This is the first of a two-part post I’ll be writing about the Borders Book Festival currently going on in my hometown of Melrose, Scotland. I feel very lucky to have a book festival only 5 minutes from my parents’ house which attracts some brilliant authors and provides a great atmosphere for booklovers. It’s held in the Harmony Garden and the plants and flowers everywhere (which have also made their way onto the stages) help to give a relaxed and contemplative atmosphere (I’m sure the beer and wine tents help with that too!).
Last night I went to a talk by Kirsty Logan, author of The Gracekeepers, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The book itself is wonderful and I would highly recommend it.
The talk began with Kirsty reading from chapter one of The Gracekeepers. She has a lovely speaking voice and I enjoyed listening to her. You can read the prologue and part of chapter one here. Things then moved on to a general discussion about the book. I have always been very interested to learn about where authors get their ideas from and how they develop them into a novel, so I was glad that Kirsty talked about that.
Kirsty found herself struggling to process her grief when her father died suddenly when she was 27. She talked about how religions offer rituals and guidance for the grieving process, but not being religious herself meant that she didn’t have that kind of guidance to look to. While she was out on a boat she happened to see a buoy with a light in it, which to her resembled a bird cage. This spawned the idea for the graces which appear in the novel. In a world which is mostly covered by water, most people live on boats and cannot be buried on land, so their bodies are sunk in the sea by gracekeepers and attached to cages holding birds (graces) which float on the surface. The mourning periods for the deceased last only as long as the graces remain alive, which offers the mourners a prescribed period of time to grieve before they move on with their lives. To me this represents a beautiful example of how an author’s personal experience can influence their writing, and hearing Kirsty talk about this made me appreciate the novel even more.
The discussion moved on to fairy tales and how the more modern versions – especially those depicted in Disney films – are far less violent and bloody than the original versions (Cinderella is a classic example and you can read the very non-Disney version by the brothers Grimm here). There is definitely a fairy tale feel about the novel, and Kirsty mentioned that she had read a review of her book which said that she had clearly been influenced by certain fairy tales, which, as it turned out, Kirsty had never even heard of!
I’ve always found it fascinating how readers will often interpret an author’s work in ways they could not have expected. Once they release their stories and characters into the world they no longer have control over how they are perceived – they essentially take on a life of their own. Kirsty also spoke about the timeless nature of fairy tales and how they depict human emotions that we have always felt and always will feel, meaning that readers can identify with them no matter how long ago they were written.
At the end of the talk there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. I asked one on behalf of my good friend Stefani (you can find her awesome blog over at Caught Read Handed). Stefani wanted to know if Kirsty had been influenced by any particular fairy tales, and I elaborated on that by mentioning the reference to the Selkies in the novel – creatures found in Scottish, Irish and Icelandic folklore depicted as seals who can shed their skins and take on human form. Kirsty said that she liked the legend of the Selkies because these creatures have a dual nature and can exist on both the land and the sea. This influence is apparent in one of her novel’s main characters, Callanish, who appears human but has webbed hands and feet. Kirsty also mentioned her fondness for the fairy tale of Kate Crackernuts, a version of which you can find here. I hadn’t heard of that particular tale before so I had fun looking it up and reading a few versions of it.
Someone else asked Kirsty to talk about the interesting names she chose to give her characters. She told us that some of them are actually named after places in the UK. For example, Callanish is a village on the Scottish Isle of Lewis and Veryan is a village in Cornwall, England. In the book characters are given these names by their parents as a way of remembering places which have long since been lost below the sea. I really liked Kirsty’s explanation of why she gave North, the other central character, her name. North is somewhere you can never actually reach, but rather a direction in which you travel in search of a destination. North lives her life on a boat which is constantly travelling, and she herself is in search of a place she can truly belong, so her name gives us a sense of movement and travel. Kirsty also mentioned the nods she gave to the legend of King Arthur when she named the circus boat Excalibur (which interestingly was also the name of the primary school she attended!) and the circus master’s wife Avalon (after the legendary island where the sword Excalibur was forged).
After the talk itself Kirsty kindly signed copies of her novel for Stefani and I and chatted with me for a few minutes. She is a lovely person and I hope that I get to meet her again in the future.
I haven’t had time to write a review of The Gracekeepers myself but you can find Stefani’s here. She loved it as much as I did!
On Sunday I’ll be heading back to the book festival for a talk by Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive. I’ll post a write-up of that afterwards.