Women Writers: Words of Wisdom

Bonnie Garmus, Tessa Hadley and Eleanor Catton  speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Wannabee writers don’t look away.  Audiences were spoilt for choice when it came to generous words of wisdom imparted by several women writers while introducing their latest novels and collections of short stories at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

First off was Bonnie Garmus, a debut author at 64. Lessons in Chemistry is the story of research chemist Elizabeth Zott, whose academic career has foundered due to routine everyday misogyny meted out to women who both males and females, see as a threat. The deadpan heroine, Elizabeth Zott initiates a quiet revolution.  Despite being wronged at every turn she has the reader rooting for her from the rooftops. It is both a hilarious and touching novel with a host of memorable characters.

Bonnie Garmus had previous works rejected 98 times, a testament to the mantra of ‘never give up’. As a copywriter, coming home and writing more was not what she wanted to do, but she had wanted to write novels since she was five, so just kept at it.  And one rule for writers she wishes to impart from her copywriting days – never bore.

Lessons in Chemistry is a page turner, which certainly never does that. It has now been made into a TV series starring Brie Larsson with the first two episodes landing on Apple TV on 13th October.

Tessa Hadley was 46 when she first started publishing, following ‘20 years in the wilderness’ and four failed novels consigned to landfill.

‘Then I felt I had authenticity and got better at finding my way to that place’,’ she said after many years of just keeping going.

After the Funeral is her fourth collection of short stories, which have families at their heart. Those who write about hearth and home have sometimes been derided for their ‘domestic’ approach to storytelling, an attitude which Tessa firmly bats away.

‘There’s nothing wrong with the hearth, it’s a place where a lot of grown-up stuff in life happens. Heaths are very dangerous places – full of fire and pots of boiling water.’ So, it’s perhaps worth remembering that the title of her first novel was Accidents in the Home.

After the Funeral is a collection of short stories, often funny, plumbing the depths of everyday life, particularly relationships between mothers and daughters, where much of the action takes place over everyday niceties such as putting on make-up.

Pearls of writerly wisdom were similarly sprinkled throughout.  Also, a creative writing tutor, Tessa said one her favourite suggestions for students looking to improve their craft, is to set a task of looking at a piece of text by good writers then getting her students to imitate their style.

‘It is a bridge to lifting the novice writer up to be as good as can be,’ she said as the results will be a piece of writing which is completely different from the original text and in their own voice.

Voice is something she believes is all important and the voices in her short story collections sing with authenticity and character.

‘They (short stories) are spare and minimal, packed tight, so the reader stays to the end to see what it’s all about, whereas the novel is a delicious reading experience’ she said.

By contrast, Eleanor Catton, who was interviewed by former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon about her new novel, Birnam Wood, was the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize in 2013, at just 28 with her second novel, The Luminaries, a Victorian mystery set during the New Zealand gold rush.

There has been a 10-year hiatus between the two not just because of life events, but also in part due to a bruising political backlash after some comments she made about New Zealand politicians, which led to her losing confidence and taking up scriptwriting instead.

Inspired by the story of Macbeth, Birnam Wood is about a young guerilla gardening collective set in a fictional national park. It explores themes around the exploitation of New Zealand’s resources in which any one of the characters could be the villain of the piece. Conflict about land use is one of the relevant issues of current times.

‘Sometimes these issues are not as straightforward as some would have them, she said.

A fast-paced edge of the seat thriller, Birnam Wood tackles the themes of the exploitation of resources and fossil fuels.

‘The climate debate is like Macbeth. There is a danger of inevitability.’ She believes we need to challenge preconceptions, read widely about different points of view, believing in diversity of form and perspective.

During her 10 year ‘break’ from the novel form, she became a screenwriter which led to her becoming interested in story structure and which has helped in the writing of her book. Recommending screenwriting to other writers, she said ‘You can see the influence of writing for the screen in a novel.’

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