Right now libraries are controversial. Whilst campaigners are protesting against the closure of six libraries in North-West London some critics, like John McTernan, argue that they have become obselete.
Last Saturday Cardiff Central Library proved John McTernan wrong. Its Capital Reads Day showed that libraries can still be effective community hubs.
Anyone could walk in and join in. Members of the public had access to local book groups and authors who were running sessions throughout the day. I attended two of these and listened to the authors Richard Gwyn and Shelagh Weeks speak about their work- two very different authors who both sparked several interesing discussions.
In Richard’s session he focused on his latest novel, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, published just this year. As an academic interested in speech and language Richard once studied the discourse of illness. The tables were turned when he fell ill with a serious medical condition which forced him to examine himself. The Vagabond’s Breakfast originated from the notes he made whilst waiting for a liver transplant.
This time the material he was producing was highly personal and he needed to take a different approach when writing. His solution was to write about himself as a fictional character. This stopped him from becoming too entangled in the story. “When you are the subject you have to find a way to detatch,” he said.
Although reluctant to admit that writing this novel was a healing process, Richard acknowledged that his illness gave him a burning desire to write. For him writing was a personal way of expressing himself. “If I’d been a wood carver I’d have put it into wood,” he said. “I was dying and so I was taking an account of my life, I don’t know why I picked some passages of it and not others.”
Listening to The Vagabond’s Breakfast what I found most striking was Richard’s use of humour, despite the bleakness of his illness. The dark comedy of the novel catches you unaware, it makes you laugh and it also makes sure that you don’t switch off. Matter of fact and sometimes blunt, Richard’s narrative is frank and honest. It is this quality which endears him to his audience.
I asked him if he thought the ability to laugh in these types of situations was important. “There is something intensely funny about human decrement,” he said. “It might not appeal to you but it’s something that comes from Samuel Beckett, these two decaying bodies living in dustbins making jokes. You’ve got to laugh at it, mortality is funny. It’s such an ironic joke isn’t it?”
Richard introduces and reads the opening to The Vagabond’s Breakfast
Shelagh chose to read an unpublished short story during her session, giving her audience a chance to see her work in progress. This in itself was fascinating and much of the conversation afterwards focused on her own writing process as an author.
Lasting for twenty minutes Shelagh’s story, about a mother who struggles to let her teenage daughter make her own decisions, resonated with many other mothers and daughters listening. The story was written in second person, making it especially powerful. The audience was addressed directly as ‘you’, they became emotionally involved within the narrative.
Shelagh’s stories are often character driven or built around moments she remembers intensely. The story we heard was sparked by the memory of a long car journey. As the story progressed this journey became almost metaphorical. With time each character underwent a change, appearing different at the end from the start.
“What I’m particularly interested in is fracture and change over time and our shifting understanding of others,” said Shelagh. “This is a story about a woman who goes to collect her pregnant daughter and her new boyfriend on the beach. But the real crisis is her own abortion after her partner leaves.”
Throughout Shelagh’s story it was the small attention to detail which made things sparkle. When the daughter opens her rucksack, spilling sand and cigarette butts, the room becomes just ‘like the beach they left’. I wondered if the story would be published soon, according to Shelagh it’s nearly ready.