The time dilation effect of Edinburgh becoming a centre of gravity for all things awesome for a few weeks is in full effect. It feels like weeks ago I watched Care Santos and Lucy Ribchester give their talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, but it was barely four days ago, on Wednesday.
The chair was Lee Randall who pointed out that, although Santos has written many books, Desire for Chocolate is her first to be translated into English, and is so eligible for the EIBF first book award, as is Ribchester’s The Hourglass Factory. Go vote if you haven’t.
With apologies to Lucy, most of what was discussed she also talked about back in May at the Summerhall Historic Fiction Festival, so I’ll point you at that post if you haven’t already read it and focus more on Care Santos for this one.
Santos was accompanied by a translator as although her comprehension and speaking of English seemed pretty good, she didn’t feel fluent enough for a full discussion. An unintended consequence of this is that it made my life so much easier as the reduced speed meant I could get so much more down on paper than I normally would. I thoroughly approve of this arrangement.
Randall asked her to describe what the book is about.
“In reality the protagonist of my novel is an object. This is an object that responds to an obsession of mine which goes back many years, my curiosity each time I come near or touch an object that is very old. I like to ask myself what this object may have experienced, what conversations it might have listened to.
“It’s truly unsettling to think objects survive us. We die, but objects survive. We are very presumptuous to say that we are the owners of objects; maybe we should think that objects are owners of us. From this obsession I focused in this object which is a chocolate pot. It was manufactured in Versailles for the French royal family. It covers three centuries throughout the novel.”
Why does the novel go backwards in time from the 21st century, Randall asked.
“Firstly because, if we’re talking about chronological order we already have life itself. Here we’re making literature allows us to dream and go beyond. Therefore by changing the chronological order of events it’s my way of saying I’ve invented something.
“Secondly, and perhaps a more technical explanation, it creates a lot more suspense to start by the end than it does to start by the beginning. My job as an author is to create suspense and let the reader stay with me. Starting at the end is my way of saying, ‘Stay, because I’m going to tell you this from the very beginning.'”
Why did she choose an object when it’s more often a person, their emotional story that’s the focus of a book?
“It all started with the last character, the one in the third part. He was a chocolatier, a man who lived in Barcelona in the 18th century. I loved him so much, this man was called Fernandez, I wanted to introduce him into my previous novel but he was just in the way there, he didn’t have anything to do. So I took him out and kept him for my next novel. As soon as I finished my previous novel I started to research about this man.
“He was able to invent a machine that was good to eat rather than just drinking chocolate. We have to imagine this man had a wonderful shop, it must have been very small in Barcelona. Within this little shop he installed his machine which must have been about three metres long. This machine pre-dates electricity, I didn’t function through steam, either, so it was a kind of pre-industrial machine.
“It was so well made that Paris sent for this machine to be taken back to Paris. Immediately afterwards, England, because they were in competition with France sent some officials to investigate this machine.I was trying to imagine this man receiving commissions from France and from England and i thought it was so much fun that I had to start to write about it.”
Randall moved on to the fact that as both books go deep into history, how much research do they do, and how do they do it?
Ribchester answered first, saying: “It’s trial and error, I feel like I’ve still got the stabilisers on. My second novel I had to write and research in a year and I had to quickly learn a lot of skills and disciplines of quickly weeding out stuff that wouldn’t be interesting for a reader.
“Once you’ve established whose story it is and what that story is, it’s nice to weave in things that interest you. It’s sometimes heartbreaking when you have to cut out a scene or an object. I really fall in love with objects deeply and want to put them into fiction. It’s heartbreaking when a certain thing won’t fit.”
Her new novel is set in a more well researched period, so if she gets it wrong more people will pick her up on it, but she’s not too bothered: “If I get the story right, that’s more important to me. I have to make the story real from an emotional point of view”.
Santos said: “My novels almost always emerge from a curiosity, perhaps a character that I met that I become fascinated by. It seems impossible that there are lots of things that have never been told. I often feel responsible and feel that I must tell these stories. I’m not interested in the big feats of history … there are people who tell these stories a lot better than I do. I am interested in talking about micro-history: what happens to the contemporaries of these men who do great things. How did the things that Napoleon and other great historical figures, how did they affect people like me, common people?
“This is why I am interested in telling the stories that do not appear in history books. When doing so I always base myself very much in the characters themselves. I would have loved to be able to write plays and I studied theatre. After many courses I never learned how to write a play. However, I learned how to build characters for novels in the way that you do in a play.”
As they both write in other fields, Ribchester in journalism, Santos in children’s books and poems, how do those feed into their novel-writing, asked Randall. Ribchester answered first: “This time of year I go a bit nuts and cover 40 or 50 shows. That fed into the writing in subject matter. I was inspired by the circus and the burlesque revival about 10-15 years ago. The way in which journalism fed into my writing process the most is just having to get the words down on the page. It’s invaluable. You’ve got a deadline and you just have to write about something. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it’s about producing content. That’s been a really good skill.”
Santos said: “At the moment I’m a writer who also does journalism. I do miss the period of my life in which I was a real journalist. I worked as a journalist for about 10 years. It’s very clear that I would not be the writer I am today had I not worked as a journalist. I learned a lot. To me journalism was a writing school.
“I also learned a lot as a person because I met lots of people, I travelled and I also received criticism and there was also pain, so there was a lot of learning. Perhaps what I keep from that time is that I am very fast at writing, whether it’s good or not. Also the way of doing researching and documenting my work is very much to do with journalism.
“Writing for young adults is like going to a gym. As long as the work is enjoyed by readers who are 14-18, I know that I am fit. These are very difficult readers, they are not very interested in many things and they have lots of [other] things to do. Nothing that makes me happier than a reader who is 17 telling me that he wasn’t able to sleep because he was reading my novel.”
Another strong thread this year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is translation. Did Santos have much to do with the translation of her work?
“The world of translation is a mystery. It always depends on the translator. I make myself available if they need me. Some of them say, ‘No, I don’t need you’. Others write to me every single day. I have many anecdotes to tell, because some of them are very funny. In one of my novels, being translated into German, the translator wrote to me and asked me about a well. He sent me 14 photographs of wells and asked ‘what kind of a well is it?’ I thought, ‘are there really 14 words for well in German?'”
The closing questions revealed a quite amazingly disciplined working pattern from Santos and Ribchester got a sympathetic laugh from the audience by admitting her work isn’t quite so structured.
On the subject of structure, though, they also have different, almost opposite, ways of working.
“For me, the structure of the novel is very important,” said Santos, “but this usually comes after. First it’s the idea that arrives and the fascination for this idea. Then this idea takes flight and the different characters. That’s when I stop to think what form is this going to be told in and it’s never a simple form. Sometimes I have to apologise for the complications and my structures. But that’s fine, there are plenty of books to choose from, it’s OK, if you want to read a novel that’s simpler in its structure, I understand.”
“Both of the books I’ve written have been murder-mysteries of sorts,” said Ribchester, “In crime fiction you have a ready-made structure. I do know crime writers who don’t know who did it until the end; that would be impossible for me. I start with the reason for the crime, then you need to know who committed it and why they’re committing it. Once I’ve established then it branches out into routes of research and figure out where pull stories out and weave those into it. I agree structure is really important, you have to be in control to be comfortable being able to riff. If I didn’t know where I was going I wouldn’t have the confidence to feel relaxed in the writing process.”
Thank you Lucy, and gràcies, Care.