Edinburgh Book Festival reviews: Leïla Slimani | Tan Twan Eng | Justin Cronin
What makes writers write? What do they find difficult? What ticks and tricks help them get through the day? These small first-hand insights into the writing life are one of the reasons people come to Book Festivals, and there have been plenty of opportunities this week to listen in on such writerly conversations.
Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani, author of the novels Lullaby and Adèle, proved a lively and articulate source of insights on writing. “Failure is important,” she said, speaking of the first novel she wrote, which has never been published. “Not only as a writer, maybe also as an individual. As writers, we fail all the time. You never write the book you want to write. That why you come back and write another one.”
That first book, she said, was too much like the book everyone expects a young Morroccan woman to write: “blood and honour and Islam and couscous… I don’t define myself like this. It’s important as a writer, and as a political gesture, to show that we from the rest of the world - because it is the West and the rest - fall in love, get divorced, do good things and bad things.”
However, some years after that first failed attempt, now a winner of France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt, Slimani is working on a trilogy which is a Morroccan family saga. The second book, Watch Us Dance, has just been published, and she is working on the third.
Earlier in the day, we met (on livestream) the Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng, who recently learned that his new novel, The House of Doors, is on the Man BookerPrize longlist. Set in Penang in the early years of the twentieth century, it evokes colonial Malaya and combines elements of whodunnit with a dash of magic realism and a number of “intersections with history”.
Among those real-life characters who appear are Ethel Proudlock, the first whte woman tried for murder in Malaya, Sun Yat-sen, the rebel who led the first revolution to overthow the emperors in China in 1911 and - most importantly for the novel - the English writer Somerset Maugham. Tan Twan Eng describes creating the intricate structure of the book as “hugely difficult”, but added: “The footnotes of history are where you find the most interesting facts.”
Another writer who spent much time wrestling with his new novel is acclaimed American author Justin Cronin. The Ferryman is so intricate and innovative it is difficult to discuss without spoilers, and went through 17 drafts. He said: “The thing I’m proudest of it is surviving!”
Operating on an “operatic scale” across several worlds, The Ferryman is the story of a privileged community living in isolation on an island, Prospera. Its structure, according to Cronin, owes a great deal to Shakespeare’s Tempest and a little to the original Planet of the Apes movie.
Cronin enjoys working on a large scale, evidenced by his sweeping Passage trilogy with its huge cast of characters. Having studied at the celebrated Iowa Writers Workshop in the heyday of pared back Raymond Carver minimalism, he “needed time to break out of the mould of working small”. One of the first works he presented to the workshop was a “short” story 72 pages long.
“I would rather be locked in the trunk of a car with a weasel that write a short story,” he laughed. "I need 50,000 words to clear my throat! I should have been a 19th-century Russian.”
On the same day at the Book Festival, British writer Deborah Levy talked about needing to get the first 12 pages of a novel absolutely right before she can write the rest, a process which can take up to six months. However, Cronin said he had to know the ending. “The beginning should know the end, that’s where the authority of the author is embedded. The story knows itself, the choices you make are all in servce of an outcome.”