Chaired by author and translator Daniel Hahn, Saturday evening’s event was a discussion and readings from Carmen Maria Machado and Chris Power, each showcasing work from their debut short story collections. Power, whose work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review and The White Review, uses place and movement in his collection Mothers to bring characters out of their comfort zone and find the beauty in everyday detail. Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, on the other hand, is a collection mostly of speculative short stories, which plays with genre, folktale and archetype to explore questions of violence and bodily autonomy.

The discussion focussed mainly on craft, theme, what makes a story good, literary, or affecting, and how to curate a collection of stories that speak to each other – fairly standard book festival fodder, and considering Machado and Power were paired, I suspect, for no other reason than that they’re both short story writers, much credit is due to Hahn for finding commonalities between two very different books. Both Machado and Power, both, arguably, authors of literary merit, discussed the way ambiguity in theme and ending can be used to draw a reader into a story, and the use of genre and place to maintain narrative distance and control reader expectations. I was personally pleased by the contradiction demonstrated in Machado’s discussion of her writing process: for an author whose work is so numinous, esoteric and visceral, Machado is remarkably practical when she speaks about her craft, as if saves up all the mystery and mysticism to use in her work, and has no need of it in real life.

The highlight of the evening for me was the readings – Machado read from an essay she wrote for Gutter’s Freedom collection, compiled specifically for this year’s book festival, on freedom and personal responsibility. Near the middle of the hour, Power read one of the stories from Mothers, which found symbol and power in the prosaic, everyday details of facial expression or the bark of a tree. Machado closed the discussion with part of the first story in Her Body, which made a fine contrast to Power’s; Machado’s stories are speculative fiction, and use elements of the surreal and uncanny to speak about human themes.

All in all the event – taking place rather late in the game, at 8.30pm on the third-to-last night of the festival – was fairly sedate, and aside from a final, almost token question about free speech and the rise of the alt right, nothing particularly controversial was discussed. It may have been slightly craft-heavy for anyone in the audience who wasn’t a writer, but as a writer of short fiction myself, I was perfectly happy.

Photo courtesy of Art Streiber.

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