Novel Nights founder Grace Palmer hosted the evening, which began with three readings that each transported the room in their very different ways.
First up was health researcher Johanna Spiers who kickstarted her writing life with sessions at Bristol’s WriteClub and has now given up work to write full time. Johanna read from her strikingly named novel, Eat The Rich, whose hero, disgraced political journalist Lex Theodora, finds a career-defining story on an arctic cruise. Eat The Rich has a deliciously ironic tone: ‘the London sky, smoggy and cloudy, like a pensioner’s cataract’; and further on ‘she summoned the waiter with the power of her gaze.’ Johanna’s reading was greeted with smiles and warm applause.
Next up was screenwriter and novelist Paul Bassett Davies whose credits include Spitting Image, Alas Smith and Jones, and Rory Bremner, among many others. Paul started writing fiction twenty years ago when months of illness prevented him working. He has completed two novels, Utter Folly – A High Comedy of Bad Manners and Dead Writers in Rehab, which he published through the crowdfunding site Unbound. Paul’s comedic gift is there from the first sentence: ‘I know why the caged bird sings,’ he writes, ‘But that pigeon outside my window at four in the morning. What the fuck is his problem.’ Paul’s writing is both erudite and laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Finally, Harriet Kline brought the audience to intent quiet with her reading from The Dead Man’s Guide to Being Alive, about the death of a husband and father. Written with extraordinary restraint, the novel is a masterclass in show don’t tell. When Ruth, the man’s wife, learns that her husband’s cancer is incurable: “‘No,” Ruth said… She said it over and over, with Nessa’s hot fingers stroking her head and Dr Ahmed folding her hands on the desk, eyes lowered, waiting.’
After the break, Grace interviewed author and academic Susan Elderkin whose first novel, Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, won a Betty Trask Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second, The Voices, was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize. Susan argues that novels can and do change lives and she talked about the therapeutic role of well-told stories in dealing with a whole range of challenges, from recovering from depression to understanding our world. Susan has turned theory into practice as a bibliotherapist at the School of Life and with her two books, The Novel Cure and The Literary Cure, co-written with fellow bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud.
The key, Susan argued, lies in the art of ‘show don’t tell’ appealing to the five senses to immerse the reader in a different world. ‘The holy grail of writers is to transport the reader so that they forget they are reading a book, forget where they are, shut down from the things around them.’ She cited the example of one of her favourite books, To Kill A Mockingbird, and its fundamental role in challenging people’s assumptions about race. We learnt that writing in the first person enhances empathy and that books stay with us better than films because the act of reading is itself a creative process.
On 24 January, Novel Nights will turn the spotlight on short stories, with guest speaker Tom Vowler whose short story collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize. His second collection, Dazzling the Gods, is published in January. Submissions for anyone interested in reading on the night are now open at www.novelnights.co.uk/submi
Blog post by Colette Hill.
Colette has just completed her MA at Bath Spa for which she was awarded Distinction. She has written two novels, Love Lessons and Afterwards, as well as a collection of short stories. She is also a reader for the Bridport Prize.