This week, after months without going to a bookish events, I managed to fit in two great author talks. They couldn’t have been more different but both gave an interesting snapshot on the authors’ working processes.
First up was David Crystal at the Leeds branch of Waterstones. He’s a legend for anyone interested in linguistics or literary history and if you like word play, you’ll love his books. His best known work is The Story of English in 100 Words which shows how English has changed and developed over hundreds of years by focusing on 100 words which have unusual and interesting histories which highlight wider changes. It was inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects which attempts to give a whirlwind (and worldwide) summary of history via interesting artifacts.
The event at Waterstones was to talk about Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling and why spelling and ‘correct’ grammar remains something we judge others on and how some of the oddities in English came about (house/houses, mouse/mice for example). Crystal is a wonderful speaker: funny, insightful and his years as a professor have given him plenty of practice at summarising and providing background to his subject. There were a lot of linguistics students at the event but honestly, you don’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy his events or books. I came away with both of my books signed and with that delicious fuzzy glow you get from meeting someone you sincerely admire and enjoy listening to.
The second event as I said was just as lovely but rather different. Kate Atkinson was speaking as part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival last night and since I don’t really know her back catalogue and loved Life After Life it was fun to go along and hear her speak about her writing process. The venue, St Paul’s Hall, is a converted church and so, so gorgeous:
(Forgive the phone camera pic but it gives a sense of the building’s interior)
The acoustics were really good for me, sat way up at the back of the building. :)
Atkinson’s event was closer to a traditional book event but it was fun to hear which snippet of Life After Life she chose for a crowd that hadn’t read the book (it was only published the day before) as this is a book that can sound more complicated than it is when summarised. I was a little surprised that things I considered to be a bit spoiler-ish (the specifics of how Ursula gets past repeatedly dying from Spanish flu for instance) Atkinson happily threw into the conversation right away which was interesting. I must admit my heart sank when she frankly stated the book came about because she wanted to write about what-if-someone-killed-Hitler. Ugh. I hate that trope so that’s why the book (much as I loved it) remains an 8/10 for me. But her thoughts on the Blitz and thoughts on using the Mass Observation diaries as source material quickly won me back again. :)
It was the questions and answers that I found most thought-provoking though, with several questions about how and where Atkinson writes her books (not in a shed at the bottom of the garden though she does sometimes go to a hotel for a day or two to concentrate) and how she juggled all the characters in her head across different timelines. Apparently Atkinson re-writes as she goes, every day. I find that astonishing. Also, she hinted that there might be a companion book about some of the characters around Ursula, maybe we’ll get to find out more about what her friends and family members were up to during the Blitz. A lovely thought to end the evening on as I needed to dash back to Leeds!