Thursday, 5 April 2012

Anne Tyler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Our last event at the festival was on Sunday morning at the Sheldonian Theatre. Anne Tyler rarely gives interviews, indeed Peter Kemp ( our breakfast buddy!) said it was almost forty years since she gave her last one. I love her books, they are deceptively simple, telling stories of "ordinary" people, usually based in her home city of Baltimore. Her prose is warm, funny and her characters really do stay with you for a long time.
Unsurprisingly, the event was a sell-out with a 850 strong audience packing the beautiful venue. Andrew Holgate of the Sunday Times presented Anne with the paper's prize for Literary Excellence. Anne seemed rather nervous at first, she looked like a cross between Katherine Hepburn and Sissy Spacek and her voice was rather quiet. However, as time went on, under masterful questioning by Peter Kemp, she visibly relaxed and was funny, self-deprecating and very honest. Her insights into how she worked were fascinating and even Bel who has not read any of her books ( "I'm thirty years too young yet," she said ) was genuinely captivated.
Nick Hornby was on the front row, as were several other authors, I get the impression she is a writer's writer. Questions were taken from the adoring audience, which included people from Russia, Ireland, France and a fellow Baltimore resident!
After a well-deserved standing ovation, the crush to get Anne to sign a book was immense. It was also very comical as the hapless stewards tried to shepherd several hundred people into a queue, with some being put where they did not wish to go ( i.e. at the back!). One man behind us lost his temper, " THIS IS SHAMBOLIC" he wailed, whilst another lady started bawling about the " UTTER INCOMPETENCY" of it all. I was in the midst of a middle-aged, middle-class riot, it was delicious and surely a plot straight out of Anne Tyler's novels. One of the stewards asked a man not to shout, " I AM NOT SHOUTING, VALERIE" he bellowed. This is now mine and Bel's new catch-phrase. Bel found this all hilarious and it certainly made the long wait go a little more quickly.
Only one book each could be signed ( "SO UNFAIR" according to a peuce-face lady who had at least eight hard backs with her) I had a copy of "Digging To America" which I was reading at the time. Bel told me I couldn't just get her to sign that as it was dog-eared , came from Oxfam and had £1.99 written on it. I conceded she had a point, so I slipped out of the queue to the Blackwells stall and bought her new book, "The Beginner's Goodbye", as I rejoined Bel, I could feel the looks of disapproval at my back and I waited to be harrangued by VERY ANGRY Anne Tyler fans. Luckily, I got away with it and was soon at her table. Bel got the Oxfam copy signed, then it was my turn, "Hello there, Ellen" she said ( she isn't psychic, we had to write our names on a Post It ) and signed my book. I was star-struck, " Thank you very much," I stammered and it was time to go. The steward at the door apologised for the wait. "It was worth it", I replied and it certainly was.

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