Masters of their craft: Louis de Berniere and Joanne Harris

Louise de Bernière is an exceptional raconteur, not only on paper but also on stage. He was talking to Sara Davies this afternoon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about his new book, The Dust that Falls from Dreams. Can you believe that it is 21 years since the block-buster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? That really shook me!

IMG_0451The Dust that Falls from Dreams starts in 1902, Edward VII’s coronation year, and it was inspired by his grandmother’s story. Her diaries still survive, although he said that were sadly they were not that interesting: a lot of detail about the weather! However, she had a childhood sweetheart who was killed in action in 1914. As Louis de Bernière said: it’s a strange thing, but if he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have existed. The main character, Rosie, is loosely based on his grandmother – only loosely, because, as the author said, the whole point about writing fiction is to tell magnificent lies!

the-dust-that-falls-from-dreamsAsked about the research needed to write this and his previous books, LdB replied that the trick is to forget most of the research you do. In an earlier book, Birds without Wings, he made the mistake of researching too much.  Now he’s realised that the trick is not to do it all up front. If you do, you have notebooks and computer files filed with information that is very hard to manage. Instead, you should research what you need, when you need it: then write, possibly even chapter by chapter.  Research, he said, gives you the confidence that you know what you’re talking about: “the invisible background”, he called it.  That said, his novels are dense with detail, but it is managed in such a way that “the characters tell the history”.

Although the anniversary of the First World War has been marked by an outpouring of fiction, Sara Davies noted that Louis “hit some notes that I haven’t read before”. In particular, his description of the sheer exhilaration of flying, the boredom of those left at home, the horrors of the Front (LdB read an extraordinarily moving passage about the death of horses at the Front).

Next up this afternoon I squeezed into a packed tent to listen to Joanne Harris talk about The Gospel of Loki. I have to be frank here and say that I knew very little about this before she started to talk! Again, like Louis de Bernière, Joanne Harris is a great speaker and the discussion with her chair, James Runcie, was excellent. Clearly, the Norse sagas have been part of her life for years and she read them compulsively as a young girl (her mother “approved” because they were educational). A few years ago, when Joanne’s own daughter was about the same age, Joanne retrieved a 1000-page unpublished manuscript (vast!) written when she was about 18, which had since been languishing in a drawer (or a trunk!). The result was Runemarks and Runelight.  Now comes The Gospel of Loki: Loki (who has always been her favourite character) is the quintessential trickster, a demon who comes as an outsider to Asgard.

gospel-of-lokiTalking about fantasy, Joanne spoke of the timeless quality of the Norse tales: they are stories about who we are and where we come from. Originally written to make life more bearable, now, given the present times we live in, we need this sort of fantasy even more.

A key theme of Joanne’s fiction is disruption: stories are all about disruption, she says. Outsiders arrive in a community and “things” happen. Sounds familar… Chocolat. Nonetheless, the moral ambivalence of the outsider, the villain, or the trickster fascinates us. The Gospel of Loki is written in the first person because she wanted to find the voice of Loki that doesn’t appear in the Edda: he is the ultimate unreliable narrator because he lies, yet his story resonates with us.

Note to all fans: there will be more to come – Joanne spoke of her next challenge: she plans to write about the post-Ragnarok and to set the Norse gods in the present-day! Now that will be interesting!

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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