Warhorse

Review: In Conversation with Author Pat Barker

16 June 16 words: James Walker
“Fiction should be about moral dilemmas that are so bloody difficult that the author doesn't know the answer"

North Circus Street hosted two very different public talks last night. Michael Gove was covertly smuggled into the Albert Hall to put forward soundbites for Britain leaving the E.U while in the Playhouse, Booker prize winning author Pat Barker was giving her time for free to help raise money for educational charity Nottingham City of Literature. Gove’s location was kept mum right up to the last minute – as it was when Boris Johnson, David Cameron and other campaigners visited the city – whereas Barker’s event actively encouraged every bookgroup in Nottingham to get involved in a city-wide read and to pop down and ask the author some questions (#Notts4Barker). Two very different tales for one city…

I mention this as - in addition to the very knowledgable host -  the audience were integral to the success of the Playhouse event, asking an astute array of questions that were so well thought out Barker looked like she would happily have carried on chatting all night. The same could not be said of Gove, whose veneer of calmness started to fade as the evening wore on. One question regarding the role of the author in society, particularly given what was going on next door, was particularly pertinent. It was asked because a large part of Barker’s work covers the Great World Wars and at the moment the world is in a bit of a mess. Barker said that we should all forget about Brexit: It’s medicine that changes society, and the only thing we should be concentrating on is when antibiotics stop working. It’s this that will rip apart peace time.

On writing, Barker has previously said: “Fiction should be about moral dilemmas that are so bloody difficult that the author doesn’t know the answer. What I hate in fiction is when the author knows better than the characters what they should do.” However, the writer loses this freedom when their books become adaptations for the screen. She explained that films cost a lot of money, take ages to make and involve so many partners that the narrative gets sanitised.

She gave the example of the adaptation of Union Street, the story of seven working class women from the northeast. In Barker’s story, one of the women is fifteen stone and sits on her skinny husband’s face when he gets angry. That’s proper girl power. In the film adaptation - renamed Stanley and Iris and transported across the pond - the woman was played by Jane Fonda! This is a real pity as all of Barker’s novels are gagging to be made into films. Her preference would be the BBC. This would be a perfect marriage as she’s a Jimmy McGovern for World War I.

In addition to the bookgroups, there were a lot of aspiring writers present, many of whom wanted an insight into the writing process. Barker made it very clear that your best friend is the wastepaper bin, and that a chapter can easily go through 10-20 drafts. She also said that it’s best to get through a story rather than polishing over details and trying to perfect a particular paragraph. This makes logical sense as once the draft is finished and the narrative is fleshed out, many of those polished paragraphs may go. But writers shouldn’t take any advice as gospel. Writing is a solitary and very personal process and you have to do what’s right for you.

Given the content of her books (disfigurement, violent husbands, post-traumatic stress disorder, war, repressed sexuality, prejudice) Barker’s stories can be emotionally draining. One audience member asked how she coped with writing this. The answer, of course, was writing! In particular, the editorial process. The carving out of each new draft brings with it different levels of emotional satisfaction and complexity that offer numerous ways of thinking through a subject. But the ultimate pleasure is when you finally get it right. Writing in itself is a form of therapy. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we create order.

Interestingly, Barker kicked off the evening with a very rare public reading of a work in progress. The book is tentatively titled The Silence of the Sisters and is a retelling of the Iliad. It’s typical Barker, with a punchy bloody opening, the demystifying of a legend (Achilles), and focussing on the lives of characters who’ve gone unheard. But even in the reading she explained that she cut out certain descriptions as she read, thereby self-editing as she went along. Let’s hope she cuts out the title too. It’s awful.    

Barker’s work has included some very famous and influential figures, not least Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and W. H. R. Rivers. She explained that it was difficult to write about Sassoon as although she could admire him as an individual with principles, she had a problem with his misogyny, which is a barrier you have to get over when you’re portraying someone.

W. H. R. Rivers (12 March 1864 – 4 June 1922) on the other hand is an incredibly fascinating figure. He was an anthropologist who accompanied Alfred Cort Haddon to the Torres Straits in 1898 and features in Michael Eaton’s film the Masks of Mer, shown here at the Playhouse as part of the NEAT16 festival. He was also a psychiatrist who helped shell shocked soldiers in WWI and features in Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Barker discussed how we don’t learn from history and how in the 2003 Gulf War, psychiatrists and psychologists were still manipulating fear, to get soldiers to go out and fight. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

I hope that the City of Literature team will now consider making the ‘Bookgroup Reading’ an annual event. With plenty of time to plan there’s great potential to involve more people. It would also be good to see bookgroups consulted as to who they would like to see in conversation next. Nottingham is more than capable of getting behind each other as was evidenced by Dolly Parton last week when she announced 49,964 books have been given to Nottingham children since 2009, making us the most dedicated city to her Imagination Library in the UK.

Pat Barker was in conversation with Sharon Monteith at the Nottingham Playhouse on 15 June 2016. £12   

Pat Barker's latest novel Noonday is avilable from Penguin Books.

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