Writing Secrets from 5 Best-Selling Authors

This year’s Cambridge Literary Festival, the winter edition, had an incredible line-up, bringing together some of the most well-known authors in the world — and us bookworms on the edge of our seats.

Disclaimer: I received a free pass for the Festival, in exchange for some promotion around the event. This piece is written of my own accord, due to the sheer enthusiasm I had for the Festival and the authors in the line-up.

The Festival ran last week, with us participants having a chance to watch it back a week later, and catch up on all of the events.

I was so excited to spot Carmen Maria Machado and Leïla Slimani, two of my favourite authors, in the line-up, but other notable names like Claudia Rankine and Merlin Sheldrake also piqued my interest straight away.

Aside from their fascinating interview portions presenting their books, the most astonishing takeaways from the Festival were what the authors shared about their writing process and inspiration.

Here’s a selection of some of the most fascinating writing secrets from the line-up of this winter’s Cambridge Literary Festival.

Isabel Waidner: Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2021

Book: Sterling Karat Gold

From the publisher:

“Sterling is arrested one morning without having done anything wrong. Plunged into a terrifying and nonsensical world, Sterling — with the help of their three best friends — must defy bullfighters, football players and spaceships in order to exonerate themselves and to hold the powers that be to account.

Sterling Karat Gold is Kafka’s ​The Trial written for the era of gaslighting — a surreal inquiry into the real effects of state violence on gender-nonconforming, working-class and black bodies.”

Writing secrets

“I’m not the sort of writer who has an idea and then sits down and develops the book. I write and then ideas happen. Usually more than one. One aspect of my writing is that a lot is happening in a short space of time. And I don’t plan that and then execute.” 

The most jarring part of Isabel Waidner’s event was by far her description of her writing process and how she gets ideas from random situations. At one point, she said she had been writing her winning book for a while and something wasn’t working. 

It wasn’t until she found a random image of an extravagant outfit, mixing elements of a bull-fighter and a footballer’s outfit, that she became inspired to build her main character.

Carmen Maria Machado: Winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize 2021

Book: In the Dream House

From the publisher

“​In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. 

The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.”

Writing secrets

“I have always been interested in experimental non-fiction: non-fiction that has all these gestures in it that use speculative elements and genres to unpack something very true at its core. I wanted to push it as far as possible because when I was writing the memoir, at first it wasn’t good. It felt dreadful. 

Once I began thinking about this book in terms of these gestures and speculative elements, suddenly the book unlocked itself in this curious way.”

Carmen Maria Machado uses pop culture, folklore, myths and metaphors to set her memoir in context and tell a wider story, revealing the harrowing lack of “archives” on queer domestic abuse.

For a more detailed review of In the Dream House and the writing lessons it teaches us, check out the articles below.

View at Medium.com

Julian Sancton

Book: Madhouse at the End of the Earth

From the publisher:

“The harrowing, survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly wrong, with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter

August 1897: The ​Belgica set sail, eager to become the first scientific expedition to reach the white wilderness of the South Pole. But the ship soon became stuck fast in the ice of the Bellinghausen sea, condemning the ship’s crew to overwintering in Antarctica and months of endless polar night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness, their minds ravaged by the sound of dozens of rats teeming in the hold, they descended into madness.”

Writing secrets

“I travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula. I wanted to experience it for myself, I didn’t want to simply rely on the diaries.”

Julian Sancton’s writing secret is a straightforward, yet incredibly important one: research. To bring his book to life, he pieced together the entire Belgika expedition, through thorough digging of information and first-hand accounts of the trip. Nothing else of note had been written about it before he stepped in.

He found additional diaries from crew members no one else had discovered before. He talked to the captain’s great-great-grandson, who still had full records of the expedition. And, in an ultimate act of understanding his characters and plot, he traveled to the South Pole to see it for himself.

Leïla Slimani

Book: The Country of Others

From the publisher:

“1944. After the Liberation, Mathilde leaves France to join her husband in Morocco.

But life here is unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman. Her life is now that of a farmer’s wife — with all the sacrifices and vexations that brings. Suffocated by the heat, by her loneliness on the farm and by the mistrust she inspires as a foreigner, Mathilde grows increasingly restless.

As Morocco’s struggle for independence intensifies, Mathilde and her husband find themselves caught in the crossfire.”

Writing secrets

“Literature can bring us more nuance, more complexity, and also, very importantly, it can help us look at the past in a more serene way. Not with the idea of judging, or hating, or revenge, just trying to understand what happened.”

Leïla Slimani takes inspiration from her family and her own struggles with questions of identity, cross-identity, and the place of women in history. The stories of her own grandmothers, and even herself, are transposed in her latest novel, giving us a fresh and candid account of the cross-nationalities that history created through Morocco, France and Germany after the War.

Claudia Rankine

Book: Just Us

From the publisher:

“Taking the study of whiteness and white supremacy as a guiding light, Claudia Rankine explores a series of real encounters with friends and strangers — each disrupting the false comfort of spaces where our public and private lives intersect, like the airport, the theatre, the dinner party and the voting booth — and urges us to enter into the conversations which could offer the only humane pathways through this moment of division.

Just Us is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together, and to breach the silence, guilt and violence that surround whiteness. Brilliantly arranging essays, images and poems along with the voices and rebuttals of others, it counterpoints Rankine’s own text with facing-page notes and commentary, and closes with a bravura study of women confronting the political and cultural implications of dyeing their hair blonde.”

Writing secrets

“Words like ‘diversity’, for example, all those kinds of words that are thrown at people of colour in order to reposition them in the order of things. In Just Us, I am very interested in how any moment can be rerouted by the use of words, by white people, consciously. And those words need to be shown for what they are.”

Claudia Rankine is committed to recreating the language surrounding texts by people of colour and how they are marketed, or promoted. Her creative writing style and the layout of her latest book, alternating between poems and strong imagery, places situations, concepts and, above all, language, under a magnifying glass, making us question everything we associate with race.

Future Events

Susanna Clark is the guest for the Cambridge Literary Festival December online book club. She will be talking about Piranesi. You can purchase a book club pass for £6. Sign up here.

The Spring festival is scheduled for the 21st-24th April 2022 with hopes that it will be a mix of in-person and online events. The line-up will be announced soon. Keep an eye on the Festival’s website to spot when bookings will open.

Published by Eliza Lita

Founder and editor-in-chief: Coffee Time Reviews. Freelance writer and Higher Ed comms person.

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