Festival finale: Louisa Young interviewed by Patrick Gale

Jay Armstrong and Sarah Purnell respond to the festival’s final event, in which Patrick Gale talked to Louisa Young. Here Jay reports on the session, and Sarah responds to its content.

It is the last session of the North Cornwall Book Festival. Patrick Gale and Louisa Young meet to talk about her Costa nominated novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, set at the time of the First World War. Young’s extraordinary research into early maxillofacial surgery was sparked by a surprising link to her grandmother, a sculptor, who helped make the casts from which faces were surgically reconstructed.

Describing techniques that were as innovative as they were crude, we were given an insight into the treatment of soldiers wounded in trench warfare. Young talked passionately about how she used character to explore how we the reader would react to disfigurement, trauma and loss. We were at once fascinated and appalled by what these traumatised young men went through; it was a timely reminder in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday.

There are some interesting similarities between Gale’s upcoming new novel A Place Called Winter and My Dear I Wanted To Tell You in terms of the weaving of family history into the story, and the attempts of characters to rescue each other in trying circumstances.

My Dear is the first of two published books – its sequel is The Heroes’ Welcome – and Young is currently writing the third in the series. She explained that the hero’s coming of age coincides with the outbreak of the Second World War: it promises to be another heartrending portrayal of the impact of war on both on those who fought and those who were left with the enduring trauma of conflict.

Sarah Purnell writes

As a writer, I am forever fascinated by another writer’s process. Or, at least, hearing them answer the question: where does it come from?

And what is it? The characters. The plot. The setting. The inspiration.

Louisa Young’s current series of novels is historical fiction, and it’s clear that she has done her research, giving us a potted history of maxillofacial surgery. It’s fascinating. And I think the story of her grandmother being involved in the actual workings of the early practice of it shows a passionate personal connection, but also that we all seem to have a story-granny.

There’s usually that one person in a family that has a spectacular story to tell. Something that sounds like it must be fiction, but it isn’t. It is, however, a great point of inspiration.

It’s not an instant process. Young reminds us that stories need more than one idea, and they need to be shelved inside of our minds and carried around to grow. I suppose, rather crudely, it’s like a birthing.

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