Cheltenham Lit Fest: Paula Hawkins & Sarah Waters
This October I attended the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It was the first time I had been to any LitFest and I thought it would be huge, but thankfully it wasn’t (I’m not a fan of big crowds). It was a quaint little pop-up tent village in a grassy park in the centre of Cheltenham. There were a few large tents where the talks were taking place, a Waterstones bookshop tent, lots of food stalls, and that was pretty much it. It was busy and cosy and friendly – perfect!
I was only there for one day and had booked to see the interviews with Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train, Into the Water) and Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, The Night Watch, Affinity, to name just three).
At 2.15pm I was squished between two nice ladies as Paula Hawkins took to the stage, dressed in dark, casual clothes and with a somewhat self-conscious air of being in front of an audience. She talked of the whirlwind she experienced with The Girl on the Train. It had taken her one year to write her breakthrough novel, and she admitted that she was in pretty dire financial straits at the time. Then it had suddenly exploded into the phenomenon we know today.
She had wanted to explore female relationships, the power of men, and the unreliability of memory. These themes transfer into her latest book, Into the Water, which is a story centred around the relationship between two sisters. Water is a prominent element in this book (as the title suggests) and she made a point that I hadn’t thought about before - everybody has an emotional connection with water. Some people love it and feel at peace by a trickling stream or the waves of the sea. For others, water can be a terrifying place. For me, I enjoy looking at water, but I am not at ease with it.
Something that surprised me about Paula Hawkins, and indeed because of the way the whole interview was set up, was that The Girl on the Train was not her first novel. She has written four previous novels under a different name. The details of these were not expressed, but I’ve since googled her and found her pen name was Amy Silver. The books written under this name were romances and although they have good reviews, they did not achieve anywhere near the success of her latest two novels. In truth, I felt a little mislead when this fact was skimmed over in the interview. I’m sure Paula herself is not trying to cover anything up, but there was a lot of emphasis made about The Girl on the Train being her breakthrough novel, her first proper novel. I wished she had talked a little more of her time as a writer trying to make her breakthrough, of the struggles, of the knockbacks she had, and what inspired her to change her style of writing so dramatically. After all, each of us has to start somewhere, and we all appreciate tales that we feel we can relate to.
Despite this, I really enjoyed the interview and the hour on the hard seat did pass quickly. I found her to be a down-to-earth woman who probably isn’t very comfortable in such large company. I’m sure she would have preferred to have been holed up in her study working on the next draft.
Later that day I attended the interview with Sarah Waters who was receiving The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence. I absolutely love Sarah’s books. She has only written six in twenty years (she admits to being a slow writer) and of those I have read five. The only one I have not read is her very first book, Tipping the Velvet. which she talked about as being from off the top of her head – I am paraphrasing here. What I believe she was saying was that it seemed to pour out of her, that first novel. She had been studying lesbian relationships in historical fiction, had been madly in love with a girl, and was filled with a determination that she could write something about what she had been studying and feeling – the missing link in the history books, if you like. She said her other books have been more thought-out, plotted and researched (although I’m sure a PhD counts as plenty of research!).
She talked individually about each book. She says she is fascinated by the Gothic; dark houses, dark relationships, dark settings, dark plotlines, etc. I felt like standing up and shouting ‘Me too! Me too!’. Actually, a lot of what she was saying resonated with me and how I like to write, which left me feeling all warm and fuzzy inside! Sarah Waters was a lovely person to listen to; witty, fun, thoughtful, considerate, and modest. She was a delight and an inspiration.
On the whole, the two talks with the two very successful, very different female authors, showed me just how different writing can be for each individual. For example, Paula starts with character and this leads to plot. Sarah, on the other hand, usually begins with plot and makes characters who would go into her created world. Paula was born in Rhodesia and lived in Africa until she was seventeen. She then worked as a journalist before becoming an author. Sarah was born in Wales, having an idyllic childhood followed by intense academia before writing Tipping the Velvet. Neither of them had studied Creative Writing. Both were equally as popular with the crowds. Surely this just goes to show how subjective writing can be, and this can only be reassuring for the aspiring novelist.
I’m looking forward to seeing who shall be at the festival next year. I might see you there!