21 May 2012

Troubled Girls Seduced by Logic

Day Two of the Festival (for me) started early and finished late. I got to the venue half an hour early and went straight to the queue for Girl Trouble, the first talk I was attending, partly because I wanted to get into the actual room before it filled up, instead of watching/listening from the Viewing Lounge, and because I was meeting up with three of my lovely writing buddies: Monique McDonell and Angella Whitton (pictured with me above) and Pamela Cook (who I sadly didn't get a pic of cos she arrived just as we started filing into the room).

The writers speaking about women's fiction in the Girl Trouble panel were: Toni Jordan, author of Addition, a tragi-comic romance about a woman with OCD, and Fall Girl, a rom-com in which the lovers are caught up in a tangled web of lies; and Kathy Lette, author of many popular novels, from Puberty Blues, co-written with Gabrielle Carey in the 1970s when they were in their teens, through Foetal Attraction, Mad Cows, and How to Kill Your Husband, to her latest novel, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, about a woman and her autistic son. They spoke with author and radio & television presenter, Gretel Killeen.

It was a vibrant, funny session, with much good-humoured banter between the panellists, and lots of laughter in the room (the audience was almost all female, and I'd guess the average age was late 40s/early 50s). One comment I saw on twitter was that it seemed "very 20 years ago", and it did seem to me that many of Kathy Lette's very funny, polished one-liners were the flip-side of old-fashioned sexist "take my mother-in-law" stand-up jokes. there was some serious discussion of Toni's and Kathy's novels, and of the state of women's fiction generally, as well as the jokes from Kathy, my favourites of which were: "Women are each other's human Wonderbras, uplifting, supporting and bringing each other together" and (regarding the expectation that women should rip out or shave off all body hair) "I like my pubic hair; it's like a little pet in my pants".

Several days and many discussions later, I'm relying on my live tweets for the points that struck me most at the time.

Toni Jordan: the merging of the writer's mind and each reader's mind creates a new book with each reading.

Gretel Killeen: rom-coms have been with us since Shakespeare wrote Beatrice and Benedick.

Toni Jordan on writing erotic scenes: you know it's working if you find it arousing yourself

In response to a question about Stephenie Meyer's novel Twilight, Toni said bad books can be "gateway books", introducing non-readers to the joy of fiction and leading them to better books. And while avid readers may find The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, and other similar best-sellers to be cliched in their language, characters and plots, to people who don't read much fiction, it's all new.

After a coffee/hot chocolate with Monique, Angella and Pam, I dashed off to hear science writers Dava Sobel and Robyn Arianrhod talking with Ashley Hay about their latest non-fiction books, A More Perfect Heaven (Sobel) and Seduced by Logic (Arianrhod), in a panel called That Vision Thing. As Ashley Hay said, imagination and creativity underpin scientific research and discovery, and Sobel and Arianrhod each bring their scientist's combination of creative imagination and desire for verifiable facts to their stories of Nicholas Copernicus and his revolutionary understanding of Earth's place in the cosmos, and of Émilie du Châtelet in 18th century France and Mary Somerville in 19th century Scotland, who learnt Newtonian mathematics and physics and popularised Isaac Newton's theories.

My intention to Not Buy Books was washed away by the wonderful details Robyn described of Émilie's and Mary's lives: their struggles to learn and share knowledge, their triumphs, their families and friends. So I now have autographed copies of Dava Sobel's The Planets and Robyn Arianrhod's Seduced by Logic (oh! I guess I was seduced by the story of two women who were seduced by logic), and had a nice chat with Robyn about Mary Somerville, and Somerville College, Oxford, which was named after Mary, and was where my mum studied.

some random tidbits from the talk:

as a chld, Mary Somerville saw whales and dolphins swimming in the Firth of Forth

Mary's father was an admiral in the Royal Navy. when he returned home from a long absence and found Mary had taught herself Newtonian mathematics he forbade her to study any more as it was well known, by medical professionals and the general public, that women's brains were too fragile to withstand intellectual study and Mary might "end up in a straitjacket".

French playwright Voltaire, who was Émilie du Châtelet's lover, was a huge fan of Newton and tried to replicate his experiments

as lovers of knowledge discovered more about the world they had to develop the language to describe it in detail. imagine explaining an experiment to test the properties of heat and light at a time & place - 18th century France - where many people would simply use the word "fire" to describe both light and heat.

Robyn had a love of mathematics and science, particularly physics, while in school, but struggled against the expectation, still strong in the mid-late 20th century, that girls & women weren't suited to studying science or maths. when she did succeed in starting a university degree in science, she was disenchanted by both the academic approach and the connections between science and weapons, science and pollution.
she left uni, left the city, and lived "off the grid", but was drawn back by her love of physics and maths to studying Einstein's Theory of General Relativity in her bush home, by candlelight.

I was planning to include the third talk I went to that day in this blog post, but it's late, I'm tired, and the talk was dense, rich, intense, and way too much to post about right now - so I'll do that tomorrow.

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