My decision to see Mary Paulson-Ellis at the Book Festival was based purely on the fact that she was due to be part of the discussion panel at the following evening’s Edinburgh Literary Salon, which I help run.
The August Salon was a ‘Book Festival Edition’ celebrating the Salon’s first year as an independently run organisation (formerly run by Edinburgh City of Literature) and we invited three Book Festival writers with Edinburgh connections to give their views on Edinburgh’s literary gatherings.
This pre-amble is a part-confession. I had not read either of Paulson-Ellis’s books, nor had I read any of the author with whom she was appearing at the Book Festival – Kjell Ola Dahl – partly because they don’t write in the sort of genre that I generally read. Nevertheless, my mind was opened by the interesting conversation between the two writers, chaired by Russel D McLean. As McLean said, no matter what the genre, it is character that drives any novel.
Both writers were talking about their books and the way they delved into different eras in history (which has its challenges for any writer) and yet, the strength of each was how the writer tried to get ‘close’ to the character in the sense of how they might think. Writing is not just about re-living history; it’s about how the circumstances affect the people living that history.
For Paulson-Ellis, setting part of her novel in the First World War, she avoided writing about the trenches, because that has been done so much. Instead, she wrote about the way it might have felt to be in the situation, and the dynamics between the various young men. Likewise, Dahl pointed out that getting the dialogue and language right is a way of “being intimate with those times.”
While I wouldn’t, as a writer, attempt genres that I’m not familiar with, this event certainly gave me an impulse to read more widely, outside my usual choices. This, also, is why it is useful to have literary events such as the Edinburgh Literary Salon, because it brings writers together, draws them out of their turrets, and brings debate and inspiration to those who attend.
As Paulson-Ellis pointed out, in the section of her book that she read both at the EIBF event and the Salon discussion, her character Solomon Farthing was in his own ‘salon’ – a cell in Gayfield Police Station! And as he returned back to the streets, he mused, “Edinburgh always did find a way of lifting one up in the end.”
The same could be said for Book Festivals and Literary Salons. We are very lucky to have both in Edinburgh.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme click here.
Edinburgh Literary Salon meets at 6pm on the last Tuesday of most months at The Wash Bar, and can be followed on twitter: @Lit Edinburgh