Recent Online Events: Melanie Finn, Church Times Festival, Gavin Francis

It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.

This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.


Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller

(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)

I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.

Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.

Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.

I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.


Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I

(February 20th)

I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.


Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve

Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.


Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual

Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.


Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic

Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.

Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”


Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh

(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)

Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.

He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.


Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.


Have you attended any online literary events recently?

22 responses

  1. Interestingly, at the Spufford event I attended, he did something I’ve never seen a writer do before, and started asking the interviewer off-the-cuff questions about the book she’d recently released, which I thought was quite sweet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like when an event is a back and forth between two authors. As it was a sort of launch event for Melanie Finn, Claire Fuller didn’t really talk about her own new book, though it was pushed by the bookstore hosting the event. I remember when I saw Michel Faber speak about his book on grief (Undying), I wished that Cathy Rentzenbrink, his interviewer, had had more of a chance to speak about her own bereavement memoir.

      Did Spufford do a reading as part of your event? Did he wear that same silly hat!?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No (I was pleased because I hate readings) and yes, or at least a very similar one!


    2. Oh, but he gives such good readings!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I hope you enjoy Featherhood when you get to it, a book I wasn’t expecting to enjoy nearly as much as I did. I really like the premise of Spufford’s novel although I didn’t get on with Golden Hill. This one sounds much more up my street.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My library has a copy on order. I’m looking forward to it.

      Whereas I’m not enjoying the new one nearly as much as Golden Hill! The sections feel like snapshots of a time period rather than contributions to a whole story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, that’s a shame. It’s such a clever premise.


    2. You may like it more!


  3. I’ve really got to catch up with Claire Fuller’s novels: they all sound so good and I’ve only read her first. You do a great job of attending literary events online. I do a great job of reading about your events and saying that I should do better.

    It’ll be a year here for us (in Ontario, specifically) on March 17th. We’re thinking of getting take-out to celebrate. Because that’s different. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lockdown officially started on March 23rd here.

      Swimming Lessons was probably my favourite of Fuller’s, but they’re all worth reading. She’s on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, so her new book would contribute to that project if you need an excuse!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t taken advantage of any literary events online this whole time. But then again, I wasn’t going to any in person before the pandemic, either, so I guess that’s on brand! 🙂 I would have enjoyed the Claire Fuller one, though – I am looking forward to her new book. Sounds like I need to check out Melanie Finn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really liked the one Finn novel I read, and her new one looks so good. It’s with a fairly small indie publisher; I hope you can find it.

      Are you close enough to Nashville to go to events at Parnassus Books when it reopens?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is possible – it’s only about 3 hours away. Just requires time off work, some babysitting, and a hotel! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I forget how far apart American locations are 😉 I’m lucky my nearest indie bookshop is only half an hour away, or I can get the train to it.


  5. I’ve managed not to go to anything, just as I don’t manage to go to things in real life!! Great reports, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But it’s so easy to attend right from your front room/office! Whereas I can’t often be bothered in real life because you have to pay for a train ticket, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know but I’m just so hopeless with zooms etc. I’ve hardly done anything online, a weekly chat with a friend instead of our usual coffee except when we were allowed to meet in my garden / the cafe, and a monthly running club quiz this year. Maybe two parties, and that’s it!


    2. I understand it can be hard to engage with online activities. Book club on Zoom has been a particular challenge for me, but I think I’m finally (after a year!) getting used to it. We had to start having a moderator and a set schedule for the meetings as they were getting out of hand with everyone talking over everyone else.


  6. The Gospel of Eve sounds like one I’d like. And I’m with you that a conversational delivery is so much more engaging than the lecture-type. Zoom is tough enough for me, I don’t need to be lectured over it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m lucky to not have many Zoom meetings in my daily life (just book club, monthly, and a meet-up with friends every few weeks), whereas my husband has multiple every week for work, the local council, and other volunteer bodies. I’m looking forward to in-person events starting up again!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Zooming is so tiring. Big YES to in-person events, especially literary. (And this from a fairly introverted member of the literary community–just imagine how anxious the extroverts must be to be “live” again!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, me too. I’m very introverted and it takes a lot of effort for me to make myself go to things. I almost feel like a year of lockdown will have made that worse, so I’m going to have to force myself to interact with people again.


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