Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nose-to-tail books and their authors: catching up with the Writers' Festival

I only got to Neil Gaiman at the Writers and Readers Week here in Wellington - the family called and I could not ignore it this time. Usually, I get along every day possible and nose-to-tail those wonderful gigs:  writer (s), convener, books, a couple of chairs, a water jug, and me. By the end, I am stuffed full of the most stimulating conversation and I have voices in my head.

This year, I had to go it alone. I read both Australian Joan London and UK writer Sarah Waters in preparation, and was thrilled by the discovery of both. I'd been meaning to read Waters for a long time, but London was entirely new to me. The Good Parents is a surprising novel - a quiet thriller that finds the answer to the question of a young woman missing in Melbourne by unlayering the lives of those closest to her, most especially her parents. It is intelligent and insightful and gave me a serious yen to get back to Melbourne soon. I will be reading more of London and have vowed to read more Australian authors, too. The quiet buzz I get when a character buys 'weetbix' is ridiculous really, but it shows how marvellous the discovery of the familiar in a novel.

When I say I 'read' Sarah Waters, what I mean to say is I am reading Sarah Waters. The Little Stranger is a massive tome and I am two-thirds of the way through, and dreading finishing. This is one of those absorbing 'big' reads that maps out a whole way of life and then folds you inside the map. I've wanted to read it since I heard a reviewer say it made the hairs stand up on her arms - and now I have this gorgeous fat novel with its brilliant red cover, I am restricted to reading in well lit rooms preferably in daylight.

The Little Stranger is an old-fashioned ghost story with decaying Hundreds Hall and a family that is decaying along with it, enter the Doctor, a chap whose Mum was once a nursery maid there. He is quickly pulled in to Hundreds' life and the strange things that happen. It feels to me like a cross between Jane Eyre and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The writing is both formal (the bachelor doctor's tentative voice) and fondling (of detail), and builds tension expertly. Note to self: read more Sarah Waters, and make sure you see her next time she's in town. 

I would love to hear what either of these authors were like on stage, and all the rest, too, in fact ... feel free to comment.


Rachael King said...

I loved loved loved The Little Stranger and Waters was great on stage, in conversation with her UK editor (which seems odd, but never mind). I read it just after I finished Magpie Hall and was humbled.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks for that insight, Rachael. It's a terrific book, there's no doubt: an old-fashioned kind of tale going from go to whoa in a deliberate, non-ironic, storytelling way ... building the voice, the tension etc. Critically, i think, it takes its time, which is not the stuff of much contemporary writing these days. Interesting, how there are so many threads which link your two stories. You both clearly have the same influences which chime with my love of the same books and make reading so pleasurable.

Mary McCallum said...

...I meant to say, reading THEM so pleasurable... both Little Stranger and Magpie Hall

Rachael said...

I loved the way it built so slowly and completely so by the time the ghost arrives (well after page 100) you are putty in her hands. Interesting that you said in your latest post 'now I know'. I was wondering how you interpreted the end. Some readers think it's inconclusive but I'm not so sure.

I have another idea for a ghost story and am thinking of just going for it, making it an all out spine-tingler. Maybe for young adults.

Mary McCallum said...

I'm with you on the ending. It is not inconclusive I believe. Which is not to say all the questions are answered or that everything can be laid at that particular door. Going back through the novel, the trail is clearer - but still not absolutely clear - which is very cool! (How to say something without saying anything!)

And yes, Rachael, a ghost story would be so much fun to write - for YA or Adults. And fun should be had in this writing lark...