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The Hay Literary Festival, Sunday 28th May : The day of the raconteur

posted on 28 May 2017

The Hay Literary Festival, Sunday 28th May : The day of the raconteur

 

 

There’s absolutely no reason to assume that your favourite writers are also good at talking about their work, equipped to entertain big audiences and happy to keep us enthralled as they bare their souls. I know this is true because I’ve seen a lot of authors trying to do their turn and I’ve witnessed plenty of duff efforts – from the very boring to the minor car crash.

So what a rare, rich seam we struck on this Sunday when all three of the authors we chose to see were consummate performers in their very different ways. We kicked off quite early for a Sunday morning – 10.00am – with Tim Winton being interviewed by the BBC’s Rebecca Jones about his new book of essays and opinion pieces, The Boy Behind The Curtain. Winton is arguably Australia’s most outstanding living novelist and he was in talkative, confessional form. I particularly enjoyed his willingness to talk about some quite personal family issues that have moulded him as a writer. On a couple of occasions he mentioned the importance of coming from ‘the wrong side of the wrong country in the wrong hemisphere’ and his sense of being an isolated writer, socially and geographically came across clearly. Winton has had his troubles including a life-threatening car crash at the age of 18 that forced him to concentrate on his writing at such an early age. He’s been prolific but he’s also had his dark days and his description of his mental state when he was writing Dirt Music was quite emotional. Winton is also a surfer and ecological campaigner and it’s an activity that not only takes him to a zen place but one he has come to see as having parallels with his life as a writer.

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So, on to Colm Toibin being interviewed by Clare Armistead. I say being interviewed but in truth she probably only got to ask a handful of questions. Toibin is a storyteller supreme and turn him on, point him in the right direction and off he goes. But it’s not tittle-tattle – he’s certainly humorous but he’s also thoughtful and provocative. His new book, House of Names, draws its inspiration from the plays of the great Greek tragic dramatists and he was very informative about the creative process that led him to explore those issues. Toibin is an astonishingly diverse novelist in terms of the topics he takes on and he revealed that this is a deliberate tactic to ensure he doesn’t run dry on a topic – when he’s had enough he moves on and that often involves tackling completely different and new issues.

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In the course of his interview with Rebecca Jones ( yes, her again) Sebastian Barry called Toibin his spiritual ‘Irish brother’ but nationality is probably the closest thing they have in common – they are certainly very different writers. But Barry, like Toibin, has positively theatrical instincts and he was in a mood to perform. We were treated to a reading from Days Without End  that included a full-throated acapella American folk song as well as a more than passable American accent. Barry draws heavily on his family for inspiration – and that’s not always welcomed by the family members who find their lives set down on paper. Tragically his writing led to a schism with his grandfather that never healed and which clearly now gives him pain. However, it's not all bad news -  his very positive relationship with his gay son is a cause for celebration and certainly helps to redress the balance.

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A long day but a stimulating and superbly entertaining one.

 

Terry Potter

May2017