From the Writer's Yurt: Sarah Laing goes to the Edinburgh Book Festival

Sarah Laing, author of Mansfield and Me, was one of three writers to represent Aotearoa at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here's her week of winklepickers, Zadie Smith, comic books, cowboy boots and more in the bonnie city.

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Sarah Laing, author of Mansfield and Me, was one of four writers to represent Aotearoa at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here's her week of bagpipes, Zadie Smith, comic books, cowboy boots and more in the bonnie city.

Monday 14 August

I walk down South Clerk Street towards Forbidden Planet Comics where Joe, the chair of my festival panel, works. Pushing past Pop! toys and superhero comics, I am reminded that my kind of books are in the long tail of the comics business. Someone fetches Joe from the basement where he reviews comics and science fiction, Old Town’s ghosts spell-checking over his shoulder, and he emerges pale-skinned and pirate-scarfed. He tells me his theories about the great Scottish diaspora, and waiting for the day when a kilt shop opens on Mars. He suggests we meet for a drink in the Writer’s Yurt before our event.

I’m working my way towards Arthur’s Seat, the main peak of a group of hills in Edinburgh, but I haven’t got my bearings yet. I find myself on the wrong side of the castle, and Holyrood Park is 30 minutes away. I stop at a boutique – Godiva – and try on a Hera Lindsay Bird yellow raincoat with Paddington Bear duffel coat fastenings, and a tartan dress, which looks weird with my sneakers, so I put on some cowboy boots instead. I come out with the cowboy boots and the raincoat, not realising until later that the boots are a size too big. Am I playing a role? I definitely have imposter syndrome.

Tuesday 15 August

I’ve become feverish with the urge to shop for vintage clothes. My host tells me Armstrong’s is good and filled with Scottish knits and retro frocks. Emerging with two new tops, I walk to Wellington’s for coffee, a Twitter recommendation. They serve flat whites – the Australasians have done a good job at reverse colonisation – and I order mine alongside a scone with jam and clotted cream.

The scone sitting heavily in my stomach, I try again for Arthur’s Seat, this time following Google’s blue GPS pebble. It’s steep but I come from a hilltop myself. I marvel at all the ripe blackberries, given how many tourists climb Radical Road. The higher I get, the more the wind gusts and I worry I might be blown off. My host, a park ranger, tells me that her colleagues who look after Arthur’s Seat double as suicide watch and are trained in abseiling.

There’s a bagpiper up there, playing the standards... I imagine a bristling white-bearded man, knees souffléeing over the top of his kilt hose.

There’s a bagpiper up there, playing the standards, and as I scramble around tourists having a beer stop, I imagine a bristling white-bearded man, capillaries exploding with effort, knees souffléeing over the top of his kilt hose. Instead I find a lanky brunette. He’s taking a breather by the time I’m at the top and I’m sorry – the bagpipes seem poignant up here, not the worst instrument ever invented, particularly en masse in the vacated hockey fields of my childhood. Certainly not a push-off-Arthur’s-Seat-able offence. The toy town beneath me is as distant as my Laing great-great grandparents, who married somewhere down there in 1860.

I go to my first Writer’s Festival event tonight: David Bishop (a New Zealander with checkerboard winklepickers) and Steve McManus talk about 2000AD, the famous British sci-fi comics magazine that commissioned scripts from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I am one of the few women in the audience, and I feel ashamed to have not read much from 2000AD, but that’s hardly surprising given their target audience were boys and the men they grew into.

Wednesday 16 August

It turns out Linda Grant’s at 10.30, not 1.30 like I’d misread. I panic at the thought of getting from the Meadows to Charlotte Square in time, and my host offers me her bicycle. She tells me to go carefully on it – although Scottish drivers are less likely to knock you off than their New Zealand counterparts, the bike is delicate, bought off a widower whose wife had last ridden it in the 80s. It’s liable to spasm between the cobblestones.

I carry it four floors down the tenement stairs, lights flickering against the peach walls, and set off. I get to Charlotte Square just in time. I nip into the Writer’s Yurt to take advantage of the free coffee and croissants before realising that I’m not allowed to bring them into the venue, but the gatekeepers make an exception for me. “You’re special,” they say. “You’re a writer.” I bask in this as they find me a plastic hood for my coffee, and promise to smuggle them out croissants next time.

It’s exciting to hear Linda Grant in the flesh – I follow her on Twitter, and have read her novels ever since she won the Orange Prize for When We Lived in Modern Times. I’ve resolved not to buy books off everyone I hear speak, due to my baggage restrictions, but she reads a passage from The Dark Circle and I’m intrigued. It’s another story of the English Jewish experience, this time set in a TB sanatorium, familiar territory after my Katherine Mansfield research.

