Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Edinburgh Festivals Thursday 18 August: Jasper Fforde; Iain Banks

And yet again to Charlotte Square for the Book Festival, and two more highly popular authors of fiction.

I say "highly popular authors of fiction" rather than "authors of highly popular fiction", not because their books don't sell in huge numbers but because both Fforde and Banks are regulars at the Book festival (though apparently this year was the first that Jasper Fforde was promoted to the Main Tent). It was my first encounter with Fforde in the flesh, and I found him utterly charming. The author of the "Thursday Next" and "Nursery Crime" series - as well as the (so far) stand-alone Shades of Grey explained how he had started out writing short stories (his recommended route into professional writing, incidentally). He is a great believer in what he terms "narrative dares", where the author comes up with an unlikely opening scenario and then has to write his/her way out of it. (He contrasted this with the "X-Files Syndrome", where an ingenious set-up leads on to a "so-what?" denouement.) As an example, he gave one of his own first stories, in which a man wakes up in suburban London to find a gorilla in the tree in his garden. He goes down, confirms that it is really a gorilla, then remembers receiving a flyer a few days earlier offering help with "Primate Problems (gibbon work undertaken at surcharge)". Fforde stressed the importance of the telling detail such as the gibbon remark to build up the reality of the situation. Anyway, the man calls the number, a workman comes round in a van, confirms that it's a gorilla and gets out a cage. He entices the gorilla down but can't get him into the cage, so suggests that the garden's owner holds the fort while the workman fetches some bananas. Not wishing to be left with a gorilla, the householder says that he'll go for the bananas, and does. He has trouble: there seems to have been a run on bananas and he has to visit several shops. When he gets back, there's no gorilla, not workman, no van: also his house has been stripped of everything valuable, and his car has been stolen. It dawns on him that he has been had, so he calls the police, who tell him there's been a spate of such crimes and they're trying to trace the culprit. The man starts to describe the workman and the police say, oh no, he's just the accomplice. It's Bonzo the gorilla they're after: he's the one who nicks the cars, and they're certain he doesn't have insurance.

What more can I say? Fforde described growing up in a very academic family with two elder brothers who got in to Oxbridge when he didn't (but ha-ha! he now earns ten times as much as them). They were always discussing literature, which led him to digress that families seem to be divided into Austen versus Bronte, or Tintin versus Asterix (mine is definitely Austen and Asterix).

In the evening, Iain Banks was introduced by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, and they formed a great comedy double act. I've lost track of how often I've seen Iain at the festival, but Salmond was a great foil for him. I don't mean by that that Alex Salmond was simply the butt of Iain's humour, or that he was just a straight man: he was just about as entertaining in his own right as Banks, which is saying a lot: Iain Banks must be just about the most engaging author I have ever seen. I always think he's the sort of person I'd like to be: all the nice bits of me, plus money. The conversation ranged hither and yon, but covered:

- names of Culture spacecraft (IB's , or I suppose that should be IMB's, favourite is the warship A Frank Exchange Of Views)
- comparison of the Culture's policy of intervention in other societies with the attitude of the USA in Iraq (the Culture, because of their large bank of historical statistics and their expert systems, can be almost 100% certain that their interventions will actually be benign - sadly not the case yet on Earth)
- why he uses the M initial as an SF writer (complicated)
- why he treats AI in his fiction as a good thing rather than a threat (high intelligence leads to imagination, which leads to empathy, which leads to liberal attitudes, "whereas right-wingers are basically just stupid" - that got a cheer!)
- his favourite of his SF novels (Consider Phlebas, whose design brief was to "out-Star Wars Star Wars" - though he reckons Use of Weapons is the best written because of his editor at the time)
- his favourite of his mainstream novels (The Bridge)
- whether he'd like to write an episode of Dr Who (no - the constraints within which you have to write in a context like that would irk him)

I could have watched him - both of them, actually - all night.


At 25 August, 2011 15:38, Blogger JoeinVegas said...

I've seen photos of the paper sculptures being found around Edinborough. Have you seen any?

At 25 August, 2011 21:55, Blogger Rob said...

I haven't: in fact I'd missed the story, so thank you. Googling "paper sculptures" and "Edinburgh" gets some rather good pictures.

I have seen some art installations which are part of the Fringe and have been done in the - not sure what you call them - yards? in front of basement flats in the New Town.

Edinburgh is full of weirdness. Ian Rankin, who seems to be a link between the paper sculptures, based a book (The Falls) on some strange miniature dolls in coffins which are in the museum here.

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