Hay Festival 2014: Fictions – Gothics

Part of the joy of going to Hay is getting to see writers talk about their latest novels. In ‘Fictions’ talks, authors are generally presented in pairs and the talks are given a particular theme that ties the two books together, with a host engaging in a discussion about the starting points, characters, and other elements of the books with the authors. I haven’t yet worked out if it’s more practical to read the books before or after – sometimes the discussions can be a bit spoiler-y, particularly when the authors read excerpts aloud (why do they always pick the last chapter?) – but seeing as the talk itself is part of the promo circuit for the author (and they sell signed copies directly afterwards), I’ve always thought it wiser to wait until you can hear what they’ve got to say about the book before plunging in.

So! Today’s theme was ‘Gothics’ – we’re talking supernatural, horror stuff here. Always fun. It turned out both novels had a strong vampiric theme; Lauren Owen was discussing her debut novel The Quick, and Marcus Sedgwick was there with his new novel A Love Like Blood.

the quick

Set in 1892, The Quick follows siblings Charlotte and James recovering from trauma in bleary Yorkshire, while also focusing on an elite private members’ club in London called the Aegolius Club; I got the impression from the talk that all the members of said club are vampires. Generally speaking, The Quick has received very favourable reviews. Owen is a graduate of the prestigious Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia  (which also boasts Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan as alumni) – beats the Creative Writing course at Hull, I guess – and I’ve got to admit, the novel sounded very good. She read an excerpt aloud and the writing was very smooth and elegant – I’d definitely give this one a try if it fell into my eyeline.

a love like blood

Sedgwick’s first adult novel (he’s normally a YA writer) follows a man named Charles Jackson and his life from 1944 to the 1960s. After Jackson’s girlfriend is murdered, he becomes obsessed with tracking down a man who he suspects has vampiric tendencies, partly driven by his own thirst for revenge. Sedgwick mentioned that one of his starting points was the word ‘haemophilia’, a peculiar name for a disease: it literally means ‘a love of blood’. Some reviews pointed out that the overall theme and structure of the story played it safe, but Sedgwick crafted a very interesting character and it was an impressive read. That said, I didn’t feel as keen to pick up A Love Like Blood, but that might be because Sedgwick read out an excerpt that was badly written (he overdoses on adverbs).

Both authors had plenty to discuss when it came to vampires. Their starting points were, naturally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it seemed that Owen’s book in particular looks back at this traditional incarnation of the vampire (I suspect the time period she set the novel in had an influence on that). Of course, vampires have changed a lot since Dracula, and I was keen to ask the authors (as part of the audience Q&A) what they make of vampires going from bloodsuckers to boyfriends in today’s pop culture. Sedgwick pointed out that vampires were always villains until Anne Rice made it tragic to be a vampire; after all, being immortal and undead is not a barrel of laughs, and vampires look human enough (indeed, they were once humans) – so why not ascribe human emotions to them, too? Owen said that vampires are often considered damaged and fiendish, which is part of their appeal. They’re versatile gothic characters in the sense that there is a mix of fear and desire in their nature and their being. I’ll go into this in great detail in an upcoming Throwback Thursday post, so I won’t spend too much time on it now.

Another cool reason to see authors talk about their novels is that they have a lot to say about the writing process. It seems to vary wildly from person to person, but it’s comforting to know that everyone has their struggles and their unique ways of overcoming them. Lauren Owen had a great metaphor for writer’s block – she compared it to starting a car. If you’ve got an idea, sometimes you have to keep revving and revving before it fully takes off (or the car starts, as it were), but sometimes you have to accept that no matter how much you rev or twist the key, the car is dead and you have to stop.

So at the end of it all, do I want to read the books? I’m not generally a fan of vampire novels – I love Dracula but the modern stuff doesn’t appeal to me – but Owen’s novel sounded interesting. I think I’ll add it to the list. Another great talk at Hay! I’ll be writing about one more before I go back into book reviews, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

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