All The Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell

My review of Lucy Caldwell’s latest novel is up on Bookmunch.

‘Lara is in her late thirties and has just lost her mother. She is now an orphan – her father, a prominent plastic surgeon from Belfast, died in a helicopter crash when Lucy was just twelve. Her life as she knew it crashed at that moment too, with her father’s double life, and Lara’s family, suddenly becoming the favourite topic of national tabloids…’ read the full review here

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Interview with Ebba Brooks, Prestwich Book Festival

Ebba Brooks is the director of the Prestwich Book Festival – a new addition to the Manchester literary calendar. It is in its second year of running and already boasting such names as Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth and Cath Staincliffe. This year the Festival will take place from 12 May until 16 June.

Maia Nikitina: Finally we have a literary festival in North Manchester! Do you feel any competition from the other side of town?

Ebba Brooks: Ha ha, no! I set up the festival to give writers on the North side of the city a space to perform and interact with each other and with readers. All too often writers from up here are assumed to be from the south side of the city, and I wanted to set the record straight. That’s not to say I’m being parochial: the aim of the Prestwich Book Festival is to celebrate great writing from the North and far beyond.

M: There are some big names taking part this year – Alison Moore, Cath Staincliffe, David Conn… For a festival only in its second year, that’s impressive! And you got the Arts Council funding this year. How did you pull that off?

E: Thank you. I’ve got a fantastic programme steering group to help me: the poet Longfella (aka Tony Walsh) looks after the poetry strand; and novelist Sherry Ashworth has been incredibly helpful with contacts amongst the fiction writing community. Alison Bond, the reader development librarian at Bury Library has also helped me with her amazing contacts and enthusiasm. Some writers approached me about getting involved, and all those I’ve approached have been really keen to get onboard. Having Howard Jacobson and John Cooper Clarke as our festival patrons helps too! Getting Arts Council funding was hard work, but all the people I’ve mentioned played a part in getting the bid written.

M: What event are you looking forward to the most? No diplomatic answers please!

E: Too many to choose from! I’m very excited about Jay Rayner’s event at Manchester Jewish Museum – it’s a real coup for the festival to have him, with his new book A Greedy Man in a Hungry World. He’s a great speaker, a funny guy and a fine writer too. I’m also really looking forward to the Bank Holiday Monday (28 May) evening with Rosie Garland, Toby Stone and Simon Bestwick, plus a host of writers published by Hic Dragones a Crumpsall based publishing house. It’s an incredible line up, and I’ve got a real soft spot for the venue too. And then there’s Vocabaret, and the Poetry Slam, and all the events at the library… Spoiled for choice…

M: You are a writer too and you teach creative writing. What was the first thing you ever wrote?

E: A short story about a group of seven short policeman who drove round in a small police car, chasing baddies en masse and causing chaos. I think I was heavily influenced by the Keystone Cops (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keystone_Cops). I thought the story was hilarious, but since then I have realised that visual gags don’t translate too readily to the page, and that portraying internal conflict is a strength of fiction!

M: What weird habits or rituals do you have that help you with your writing?

E: I don’t know if it’s weird, but I need a quiet room with a door I can close, a computer, a chair and a table. That’s it.

M: You are a mother of two – do you feel that having children helps or distracts from writing?

E: Having kids enriches my life but definitely distracts me from writing. On the other hand, it makes me far more focused than I was before.

M: What are you reading at the moment?

E: I just finished Sherry Ashworth’s book Good Recipes and Bad Wives, which I absolutely loved for the evocation of south London in 1967, and the clarity of the plot and the prose. I’m in awe. I’m also reading Philip Pullman’s re-tellings of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, to myself as education, and aloud to my daughter as entertainment.

M: What book has made the most impact on you and why?

E: I can’t narrow it down to one. But books that I have read and loved and which have seeped into the way I think include: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, everything by Jane Austen, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert), Middlemarch by George Eliot. Writers I look up to with awe include William Trevor, Nabokov and Angela Carter.

 Go to PBF official website for tickets and more information

The Prestwich Book Festival

Last week I met Ebba Brooks, the director of Prestwich Book Festival. It is in its second year, and gathering speed so quickly that some pretty big names are taking part this year, including the author of The Lighthouse Alison Moore.

The festival will be running from 12 May until 16 June in Prestwich, Manchester. I will be chatting to Ebba about the festival on this blog so check back over the next few days.

Female author – male voice?

As the longlist of what is for this year The Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously The Orange Prize) has been published, Natasha Walter, a member of the judging panel, has been quoted as saying that she was struck by how many female writers were now writing from a male viewpoint.  “I’m not trying to make some big generalisation out of it … but if you think back to Virginia Woolf saying that her ideal for women writers is that they shouldn’t be seen as women, they should be able to be androgynous. Well, maybe we are getting more towards that.” (The Guardian, 13 March 2013)

Maybe we are. Getting androgynous and Woolf-like. Or maybe we are so used to reading literary fiction in a male voice that we are subconsciously – and even consciously – writing from that perspective too. There has been such an increase in female authors receiving prestigious literary prizes lately that some have even suggested to get rid of specifically female prizes such as The Orange Prize. Is it possible that the reason for such an increase is that women have been writing more and more with male voices?

I do it too. I tend to write more naturally as a man. I find it simpler – there is less complicated stuff going on with male viewpoints, less self-questioning about genre, less wondering whether writing a particular story as a woman would place it into the ‘women’s writing’ or ‘chick-lit’ category. Less chance of being accused of self-indulgence and being too female. As if being female is some sinful thing that we should all pretend to not possess and instead discuss the issues that bother us with our girl friends. Besides, most of my favourite books were written from a male perspective – it only feels natural that if you write in the literary genre, you would be tempted to write as a man.

I don’t know what’s worse – a possible co-relation between female writers getting more prizes and having a male protagonist, or us noticing that they do it in the first place. Androgynous does not mean male, nor does it mean women taking on a male identity (which is what happens when you write from a male perspective).

The issue is that we are still dominated by the ‘men do important things while women do unimportant, women stuff’ mentality. You may argue that there are many books exploring women characters doing ‘important men’s things’ but that’s exactly the problem. We are still under the wrong impression that men go out and have adventures, whilst women – unless they assume a more male identity and go have adventures too – have a boring life that will only interest other women. And that those manly adventures are what is important. We still accept for some strange reason that when a male protagonist explores such issues as love, loss, death or family, it is literary and credible, and when a female protagonist does the same – it’s chick-lit. What’s even more puzzling is that women make up the majority of the readers, and yet the majority of literary fiction is written in a man’s voice.

Writing from male perspective is a free choice and I am all for freedom. Chances are, I’ll do it myself half the time. My concern is whether instead of hiding our female identity under a male nom-de-plume, we are now hiding it under a male viewpoint. We are being coy – look, we are saying, we are female writers and we are being recognised for our work, and we can write as men if we like. But the question remains  – would we be still as recognised if we wrote from a female viewpoint?