Day two of the Writer’s Festival dawned with the campus wreathed in mist. Yet again, I felt right at home. Way back in 1983 when I came here for my interview, the place was shrouded in fog. In fact, I remember far more foggy days than sunny, so it was a real bonus for the mists to clear, and the sun to beat down on us all day.
After breakfast I had time to stroll round the bits of campus I missed on my run last night. This time I revisited Vanbrugh College, which hasn’t changed that much, though it’s a tad smarter than it was. My old corridor was being re-designed, and I managed to track down my room, though it looks like they are merging it with my neighbours to double the size. I stood at the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the Biology Lab clock, which was a critical aspect of my student days, as every morning I’d roll out bed, look out of the window and realise I was late for my 9am lecture. It took a moment to realise the trees had grown so much they completely obscured the view. There was something really pleasing about that, as my novel, Echo Hall, is set in three periods of time, and the changing height of the trees is something I’ve used to mark the passage of time.
I then strolled back through Vanbrugh concourse where I cut my campaigning teeth persuading people to write letters for Amnesty International, and it was equally pleasing to see an excellent Amnesty poster on display. Nice to know York Students still have a bit of activism in them. I had time before the first talk to wander up to the JB Morell Library, one of my favourite places on campus. It’s been tarted up a bit, but it still has the central conceit of four floors of books that you can view from every level, and still provides me with the sense of wonder of the infinity of knowledge and how little of it we have time to master.
Then it was time for the 9am speech (I’d already been up 2 hours, how my life has changed since I was 19). The keynote speech by the wonderful JoJo Moyes. I have to confess, I had heard the name, but didn’t really know much about her, so my expectations weren’t high. I’m pleased to say that she blew me away, first because she was instantly loveable, witty, humble, and absolutely honest. So much of what she said resonated with me: write the best book you can, write what you have to write, stay with your novel. And so much of her experience was laced with failure and disappointment, and yet she could so clearly demonstrate what she had learnt in such a self-deprecating manner, it was terribly heartening. It was totally and utterly inspiring and well worth the entire conference fee just to be there. I loved her so much I bought one of her books and had her sign it. She was delightful, and an excellent example of how to be a writer at conferences, accessible, friendly and open to her readers. What a treat.
Over coffee, I had several more treats, meeting up with Shelly Harris (@shellywriter) the conference postergirl, who won Literary Live two years ago and has just published her first novel Jubilee. Shelly met my friend Anne at a writing retreat and we’d promised to look out for each other, so it was fabulous to bump into her by chance. She too was delightful, and I bought her book as well. She introduced me to Julie Cohen (@Julie_Cohen), another conference star, (I completed my book purchases with one of hers). Julie happens to know my twin Julia Williams as they are both members of the RNA. Julie did the double take most people do, when they know my twin and then meet me(Julia and I are startling alike,though she’s a lot more glamorous then I am). And then we had the perhaps inevitable moment of me running into another RNA writer, who Julia also knows but didn’t know I was there. Susan Alison (@bordercollies)rushed to hug me, before realising that I wasn’t quite the person she thought I was. I always feel immensely sorry for people in this situation, it is so much more embarrassing for them than for me.It has happened too many times to count.(In fact I’ve written a poem on the subject, but it’s at home, so it’ll have to wait for another blogpost). We luckily managed to recover ourselves as we worked and it was fun to discuss with Julia on twitter later.
Inspired by JoJo’s rule of thumb to write everywhere, and the fact that for this brief weekend I can do what I like, when I like. I returned to my room and attacked my novel with vigour.I’d intended to work for two hours, but I flaked at one and had a nap. Ah well, I don’t get many of those in the daytime anymore, and I’m not as young as I was.
After lunch I queued up for my 1:1, at least 15 writers meeting a similar number of agents/bookdoctors for 10 minute slots, managed with brilliant (if slightly scary) efficiency by a writing group in Hertfordshire. Waiting for my slot was a bit nervewracking, reminding me of some of the less helpful tutorials on my writing course. But I needn’t have worried. My chosen agent was encouraging, supportive, interested, picked up on some weaknesses I hadn’t and gave me some useful pointers. The fact that she liked the premise, she liked the title, and appreciated some of the bits that worked well was more than enough, and I can immediately see a way to improving the material.
So that was enough to send me scurrying back to my room for a bit more writing. I broke for a workshop on landscape, and another snooze, but by 6.30pm I’d completed another couple of chapters. Given how slow I usually am, that was actually not bad going.
And then it was time for the Gala Dinner. They’d specified “cocktail dresses” and I don’t really have many of those. So I’d brought the one dress that fitted the bill, a rather lovely Monsoon number I bought for a family party a couple of years ago. The trouble is, I always need my beloved to zip me up, and in the last 6 months I appear to have expanded as much as the York campus. I struggled and strained for twenty minutes before knocking on neighbour’s doors to try and find someone to help. Luckily the first person I found was a woman, Jo, who tried her best for several minutes before we both gave up. I decided I’d have to just go partially zipped, but back in my room, I gave it one last shot. With a twisting of material, and losing of some underwear, I finally managed to get it zipped, and if that experience doesn’t make me lose weight, I don’t know what will.
Despite a bit of a mix up with the vegetarian food, I’ve had a marvellous evening. Jo, my neighbour happened to be on my table, and we had a great chat about her novel, which has a totally brilliant premise. (I won’t spoil it because it will definitely get published). We also had the fabulous organisers of the 1:1 sessions, all writers themselves, who gave us the lowdown on a festival spent control hordes of anxious writers desperate to get at the agent’s table. The other two people on our table had never met before, but discovered on talking to each other that they worked in the same building at work, which just goes to show what a small writing world it is. One of them had an excellent premise for a story set in 1963 Vietnam, and we had a fascinating chat about empire and colonialism.
The lovely children’s writer I met last night was feted for winning the Greenhouse Literacy Agency Funny Awards and the Opening Chapter winner read his very funny and intriguing beginning, which featured, Prague, a challenging assignment and unicorns, and the wine flowed freely. I also managed to hook up with Debbie Alper (@DebbieAlper) and Emma Darwin (@EmmaDarwin) who both know Julia and who happen to live in the same road I lived in East Dulwich. (This small writing world is frankly not much bigger than a fishbowl). Just before I left for the evening, I bumped into Helen one of the Literary Live authors, who was great to talk to, as not only is she a marvellous writer, but she is temporarily living the writing life most of us aspire to, in Paris, and writing full time (at least for the time being).
I ended the evening sitting by the lake, remembering so many nights wandering around in the past, and thinking how life connects, and reconnects us in ways we cannot ever imagine.
Life is complex and full of surprises, which is why writing about it, is such a lot of fun.