Festival review: Aye Write

Douglas Stuart PIC: Martyn PickersgillDouglas Stuart PIC: Martyn Pickersgill
Douglas Stuart PIC: Martyn Pickersgill
This year’s digital Aye Write festival was a gloriously varied joy from start to finish, writes David Robinson

In all the world, in any one of the 40 languages into which Douglas Stuart’s novel Shuggie Bain is being translated, it is just about possible that one day it will find a greater fan than Janey Godley who chaired his Aye Write! event on Friday.

Possible, but unlikely. Because the way it threads between poverty, drink, laughs, love and violence is her story too. When Stuart pointed out how much he had borrowed from his own life, that he was “raised on a Monday book and a Tuesday book” (disability and child benefit payments) she nodded furiously. When he explained why he wanted to start off the novel with a ‘mahnodge’ (menage) party, with all the mammies trying on new bras from the Barras, she laughed out loud at the thought of what his New York editors must have made of it, and – now it has won the Man Booker – what the rest of the world will do too.

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“I had a heart THAT big reading it,” she said, throwing her arms out wide. “Because it’s OURS!”

Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/ShutterstockMaggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock
Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock

Nicola Sturgeon was in fangirl mode too, “thrilled beyond words” to interview Brit Bennett, New York-based author of The Vanishing Half. A novel about light-skinned African-American twins who run away from their Louisiana home as teenagers and grow up differently – one passing for white, the other marrying the blackest man she can find - it positively bristles with questions of racial (and gender) identity. “Characters move in and out of identities in the book,” Bennett explained. “No-one is really stable: and the challenge is to get that right.”

For Maggie O’Farrell, the challenge was to bring Shakespeare’s dead son Hamnet in from the shadows. She did, though, admit that she had been carried away by her research, to the extent that her children banned her from telling them more than one Tudor fact per day at dinner.

This last weekend’s Aye Write was so gloriously varied that perhaps I should try something similar, and just mention one fact that I didn’t know from each event. From Kate Mosse, talking about her first non-fiction book, An Extra Pair of Hands, out next month - that the average woman has a 50:50 chance of being a carer by the time she is 59. From Robert Jones’ event (which I can’t let go without mentioning his brilliant debut novel, The Prophets, about queer love in the antebellum South), came the completely incidental fact that Martin Luther King’s mother was assassinated too. From the Jim Swire and Peter Biddulph event I learnt that there were 16 - 16! - warnings before the Lockerbie bomb.

Finally, from listening to Charlie Gilmour and Jonathan Murray, I learnt that Darwin couldn’t understand music and more about magpies and striated caracaras than I’ll ever need to know, yet their chat opened out into a wonderful discussion about what birds make of us and how we write about them. A joy from start to finish.

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