Centre for Open Learning

'Under The Knife' at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

COL Teaching Fellow, Dr Anya Clayworth, shares her experience of chairing an event at the 2019 Book Festival.

A photo of two books from the Under The Knife event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

I have been going to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for a really long time, in fact, longer than I care to admit. For me, it has always been the highlight of the summer festival season. The Book Festival offers an oasis of calm in the midst of the Festival madness; a place to share ideas, listen to authors, be inspired and spend a lot of money on books. It’s somewhere I bump into old friends, ex- and current COL students and where I get childishly excited about seeing my literary heroes in the loos or buying a coffee. Over the years, I have seen many of the authors I admire talking about their work in Charlotte Square: Ian McEwan, Val McDermid, James Kelman, William McIlvanney, Ali Smith and Haruki Marukami to name but a few.

It was with great delight and considerable alacrity therefore that I took up the opportunity to act as a chairperson for the first time this year. The event was billed ‘Under the Knife’ and was to discuss Things in Jars by Jess Kidd and Surgeons’ Hall by E. S. Thomson. Both of these novels are set in the nineteenth century and explore the discoveries and limitations which make this period so interesting. As two of my literary passions are detective fiction (which I teach in Term 2 every year at COL) and the nineteenth century (which I researched for my PhD), this session was a great fit for me personally and professionally. I received the books in July and when I set about the reading, I found to my great delight that these two authors were both extraordinarily talented and I whipped through their novels with joy in my heart.

There’s a lot of thinking to be done in advance of one of these sessions. My kids claim I am staring while doing this (I imagine a bit like Paddington doing a hard stare) but actually my brain is busy making a million connections. I am not dozing obviously. My aim was to read and re-read the novels to identify the areas in which these two authors’ writing overlapped, their interests and themes and ways in which I could help them to share their novels with the audience. Lots of cups of tea and mind maps later, I decided I was ready to reach out to Jess and Elaine and see if we could chat either electronically or in-person in advance of the event so we could get to know one another and feel comfortable in each other’s company on the day. Slightly hesitantly, I sent off emails and waited.

I needn’t have felt any trepidation. What lovely, kind and generous women they both turned out to be. Jess and I had a long chat over a cuppa in the National Library café and shared our Irish heritage, her brother’s youthful attempts to kill her by wrapping her tightly in the family hearth rug and her love for listening to other people’s conversations on trains. Elaine and I chatted by email, sharing our experiences of working as university teachers and our favourite gory literary stories from Edinburgh. Meeting these wonderful authors in advance made a huge difference to all of us and I was delighted to see how Jess and Elaine bonded so quickly over their shared interests and love for each other’s work on the day. They also found common ground as writers and single mothers, discussing fitting their work around their busy home lives with jobs and family. Both women advise wannabe writers to simply write when the opportunity presents itself rather than when the muse strikes. This was sage advice which struck a chord with lots of audience members.

The event itself was slightly daunting once we discovered that we had been moved from the Spiegeltent to the main New York Times Theatre. Ghosts of authors and chairpeople past left us feeling felt momentarily overwhelmed as well as excited. However, our nerves were settled by the presence of friends and family in the audience and also in my case, a number of my lovely COL students who came along to indulge their passion for discussing writing. The discussion was fascinating and fast-moving. Highlights include Elaine’s comment that the Victorians believed that travelling faster than 20mph could rip your face off and Jess confessing that she had Tom Hardy in mind when she wrote one of her characters, Ruby Doyle. They read beautifully, we laughed, we talked and we shared their work with the audience who were enthusiastic in joining us to celebrate the novels.

Discussing literature with students is something I have the privilege of doing every week at COL through my teaching but the Book Festival event was something unique. To talk with an author about how they created the individual voices of their characters or to hear how book research yielded secrets like the mackintosh coat which turned into a boat (quite appropriate one feels in Edinburgh just now) is just a joy. As a bonus, you get a special lanyard and as much tea and cake as you can consume. This was a brilliant opportunity and one which provided the audience and I with much food for thought. Go along to the Book Festival some time and take an hour to hear a writer speak and see how it can inspire you. And if you’re short of a good novel this autumn then I urge you to pick up a copy of Things in Jars by Jess Kidd and Surgeons’ Hall by E. S. Thomson. They’re cracking reads by inspiring women!

Dr Anya Clayworth

The Centre for Open Learning, the University of Edinburgh.