At dawn on Sunday morning I drove down to Charleston, near Lewes in East Sussex, for the final day of the Small Wonder short story festival. The events were – as always – fascinating and diverse. Here are five things I learned there:
1 William Trevor used to be a serious sculptor. In a recorded interview with Small Wonder Artistic Director Diana Reich, following the announcement of his winning the inaugural Charleston-Chichester lifetime achievement award for excellence in short fiction, he said that he’d had a point in his life when he had to decide which pursuit to dedicate more of his time to. He said he felt there was a quality in his stories that just wasn’t there with his sculptures. You can listen to the full 17-min audio interview with William Trevor over on the Thresholds short story forum.
2 Katherine Mansfield had gonorrhoea and tuberculosis and yet continued to write even when her ‘pen felt like a walking stick’. I knew almost nothing about Katherine Mansfield before yesterday afternoon, but know a lot more now thanks to a brilliant talk Alison MacLeod gave on Mansfield’s life and work. Mansfield wrote about her stories in her journal while she was writing them, so we got to hear her story The Garden Party read by actress Susie Riddell, followed by quotes from Mansfield, including a journal entry written just after she’d completed the story. Quite magic.
3 Everyone but me listens to The Archers. When Diana was reading out Susie Riddell’s bio, the audience was listening quietly until she said, ‘…and Susie plays Tracy Horrobin in The Archers,’ when there was a loud, audience-wide gasp of recognition, followed be a few seconds of excited chatter. I’ve never listened to The Archers, and haven’t followed any soaps seriously since the after-school ritual of Neighbours and Home and Away back in the 80s. I’ve never seen an audience reaction quite like that before. The power of soaps. Amazing.
3 You can fix a leaking car radiator by breaking eggs into it. In Indiana anyway. This was part of a scene Brian Kimberling read from his book Snapper, in which some kooky locals help the protagonist patch up his truck, which is called the Gypsy Moth, and is held together by sticking plasters in places. Hilarious ’twas.
4 David Vann has just finished translating Beowulf. In the Charleston kitchen, (which is the best green room in the entire world), David talked about how he’d been translating it from the old English for 30 minutes a day, just as a fun project to do. I think I’d rather wrestle Grendel than attempt a feat like that.
It was an all-round awesome day. The short story world is small and wonderful, and in England, Charleston is its capital. I remember when I started going to book events in my early-twenties and knew no one. Before and after the events when people were milling about and chatting, I’d find a corner (a comfort zone for all of my early life) and get out a book, as I had no one to talk to and lacked the ability to begin a conversation in situations like this. But more and more, I started seeing familiar faces. Yesterday, there were so many friends at Small Wonder, I didn’t have time between events to exchange more than the briefest how-are-you-doings with them all. There were people there I’d taught on Arvon courses, people I’d met at readings, the Booktrust and Charleston and Radio 4 folk, and lots of other writers. It’s a community, and everyone in it is relentlessly lovely. I feel very lucky to be part of it. Big love in the room there was.
This was the tenth anniversary of the festival – happy birthday Small Wonder! If you’re a story fan and you’ve not yet been, go. It’s at the end of September every year. Go go go. Go go. You’ll love it.