Christmas schristmas: for our December meet up, we decided to go for a Calypso theme…
OK, OK – we’re kidding. Of COURSE we went all out on the festive cheer, festooning our beloved room at Effra Social in tinsel, stocking the bar with mulled wine and donning some rather fetching reindeer antlers.
Then there was our very special Christmas raffle that attendees were entered into by virtue of showing up. Lucky members of our audience were sent home with a selection of some of our favourite debuts from 2017 including Bleaker House by Nell Stevens and Lydia Ruffles' The Taste of Blue Light.
But more on that later…
Sadly, we were one author down for the night. Clifford Thompson, author of the sensational Falling Through Fire, was not able to join us – we are thinking of you Cliff and wishing you well for Christmas.
Rather than replace him, we decided to give our other four authors a little extra time on the stage – and lucky that we did as our audience was brimming with questions, so we sat back and soaked up our authors' writer-ly knowledge.
Our first debut author for the night was Kate Murray-Browne, whose novel The Upstairs Room, is an atmospheric ghost story – not one to read when you’re alone in the house – and yet Kate didn’t set out to specifically write in that genre.
Inspiration struck when a friend mentioned a similar story and she become “desperate to write it”. This led us into a fascinating discussion about ownership, representation and at what point one story becomes your own.
It is this grounding in reality that gives The Upstairs Room clout. “I wanted it to feel real and hoped that would make it feel even spookier – like it was something that could really happen to you.”
Kate described the "Goldilocks thing" of finding the right balance for a spooky story: neither cartoonishly frightful or too torpid, but under-the-skin creepy. "It really clicked when I finally discovered my characters."
As Kate drew to a close, she gave us some advice that has lodged in our psyche: “I had to get myself into a place where I wasn’t afraid to write badly," she said. We've already got it on a post-it above our desks, although if you read The Upstairs Room, you will be amazed that Kate Murray-Browne has ever written a bad sentence in her life.
The next author to read was Julian Furman. His novel, This Is How We Talk, has the feel of a modern-day epic, following four, damaged characters in a vividly drawn, modern-day Tel Aviv.
“My aim was to piss everybody off,” Julian proclaimed, much to our audience’s delight. He explained that this was his way of offering a realistic, authentic insight into the complex politics of Israel.
The characters are the life force of This Is How We Talk, and this is where Julian started his writing process, subtly shifting and editing a real-life timeline “to suit what was happening in their lives.”
Writing nerds that we are, we were also keen to ask Julian about the structure of his novel, which changes perspective, jumps around in time and essentially ends up back where it started. These were very conscious choices: “I went back in time to explain how and why my characters make decisions.”
His final piece of wisdom? “Be truthful and cruel to everybody.” We're printing up t-shirts as you're reading this.
Following our traditional bar break and a nibble on some hopelessly mis-shapen mince pies (no mistaking that Rosy made them) we were back in our seats and ready for our next author.
Laura Kaye is a tour de force: a languages graduate, former documentary maker and now the author of the wonderfully witty English Animals. Covering everything from class and bigotry to homosexuality and taxidermy, it is a book that will make you think, laugh and cry, probably all at the same time.
Like Kate, Laura’s story came via someone else and initially, she was anxious as to whether she could write about it. “I was worried it wasn't my story to tell… but I stole it, and it became something very different.”
Laura's writing is remarkable for her acutely-drawn characters. There’s Sophie – “a younger version of the women I know, that my mum knows” – and her husband Richard, a love-to-hate figure that Laura said “embodies the kind of guys I grew up around.”
“The characters became themselves and turned into people in front of my eyes – it was the best bit of writing the book,” she added.
Unsurprisingly, our audience was intrigued by the taxidermy that features throughout the story – had Laura done any hands-on research? Yes – with a vegan taxidermist. Cue a very funny story two men, a misjudged birthday present and an inside-out mouse.
It was not until Laura applied to a creative writing MA at Goldsmiths (“You meet great people and it’s very nourishing”) that English Animals truly came to be. “I went on so many tangents, like writing books set in London, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew I had to go back to where I came from.”
She moved to her parents' in the Oxfordshire countryside and immersed herself in her surroundings, “filtering the book the whole time” and writing a story meant for the very people she knew would never read it.
“I had to deal with that first. I wanted those prejudiced people to read it. It was a release; I felt outside of it so Mirka [English Animals' Slovakian protagonist] could be my outside self.”
Bringing us home for the night was Rosie Wilby, a comedian and radio show host who has tackled the conventions of relationships in her hysterical memoir, Is Monogamy Dead?
She could have read any section and we would have laughed but when Rosie introduced her extract with the immortal phrase: “I decided to go on an adventure to a lesbian sauna” we knew we were onto a winner. She had our audience howling in seconds.
This is a book that takes a close look at Rosie’s own life, and the people in it. Rosie admitted it could have been problematic and that she took great care in representing real people on the page, but ultimately, her advice was to “go for it. I call it an immersive style of non-fiction.”
Similarly, writers should not be afraid to trust their readers when it comes to stylistic elements. “My editor was worried about the jumps in the time frame, but I gave it to my friends to read and they all figured it out.”
Like many debut authors, Rosie had already written a book before Is Monogamy Dead? but as a comedian, nothing goes to waste. “Comedians are recylcers by nature.
I went back and pulled it apart and mined the good bits… [monogamy] is a vast topic.”
So, is monogamy dying out? No spoilers here – you’ll have to read the book. But Rosie did give us a hint: “The answer is incredibly personal and something we all need to communicate. As for my own experience... I have a found a satisfying conclusion.”
Thank you so much to our fab four: Kate Murray-Browne, Julian Furman, Laura Kaye and Rosie Wilby. Thanks too to our photographer for the night Isis Pealing – you can check some more of her work here.
And huge thanks, as ever, to all of you who came along; we hope you enjoyed the night.
We're shaking things up for event in January. Rosy will be hosting solo as Amy will be in Australia writing her second book and we are pushing it back to the end of the month to give you Riff Raffers some time to get past the excesses of Christmas.
If you want 2018 to be the year you finally write that book, come and join us on Thursday January 25th for another night of writing, revelry and authorly inspiration.
Buy tickets here >>