I was back at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow last night, this time attending an Aye Write! event featuring Kate Tempest, hosted by the brilliant poet Holly McNish. My friend Beccy and I settled into the packed theatre, a room tense with creative anticipation. We soon found out that the passion was well-placed.
Kate, well known for her music, playwriting and spoken word performances, was in Glasgow to talk about her debut novel the bricks that built the houses. I am reading the novel at the moment, a little more than half way through, and I’m enjoying her powerful narrative, a story with incredibly drawn characters who are so rooted in the city of London that I see them as inextricably entwined in its soil.
The opening sequence of the book (essentially the end of the story) sees three of the main protagonists in a fragile state, heading out of the city of London in a clapped out car. As I subsequently work my way through the story, the characters I met in the opening scenes are becoming human beings. They are becoming rounded shapes before my eyes, they are people who you and I know, and have known all our lives. They are us. Consequently, I fear for them, my heart knows that their existence will be challenged if they venture any further beyond the city lines. I see dandelions plucked from crumbling earth. I fear that I see their untimely demise…
Kate Tempest was incredibly vibrant at the event. She is exactly like her writing, which demands to be read out loud. When Kate explores the back stories of characters in the book, for a moment you might think she’s breaking the oft-cited show not tell rules. Ha, a literary rule-breaker, a rebel with cause. But hang on, let’s not be snobby about this, be celebrant. This is beautiful, this is storytelling, this is oral history, albeit in fiction form.
These establishing sections in the narrative are indeed tell not show, but they are oral and real and three dimensional. This is a narrative performance, with the reader as both performer and stage director. Reading these soundbites I can quite clearly see and hear a narrator in the room, a passionate and knowledgeable soul sharing a nugget from the past, an old uncle or aunt defining family history from a position of truth. It really is very cleverly constructed. And I, like Holly McNish, can’t resist reading aloud from this book. Kate also read from the book. No, she performed the book. It was an incredible, powerful performance that made the room rotate on its axels.
At the event, Kate was both creatively and emotionally profound. She spoke about how it was her blood that was pumping in the characters’ veins, and how “all fiction begins in a lived truth”. Writing the story was “that moment when you feel completely known”, a feeling she gets when she discovers art, in any of its forms, that connects. I love that, a belief that stories are shared entities, that creativity is about us, and not as she said about “them and us”. If you allow yourself to be influenced by anything and everything that connects with you, says Kate, then you are blessed. For some people definitely, for others perhaps. But it is important to open yourself up to the possibility.
One of the main themes of this lively conversation was of the role of the reader in bringing a book to life, something new writers passionately believe in. We relish the notion of the shared experience, compel our characters to go out into the world and be whatever a reader needs them to be. I think in some writers that belief dissipates, that urge to provide shared ownership loosens with the confidence that grows in continued writing. I don’t think that will ever happen to Kate. She feels true to her word. Her words are for the community, for you, for me for us. As there is no them and us, “there’s only us”.
This was a fabulous literary event. Holly and Kate are friends and whilst it might have been easy to exclude us from their warm and intimate connection they opened themselves to us with humour and passion and a genuine willingness to create a shared experience. It was an art in itself. A very real performance that fills me with hope. The creation of art is in fine, honourable, hands.
I haven’t finished reading the bricks that built the houses yet but I am inspired by it. I’m not a Londoner but I don’t need to have lived the experience of Kate’s characters to have faith in them and that reaffirms everything I believe in as a writer. Writing about the people and place you know isn’t parochial or boring, or niche and inaccessible. If it is done well, and the characters are fully drawn, it can be an awakening to a shared, and valuable lived experience. The best in Scottish fiction does that already.
I’ll post a review of the book, soon. Once I’ve finished performing the rest of it!