Friday, 11 September 2015

Double the fun (Keynote speeches - FOW15 Diaries)

Both the keynote speeches at the festival this year were doubly worth listening to - not least because they were both double acts.

The making of Nicci French.

On Saturday morning, we were treated to a conversation with Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, the husband and wife duo who are behind the pseudonym Nikki French. (Here's an interview they did a few years ago from the BBC)

They shared their individual stories of how they became writers - both studied English Lit at Oxford, though they never met at the time, both became journalists - and then they met, married, carried on writing individually until...they had an idea for a story and decided to write it. Together.

Now, writing a book by myself is hard. Writing it with another person and not coming to blows over it must be even harder! But Sean and Nicci seem to have found a way that works for both of them and Nicci French can probably be described as 'the other woman' in their marriage...

The first thing Sean and Nicci do is find the beating heart of their book - what's the plot? Whose voice will tell it? And only when they are sure they both have the same book firmed up in their heads do they begin writing. Sean has a writing shed, Nicci has an attic and they email sections of the book to each other. So if Sean started the story off, he'd send the piece to Nicci, she'd read it, edit it if she felt it needed changing, maybe add a little something after, and send it back to Sean to continue. Individually, they have very different styles, but they never tell which bit was written by whom, they don't change anything back (!) and eventually, a third voice appears that is a mixture of two.

Nicci said that by reading one bit and accepting it, you have taken ownership of what has been written. The whole process of writing is based on trust, respect and courtesy to each other. (Which made me wonder whether we are as generous when we give or receive critique from others? I've certainly seen instances where respect and courtesy were distinctly lacking.) And it helps to see the changes made as not being personal - it's for the good of the book.

As to Nicci French's novels, they are described as psychological thrillers, which build on a feeling of dread and focus on extraordinary things happening to ordinary people; Nicci French definitely has a particular kind of thing she likes to write, and she thinks in a certain way - but as Nicci (G!) pointed out, "You become a new writer with every book you start."

It was a fascinating insight of collaborative working, and I was left wondering whether it was ever something I could do myself.

Diana Beaumont and Eve Harris.

The festival ended on Sunday with another conversation, this time between the agent Diana Beaumont and her author, Eve Harris; Eve's debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. (It sounded so fascinating, I bought it on Monday and have already finished it. Enjoyed the style and the insights into this normally closed world, but the book has received mixed reviews).

Their conversation bounced back and forth, sharing the story of how they met - not via the slushpile as you might think, but via an acupuncturist.

But before we reached that part of the story, Eve told us about herself. She was a teacher, first at a convent school, then at a North London Orthodox Jewish school for girls. She is also married to a secular Jew, and it is the world of Orthodox Jews that inspired her novel. Having enjoyed writing short stories, Eve joined a City Lit class. There, she had her work 'mauled' (her words, not mine!) by both the tutor and her peers and came close to jacking writing in.

Then she got mad and wrote a short piece about Jewish life. When it was read out the next week, everything changed; Eve was accepted into the writer's group (Perhaps you CAN write after all was the tutor's comment) and she continued to write the unfolding story. During that process, she also approached the Writer's Workshop to find a mentor - someone who would help her to shape the story she wanted to tell. Eve also began testing it on a bunch of friends who let her read to them - because as she pointed out, it's all right reading to other writers but their aim is to get published too, so they are always thinking about their novel rather than yours. I'd not thought about that before, but it makes sense...

One of those friends was Eve's acupuncturist, an avid reader. Naarva Carman thought it was so good, she passed it on to another of her clients - Diana Beaumont - who just happened to be an agent. As Diana said, "Success is about talent, tenacity and timing", at which point Eve chipped in with "And the right agent for the client." In their case, everything seemed to click.


The novel received 42 rejections from publishers. It got so bad for Eve, she would take lengthy detours rather than walk past another bookshop. Finally, they got the call; a small Scottish indie, Sandstone Press, would like to publish the story that was to become The Marrying of Chani Kaufman at 'Sandstone Bob's' suggestion. The original print run was only going to be 500 copies, but Sandstone were persuaded to increase to 1000...

And then there was the longlisting for the Man Booker Prize. The rest is history...

Eve hasn't written anything since, as she's had two children, but I'm sure this is not going to be the only novel we'll see from her.

What I took away most from this keynote was how important the relationship between agent and author is - it was very obvious that Eve and Diana work well together and that Diana believes very much in her client.

I can only hope that one day, I'll find the same...