Work in a chicken factory long enough and you’ll know the weight of a three-pound chicken as soon as you take it in your hands. Write for long enough and you’ll know a 5,000-word story as it forms in your mind. Bernard MacLaverty and AL Kennedy, sharing a virtual stage at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday, offered a range of metaphors for aspects of the writing process from making mosaics to laying bricks.
Both writers demonstrated mastery of their craft in readings from new collections of short stories, shaping characters by sketching vivid details, then colouring in what is around them until we are looking out through their eyes.
The title of Kennedy’s collection, We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time, sounds like what we’ve all been trying to do for the past 18 months, and both writers described what had helped them survive the pandemic. Kennedy said she had re-read The Lord of the Rings for its sense of hope in the darkest of times (Tolkien wrote it during World War II) and resilience of the human (or hobbit) spirit. MacLaverty offered a line from Seamus Heaney: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.
But the event was not only a demonstration of the best writing, it made the case for why writing matters. Kennedy spoke passionately against the prevailing view in her adopted country of England that the arts are inconsequential and weak: “It’s what gets you through. Art is the frontline before the law fails, and democracy fails, and then people start saying it’s okay if the little people die.”
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