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Live at Lynn, 2019

Just back from the 2019 Kings Lynn Fiction Festival. Another great weekend immersed in the world of books, stories and writing, with some top authors for company.

I did my usual Saturday afternoon interviewing slot with two writers, both of whom had written excellent books and who were a pleasure to interview. I had made lists of questions, but only needed to use a selection, as they had plenty to say. Lydia Syson, author of ‘Mr Peacock’s Possessions’ was first. The book is set in the Kermadecs, a remote group of Pacific islands, one of which is settled by a single British family. They struggle to survive, then get some local workers from a larger island in to help them – for trivial wages, of course. A child goes missing… The book avoids the good-guy bad-guy clichés this could create, and the evil that emerges at the end (though if you go back, it’s always been latent) is in its way understandable.

We talked a lot about the book, but also about all the research she had put in, which included visiting the islands with a scientific expedition. The photograph in front of us is of 'King' Bell, a member of a family who actally did what Lydia's made-up Peacocks did, settled an uninhabited island. Unlike the Peacocks, the Bells made a decent fist of it, only leaving when pushed out by land-grabbing nations.

The second author was Monisha Rajesh, who went ‘Around the World in 80 Trains’. The author and her partner set off to do what is says on the cover (it took seven months). Their itinerary included North Korea.

Amongst other things, we talked about authenticity. When is the arrival of KFCs in a civilization authentic and when is it some kind of cultural imperialism? Monisha was not impressed by ‘travel snobs’ who insist on maximum discomfort in search of ‘the real’ x-land. The young x-landers genuinely enjoy their KFC, and their iPhones and trainers and so on. Why should we deny them these things? Cultures are always changing and adapting. Their experiences in Tibet and Xinjiang seemed clearly to take this too far, with virtual attempts at obliterating local cultures. But where is the line? Interesting.

At another session, I sat and watched a discussion about the future of the novel. This seems to be bright, with lots of new presses (nobody even mentioned amazon). There’s room for new voices, new niches… Exciting!

This does possibly mean more room for trolling and nastiness. One person’s niche may repel someone else. Writers need to stay strong, true to themselves and proud.

The panel was criticized for being male / white / middle aged – but that was partially because one of the women who should have been there was misinformed by her publicity people about the start time and another, for some reason I don’t know, was in the audience. Monisha would have added a female British Asian voice, but was on her way from doing a gig somewhere else the previous evening.

It seems to me that, globally, the diversity issue will sort itself out, as poorer countries become richer. With more readers in, say, Nigeria, people there will seek out books that relate to their lives – not because the authors are black but because the local authors, who happen to be black, have written arresting, relevant books. It’s slightly patronizing to assume that this won’t happen without ‘our’ help.

Someone quoted William Goldman, ‘Nobody knows anything’, and this is true of publishing. Look at Harry Potter. JK just wrote a series of books that lots of people wanted to read. Maybe someone in Lagos is doing the same right now, finishing off a book that will take that country and maybe the rest of the world by storm.

In the end, ‘the novel’ will live on as long as people, of whatever gender, nationality, race (etc.) write books that other people simply love to read. Given the human need for creativity and for imaginative experience, the future looks bright.

Lots of great conversations– especially with the exciting debut novelist Kelliegh Greenberg-Jephcott in the train from Lynn (Kelliegh also took this photo – thanks). It’s really an event not to be missed.

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