Linda says that Miriam Lynskey is her favourite character yet – vivacious, working class, done up in bright lipstick and bold clothing in contrast to the stark white sanatorium filled with insipid middle-classers. I line up after her session, eager to tell her that Katherine Mansfield couldn’t stand sanatoriums, where they parked you on the veranda as an antechamber to the afterlife. In front of me, a man cradles all of her novels, and we compare favourites. He’s too scared to talk to her. When it’s my turn she knows about Katherine Mansfield already, and English-writersplains Gurdjieff’s Institute for Harmonious Living. What did I expect? That she would ask for my name, want a copy of my book? That our relationship could be one of equals?

Thursday 17 August

Everywhere there are men in kilts. I had to wear one in high school, so it’s strange to see them willingly donned at the cash machine, in the supermarket salad bar, around the book festival. I have tickets for Siri Hustvedt today – she’s another one of my author crushes. I have been fascinated by her and her husband Paul Auster, and I follow her daughter, Sophie, on Twitter, to complete my stalkerish tryptic. For this reason, when I see her in the yurt, I don’t go and say hi to her. It would feel too weird.

Courtney Sina Meredith is in there too, having just flown in with Hera Lindsay Bird. They’re only here for a few days, on their way to the Queensland Poetry Festival. Courtney’s jet lag is still coming in woozy waves – this is her first outing. Tonight we’re presenting our work at the NZ at Edinburgh party. We go sit in the sunshine to recalibrate her circadian rhythms and chat about her time in Iowa. There’ll be rain soon enough.

Stunningly intelligent, Siri talks about her fascination with neurology, and how she came to be teaching in psychiatry at Cornell. Her expertise is a result of novel research gone ballistic – she recommends bypassing pop science and heading straight to the textbooks, for anyone who wants to emulate her. She diagnoses Trump as a psychopath, a narcissist, a man with a personality disorder, and the audience cheers.

I go home and try on my charity shop scores. The cowboy boots are enormous. Had my feet splayed into flippers after all that street pounding? I wear my gold shoes instead. I read my speech through once more – I prepped a slideshow before I left. My speech is about gorse and blackberry, the impacts of colonisation, and how it’s now possible to be a writer in New Zealand when it felt impossible during Katherine Mansfield’s time.

Hera observes that the red room we’re about to perform in seems like a set from Twin Peaks. 

Hera observes that the red room we’re about to perform in seems like a set from Twin Peaks. I feel jealous of the poets, who can just read their work. But my speech does the trick. Nick Barley, the Edinburgh Book Festival director responds to it afterwards, acknowledging Britain’s culpability in the effects of colonisation. Rachael King is the gracious mistress of ceremonies, Courtney wows with her Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, and Hera makes everybody want to re-watch Friends to see if Monica was really that bad.

Friday 18 August

My festival-sponsored digs are the chicest I’ve stayed in for a while. The staff wear waistcoats and hover near the artisanal gin, and everything is painted pale green, with ceramic rabbits, cacti and gold polygonal coffee tables. Inside my room I find a brown paper bag of croissants, but I can’t figure out the dual function oven and I zap them into novelty rubber chickens. 

Paul Auster isn’t as good as Siri. He’s waffly, too used to people hanging off his every word. I know I like his writing but find it difficult to pay attention to his reading. Earlier, in the yurt, I spotted him holding court with Siri. They looked like they were having the best conversation, and I almost insinuated myself. I decide not to buy his book – I am the new, cooler, less fan-girly Sarah now – and head back to my hotel room, where I try to fall asleep, half thinking that I can see a ghost in a Liberty print suit at the end of my bed.

Saturday 19 August

I go see a comics event about quantum physics and the room is packed, more than I’ve ever seen for a comics event at a writer’s festival. The Glaswegian mathematician to my left tells me he doesn’t believe quantum physics can be distilled into comics. He complains about the over-simplification of maths education, how the smart students are being cheated. Mathieu Burniat, the artist, draws virtuosically on his iPad, as physicist Thibault Damour explains the basic principles. I break my rule again and line up for the book signing. Introducing myself as a fellow cartoonist, I apologise to Mathieu for being such a shabby drawer. “Every book demands its own visual language,” he says, rewarding me with a beautiful illustration.

Back in the Writer's Yurt, I see Zadie Smith, stylish in a head wrap, denim jacket, a full skirt and Chelsea boots. I silent-squee and go pour myself a wine. Simon Callow’s back is to me, only I don’t know that until he turns and knocks my elbow. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” he says, proffering a napkin, and then I’m in a scene from Four Weddings in a Funeral, only he’s not wearing a kilt.

Zadie is relaxed and lucid, and her chair, dressed like an ageing Morrissey fan, doesn’t even need notes. It’s the apotheosis of interviews. She confesses to being ruled more by her intellect than by her heart, and insists that her novels are about class. She relates an anecdote in which she stood in line behind two black women in NYC, who were talking about a nearby baby on an iPad. “Can you believe that?” one asked the other. Zadie silently tut-tutted along, assuming they were disapproving of screen time for the under-twos. “How much do those things cost? I wouldn’t give something so valuable to a baby,” said the other.

