up spaces” where there is no history to guide them. “A novel isn’t history.”

Two paired readings later in the day also mixed history and fiction, albeit to much different effect. Both were held at the Smock Alley Theatre, a smartly refurbished space facing onto the Liffey that dates from 1662 and was the city’s first custom-built theater. The first pair of novelists were Glenn Patterson and Sadie Jones, both of whom read from works grounded in a ‘70s world of youthful experimentation and chaos.

Patterson, a perkily wry presence in a trim grey suit, read a section from The Rest Just Follows (which, he noted later in one of many asides, had been originally named Up, but he had been convinced to change it due to a certain Pixar film). His protagonist is Maxine, a teenaged girl in ‘70s Belfast is on a street crowded with glue-huffing punks and silently collapsing in on herself because of the test results she hasn’t brought herself to confront yet.

She ends up in a hair salon called Berlin, being treated to a free and radical makeover by Max, fully unsure about what the future will bring but tentatively hopeful that it will at least be different.

Jones read from her novel Fallout, set in ‘60s England, with a grammar-school boy who had grown up with a drunk for a father and a mother who had been locked away in an asylum. Jones’ resonant manner, in which every syllable gleams with intent, was perfectly suited to the selection’s roiling internal monologue (“he was a scientist of the imagination”); a reverberation of anger and dissatisfaction twisted around a coil of music.

The two chattered easily afterwards with the audience about their work, focusing particularly on the settings of their books and how much both drew on their own experiences. Music figured heavily in both readings and their talk, with both referencing numerous pop songs of the past. Jones said that she had actually created herself a 15-song playlist (everything from Simon & Garfunkel to Pink Floyd) that she would play each day before starting her writing, just to get into the right frame of mind. Patterson riffed on the idea of pop music as protest: “It’s a protest against growing old.”

In talking about writing about the past, they both noted how much the convenience of cellphones have disrupted the natural flow of drama and how freeing it was to be rid of them. Patterson drew a comparison between that and how in stories his children wrote, the first thing they did was dispense with the parents. Just like cellphones, “they get in the way.”

Later that evening at Smock Alley, Edward St. Aubyn and Pal Murray took part in another joint reading. The pairing of the two made some sense, as both are acclaimed comic stylists with a penchant for the mordant. They were both also quiet figures, highly given to light self-deprecation.

Murray, who came off as particularly humble given the rightly rapturous reception for his 2010 school comedy Skippy Dies, read a subversively funny bit from a novel-in-progress about an author (“Paul Murray”) shadowing a sketchy French banker named Claude as research. He read in a quiet, hushed voice with clowning accents that highlighted his vivid descriptors (“it was like being panted on by a drunken basilisk”).

St Aubyn’s reading was a short piece from his latest, Lost for Words, a satire about a literary prize that is not, he sarcastically emphasized, supposed to have anything to do with the Man Booker Prize. It was a little diamond of a scene, where a judge for the prize reads one of the considered novels, All the World’s a Stage, a laughably trite historical folly about Shakespeare that felt all too close to something which could actually be critically lauded.

The evening’s moderator, journalist Anne Carey, kept mostly out of the way, letting the writers talk at their own pace. It made for a more sprawling discussion, and one in which both Murray and St Aubyn could expand at length upon the writing life in its various guises.

Commenting on the “purpose” of the literary prizes that St Aubyn was satirizing, Murray noted that while they served a particularly helpful purpose of “allowing me to pay my rent,” chasing them was wasted time. Talking about Lost for Words, St Aubyn said simply that he wanted to see if, after a number of labored projects, he could enjoy writing.

As for whether the long-in-development Skippy Dies will ever be made into a film, Murray was cautiously optimistic but emphasized that “the world of film is fairly unreliable.” St Aubyn quipped that he had been having high-powered breakfasts with film people for so long that they had stopped talking about casting Ralph Fiennes to play the starring role in an adaptation of one of his Patrick Melrose novels to saying that Fiennes should play Melrose’s father.