Omnibus Clapham Literary Festival: The real-life challenges of the authors behind the stories

Almost all of us are guilty of using the ‘I’d love to read more, I just don’t get enough time’ excuse when we’re quizzed on what we read.

For many people, picking up a literary classic only occurs when it’s raining outside and the Wi-Fi is down.

Feeling guilty about becoming dangerously close to falling into this category, I decided to go to Clapham’s Literary Festival at the Omnibus Theatre on Saturday, May 7 and see what it had to offer.

The reason I found the experience so valuable was not down to me being a lover of crime, or an avid reader of the death and bereavement section, rather that the authors made me think.

Deaf author Louise Stern, who was communicating via sign language through her friend Oliver Pouliot, was one such author.

Mrs Stern is an American artist and novelist, who discussed isolationism and the difficulties of being a part of two different worlds, the hearing and non-hearing, and how it changed her writing.

I asked her what the hardest part of writing for the two different communities was, and her answer was the most interesting reply I’d hear in the whole festival.

“Imagine having to communicate that feeling of walking off a plane in a different country where the atmosphere feels different, the warm air hits you, and for a moment you feel different in your body, to somebody who has never experienced it before,” she said.

“In the deaf community, we communicate that like this.”

She proceeded to make an exaggerated sign flooded with emotion, accompanied with an animated facial expression, a total contrast to her usual subdued signs.

While discussing two pieces of her work, Chattering and Ismael and His Sisters, she explained how she had immersed herself into her stories.

“The real challenge is trying to communicate the same feelings in both my novel and short stories to two different communities” she said.

Her solution was to adopt a peaceful existence while writing to clear her thoughts — only to find it lacked the immersion she required.

“It was so difficult trying to write about Mexico in my flat in London, so I got a residency in a castle in Scotland,” she said.

“Then I felt it was difficult writing in a castle in Scotland, so I got another grant and went back to Mexico.”

Mrs Stern travelled to Mexico to live in a town, where, due to a genetic defect, there is an unusually high prominence of deaf people.

Around a tenth of the population are deaf, so, as a result, the entire community consciously chooses to sign.

She said: “It was a beautiful time for me, I woke up in the morning and knew I could communicate with everyone.”

As Mrs Stern described how her pen and paper-based communication led to her keeping hundreds of ‘stories’ from her daily life, it made me think how important it is to not let life pass you by.

Another stand-out figure in the festival, a stark contrast to Mrs Stern, was young death and bereavement author Max Porter.

The Grief is the Thing with Feathers author, began by pointing out to the dimly-lit theatre that we had passed up an afternoon of sun on Clapham Common to listen to him discuss grief and tragedy.

He went on to explain the complex battle that writers of today are faced with in the publishing world.

Listening to him speak, it soon became clear that transitioning the thoughts flying around in his mind onto the page had not been a smooth one.

He also spoke of how authors try to resist their work’s identity being compromised in order to make the ‘product’ more marketable.

“I would wake up at 3am and dwell on the horror of being faced with one-star Amazon reviews,” he said shaking his head.

It was clear from the passion in his voice that the novel, which was inspired by the death of his father, had truly taken over his mind.

One member of the audience posed the question of how it felt to have to explain such a complex, dark plot to translators.

“Having to deconstruct your own work is like having your partner ask you to explain where the magic of your early years came from,” replied Porter.

He explained the difficulties of putting his babies to bed and cooking dinner for his wife, before sitting down to decide whether to get rid of a scene because it was too upsetting or not.

“I looked forward to being able to make things up without an inner battle of responsibility,” he said.

Festival curator Steven Gale explained the week had been a huge success, down to how every speaker engaged with the audience and really debated with them.

“My favourite speaker was always the last one,” he said.

“In that, after I listened to each author speak, I had felt they’d always managed to connect with me and give me something to talk about with everyone else.  It was fantastic.”

As I left the festival it was hard not to dwell on how much I had gained from the experience.

In an afternoon I could have spent drinking coffee or watching cat videos on the internet, I had thoroughly enjoyed myself, and at the same time been forced to think.

Image courtesy of the Clapham Literary Festival, with thanks

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