Zadie is relaxed and lucid, and her chair, dressed like an ageing Morrissey fan, doesn’t even need notes. 

I go see Courtney next – she’s on a feminist panel with Gabriela, the Argentinian, and Thordis Elva, an Icelandic writer who confronted her rapist and has now written a book with him on forgiveness. It’s chaired by journalist Laurie Penny. They are an odd mix but the audience loves them – it’s an explicitly patriarchy-smashing session. Courtney, sparkling in her gold bomber jacket, tells us how she’s writing for her brown sisters, giving us a glimpse of her childhood in living rooms, jamming with Pauly Fuemana and Black Grace.

Later, Rachael, Courtney and I assemble at the Spiegeltent – Hera’s performing with a bunch of comedian poets. They’re going for the laughs, and I’m taken by Vanessa Kisuule who debates whether or not to shave her arsehole for a date. Hera excuses her deadpan face as a New Zealand trait, and makes people cackle at her sex similes. I revel in how niche this evening is, how there’s an infrastructure that accommodates all facets of poetry.

Sunday 20 August

Today is my big day, two events to perform at. I take things easy – not so much traipsing about, pretending I’m messaging, not checking Google maps. I go for a last visit to Wellington Coffee, and have my last Scottish flat white. I prepare for my Katherine Mansfield workshop, a sold-out event, by practice-reading ‘Bliss.’

The room is filled with mainly older people, all of whom profess a love of Mansfield. We go around the circle – there are a few with New Zealand connections, but most of them encountered her in the British education system. We read a journal entry about her last walk about the garden with her brother, and then talk about the repercussions of diaries being published, and whether it is ethical or necessary for the continued interest in a writer after their death. The audience compliments me for my reading, and my attempt to do different accents. I’m not sure if any of them will buy my book – they’re here for Mansfield, not me.

I have a ticket to see Ali Smith and I desperately want to go... To Ali or not to Ali?

I have a ticket to see Ali Smith and I desperately want to go but I also know that I am meant to be meeting my fellow panellist and chair in the yurt. To Ali or not to Ali… she will never come to New Zealand… she is a genius… do I need to see her beyond the page or am I just fetishizing her, buying into this cult of personality that propels book festivals? I tell myself that I can probably listen to the Guardian podcast, and that it is more important to make meaningful relationships with UK comics people.

I see Joe, his pirate headscarf, notebook in hand. Hannah Berry hasn’t turned up yet. Maybe she caught the wrong bus. We’re both anxious about Hannah’s whereabouts, but there she is, wearing a black and white shirt and a yellow tie. She’s warm and funny. A tech person comes to put on our Madonna headsets and we walk over the road to the Bosco Theatre, a folksy circus tent first built in 1909.

I am disappointed to see that it’s not a full house, but there’s Rachael sitting up the front. I came all this way, I think. This is my moment and yet there are so many gaps in the audience. The conversation kicks off with a reading, and I act out my comic with dog growls and a DH Lawrence accent. We talk about how Hannah’s book – about a manufactured pop star, manipulated for political ends – started off as a satire but began to very much resemble life in our Trump world. We discuss how labour intensive the business of comics making is, and how Hannah isn’t willing to spend another three years chained to her drawing table for limited rewards. We share anecdotes about our candle-lighting Catholic mothers, wondering if guilt is what spurs us on.

Afterwards, people line up in the signing queue. I am relieved – it was worth coming all this way. I meet a French psychiatrist, a woman studying graphic novel scripting at university, and a writer I mentored in Auckland. I draw pictures quickly, and Hannah draws hers painstakingly. Again, I feel imposterish, like I’m not a proper cartoonist. I meet Grace Wilson, a woman whose book I bought and loved, and she tells me that she never meant to write a graphic novel, but her Saint Martin’s thesis supervisor insisted she draw comics, and then introduced her to the publisher at Jonathan Cape, who gave her a book deal. Despite my assertions that you can make it from New Zealand, there is still literary value in moving to London.

We head back to the yurt to consume more wine, whisky and cheese. I meet Kate Charlesworth, who illustrated Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette and who is now writing a gay liberation history, set against the story of her coming out in the early 70s. It’s going to be called Sensible Shoes. We’re kicked out of the yurt because it’s 10pm, so we make our way to the Spiegeltent. There we drink more whisky and talk comics before we are invaded by a band of queer poets.

I feel little bit drunk and happy to be hanging out with a bunch of people who have the same compulsions as me – to nerd out over comics and books; to want to stay up all night talking. Rachael and I impress them with the interconnectedness of New Zealand, and they are beside themselves when they discover Flight of the Concords played at Rachael’s wedding. But I have to drag myself away – my flight goes at 9am the next morning, and I have a 6.30am bus to catch. We embrace, promising to follow each other on Twitter, and I drag myself back to my hotel room. 

It turns out, after a 24-hour flight via Abu Dhabi and Brisbane, that my cowboy boots are a perfect fit.

Feature Image: Painting in the Edinburgh Portrait Gallery.