Jo Baker, Sebastian Barry and Charlotte Hobson discuss their fiction at Borders Book Festival 2017

17th June, 2017

Family ties and the nature of time

The annual Walter Scott Prize shortlist panel at the Borders Book Festival gives readers the chance to hear first-hand about the origins of some of the shortlisted books. The 2017 panel on 16th June, featuring Jo Baker, Sebastian Barry and Charlotte Hobson and moderated by author and Prize judge Liz Laird, was one of our best-attended yet, with a capacity crowd filling the marquee on a gorgeous midsummer evening in the Scottish Borders.

The evening led off with excerpts: Jo read the beginning of A Country Road, A Tree, where a young Beckett flings himself from a tree, and Charlotte chose a passage from The Vanishing Futurist where her Bolsheviks discuss whether their commune should be clothing-optional. Sebastian made sure the room was alert by opening with a song, then he read a touching scene from Days Without End where John Cole coaxes Winona to sleep, an episode he said was rooted in his memories of putting his son to sleep.

The family roots of the shortlisted books go deep for many of the writers: Charlotte’s pull to study and travel in Russia was partly a way to discover more about her late mother. Her grandfather was Russian and horrified when he heard Charlotte was studying the Russian Revolution: “He visited our school to complain about the dangerous Bolshevik propaganda we were being taught for our O levels,” she recalls. She said that even as she felt her grandfather on her shoulder during her writing of The Vanishing Futurist, set in Moscow just after the Czar’s fall, she was still bewitched by the Bolsheviks’ idealised picture of the future and longed to “capture that moment just before it was all completely lost.”

Sebastian, who has already described – see Author Spotlight: Sebastian Barry – how his story springs from a family tale about a relative who fought in the French & Indian Wars, said the gay love story at the book’s heart came about partly because of his own son, who at 16 came out to the family.

The tenderness of the central romance is, Liz Laird commented, a stunning contrast to the stomach churning violence of the book’s war scenes; Sebastian said that despite the violence of the times, the 1860s were also a time when the first men were publicly dressing as women in San Francisco, and by the mid 1860s the first ordnance had already been passed to ban the practice; “the forces of oppression were already gathering,” he said.

Jo Baker gave fascinating insights into how she explored and became inspired by one of the most enigmatic figures in literature, Samuel Beckett, including Beckett’s complicated relationship with James Joyce. A Country Road, A Tree reverberates with references to Beckett’s work: including the title, better known as the first line of Waiting for Godot. Jo, who was so fazed at the disconnect between Beckett’s early work and late work that she set herself the task to fill in the gaps, said that when she looked closely at the pieces of Beckett’s life, she saw its echoes in his late work.

The circle of writers who surrounded Joyce, for instance, favoured the slim, uncomfortable Italian shoes Joyce made fashionable: not the best choice for fleeing Nazis by foot across wartime France. Beckett’s certain agony in the shoes was something Jo felt undeniably reared its head with Vladimir and Estragon, “and their endless putting-on and off of shoes.”

Even the writing work that Beckett undertook for the French Resistance was “almost Beckettian,” she says. He was entrusted with collating information from dozens of scraps of paper and using these to write concise intelligence summaries for transmission back to the UK — the summaries had to be exceptionally short, distilled down “almost to silence.” Yet in at least one case, Beckett’s concisely-worded intelligence resulted in a successful aerial attack on a target: few words, shattering impact.

All the writers talked about their own process of doing much as Beckett did: gathering scraps, delving into research for years at a time, and finding inspiration from myriad sources. These are what they draw on to perform the historical novelist’s particular magic: bringing today’s reader and yesterday’s characters to a middle-ground that’s neither past nor present, but a midway performance space where the character’s story is shown and lived, against a backdrop of real history.

Charlotte, who initially struggled with a time travel theme in The Vanishing Futurist, ultimately settled instead on quantum physics and the many-worlds theory, which posits that every possible outcome has happened in a parallel world – which suggests that, somewhere, there’s a world in which communism and the Bolshevik ideals succeeded. This was the idea that seized her story’s protagonist, and his charisma inspired his acolytes to believe the same.

Sebastian, too, spoke about the nature of space and time and about the writer’s role, including his own powerful sensation during the writing of Days Without End that Thomas McNulty was present with him.

“The past, present and future are always together in one great mass, and that’s a comfort for a historical novelist,” Sebastian said. “If you are still enough and quiet enough, you can reach back in time to something that seems to be in the distant past, but actually, it’s just the next door up from you.”

Read more from our shortlisted writers in our 2017 Author Interview series. See all the interviews here.