Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Richard Ford at the Jaipur Literature Festival

As kites (of the non-avian kind) wheel over the front lawns of the Diggi Palace, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Richard Ford leans back in his chair on stage at the 4th day of the Jaipur Literature Festival and considers his trilogy of novels, featuring protagonist Frank Bascombe. He points out that it was never intended as a trilogy at all, but, after the success of The Sportswriter, he found he wanted to continue Frank’s story, albeit at intervals of several years (and it may not be over yet).

Ford describes how he began The Sportswriter in 1982, prompted in some part by the death of his mother the year before. His grief was in some sense as he points out ‘transmogrified’ by the novel, in which the main character lives with the death of his child, though Ford points out that he and his wife have never had children themselves. Thus the trilogy was, in some sense, ‘born of grief’. Ford paraphrases poet and writer Randall Jarrell who wrote that a writer is a person who needs to have had experience, though Ford confesses he himself is not keen on actual research. He maintains that being a writer is not hard – if it were, he wouldn’t still be doing it at the age of 66!

Compere media analyst Somnath Batabyal makes the point that modern novels seem to have moved from the ‘heroic’ to tones of introspection, but Ford counters with the fact that some of the greatest novels of the past were those looking at the inner self, by authors such as Tobias Smollett and Flaubert. For Ford, a realistic novel should be saying ‘pay attention!’ to the reader – ‘this is the stuff of life’. Ford says he has used his trilogy to try and write about someone who is trying to be happy, rather than existing at one extreme or another. His characters are seeking some sort of harmony in life, though they may go through periods of unhappiness and even grief to achieve this.

When it comes to the writing of a novel, Ford happily quotes Somerset Maugham: ‘There are three rules for writing, but unfortunately, no-one can remember what they are.’ Ford likes dialogue and argues that this makes for a great introduction to characters, especially as one converses with another. As long as the speech is plausible to the reader, characters can be introduced one after the other very effectively. Ford reveals that he thinks actual descriptions of characters are not as important. Frank Bascombe narrates the trilogy in the first person present tense and so it can be quite difficult for the reader to see what he looks like – only via Frank’s or other characters’ comments are they likely to form an impression of his physical appearance, again highlighting the usefulness of dialogue and character. Besides, Ford laughs, if a character is described too deeply, the reader may be reminded of a friend or relative instead!

Ford grew up in a bookish atmosphere (‘literature was in the air’) and one senses that writing came easily to him. His hometown of Jackson Mississippi was also home to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, who lived just down the road, and whom he actually met in 1962. Nowadays he and his wife are great travellers and when I ask him where he is most comfortable when writing, he says that he is happy to work almost anywhere whilst on the move – in hotels, on trains, on planes, although he does enjoy some quiet, which he has in abundance at home. He comments to the large audience how happy he is to be in India and says that he has already ridden on an elephant. He enjoys international fiction too, though he regards a novel by, say, RK Narayan as a novel rather than an Indian novel – translated fiction is a ‘gift’ that simply shows how much readers are alike the world over and is not in any way a barrier to empathy.

Ford reveals that his next novel will be set in 1960 and will be called ‘Canada’. It will feature twins whose parents rob a bank and are sent to prison. The girl runs away whilst the boy is taken by strangers from Montana to Canada. It will be a novel told in the first person from many years later. On the relationship between authors and readers, Ford leaves us with an acute observation: that we were readers before we were writers and writers because we were readers.
Jon Atkin

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greetings from Jaipur Literature Festival

It’s the end of day 2 at the wonderful Jaipur Literature Festival and I’m feeling decidedly over stimulated! The festival takes place in the serene grounds of the Diggy Palace heritage hotel (sadly our budget pad is a rather less salubrious affair but the hotel staff are very friendly and it has Wi-Fi). Sat in the canopy-shaded front lawn listening to highly engaging and world renowned authors such as Orhan Pamuk, J.M Coetzee, Richard Ford, Chimamanda Adichie and Jung Chang, it’s easy to forget that you’re only a couple of hundred yards from one of Jaipur’s busiest roads with its chaos of hooting taxis, rickshaws, scooters and cyclists – luckily the only noise pollution here is the screech of parakeets flitting from tree to tree.

Each hour there are 4 simultaneous events happening in different spaces and they’re all free. The only drawback of the festival is having to select which events from the tempting menu to attend. Today I started with a session called Why Books Matter: Patrick French, Sunil Sethi, Kiran Desai and John Makinson in conversation with Sonia Singh. The discussion starts with some observations about India’s expanding literature market and the innate Indian spirit of intellectual inquiry – whereas the book market is stagnating in the west it is apparently growing by 18% a year here.

It’s thanks to globalisation and capitalist-driven prosperity that India’s population is becoming increasingly literate and the demand for English language books is growing exponentially (or so the likes of Penguin hope). Judging by the thousands of people thronging into the festival there certainly is a very healthy local appetite for literature and ideas. However, a Hindi journalist in the audience takes issue with the suggestion that India’s middle classes, many of whom have gained their new found status through occupation rather than education, are engaging with serious literature. Whereas they are happy to spend money on expensive designer clothes they only buy books that fit in with their interior d├ęcor or look impressive on the coffee table – sound familiar?

