Talking Publicly About Writing Privately: Postcard From Oxford

Sara Polsky

No two writers write alike, but when two hundred gather for an event—as they did at this year’s Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, held at Christ Church College in Oxford from March 31 through April 6—some common themes tend to emerge. One such theme, discussed by authors such as Philip Hensher, Laurent Mauvignier, and Charlotte Mendelson at panel discussions on April 5 and 6, was the tension between writing about public or political issues or events and writing about private lives.

Through their public discussion, the authors proved that even novels seemingly about private lives may, in the end, be about the most important public issues.

Hensher, whose most recent novel is The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate, 2008), wanted to write about his experience of Sheffield, a city in South Yorkshire, England, during the miner’s strike in 1984. “There are a million Oxford novels,” said Hensher, who attended Oxford University, “but no Sheffield novels.” But Hensher also wanted to write about suburban people getting older, he said, in a way that wasn’t ironic or satirical. The result is The Northern Clemency, a novel that covers both Sheffield’s transition from a manufacturing industry city to a service industry city and the lives of a group of people over a twenty-year span.

Mauvignier’s newest novel, In the Crowd (Faber, 2008), was also inspired by a world event—in this case, 9/11. For Mauvignier (who spoke in French at the festival, with his British translator interpreting for him), the terrorist attacks broke through all the other news events he’d seen on TV and made him want to write a novel that took a “longer view” than his earlier work, which deals largely with personal relationships. In the Crowd focuses on the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster at the European Cup, the ways in which people cope with being survivors of tragedy, and the relationship between individuals and crowds.

At an April 6 talk called “Universal Truths,” novelists Tahmima Anam and Priya Basil also discussed the world events that inspired their novels. Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age (HarperCollins, 2008), is set during the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh. Anam studied the war as a graduate student and found that when she traveled to Bangladesh, people there are still “obsessed” with the war, even though it happened over thirty years ago. “In a way, it’s not in the past,” Anam said. Basil’s novel, Ishq and Mushq (Hindi for Love and Smell), which was published in 2007 by Doubleday, follows one couple as they deal with the ramifications of the 1947 partition of India. “I’m quite fascinated by the tension between the political and the private,” Basil said.

In contrast, Rachel Hore, Charlotte Mendelson, and Nell Leyshon said at an April 5 talk titled “Writing Relationships” that they preferred to write about family lives rather than larger issues. Mendelson, whose third novel, When We Were Bad, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2007), has written about how we live as adults in accordance with what our families thought we would be when we were growing up. Hore’s novels, the most recent of which, The Memory Garden, was published by Pocket Books in 2007, reflect her interest in people’s relationships with their parents. Leyshon wrote her latest novel, Devotion (Picador, 2008), after “observing people of my generation casually splitting up” and thinking about what that might mean for their families.

Hore, Mendelson, and Leyshon responded to criticism of women writing primarily “domestic” novels. “It’s a way that people minimize what female novelists achieve,” Mendelson said. “[But] we’re all from a family.” And families, Hore added, are rich sources of conflict for a writer.

Families, too, have a central role in what we think of as public events, the three writers noted. Leyshon quipped that family dynamics were a factor in the start of the Iraq war. Mendelson said, more broadly, that wars happen “because of the little confused childhoods” of the people involved in starting them.

Through their public discussion, the authors proved that even novels seemingly about private lives may, in the end, be about the most important public issues.