I did have a ticket for a third visit, Eleanor Catton for her book Birnham Wood, but I wrote the time down wrong on my calendar and when it pinged, the talk was already halfway through. Oh well – silly me! But I did make it to the other two I’d booked – both highly entertaining.
Sally Gardner talking with Suzi Feay
I am a big fan of Sally Gardner, having followed her from the start of her literary career, from children’s picture books, through chapter books to YA, and in the past few years beyond into adult fare.
Her latest novel, The Weather Woman is her fourth for adults, after two historical romps written as Wray Delaney (which I’ve yet to read), and the recent Winter Song, a feminist fairytale reviewed here. Gardner is renowned for her subtle use of magic throughout her work, and as I understand it, it manifests itself in The Weather Woman as a kind of sixth sense in the novel’s protagonist, Neva, who has a kind of clairvoyance about the weather. The novel is set in Regency England, but has Dickensian elements in some of the colourful characters (Gardner on Dickens: “I love that man.”) Neva, however, must hide her uncanny skills, and learns how to pass as a young man. We’re not far past the witch trials, but are reaching that point where science is beginning to explain some of what would have been regarded as magic previously, so an interesting time indeed. I am really looking forward to reading it.
Gardner and Feay started off by discussing the differences in writing for YA and adults. Gardner wittily replied that “Adults can’t take unhappy endings, but children can!” going on to expand that she enjoys the opportunity for world building and the space that writing for adults gives, compared with the need for action on every page in books for younger audiences.
Sally’s pre-writing career was in theatre design, so they discussed historical costume a bit, and Sally told lots of funny stories about actors and her schemes to get opera singers into corsets. They also discussed Sally’s severe dyslexia and her supportive relationship with her personal editor.
Stylish, fascinating and funny, Sally Gardner is a delight to listen to, and I shall keep reading her books – watch this space.
The Weather Woman, Head of Zeus, hardback, 457 pages.
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Mick Herron talks to Chris Patten
A few days later, I spent another entertaining hour at the Sheldonian, listening to Mick Herron in conversation with Chris Patten, retired politican and author. The latest in Herron’s Slow Horses series of books following the MI5 offshoot for disgraced spies, Bad Actors, is now out in paperback, and the a new book which is “Slough House adjacent” rather than ninth in the series is out in September.
However, Patten began by asking Herron about one of his contemporaries at Balliol (where Patten also went), whom he sent up in one of his novels, reading out an hilarious description of BoJo! Herron responded by saying coming from Newcastle, he’d only picked Balliol as it was top of the A-Z list of Oxford colleges.
Patten’s next line of questioning was about underdogs, and Herron described how he was interested in failure, and wanted to start a new series of books based on a group of people who were perceived as failures in one way or another, and how writing about failure has depth, unlike the dullness of its opposite. He also likes the humour to be found in people being unpleasant to each other!
They discussed how Herron opens each of the novels with a different way of entering Slough House where the Slow Horses are based: apparently the first book is based upon Dickens’ Bleak House in that respect, something I’ve not yet noticed, although I’m behind on reading the series. They talked about the strength of the characters in the books – Herron describing the plot as “an excuse, a washing line to hang the characters on.” He deliberately made the MI5 boss of Jackson Lamb, Di Taverner, 2nd in command in the first novel, as it was more interesting writing about someone trying to get to the top.
Patten then asked him about his penchant for killing characters off, which Herron has done regularly (something Spooks never tired of either). There were pleas for Roddy Ho, the tech genius, never to be killed off as he is hilariously self-centred – Herron said he was there to do the tech, so he does’t have to, likewise he makes everything up having no access to real spies. He also has no idea about Lamb’s home life!
Talk inevitably turned to Le Carré comparisons (Herron is always very flattered) and the Apple TV series of Slow Horses starring Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb (wonderful!). Oldman has, of course, played George Smiley as well, and has described Lamb as “who Smiley could have been if he’d made a few bad decisions on the way,” according to Herron.
Incidentally, Herron’s “high water mark” thriller is Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, which also came up in the conversation. It’s ages since I read it, but I remember absolutely loving it too.
Herron is a delight to listen to, funny and very self-deprecating, he also writes wonderful spy novels with the best characters.