Paula Morris launched us straight into the middle of conversation, which is always an excellent way to begin a panel event.
This grouping of writers was quite random-seeming, but actually it turned out to be genius, with a great tension leading to conversation. Muriel Barbery has published three novels, all of which are translated from French to English. Patrick Gale has published 14 novels, diverse but with a family focus in common. Joe Bennett is on his first, from a background as a journalist and non-fiction writer. They were quite different personalities, and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether Bennett helped or hindered the conversation, but their perspectives were unique, and the session satisfied the packed-in audience.
The first topic she set these three, authors was this: where do stories begin, and how do they develop. All four of them, including Morris seem to loosely agree that the concept that a novelist suddenly gets struck like a lightning bolt by inspiration is not true. “Inspiration is where you end up at after all the hard work.”
There was a rumour begun by a British newspaper article about Barbery, that she lost the desire to write after The Elegance of the Hedgehog was such a big hit. She says, “This was a misunderstanding of what I said. It illuminates my life to write. I never lost that desire, but I lost the sparkle.” The conversation turned to when you know your book ought to be abandoned, or not. Barbery said “It doesn’t need to be abandoned if you get lost, if you don’t know where you are going. It is a very good sign when you have a feeling that you don’t control what is happening.”
Joe Bennett calls the novel “the highest form of prose.” He has always wanted to write one before he dies, and claims he feels close to death every morning. “If you are unaware of the impending axe, then you’re not really alive.” The others didn’t agree with that, and Barbery finished the train of thought by saying “I am French, so I am immortal.”
Bennett heard the beginning of his story in the pub, from a mate, who claimed there was somebody living in the Grand Chancellor Hotel still, a month after the earthquake. He immediately had this image of this hobo in three complimentary dressing gowns working his way through the mini bars, from bottom to top. He wrote a column about it, but somebody at an event spurred him on “Why don’t you write a novel?” and told him that the man who became King Rich was a great character.
Patrick Gale, as I noted during his solo event, has no scruples about stealing stories from his own family. “If they hadn’t wanted me to write about them, they shouldn’t have told me stuff.” He usually doesn’t change names either, unless he is making them an antagonist. On inspiration he says, “I think of the stories as flies that you try to get away from. It’s the ones that stick that get written.”
It was at this point in the session we carried on to a passionate conversation between Patrick Gale and Muriel Barbery about stationary. Both of them, as it happens, write their first drafts long-hand, with a fountain pen, on white, lined paper. Patrick Gale has a specific fetish for “Pelican Toffee Brown”, because it has been proven that it is the colour that lasts longest. Barbery likes black ink on white paper, inspired by her time in Japan, and their beautiful calligraphy. While Barbery writes a full draft before typing it up, with part of the process being making up the words he can’t read, Barbery writes a chapter then types it up.
Gale says, “I write on paper because then you can see what you have crossed out. Sometimes your first though turns out to be better than the second.” Barbery says, “There is something rhythmic in the mind about writing and reading from the page that helps me figure out if I am doing it right.”
The inspiration by deadline is something Bennett, as a columnist, often has to work with. He needs the deadline, he says. “I wait until it’s impossible to write the book by that date, then I consider starting, and finish with 30 seconds to go.” Publishers are often perplexed to receive the draft on time, and he has learned since that novels don’t work the same way.
Barbery can’t work under pressure, but she has a publisher who understands. She says, “Strangely, I don’t write first to be read – I write because I need to.” She has to write completely freely – first, second, third, fourth drafts are all for her.
Paula Morris asked about how The Land of Elves, her latest book, was triggered – she was living in Japan, The Netherlands at the time. “There is always more than one trigger” says Barbery, “The gardens of Kyoto – through this artificial creation, you reach a feeling of nature that you have never had before.” Her husband commented that though entirely constructed, it was as though elves had created them – and The Land of Elves was born. She first wrote it as a script, before later, years later, being visited by the characters of the two girls that ultimately the story became about.
On obsession, Gale remarked, “My editor dreads any of his writers going into therapy, as it might cure them of the need to write.” Looking at his backlist, he has discovered an obsession with brothers and sisters that he had been unaware of. He is close to his sister. Though he bases his novels on family stories frequently, he wouldn’t consider writing a memoir because “my novels allow me to be much more emotionally honest.”
The writers had varying thoughts about research. Gale always does it, Bennett didn’t for his novel (though must have for his non-fiction!), Barbery has only recently discovered the joy of research in the form of Taoist Chinese poetry.
This was a fascinating session. Where writers meet and diverge in intent and technique is endlessly interesting to me, and this is in part why I am an avid attendee of writer’s festivals. You will have the chance to see Muriel Barbery in action at ‘So French‘ tomorrow, while Paula Morris will be a panelist in ‘Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?‘, which is sure to be fascinating. Both at BATS.
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
Novel Ways of Thinking: Muriel Barbery, Patrick Gale, Joe Bennett with Paula Morris
BATS Theatre, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week, Wellington