Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Harrogate - and a question

Other commitments have meant that I'm reporting on the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate ten days after it came to an end. But it was a really enjoyable week-end, and it's prompted me to ask readers of this blog a question.

The programming chair for the Festival was Ann Cleeves, and she is such an efficient person that it was predictable that the whole week-end would be very well organised. And it was. Ann would be the first to give much credit to the very professional team that handles all the arrangements. It all seemed to me to run like clockwork. As usual, there was much socialising in the bar and elsewhere, and I took the opportunity to have a number of meetings, not least with my agent, with whom I was discussing my future writing plans. The good news is that he is happy with them!

I enjoyed the hospitality of Harper Collins at a dinner on the Friday evening, and met a number of fascinating people, including a new author, Ben McPherson; I sense that his debut novel will be well worth looking out for. Later on, Ann introduced me to Brenda Blethyn, the extremely pleasant star of Vera, and I finished up having a long chat with an old friend, that very fine writer Peter Robinson. The following night, I hosted a table at the Sicilian-themed murder mystery dinner masterminded by Kate Ellis. Great fun.

On Sunday, I took part in a panel celebrating the life and work of Patricia Highsmith. The moderator was Andrew Taylor and my colleagues were Peter James, Perer Swanson, and Sarah Hilary. Sarah had just won the Theakstons Prize for best crime novel of the year, and this gave me special pleasure as some years ago I included an early short story of hers in one of my anthologies for the CWA. She is a real star.

One questioner in the audience raised the issue of the relative significance of the author's life and the author's work. And this is my question to you - how interested, if at all, are you in the biography of a writer? Do you think it's relevant to their books?

My own views on this have shifted over the years. I used to think that the books were overwhelmingly more important than the life. Now, I take much more interest in the biographical material. In fact, I now think that you can't fully appreciate Highsmith (who, admittedly, had an extraordinary life) without knowing something of her life. But I'm sure that plenty of readers would take a different view. So - do let me know your opinion, and why you hold it.. 


Fiona said...

Oh yes - very interested! No matter how good a writer's imagination I'm quite sure that their personal background has a strong influence on their work, and it isn't just nosiness on the part of the reader to be interested in that background for further understanding and enjoyment. It doesn't have to be 'warts and all' disclosure which goes beyond the bounds of polite interest into the shock / horror of the gutter press. Personally speaking, I have really enjoyed meeting you, Ann Cleeves and Jill Paton Walsh, all of whose books I relish even more than before thanks to having had that brief personal contact.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thank you for the kind mention, Martin. I really enjoyed our panel, and I agree about knowledge of an author's life enriching our appreciation of their work.

Ruth said...

I'm fascinated by the lives of authors and with the advent of social media and blogs I follow my favourites who are currently writing avidly and pick up snippets about their lives with relish. Interacting with authors in the way we do it now through Facebook and Twitter is so exciting and something that was unimaginable until recently.

I also love reading biographies of authors who are no longer with us - finding out how their personal lives and relationships affected their writing somehow brings an extra something to their books. I love social history so finding out details of how someone whose writing I admire lived helps to place their books in context.

I'm also extremely nosey, or have a natural curiosity as my mother would say!

However....I can see that particularly now with the intrusion of the media, facebook, twitter etc., authors need to take care not to end up living in a goldfish bowl, they need to protect their own privacy while sharing a certain amount with fans. Sharing seems to be the expected norm now unless you eschew publicity entirely. Would you agree with that as an author yourself, Martin?

Also, sometimes unpleasant revelations surface about an author after they have died that mean that his or her work is shunned and that seems a shame - is their writing now somehow different and worthless just because we know certain facts about the writer's personal life or does it stand on it's own merit?

seana graham said...

For me, it's something I become curious about after I've read and become intrigued by an author's work. I'm not sure it's always helpful to know biographical details, though. Sometimes it can be a deflating experience. I can't think of examples at the moment, but it would be something like finding out that an author you enjoy was actually quite a nasty piece of work. That doesn't necessarily make the book bad, but it colors your experience of it.

Jamie Sturgeon said...

Agatha Christie's mentor Eden Phillpotts had an incestuous relationship with his daughter which rather colours one's judgement of him. The children's writer William Mayne was convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing young girls which at the time was 'a death knell for his books' though some are now available as print-on-demand from Faber. I can't believe there's much demand for them.

Martin Edwards said...

Great comments - thank you all very much. I'm giving further thought to this fascinating subject. To answer Ruth's question, I think that with living authors, it is vital to respect personal privacy and quite wrong to infringe it. With deceased authors, too, I think there have to be limits to intrusion. When writing The Golden Age of Murder, I took great pains to disclose only information about dead authors that I felt was relevant, and that would not upset living relatives. This acted as something of a constraint, but I don't regret it. I wouldn't want my book to be regarded as salacious, for instance, and I was very pleased when a number of reviews explicitly confirmed that it wasn't.

Gary Van Cott said...

While it is not one of my most important criteria, I do consider accuracy and realism when I am thinking about how much I like a book. This is one of the reasons I don’t read books set in the US as I don’t want to find myself arguing with the author. This kind of problem creeps into books set in the UK as well. The recent book by Elly Griffiths, The Ghost Fields, got most of the US military details wrong although it didn’t upset the plot.

I recently read Whispering Shadows by Jan-Philipp Sendker, a German author. The main character in this book is a German-American and the book is set in Hong Kong and just across the border in China. I probably have a better grasp of modern Chinese history than many and thought this book was plausible. The fact that the author was the American correspondent for Stern from 1990 to 1995, and its Asian correspondent from 1995 to 1999 added considerably to its credibility.

At the other end of the spectrum is Murder in Thrall by Anne Cleeland. This is a wonderful book with one of the best surprises I have ever encountered while reading. However, the author is a California writer, lawyer, and mother which along with the plot of book puts it at the lower end of the credibility scale.

lyn said...

I'm always interested in the lives of writers & how their personal experiences influence their writing. The downside is that sometimes I'm disappointed in an author if I feel they've misrepresented themselves. This is more relevant with memoir & autobiography, of course, than fiction. I loved May Sarton's journals & memoirs about her solitary life in Maine until I read a biography which showed that she had rarely been alone & that the books were more fiction than autobiography.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting point, Lyn, thank you.

Sue said...

I always remember, when studying Wordsworth's poetry, a friend's essay made mention of Annette Vallon and her influence on Wordsworth's poetry. Our tutor,wrote very sternly: " mere biographic speculation". He had a very good point.

Balancing the needs for privacy against public interest is never an easy matter. I love to read memoirs, biographies and the like, nonetheless, in the end it is the writer who has (or should have) the right to choose just how much information is to be made public.

Just think of how many writers requested the destruction of their personal correspondence after their death.

Clothes In Books said...

Very interesting question! I like to know more about favourite authors, for interest and also for potential light to be thrown on the work. But I don't think it essential, nor do I think we have a right to know at any cost. I thought your own book dealt with this admirably - full of interest, but without making the reader uncomfortable.