My original plan was to visit pretty much every event I could get my hands on. The Fates, being unhappy with such prolific literary indulgence, decided to use illness to rein me in, so herewith you’ll find a small sample of what was on offer.
Thursday- The Launch- Waterstones
The festival officially launched on Thursday, 10th November, at Waterstones Inverness, whose calendar of literary events seems to grow by the week. Arriving a couple of minutes late, I decided to sneak quickly and quietly around the back, only to be ushered via microphone to one of two empty seats in the front row. So much for subtlety. Luckily Barbara was on hand to get things going, explaining the genesis of the festival, inviting us to sample any and all events that took our fancy, and introducing James Robertson, who kicked the festival off to a vibrant and engaging start. Reading from his new novel ‘To Be Continued‘ about a man and his…surprising… companion Mungo, he quickly had the audience laughing at the commonplace absurdity that flows through the story. And as long as you adhere to the author’s caveat that the geographic elements of the story are fictitious, something he was keen to emphasise to his Highland audience, then you are in for a good time.
What I loved about the launch was the energy that swirled around the room filled with volunteers, participants, and expectant audience members- and the fact that some people were all three. It really brought home the message of what the festival is all about- grassroots, emerging, and well-established artists all pitching in and looking after each other.
Friday- Another Launch- Eden Court
On Friday, 11th November I attended the launch of Mark Turner‘s (Marcas Mac an Tuairnair) second collection Lus na túise (Lavender), published by Bradan Press, in Eden Court. Competing with the Inverness Film Festival and the delectable draws of a Friday night in Inverness was no of concern whatsoever – the event was standing-room only with ten minutes to spare.
I don’t pretend to be a Gaelic speaker and went along purely to enjoy the sound of the language. However, Mark masterfully conducted the entire evening in Gaelic and English. Speaking and reading first in Gaelic, then in English, meant I could appreciate first how wonderfully musical his writing is and, second, the rich layered imagery he deploys with such subtly and purpose in each poem. Keen to promote the fluid boundaries of music, art and poetry in Gaelic culture, Mark opened the boundaries of his book launch. Not just talented with words on the page, Mark also sang: a solo, Canan nan Gaidheal written by Murdo MacFarlane, which brought him to the Gold Final at this year’s Mod; a Gaelic reworking of a Proclaimers song Grian air Lite with Trosg, an all-male octet; and award-winning, utterly spell-binding sets with The Inverness Gaelic Choir. It was nothing short of a total delight to witness. If that wasn’t enough, outside the launch room was a collection of art pieces created in response to Mark’s poetry by UHI students. It is clear that Mark believes in community and his book launch fit perfectly with what the NessBookFest is all about.
Saturday- The Crime Panel- Old High Church
Saturday, 12th November, was host to the bulk of the festival happenings, with no less than sixteen events happening across eight locations. After my own event (more on that in my next post) I managed to attend one of the final two events of the festival- the crime-writers panel, each of whom has a strong local connection. Given the speakers’ ability to make the most benign places replete with sinister potential, I was glad I managed to park nearby.
First up was S.G. MacLean reading from her latest novel, and second in the Seeker trilogy, The Black Friar. The novel is based in 17th century London, and MacLean’s ability to effortlessly conjure up the hustle and noise of the newly established coffee houses, and make it as familiar to us as any Costa or Starbucks, is testament to her enduring popularity.
Next to speak was Margaret Morton Kirk whose debut novel, Shadow Man, based in contemporary Inverness, won the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition 2016. So new it has yet to be published, Margaret was more than capable of intriguing the audience with hints about her ex-Met DI protagonist and sinister plot. To be published by Orion in July 2017, it is worth keeping an eye out for the first in a planned series of, as Kirk herself called it, the burgeoning sub-genre of ‘Highland Noire’.
Helen Forbes was the final member of the panel, and read from her first novel In the Shadow of the Hill, which actually materialised from a short story she wrote in as part of her local writing group. That short story has become the novel’s prologue and you can clearly see why she was encouraged to take the story further; bursting with potential plot developments, it reveals only that there is so much more worth knowing about these two boys as they grow into men.
Each of the writers then spoke about the benefits and challenges that come with their chosen time periods. Forbes and Kirk both acknowledged a level of confidence that comes with writing in the now, but also agreed that this can be offset by the increasingly rapid change of technology, the proliferation of global news coverage, and the difficulty of how to date a novel; in this case the major consideration being whether to set the novel before or after the Scottish Independence Referendum. MacLean professed infinitely preferring the task of mining through archives and libraries to anything involving modern technology. Each agreed that crime writing is an expansive and accommodating genre, one that is proving increasingly popular at a time when, more than ever, we need to know that crime will be punished, that criminals will be brought to justice, that victims will be heard.
As I said at the beginning, this post only offers a small example of what was accomplished by 34 poets, authors, and artists over the two days of NessBookFest. Like all good things, though, it cannot be taken for granted, or it will simply disappear. No, this is a festival worth investing in, and I, as one among many, am going to do everything in my power to ensure it runs for many years to come. Sound like something you’d be interested in? Head along to the festival’s Facebook page and see what you can do.