Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Changing the world

Beacons: Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future, Thursday 7th March, 6.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon. Photograph by Clare Dudman.

Manchester Literature Festival celebrated Climate Week by holding the launch of Beacons: Stories For Our Not Too Distant Future, an anthology of cautionary tales themed around environmental damage. In our last blog post, we'd already asked the collection's editor, Gregory Norminton, whether he thought literature could change the world, and this theme cropped up again tonight, in both the introduction and in the second half, when audience members were asked to share titles of texts that had shifted their perspective and made them consider behavioural improvements. 

"Even if it doesn't change the world, this book will at least unsettle you. It's bracing, it's thrilling, it's frightening in places," says Gregory as he explains how the collection, six years in the making, came together. "Fiction that makes you imagine the 'unimaginable' is really useful and the key is to engage with people on an emotional level. The environmental timebomb isn't a coherent, easy-to-understand narrative, but focusing on the human condition helps you try and make a predicament work as a set of stories."

Left to right: Rodge Glass, Cathy Bolton and Gregory Norminton

Another way to make the contents gel was to avoid being overly preachy. "If we asked our writers to write 'campaigning stories', we'd end up with a bad book," Gregory continues. "It's not 'them and us' - we're all in this together. If we agree to this as citizens, we should agree to that as writers too."

Rodge Glass, one of tonight's readers, nods his head. "The challenge is not to come over as if you're hectoring people. It's our responsibility as writers to engage with the world and be honest about it," he chips in. His pacy story is based in Krakow and focuses on a group of political campaigners living in the shadow of the threat of imminent and catastrophic flooding. 

Clare Dudman, who reads first, looks at coping with life in a drier, warmer Britain, although she says she wanted to write a story that had hope in it. Her protagonist, Sophie, is an editor because Clare wanted to explore her own usefulness, as a writer, in the face of an apocalyptic event. "It's so scary, what's happening," she says. "You feel obliged to write about it and have it at the back of your head all the time." 

Gregory is the last to read an extract, his offering being a pastiche of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, his choice for the debate after the break. Others that were raised ranged from George Orwell's 1984 and William Golding's The Inherited to Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne and The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer. Gregory holds aloft his copy of Beacons. "I want this book to start a conversation," he says, and I think, going on tonight's event, it already has.

You can read another interview with Beacons editor Gregory Norminton, written by Marc Hudson on the Manchester Climate Monthly site, where a full list of the books that changed our audience's world will be published shortly and where you can find out full details of their new short story competition.