Sunday, August 25, 2013

Three days in Edinburgh

I just got back from my visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival—tired, footsore and with fresh and vivid memories of some lovely new friendships.

On Thursday evening I chaired an event with Neil Gaiman, 'A Treasure House of Story'. This was the first of several events for Neil at the Festival, and he'd arrived in Edinburgh after a gruelling 9-week tour (and the signing of an estimated 75,000 books). The event was part of a theme, 'Reshaping Modern Fantasy', which Neil had curated for the Festival as Guest Selector.

I'd never interviewed a literary megastar before, and I'd worked hard on refamiliarising myself with his work and trying to find a plan for the event that would make sense to Neil and what I knew would be a big crowd. I needn't have worried—Neil proved to be the perfect interviewee. He was funny, warm, articulate and deeply interesting about his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of the powerlessness of childhood, the restless reconstructions of memory, and the pressures that other people put on our representations of the past. Neil said afterwards that he'd enjoyed the opportunity to do something a bit more themed and structured than the usual 'So how much of you is there in this book?'. I loved every moment and was sorry to say goodbye to him as he settled down after the event in front of a long and visibly excited signing queue.

I wasn't quite out of the limelight yet, though, as the guys from Respect Films, who are on the road with Neil making a documentary, caught me to talk a bit about the event while Neil signed away in the background.

You can read a review of the event with Neil here.

On Friday afternoon I was due to chair an event with Susannah Cahalan, a New York journalist whose book Brain on Fire is a funny, moving and pretty terrifying account of a (thankfully temporary) descent into psychosis, amnesia and loss of identity. It was another great event, thanks to Susannah's lively readings and eloquent account of how she put the pieces of her 'lost month' back together. It was particularly interesting to hear her talk about the family context of her story and how she is still negotiating, with her parents and others, their inevitably divergent narratives of what happened. Her story is about the resilience of the human mind and spirit, and it was a privilege to meet her. Here she is pictured in a photograph taken that same afternoon by Festival photographer Chris Close.

My last event was on Saturday morning, and it was a pairing between me and another novelist, the Canadian writer Colin McAdam. Colin has written a deeply interesting book called A Beautiful Truth, which tells of relationships between chimpanzees and humans and performs the (you might think) impossible trick of giving voice to chimpanzees' thoughts. I was very struck by Colin's comment that, in search of self-forgiveness, he found that the only way forward was to think of himself as a primate—at which point the world of chimpanzees began to open up for him.

I read from and talked about A Box of Birds and, although the styles and ambitions are different, it was clear that the books have many themes in common—themes that were expertly traced by our chair, Helen Sedgwick. I talked about how I had wanted to explore how a character would make sense of the world, and herself, if she saw herself solely in terms of neurones and chemical reactions. What would happen to that materialist philosophy when things started to happen; when that character had to make moral choices? Without wanting to give the plot away, I pointed out that I had tried to dramatise that question by giving my protagonist, Yvonne, a challenge of freewill—a dilemma in which you would act differently depending on whether you really believed you were only neurones and molecules, or whether you thought that there was something more to your 'self'.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the very best festivals around: beautifully organised, gorgeously located and with staff who attend to every detail and make writers and audiences feel very welcome. As I expected, there was much laughter and intellectual surprise to be had in conversations in the Authors' Yurt and beyond. I also got a chance to be photographed by Chris Close for one of the author portraits that are put up around the site. I'm not sure if it's gone up yet. It looks like I'm trying to screw my head back on. Did it come detached in the fun? I like to think that books, and conversations about them, could have that power.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Inner Speech: an episode of The Forum

Last week I was at Broadcasting House in London to record an episode of The Forum, the ideas and discussion show that goes out on BBC World Service. The show is chaired by Bridget Kendall, and the other studio guests were the broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski and novelist and short-story writer Aamer Hussein. The programme is broadcast this weekend, first at 23:06 GMT on Saturday, and then again at 10:06 on Sunday and 02:06 on Monday.

The theme of the programme is inner speech: the internal dialogue that makes up much of many people's conscious experience. The conversation began with me setting out some ideas about why we should be interested in inner speech as a phenomenon, and how this kind of mental experience can work both to our benefit and detriment psychologically. As readers of this blog will know, this has been a focus of research for me for a long time: it was the topic of my recent cover feature for New Scientist, and it will form the basis of my next non-fiction book for Profile.

Aleks then talked about her research (documented in her excellent new book, Untangling the Web) into how the internet is allowing us to experiment with new social identities, and what effect that might have on the inner voice. We talked about how social media such as Twitter can function as a kind of online private speech, a means for self-regulation and emotional expression, which is a topic I have written about previously in relation to Vygotsky's theory.

Aamer Hussein's fictions are often preoccupied with the tension between internal and external speech. He writes in both Urdu and English, and has some fascinating things to say about how these different languages afford different kinds of inner and outer speech. His haunting short novel Another Gulmohar Tree tells of an Urdu speaker who struggles to translate his innermost thoughts into a form that his English wife can understand.

Finally, we had a lot of fun with Aleks' suggestion for a Sixty Second Idea to Change the World—a regular feature on the show. While recognising that it lay in the realms of science fiction, Aleks suggested inventing a device that would monitor a speaker's inner dialogue and tell you—by the emission of a certain scent or odour—whether they were telling the truth. We were far too polite to mention it on air, but I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway's famous line:
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.
It would be nice to be able to detect other people's bullshit, but it's handy (especially for a writer) to be able to detect one's own as well.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013

Next week I'll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a series of events on familiar (for me) themes of memory, identity and narrative.

On Thursday 22 August I'll be in conversation with bestselling author Neil Gaiman about his new novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane and its themes of childhood memory, the line between fantasy and reality, and a child's discovery of the secrets of the adult world. The event, which is a sell-out, forms part of the series 'Reshaping modern fantasy', for which Neil has acted as Guest Selector. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a deceptively simple and endlessly surprising novel full of mythic echoes, deep psychological resonances and some pretty scary monsters, and I'm hugely excited about discussing it with him.

On Friday 23 August I'll be speaking to the journalist Susannah Cahalan about My Brain on Fireher extraordinary memoir about her brush with the brain disease, encephalitis. One of the things I love about this book is the author's painstaking efforts to reconstruct this lost period of her life by pulling together a whole range of documents and sources of information, and I'm looking forward to asking her quite how she did it.

And on Saturday 24 August I'll be reading from and talking about my novel A Box of Birds with the Canadian author Colin McAdam, who will be talking about his new book A Beautiful Truth. You can book for the event here.

Hope to see some of you there.