AN award-winning young Scots author is helping to curate a new book festival which features a visit from the woman who inspired her to start writing.
Kirstin Innes is a guest curator of the first 10-day book festival in Paisley, a key flashpoint during the radical war of 1820 when workers’ demands for better conditions were crushed by an establishment fearful of violent revolution.
With guests including one of the town’s most famous sons, artist and playwright John Byrne, Scots Makar Jackie Kay, playwright and author Alan Bissett and radical writers and experts such as Sheila Templeton, Linda Jackson, Graham Fulton and Maggie Craig, much of the subject matter and themes of Paisley’s Book Festival reflect struggles in public life.
Innes’s strand is subversive even in terms of the festival. Titled Rebels, Mothers and Others, its three events will feature authors whose protagonists are rebellious and non-conformist; unlikely heroines whose spirited, often private struggles to thrive on their own terms puts them at odds with societal expectation.
In Writing Rebel Women (February 23), Innes will join Jenni Fagan and Emma Jane Unsworth for a discussion on the politics of writing such characters.
Each writer has highly anticipated books arriving in the coming months: Unsworth’s Adults, Fagan’s Luckenbooth (now scheduled for 2021) and Innes’s own Scabby Queen, the follow-up to her debut novel Fishnet, which won her the Guardian’s coveted Not The Booker Prizer in 2015.
They also share some experience of seeing their work off the page with Animals, Unsworth’s 2014 novel following alcohol-dependent best pals, debuting as a feature film last year, just as Anna Russell-Martin impressed with her turn as Fagan’s troubled teen Anais Hendricks in the National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of her best-selling debut The Panopticon.
Meanwhile, Innes’s gritty, compelling Fishnet has been optioned by STV, with Scabby Queen, a portrait of a dead singer-songwriter told by her friends and enemies, being set for publication at the end of April.
Innes will also speak with Chitra Ramaswamy and Emily Morris – two authors of very different but equally subversive accounts of pregnancy. In a baby-friendly event titled Othering Motherhood (February 23), Ramaswamy will discuss Expecting: The Inner Life of Pregnancy, a lyrical memoir which won her the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2016.
Joining her will be Morris, whose My Shitty Twenties takes its title from what the father of her baby said to her when she found out she was pregnant as a 22-year-old student.
“The man left her, saying: ‘Enjoy your shitty, snotty twenties,’” says Innes, herself a mother to two young children. “Now Emily is 37 with a teenage son. She’s very funny and raw and I like the contrast with what Chitra does which is beautiful and lyrical, it’s almost nature writing. I don’t think that was given enough attention at the time – everyone focussed on the pregnancy angle – so we might talk about that.”
Both events, say Innes, were inspired by the first author she secured for the new festival, Janice Galloway.
The event will mark 30 years since the publication of Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, a formally and thematically radical novel which charted the crumbling psyche of a young woman following a traumatic event.
It was heralded by critics the world over, the New York Times describing it as “resembling Tristram Shandy as rewritten by Sylvia Plath”. Years later, Galloway would dryly quip to a journalist how its formal experimentation was due to her not knowing how to write a story “properly”.
The two authors have previously worked together on an event marking 100 years since the birth of the mutually revered Muriel Spark and Innes has named their forthcoming meeting The Transfiguration Of The Commonplace, after a treatise written by a character in Spark’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.
“When the book festival asked me who my dream list would be, I told them I wanted to interview my all-time writing hero, Janice Galloway,” says Innes. “She’s the fundamental, biggest influence on my writing and I know she’s a big influence on Jenni too. When Janice said yes to taking part, the rest fell into place.”
Galloway’s precise, immaculately structured prose informed which other writers Innes then approached for her Rebel, Mothers, Others strand, she explains.
“These are all women who write about the everyday,” she says. “While Jenni’s writing can sometimes have aspects of fantasy, it’s very much through the prism of reality, these small, tiny moments which are made big and beautiful. That’s what Janice pioneered in Scottish literature. Her focus is always on the domestic, the small, the personal, the intimate, but she’s never ordinary in the way she goes about it.
“Like what Emily and Chitra are doing talking about pregnancy in an unorthodox way, this idea of the transfiguration of the everyday is a fundamentally radical thing. The woman in The Trick Is To Keep Breathing teaches at school, she works at the bookies, she’s obsessed with magazines. Janice radicalises that banality into art. She makes avant-garde literature from someone arranging biscuits on a plate, and that is a deeply political thing.”
February 20 to 29, Paisley Arts Centre, various times and prices. Buy tickets in person from any Renfrewshire library. Tel: 0300 300 1210
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE PAISLEY BOOK FESTIVAL
Readings from Scottish radicalism expert Maggie Craig, poetry from Jim Carruth and music from Heir of the Cursed opens the festival.
February 20, Paisley Arts Centre, 7pm, £10, £6 concs
365: Stories and Music
Enjoy stories by James Robertson and music by Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke via their beautiful sound installation.
February 21, POP, 10am to 5pm, free.
John Byrne’s Big Birthday Bash
The artist and playwright returns to his hometown to mark his 80th birthday with music and readings.
February 22, Paisley Arts Centre, 4.30pm, £15, £12 concs
UWS’s Inspiring Women Lecture: Kirsty Wark
Ruth Wishart talks to the broadcaster about her new novel and some of the key moments she’s reported on.
February 22, University of West of Scotland, 2pm, £12, £5 students
The editor of critically acclaimed essay collection The Good Immigrant is joined by Lisa Williams of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association and members of the BAME Scottish Writers Network.
February 22, Paisley Arts Centre, 7pm, £10, £6 concs
Michael Pederson, Hollie McNish and Sarah Stewart perform from their newest works in a night curated by culture blog The Fountain, with live lyrical hip hop from Stanley Odd frontman Solareye.
February 27, Paisley Arts Centre, 7pm, £12, £8 concs
Guest curator Alan Bissett talks to the hugely popular author of HWFG and Hings, now a BBC Scotland series.
February 28, Callum’s Cavern, 9om, £10, £6 concs
Scots Makar Kay reads selections on the festival’s themes of radical stories and rebel voices, including new work inspired by Paul Robeson.
February 28, Paisley Arts Centre, 5pm, £10, £6 concs
Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers
After sharing some of their latest work earlier in the day, Val McDermid, Christopher Brookmyre, Mark Billingham, Doug Johnstone, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste trade dastardly deeds for musical instruments for a rocking festival finale.
February 29, Paisley Arts Centre, 7.30pm, £12, £8 concs