It’s nearly book festival time again – by which I mean the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Every August, Charlotte Square Gardens sprout canvas and are transformed into a kind of intellectual carnival of some 800 events that seem between them to encompass almost the entire sum of human experience.
This week I’ve met with two authors whose events I will be chairing, to talk about how we go about them. Both have books that are in their own ways unusual, and together they offer a glimpse of the myriad topics that will draw audiences to Charlotte Square over the 17 days of the festival.
My neighbour, Fiona Ritchie, is an award-winning broadcaster who by some miracle of technology presents the most-listened-to Celtic music programme in the United States from her tiny studio above a shop on the high street in Dunkeld, just across the river from here.
Over 30 years The Thistle & Shamrock has become an institution on American National Public Radio. Now Fiona has turned her encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish and Irish traditional music to the written word. Together with an American colleague, Doug Orr, she has told the story of the great musical migration that began in the 18th century as Scottish tunes and songs made their way via Ulster to the New World and thence down the wagon roads to Appalachia, where they took root, found new forms, became part of the bedrock of American folk culture, and in time made their way back to these shores again.
Wayfaring Strangers is that rare thing, a really accessible work of scholarship. It comes with a foreword by Dolly Parton and a 20-track CD. It’s generously illustrated and full of anecdote, lyrics and excerpts from the 40 or so ‘Voices of Tradition’ interviews that Fiona and Doug conducted for the book, including those with towering figures such as Pete Seeger and Doc Watson, recorded shortly before their deaths.
Our challenge for the event (15th Aug) is how to convey the richness of this material and tell the story of the musical journey, at least in outline, in 90 minutes. There will be audio clips, slides, live performances from three musicians, and conversation with Fiona, Doug and Doug’s wife, Darcy, who researched the pictures and was heavily involved in the book’s design.
Good preparation for an event of this kind is essential, and Fiona and I have put together a tightly-timed running order. It may go out of the window on the night, but at least it means we can approach the event with a framework to support us if we need it. Confidence is important: it transmits itself to the audience and allows them to relax into the event – as anyone who has ever witnessed the opposite will appreciate.
James Robertson’s book of stories is another rarity, although for different reasons. He has one of the most distinctive, and distinguished, voices in contemporary Scottish fiction and it’s hard to imagine a work such as 365 Stories being wrought by less skilled or experienced hands than his. James set himself the challenge of writing a short story every day for a year, then added the further constraint of crafting each story in exactly 365 words.
They range from folk tales to allegories, personal reflection to social observation, black comedy to satire, and the result is extraordinary. The more of them one reads – and it’s impossible to absorb more then three or four at a sitting – the more one has the sense that one is being gently prised open and exposed to a form of deep meditation on the nature of humanity. The constraint of the word count lends each story a density and power that one would more normally associate with poetry. And there again lies the challenge for the festival event (23rd Aug). While a reading from a novel offers merely a taste of a much greater whole, each of these stories is complete in itself; the material is extremely rich. So how do we present it in a digestible way?
Following our conversation this week James and I now have a plan that we hope will entertain the audience while also offering them a sense of the depth of the work, the unusual nature of the concept, and the challenge of executing it. It may sound obvious but being prepared means we’ll be free to enjoy the event, the energy will flow between us and we will give our best to the audience. Multiply that several hundred times and one begins to understand why Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square in August can be a place of such singular magic.
You can find the Edinburgh International Book Festival programme here. Other events I’m chairing are: Alexander McCall Smith (18th Aug), Rory Maclean (20th), Charles Handy (20th), Simon Armitage (27th), Nick Giles & Michael Hayman (28th).