Stroud Book Festival describes itself as “a celebration of stories, ideas and community for readers of all ages”, and for six years has been bringing a flurry of events over four days to a variety of pleasant venues at this busy and diverse Cotswold market town.
Although by chance I was away on a writing retreat at the start of it, I caught up with the Festival on Sunday, chairing the Made in Stroud: Historical Novelists panel in the afternoon, and in the evening attending the Stroud Short Stories event of which this time I was co-judge alongside organiser John Holland.
Three Novelists Inspired by Mid-Century History
I was delighted to have been invited to interview three Stroud authors about their latest historical novels in the delightful setting of Lansdown Hall, laid out café-style with delicious cake generously provided by the local Waitrose. These novels are:
- Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris
(German Jewish girl flees to Hollywood and becomes Fred Astaire’s dancing partner before being recruited by the British as a spy)
- The Girl Behind the Wall by Mandy Robotham
(identical twins in their twenties are separated by the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall)
- The Schoolteacher of St Michel by Sarah Steele
(schoolteacher smuggles Jewish children across the border between Nazi-occupied Vichy France and free France).
(The authors are pictured in that order from left to right in the photo at the top of this column, and I’m in the hot seat on the far right.)
My brief was to ask chiefly about research. It was fascinating to hear where they’d found their jumping-off point for their novels, from newspaper articles (one of my favourite sources of story ideas) to chance conversations with residents of those areas.
I was also intrigued as to why they took different approaches to writing about real people – Tessa puts words into the mouths of Hitler, Eva Braun, Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, and Fred Astaire, while in Mandy and Sarah’s books, key figures of the age are kept at a distance, for example we hear the Berlin crowd’s reaction to Kennedy’s iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner” address, but do not encounter him in person.
To write my books – contemporary village mysteries, set in worlds I know very well – I need to do very little research, and I am always in awe of historical novelists who must (a) carry out enough research to write convincingly about their chosen era and (b) how they manage to tear themselves away to write their books, rather than losing themselves down potential rabbit holes. Covid has introduced a new challenge: to find all you need online when travel restrictions preclude in-person visits to places key to the story. Each of the three authors had different favourite sources: Youtube for Mandy, Pinterest for Sarah and biographies for Tessa.
When so many fiction and non-fiction books have already been written about your era, I asked them, how did you manage to make your topic your own? What differentiates your books from others? Although their books are very different, they each had the same answer: by holding a microscope up to individuals involved.
Their protagonists Lili Sternberg (“the girl who danced with Fred Astaire”), Berliner twins Karin and Jutta, and French schoolteacher Lucie Laval are all strong, exceptional women with important lessons about survival and resilience amidst enforced separation and deprivation that resonate strongly to readers living through the current pandemic, and I highly recommend all three novels.
Stroud Short Stories Go Wild
After that event I just had time for tea and cake in the Green Room before heading up the hill to The Cotswold Playhouse to greet the ten authors whose short stories had been chosen by co-judges John Holland and me to be read at this twice-yearly event. As all the stories are judged “blind”, ie the judges have no idea who wrote which story until they have chosen the final ten from among dozens submitted, it is always a joy to put the face and the name to the story. A full house in this delightful provincial theatre lapped up the ten very different stories, all on the given theme of “Wild”.
With John a slick, original and funny compere, the ten authors performed their stories to a rapt audience, from seasoned participants of previous SSSs, to those who had never before shared their work in public. They were, in the running order of the night:
Pauline Masurel with Fledglings
Claire Jaggard with The Wild Woman
Ali Bacon with The Pig and I
Jasmin Izagaren with Jumping Season
Melanie White with City Girl
Nick Adams with Demolition
Georgia Boon with Johnny Maunder Came to the Well
Hannah Glickstein with Wild Serenade
Rebecca Klassen with Clothed in Sacrifice
Robin Booth with Painted Ladies
Even though I had read and re-read each of the stories as part of the judging process, as is always the way, hearing them read aloud by their authors added to the experience, and I heard more nuances and subtleties and rhythm in the writing than before. All ten authors read brilliantly.
Until Next Time!
When John announced that the next Stroud Short Stories event will take place on 8th May 2022, I’m sure everyone present will have made a mental note for their next year’s diary. My only fear is that the stories were of such a high standard that some writers may be deterred from submitting. Please don’t be: Stroud Short Stories is renowned for showcasing brand-new writers as well as old hands, and with no entry fee, you have nothing to lose by giving it a go. Keep an eye on the SSS webiste, www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.com and follow its always entertaining Twitter feed @StroudStories so that you don’t miss out.
Huge congratulations to Artistic Director Caroline Sanderson and her tireless team for staging such an inspiring series of events and restoring a feeling of post-lockdown normality to the remarkable town of Stroud. I’m sure everyone who took part is looking forward to next year’s Stroud Book Festival already!
Coming Soon! (27th November)
Meanwhile I’m busy getting ready for my next public event – the first in a new HULF Talk series, a spin-off from my annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, bringing together four local authors talking about travel and adventure, from filming whales for The Blue Planet to hunting for yetis in the Himalayas! Admission is by advance ticket only, to enable us to keep Covid-safe, and you can find out more and order your ticket via Eventbrite here.