New Writers’ Evening, Foyles

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On Tuesday night we went to a talk at Foyles with two debut authors—Natasha Pulley (far right) and Vaseem Khan (middle). Natasha’s debut novel is already an international bestseller, described as a historical fantasy, called The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and Vaseem’s is the first in a series of detective novels set in Mumbai called The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. Although I have read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, I have yet to read anything in the ‘steampunk’ camp—historical science fiction in a Victorian setting, often with devices such steam-powered mechanisms. I have read a fair amount of crime, which is probably my second love after fantasy and science fiction. Both books sounded really intriguing and both authors came across as articulate, funny and brimming with enthusiasm. They had both travelled too, and this was a tenuous link between their two otherwise very different novels.

It always impresses me how much other people love stories, and the nuances of those stories: the characters, the plot twists, the little things that make you sing inside as you write them. It also interests me the reasons why people write. What drives us to write down these stories of people and places inside our heads? I remember Lagerkrantz (author of The Girl in the Spider’s Web) saying that he purposefully wrote characters very different from himself, so that writing wasn’t therapy, he disliked writing as therapy. So perhaps for him, the appeal of writing was to experience something different to his own life. For me, I think both reading and writing are about experiencing lives that are more extreme, bolder, more magical, than my own, getting to be people other than myself, to exist in exciting stories, there on the page. Is it therapy? Maybe it is for everyone, even if they don’t consciously know it. You explore issues or personalities that interest you, you push it and prod it from all sides as the plot unravels. You think you begin to understand what made you write it, and then you get to the end and realise you’ve no idea why you wrote it, where the story came from, only that you needed to tell it.

Travel seemed a big influence on both Natasha and Vaseem. Vaseem had lived in India for ten years and Natasha had lived in Japan for 18 months. These experiences had seeped into their stories. I found this intriguing—Natasha’s book is steampunk science fiction set in London and I was interested in how the Japanese elements to her story fitted in it. I must admit to be intrigued by the clockwork octopus called Catsu too. Vaseem had so many tales of India and it was clear that the detective novel was as much about solving a mystery as it was about India—this also sold the book to me, because he’s humour at describing how staking out a building just wouldn’t work in India was so funny. Apparently, you could not sit in a car in a Mumbai street (which are always crowded) without people talking to you, street sellers trying to sell you something, beggars asking for money, etc.

Both stories also had a creature as an important character; in Natasha’s this was the clockwork octopus and in Vaseem’s it was a baby elephant. So many books I have read have animals in, particularly the fantasy books I’ve read. I love it when there are dragons, wolves, lions, and I love it when they are intelligent and communicate with the protagonist. They bring a different perspective to the story that is often really interesting. So I’m interested in how these creatures fit into these two novels.

Book covers. The phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is such a useless, redundant phrase, I’m not sure why we still use it. Because of course, we all do judge a book by its cover and the publishers and marketers know this. I love book covers, they are a work of art in themselves and I think some of them are so beautiful. Some of them also do something amazing—after reading the book, I realise that the cover artists have managed to capture the soul of the book so perfectly. I love beautiful lettering, textured paper, silhouettes and stylised characters, magical symbols and weapons. Yes, I do own a Kindle, but not every book can be read on a screen, some books need to be held, need to sit beautifully on the bedside or on the shelf, some books need physical pages to be turned. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street has a beautiful cover, gold and green clockwork on black, revealing a timepiece in a cutout that sits within a beautiful map on the inside. I can’t wait to turn to that first page and begin.

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