The discussion touches on the ethical implications of a greed-driven prosperity, but is taken up more fully in a later session being recorded for the BBC’s The Forum (to be broadcast on the World Service on Sunday 30th January). Authors Gurcharan Das, Kavery Nambisan and Manjushree Thapa, chaired by Bridget Kendall, along with the audience are invited to discuss the role of Dharma and the challenges of living a good life in contemporary Indian society. Many members of the audience seem to be of the opinion that capitalism has been good for India and that greed and envy aren’t necessarily evil. One industrialist explains that ambitious business people sometimes have to walk a grey moral path in order to succeed, but ultimately it’s for the benefit of the wider society as they help create gainful employment.

The panellists clearly have qualms about the 25% of the population that are being left behind in India’s new prosperity (an age-old poverty is very much in evidence in the streets just beyond the walls of this cultural oasis) and talk about the interconnectedness of slums and gated communities. As the session draws to an end, one woman in the audience voices the opinion that “we should stop imposing aspirations on the poor – just because they don’t want to take up the opportunity to improve their lot doesn’t mean the rich should continually agonise over their plight” – I do a double-take to make sure that’s not Maggie Thatcher in a sari!

In another fascinating session titled A Time Apart, Reeta Chowdhry talks about her novel Makam, based on extensive research into the effects of the Indo-Chinese war on the lives of Indians of Chinese descent. She explains how Chinese people, originally brought over by the British to work in the Assam tea plantations, settled and intermarried with the local Indian population, adopting their customs and very much assimilating into Assam life. But when the 1962 war started, Chinese Indians were suddenly treated as the enemy, put into internment camps and deported to China as spies – never to see their remaining families again. Her novel has been translated into several languages and is selling like hotcakes – there’s a cheer from the audience when her fellow panellist cries “and she’s getting royalties!”

The effect of the internet on writing and publishing is a recurring theme throughout the festival. Penguin’s John Makinson is optimistic that e-books and the like are opening up new readerships for literature. As he sees it, there is a growing diversification of audiences: those who are merely interested in experiencing rather than owning literature, and those who like to collect it. These two audiences are likely to coexist for the foreseeable future, so those of us who treasure the physicality of books can stop worrying. Kiran Desai has no concerns about gadget-happy literature consumers though admits she’s never used an e-reader. In fact we later learn she’s so far managed to avoid using any form of social networking and only checks her emails in expensive internet cafes to avoid having the distraction at home – this probably explains how she manages to write Booker-prize winning novels.

On that note, it’s time to power up the net book, download some photos and start blogging!

Cathy Bolton

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Radio Production Course for Poetry Lovers

Manchester Literature Festival is teaming up with ALL FM Community Radio Station for Poems on the Road, a project celebrating poetry along the A6 Corridor. We are commissioning 5 poets from the area (Suzanne Batty, Helen Clare, Pete Kalu, Shamshad Khan and Martin de Mello) to produce new poems set in and around the Stockport Road area of Manchester. These poems will be recorded on location and aired on ALL FM in May 2011.

We are also offering 6 people the opportunity to take part in a 6 week radio production course run by ALL FM. The course will provide training in show planning, scriptwriting, interview techniques, equipment use, practical recording and editing. Course participants will also produce podcasts of the newly commissioned poems and interviews with the poets for live broadcast and online listen again facilities. The course is aimed at people with a particular interest in learning how to promote the arts and culture using new media.

Course Times – Fridays 1 - 4pm

WEEK 1: February 18th
1: Introduction to the course
2: The importance of teamwork
3: Programming radio / radio styles
4: Radio roles – who does what and why?
5: Station Practice

WEEK 2: February 25th
1: Running orders
2: Scriptwriting – writing for yourself and writing for others.
3: Research

WEEK 3: March 4th
1: Preparing and conducting interviews
2: Using the portable recorders
3: Playback and evaluation

WEEK 4: March 11th
1: Studio practice
2: Introduction to the studio
3: Introduction to Myriad
4: Introduction to audio editing

WEEK 5: March 18th
1: Using the mixing desk
2: Recording links
3: Advanced audio editing part 1

WEEK 6: March 25th
1: Putting together a podcast (advanced audio editing part 2)
2: Uploading to the internet
3: Representing the station while out and about


To apply for the course you need to meet the following requirements:

* Be available to attend all course sessions which will take place 1pm – 4pm every Friday between February 18th and March 25th 2011 at ALL FM Radio Station in Levenshulme.
* Be willing to participate in post-course production sessions in April 2011 (dates to be arranged with poets).
* Live in the Levenshulme, Longsight or Ardwick areas of Manchester.
* Be competent with using a computer for a range of everyday tasks (no previous radio editing experience necessary).
* Have a genuine interest in literature and promoting the arts.

To apply for the course, please email Jason Cooke at jason@allfm.org by Friday 4th February, explaining how you think you would benefit from taking part in the course and how you meet the requirements above. If you have any queries please ring Jason on 0161 248 6888.

Poems on the Road project is part of the Connect programme supported by the Community Media Association in partnership with Arts Council England.