Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference Oxford 2016 Part 3: Awards, Ears and Eating

Vanessa Lafaye and Ian Skillicorn
The first event of Saturday afternoon was Conference Oxford 2016 Short Story Award. This was so exciting because I’d been one of the judges, along with Deborah Swift and Ouida Taafe, who chose the longlist – and all twelve stories on that list were of an incredibly high standard. We didn’t envy judge Ian Skillicorn the task of selecting the top stories from the shortlist of six, but here they are and many congratulations to the writers! Third equal prize went to Richard Buxton for ‘Disunion’ and Anna Belfrage for ‘The Sharing of a Husband’. Second place went to Jeffrey Manton for ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ and the deserving winner was Vanessa Lafaye for ‘Fire on the Water’.

Lucienne Boyce
The award ceremony passed so speedily and I was so concerned to give out certificates and congratulations that I didn’t take many photos! The story award was followed by the HNS Indie Award 2016 – I was delighted to see Lucienne Boyce win with Bloody Bones jointly with Barbara Sjoholm for Fossil Island. The MM Bennetts Award 2016 went to Stuart Blackburn for Into the Hidden Valley.

Jo Baker, Suzannah Dunn, Charlotte Betts,
Deborah Swift
I then attended a panel discussion, Ears at the Door, looking at how novelists can use servants’ points of view in their fiction, with Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, Charlotte Betts, author of The House in Quill Court and Suzannah Dunn, whose most recent novel is The Lady of Misrule, chaired by Deborah Swift. 

In their discussion they talked of the advantages of using servants – sometimes servants could go to places their mistresses couldn’t and they could be privy to knowledge or make independent observations. This new point of view could be enlightening: Jo Baker referred to the servants in Jane Austen’s novels as ‘the ghosts in the texts’. Suzannah Dunn’s agent had said to her ‘Don’t just tell us what we already know’ so a servant’s perspective could cast a new light on things. She said that the servant figures need to be more than just observers, though: ‘they have to have their own story’. Jo Baker agreed – and this is the point of Longbourn where the servants’ stories weave in and out of the action of Pride and Prejudice – or is it the other way about? Charlotte Betts pointed out that it can be difficult to have a maid or social inferior at ‘the right place at the right time’, which led to a discussion of the separation of employer and servants in the rigid hierarchies of past centuries. Considering the kind of language to employ, Jo said it helped to read documents never originally intended for publication, such as Jane Austen’s letters and that she aimed for a kind of ‘demotic’ style. 

Suzannah Dunn
The session ended with a communal shaking of heads over inappropriate ‘frilly frocks’ on covers. This struck a chord with me because I’d recently read Tracy Chevalier’s novel At the Edge of the Orchard in hardback, the (admittedly lovely) cover of which featured a swampy woodland (yup), an apple (yup) and someone holding an axe (yup – though not of primary importance, I felt) but the person holding said axe was a young lady wearing a white dress, clearly to make us think a young woman is at the heart of this story (nope).

Manda Scott, Kate Williams and Margaret George
I was unable to attend any of the next panel discussions as I was on front of house duty, but was there for a conversation about Faith and Morality in Historical Fiction and Biography, chaired by Manda Scott and featuring Kate Williams and Margaret George. And wouldn’t you know it, much of the discussion was about that line between what was true of the time and the degree to which one can invent or stretch things to satisfy readers’ demands. Margaret George said ‘You might have to step on some toes, offend some readers’. In addition, Margaret said, it can ‘turn off readers to portray the mindset and discourse of centuries where religion was permeating everything’. Kate Williams said we often don’t perceive how ‘radical’ it was for characters to ‘break convention’, referring to Jane Austen’s writing and how to us that doesn’t seem all that startling an activity for a young woman to pursue but it was back then. She mentioned that one of the criticisms levelled at Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is that the main character wanders about Amsterdam quite a lot, unescorted – but that ‘we need some licence’ as storytellers. Manda pointed out that there is a dividing line and that if you give your characters overly ‘modern sensibilities … it rings false’, so, once again, our question as HF writers is whether ‘we do have a duty’ to represent the past accurately. Kate said we need to ‘try to give the truth of the characters’ and that ‘In fiction you have to come down on one side’.

My favourite quote of the day came from Margaret George: Emperor ‘Nero has had a terrible press because of the Christians’. Shucks, those pesky cults …

And so, to the Gala Dinner, held at St Anne’s College. Lovely food and the buzz of chat, a glorious Costume Pageant and an inspiring after-dinner speech by Christopher Gortner. Finally, some extraordinary readings by Joanna Courtney, Gillian Bagwell and CC Humphreys – the last of these so powerful and brilliantly read that I made sure next day to buy the book in question, Fire.

Here are some more photos – my next blogpost will be about the Sunday sessions.

The longlisted short story writers waiting for the result!
Jo Baker
Lovely photo of writer friends David Penny and Alison Morton
(Alison was on the shortlist for the Indie Award)

Details of the new season of my Fictionfire workshops, a day course and a retreat can be found here, and you can sign up for my Fictionfire newsletter - articles, recommended reads and resources, competitions and more.

An Oxford Vengeance, my collection of short stories including 'Salt', which won the Conference London 2014 Award, is available to buy on Amazon here and here.

Part 1 of these posts on the 2016 HNS conference is here and Part 2 is here.


Anita Chapman said...

Another great post, Lorna, and lovely photos!

Richard Buxton said...

Fun post, Lorna. Thanks to everyone who helped with the competitions.