Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Man, can that lady read!

Well, I marched up to Manchester's Town Hall this evening, all confident-like in my new-found role as official intrepid blogger, notebook and biro in one hand, bicycle helmet in the other, feeling very reporterly and professional and raring to go – and my first reaction, entering the building, was a massive surge of relief that I'd remembered to brush my hair and wear my fancy coat (fancy being a relative term; there's no holes in this one yet, is all).

Have you guys been in the Town Hall? Majestic spiral stone staircases everywhere, oil paintings of solemn political types eyeing you from the walls, wood panelling all over said walls, topped with what looked like swanky velvety wallpaper (sadly, I'm too short to reach up past the panelling to cop a feel and verify the texture) and chandeliers dangling over it all. The Festival was definitely launched in style. Lionel Shriver herself commented, later on, that 'even a trip to the loo is architecturally exhilarating'. There's your endorsement, people – check the place out.

There was a drinks reception before the reading itself, and I stood there with my orange juice (no drinking on the job, I told myself sternly) trying not to look too drop-jawed at my surroundings and spying on Shriver, the guest of honour, who was sipping what looked like a very appealing glass of wine and mingling like a Regular Person. I tried to take a photo but didn't want to go too close and create a creepy stalker impression, which I think would only have been exacerbated by the notebook, especially if she got a look at my scribblings. Good hair, I'd written; nice jumper. So far, so good, right?

A few people asked me if I was writing in my diary or composing a story, and they seemed impressed that I was making blogging notes. I'm doing it right, I thought, brilliant, just before getting told off by a Town Hall man for trying to bring my orange juice into the main room, where the reading about to begin. I chugged the offending drink, tripped over somebody's backpack in my graceful dash up the aisle, and convinced a very kind lady to let me sit beside her in the second-to-front row, where I had an unobstructed view of Ms Shriver and her very good hair. I told the lady beside me about the last time I'd seen the author perform – this was in Birmingham, at their Book Festival a couple of years ago, when she read from The Post-Birthday World and sang a song as part of the performance. We agreed that such things don't happen nearly often enough, though I made a mental note to stop telling this anecdote, lest people expect me to sing if I ever read at an event like this. My wishful thinking was interrupted by the Festival Director, Cathy Bolton, who kicked off the event by thanking the various people working hard behind the scenes, and she was followed on stage by Councillor Mike Amesbury, who swore to stand by the Literature Festival whatever the new government decides to do with its spending review. We all liked that and there was much nodding and clapping.

Then it was time for the main attraction - Lionel Shriver herself, complete with hair and jumper and a pair of rather fetching ankle boots (I can do fashion, too, see?). Up on the stage, framed by two enormous windows and having the appearance of a tiny but determined preacher, she donned her glasses and gave us the low-down on her latest book, So Much For That, which is all about healthcare and insurance in the USA, and one couple's particular struggle to deal with the financial and emotional fallout of the wife's terminal cancer.

Cathy had said that the book was a really entertaining read despite the grim subject matter, and even though that was made even more sombre by Shriver's revelation that a close friend of hers had suffered and died from the same illness as her fiction character, she assured us that the book wasn't her own story, and as she commenced to read an extended excerpt, Cathy's prediction was borne out – what we heard was witty and sharp and crammed full of the nigglingly familiar domestic disputes that are infuriating to experience and greatly amusing to read or hear about.

It was hard to look away from Shriver as she read – not only is her excellent ear for dialogue and characterisation pretty obvious in her prose, but man, can that lady read. She performed with brilliant poise and intonation and comic timing, even producing a worryingly accurate coughing fit where the script required one. When she finished the excerpt, it felt like she'd barely even begun. I was in the mood for more, but nobody else was stamping on the floor and shouting for one more tune, just applauding enthusiastically, so I restrained myself and merely grinned madly. You know, so I'd look totally sane if she glanced over and saw me.

Next she said she'd answer any questions we'd like to throw at her, and the opener was a hard-hitter about the health-care debate in the States, and whether it was coincidental that the book was released at about the same time as Obama's Reform Bill was passed. Shriver had said earlier that though she was politically motivated to write the novel, she was also wary of 'worthy' causes and texts, and that the story and the characters were the main thing; now, answering the question, she said that she'd begun the project before Obama was even elected, so, yes, it was a coincidence, though in hindsight, it would have been nice if the publication date had been a little sooner so that the book might have taken more of a role in the public debate about healthcare. She said that in her experience, fiction doesn't often influence politics, but that doesn't stop writers from hoping and trying.

Subsequent questions revealed that she reads her work aloud to herself while writing, that she plans her novels out in advance ('a sense of direction makes the blank screen less scary') and though she reckons there's no formula for writing a novel, having the structure worked out before you plunge in is a sensible idea, 'like a builder working to an architectural plan'.

Referring to her previous work, The Post-Birthday World, she revealed that she loves the 'slightly suggestive but not completely filthy language that comes with the game of snooker – 'double kiss in the balls' was a phrase that made me giggle. She said that one of the pleasures of writing fiction is the opportunity it provides for getting out of yourself, for writing characters who act and think differently from you, the author, rather than 'navel-gazing', and for play-acting professionally. Hurray for that!

When asked about her own reading habits, she said that she didn't understand writers who claimed they didn't read other people's work, and then caused consternation from the more poetically-minded audience members by remarking that 'poets never read poetry for fun'. One irate audience member yelled, 'That's a lie!' to which Shriver responded with a spirited, 'Prove it!' Fisticuffs were averted, however, although when she said she'd loved Matthew Kneale's English Passengers and another person opined up that they'd given up on that book, she accused them of foolishness. We all laughed though, and she also smiled, so that was fine, and ultimately, much like every other literary event I've ever attended, no blood was shed. We're a polite bunch, really. The final question was about the forthcoming film of We Need To Talk About Kevin, with which she'd had no involvement and had to actually sign a contract saying she wouldn't badmouth the movie – 'I'd better shut up now,' she said, lest she accidentally breach the agreement.

And that was that; a fine evening out, a witty and articulate speaker and a spectacular venue.
And I didn't spill my orange juice all over myself or fall over to do anything otherwise likely to spoil my Official Blogging Debut. Three cheers! And may the rest of the Festival be just as entertaining and impressive.

Valerie O'Riordan is a Manchester-based writer, and she blogs at

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