Edinburgh Book Festival: Short stories with a hundred beginnings

Mark Haddon attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Mark Haddon attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival
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Novelist Mark Haddon spoke honestly and insightfully about the writing process at the Book Festival on Tuesday in an event presenting his new collection of short stories, The Pier Falls.

The author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which has sold more than ten million copies worldwide, said he still feels like a beginner each time he sits down to write, and expressed terminal shame about his “dreadful” first drafts; he never shows a piece to work to anyone until it has been through at least 20 rewrites.

A writer of children’s books, poet and playwright, he said he had always struggled to write short stories. “I had to admit to myself that I didn’t like very much the ones I was reading – Chekhov, Mansfield, Raymond Carver.”

But a breakthrough moment came when he read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by American writer Wells Tower.

“It felt like a whole novel in 20 pages. I realised that you’re allowed to be exciting, entertaining in the short story, that it’s really just a story which is short.”

Readers always want to know where stories come from: “They think they start from one place, like an acorn or a river or a baby. But I seem to travel the world with a great rag and bone cart of stuff, every story has a hundred beginnings.”

He admitted that The Pier Falls has a lot of endings too. “Yes, there is a lot of death in it. If you want a beginning, a middle and an end on such a small scale, you are going to have to write about difficult things. Death is what creates stories because it provides an ending.”

Historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has been both praised and pilloried for being a “myth-buster”, particularly in terms of the history of the Irish Republic. Her new book, The Seven: The Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic, published in this the centenary year of the Easter Rising, is no exception, but, she says, the prevailing climate has changed.

“When I was growing up, (we were led to believe that) no-one died in the uprising, except the seven who were killed by the British, and they were heroes, they had no flaws. Now people are prepared to look at the complexity of the situation in a way that wouldn’t have been thought about even ten years ago.”

Dudley Edwards spoke of an increasing “appetite for truth”, even outside of academic circles, and praised the organisers of the centenary celebrations for their nuanced approach, commemorating all those who lost their lives, whether Nationalist, British Army or civilian.

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