In the wake of Brexit the future of the British economy may remain uncertain, but within our cultural life at least one development seems to be booming as never before. What I have in mind is the rise and rise of book festivals. In Scotland in 2016 there are such festivals in Colonsay, Ullapool, Wigtown, Inverness, Nairn, and Edinburgh. No doubt that list is incomplete, while across the UK and Ireland as a whole, the grand total is some 350. (Are there enough authors to go round one wonders?) In any event, that is why I was not surprised to see that Glasgow’s West End had decided it was time to catch up: the first Byres Road Book Festival had been organised for the 23-26 September 2016.
A range of events was to take place in Hillhead Library, the Oxfam bookshop, and Waterstones. I picked up a programme ('Once upon a time in the West End’) and saw several familiar names – Chris Brookmyre, Denise Mina, Chris Dolan, Jake Arnott, Louise Welsh. But what really caught my eye was a session in Waterstones featuring Graeme Burnet and Martin MacInnes whose respective novels – 'His Bloody Project’ (now short-listed for the Man Booker prize) and 'Infinite Ground’ – I had recently reviewed in SR.
Immediately I was facing a quandary. Do I play it safe and stay away? Or do I sit anonymously at the back wearing dark glasses with my coat collar turned up? Or do I stop being silly – after all I’d largely praised both books – and enjoy the opportunity of hearing the two authors speak? Sensibly I applied for a ticket – only to learn that the event was fully booked. However I could sign up for any returns – and in due course learned that a place was available after all.
When I arrived Waterstones was already packed. However I was lucky. A friend had kept a place just beside the speakers’ table and he let me have it. The shop manager was chairing the event and he began by saying he would raise a few issues, allow the writers to describe their novels, and finally invite the audience to ask questions.
His initial comment was that 'Infinite Ground’ and 'His Bloody Project’, while very different novels, did have something in common. Both were linked to the genre of crime fiction – but rather than being 'whodunits’, both were 'whydunits’. The authors were happy with this description, and went on to talk in more general terms about their writing lives, what they were trying to achieve, and just how committed they were to a writing life. It emerged that both of them had been awarded Scottish Book Trust new writers awards, and neither could have been more emphatic about how important that had proved in furthering their careers. They both urged other young writers not to hesitate over approaching that body.
Another point they agreed on was the importance of time spent in libraries such as the National Library of Scotland and the National Archive of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Time spent in reading and researching, they said, was invaluable. It was fascinating, if not entirely surprising, to hear Martin say that the pile of books at his table often concerned philosophy and biology rather than anything more literary. (Later, responding to a question from the audience about how far he’d been influenced by Kafka and Beckett, he said that they were perhaps in his background – but no more than that. The one author he mentioned as a more direct influence was J G Ballard – well-known and much admired as a highly experimental postmodern novelist.) Graeme conceded that in the last two months – following his run in the Man Booker stakes – he had very little time either to read or write. Not that he was complaining…
When the time came for audience questions, they were a bit slow in coming. I felt that in the prevailing circumstances I might as well speak up. So I went back to the suggestion that the two novels had more in common than some debt to the genre of crime fiction – and asked explicitly about their continuing exploration of the difference between 'fiction’ on the one hand and truth and reality on the other. Both authors agreed that they were indeed concerned with this issue and that it was reflected both in the form and content of their books.
Graeme insisted that he always aimed to make his 'fiction’ as authentic as possible. Thus the streets and restaurants in the small French town of his first novel are described exactly as they are in a real location. In 'His Bloody Project’ the description of the village of Culduie is – like the map he provides – accurate in every detail. (He told us he already gets selfies from readers standing in the village street holding up his novel.) And he went on to say that in writing both his novels he was particularly determined to avoid 'sentimentality’ of any kind. (I think this helps to explain the somewhat bleak vision of the world that comes across in his writing.)
What fascinated me most about Martin’s remarks, on the other hand, was his acknowledgement that, unlike Graeme, he felt he was not totally in control in structuring and developing the narrative he was telling. In other words he seemed to be siding with those authors who say that their characters and plots can sometimes take over and move in directions of their own making. The result can be that 'meaning’ in 'Infinite Ground’ is finally elusive. But then both novels provide little in the way of clarification or final explanation. Traditional crime fiction ends with problems solved and justice being done. In neither of these novels is the reader offered any such reassurance. It is left to us to make what we will of what we’ve read.
Having enjoyed the unpretentiousness with which the two authors had talked, I decided at the end of the session to own up to being a reviewer of their work. Martin MacInnes had read my review, liked it, and even cited a couple of points I’d made. Graeme Burnet had still to read his, but it quickly emerged we’d something else in common. In the 1980s he’d studied in the English Department of Glasgow University and enjoyed it very much – including my lectures on Milton’s 'Paradise Lost’. What could I say? I told him I’d predicted he wouldn’t win the Man Booker, but as I’d been wrong about his making the short list, I might well be wrong about that as well. We’ll soon find out.