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Things I learned about writing at the Edinburgh Book Festival

helena fairfax, edinburgh book festivalIn three days at the brilliant Edinburgh Book Festival I packed in a mighty amount, and came away with so much learned and so much to think about that I thought I’d put some of it down here, before I forgot everything :)

Here are some of the authors I was lucky enough to see, in no particular order:

helena fairfax, haruki murakamiBy far the most popular author of the whole festival, and possibly one of the most popular authors ever to attend, was Haruki Murakami. Fans all around the world queued up for the launch of Murakami’s latest novel, in a Harry Potter-esque wayand he’s one of the few authors who’s both massively commercially popular and also set as a text for schools and colleges.

I’ve only read one book of his – probably his most popular, Norwegian Wood. I found it so depressing I haven’t read any more. Please don’t shoot me, Murakami fans! I’ll try again. Anyway, this is what I found out about Murakami:

  • the most amazing thing to me as a writer – Murakami never plans anything at all in his books! He told the audience how every day he just sits down at the screen and asks himself what’s going to happen next. I find this incredible! Is he just a natural story teller? Is it all secretly jotted down in his notebook, and he just made that up? Or are his stories really  just a series of random events he’s put together? If so, why do critics think they’re so amazing? He said writing was ‘like dreaming a dream awake.’ If I wrote like that, no publisher would look at my work because it would be utter tripe. I’m still pondering over that one.
  • someone in the audience asked him why his characters were so “sad”. I wanted to know that, too. Murakami looked genuinely amazed that people could think so. (“Really!” he said.) He said he had no intention to write about sad characters. Hmm. I’m still pondering that one, too!
  • Murakami said he writes in the first person, because it makes him feel closer to his character. When he tried writing in the third person, he felt it distanced him. I can understand this one. However, after this he also made what I thought was one of his most interesting comments. He said he used to live in eastern Japan, where they speak a local dialect (Kansai). When he moved to Tokyo in the west, he began writing in effect in a completely different language. I thought that was fascinating that he was writing in a language that didn’t come naturally to him.

All in all, Haruki Murakami was fascinating to listen to, even though an enigma wrapped in another enigma, buried in a secret.

Children’s laureate Malorie Blackman gave a talk on the power of fiction, focusing on how children read books as part of exploring their ownmalorie blackman, helena fairfax, noughts and crosses identity. Several things in Malorie Blackman’s talk stuck with me. How do children from different ethnic backgrounds feel when they can’t find themselves anywhere in the books before them? As the author says, ‘a very significant message goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading‘. The same is true if you only ever see yourself reflected in books, and no one else. What a narrow world that is! Unbelievably, a bookseller once told Malorie Blackman, ‘Your books are just for black children and we don’t have that many black children in this area.’ Do we actually still have segregation? Is a child not still a child, no matter what?Do we have to put books about children in wheelchairs in a different section, too?

Although things have improved, we have a very, very long way to go regarding diversity in children’s fiction. I find it absolutely astonishing that Malorie Blackman was once challenged by a ticket collector as she sat in the first-class carriage because he thought she must have stolen her ticket! The author recounted this story with remarkable humour. I wish I had her well-balanced nature.

Another talk that challenged stereotypes was between footballers Pat Nevin and Clarke Carlisle. As Clarke Carlisle said, when most people think of footballers they think of overpaid prima donnas whose every waking thought outside football is either drinking or shagging. Yes, that’s the stereotype! But these two guys presented a totally different picture. They were witty, articulate, intelligent, self-deprecating, hard-working and thoroughly charming. They also spoke thoughtfully about racism and homophobia in football and about their experiences with depression. Do these sound like “typical” footballers to you? No, me neither. I went and bought Clarke Carlisle’s book, and I wish him all the best for his career after football.

helena fairfax, leigh bardugo, grishaLeigh Bardugo is an American writer of YA fantasy. I don’t read many fantasy novels, but millions of other people do, and they read Leigh Bardugo’s novels in shedloads. The room was full of teenage fans during her talk, which was great to see. I found Leigh is a fluent speaker, she was funny and entertaining, and the passage she read from one of her novels was gripping. I wanted to find out why so many readers love her novels, and it seems Leigh Bardugo paints a realistic and dramatic world with a Russsian flavour and a terrifying villain. This is another author who is going on my TBR pile, and might even tempt me to give fantasy novels another go :)

These are just a few of the hundreds of authors at the Festival, and you can see what a massive range of writing there is to be found in the wonderful world of books :)


One of the things I most enjoyed about the Book Festival was seeing the way children and teenagers cheered their favourite authors like proper fans. People say no one reads any more, but there were tons of young people in Edinburgh who say different.

If you’ve read any of the authors I’ve mentioned, or have any questions or comments at all, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!



15 thoughts on “Things I learned about writing at the Edinburgh Book Festival

  1. Hello Helena. As a football fan and a former teacher I was really interested in this post. I find Malorie Blackman an intriguing writer and I bought her books for my class library. I had read two of her novels without knowing she was black and my experience of working with primary school children in an area with very few white families is that young children don’t notice colour and just like good stories. This may change as they get older and that does make me wonder if that’s why fantasy is so popular with teenagers when everyone feels like a misfit. My mouth actually hung open at the story of Malorie’s train journey!
    Listening to a lot of football and our local sports programme makes me feel that more players are like Nevin and Carlisle and it’s only the minority who are the prima donna type. It’s lovely to know that a book festival opened you to such different types of reading and made you think.


    1. Hi Natasha, thanks for your great comment. Like you I had no idea Malorie Blackman was black when I first read her novels. I have no idea why a bookseller wouldn’t want to stock her books. Her talk was an insight into the amount of prejudice she has faced, and still faces. Your comment about why fantasy is so popular with teenagers is an interesting one. Fantasy worlds are fresh worlds were all teenagers can enter as equals, leaving behind the prejudices of their own lives. I hadn’t thought of this before.
      I’m a football fan, too, and have read a few autobiographies/biographies of various players. It’s a shame the stereotype sticks! I enjoyed Clarke Carlisle’s talk very much.
      Thanks very much for coming by. I enjoyed your comment!


    1. Oh, that’s a shame, Ros. I won the Murakami tickets in a competition run by the Guardian. I wish I’d known, and your daughter could have had one of the tickets. In the event I went with a friend, who found Murakami quite perplexing! :) Thanks for your comment!


  2. Morning Helena….this was so great of you to share all this. I have never been to a writer’ conference but I would sure love to go. I have to say, I have never heard of any of these authors (hanging my head in shame) This was a great post. Thanks so much!


    1. Thanks very much, Penny! I think you would have loved it at the Edinburgh Festival. Besides adult authors, there were lots of children’s and teen authors there, and plenty of events for younger readers. Malorie Blackman is one of the most popular children’s authors in Britain. My children loved her “Noughts and Crosses” series. I can highly recommend it. Very thought-provoking. Thanks very much for your lovely comment!


  3. Thank you, Helena for sharing with us your experience at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It sounds like an enjoyable and worthwhile time. As to your question, I haven’t heard of any of the authors mentioned.

    Wouldn’t it have been great if J.K. Rowlings would have showed up? Edinburgh is her stomping grounds. I wonder if she was secretly in attendance. ;)



    1. Hi Susan, yes it was a really enjoyable time, and I only wish I could have stayed in Edinburgh for longer. J.K. Rowling did attend, which was very exciting, but it was the day after I left, sadly :( She introduced teenage educational activist Malala Yousafzai. I would have loved to have seen them both. You can read about it here:
      Thanks for your comment!


  4. What a fun place to be! So exciting to hear the children and teen authors were regarded as “rock stars” by the kids. It warms my heart to know reading is not dead!! Sorry I am not familiar with the authors you mention here. I think you should try writing like the author who dreams awake and see what happens. I doubt it would be tripe, but perhaps not much structure to it? He seems to be explaining what I call “free writing” when the writer just writes whatever she wants to and see where it goes. When I do that I start with an idea and can end up with a completely different topic by the end! Fun, but yes, kind of gibberish. LOL..


    1. Hi JQ, I wish you lived nearer, because I’m sure you would have loved it. It was heart-warming to see so many young people there, as well as us oldies! I might give it a go writing like Murakami. My problem is I think too hard about everything, and then I write really slowly. Going with the flow sounds quite an exciting way to write, and maybe I’d get much more done! Thanks very much for your great comment :)


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