A report by Catherine Paula Han on the fourth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 7 March 2016: Meet the Authors—Gaynor Arnold and John Harding.
Always willing to shake up its format, BookTalk invited two authors to talk about their works at its latest event. One of the guests was Gaynor Arnold who discussed how her recent novel After Such Kindness (2012) engaged with the mythology surrounding Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell. The other featured speaker was John Harding who gave us a glimpse into the ways that his novel Florence and Giles (2010) took inspiration from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Giving us further insight into these two novels was Professor Ann Heilmann from Cardiff’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. Ann researches a literary genre commonly known as neo-Victorian fiction to which After Such Kindness and Florence and Giles belong. As Ann clarified, neo-Victorian works seek to explore, critique but also sustain contemporary culture’s continuing investment and interest in the Victorian period. To illustrate her talk, Ann showed a clip from Neil Burger’s film The Illusionist (2006) that set the scene for BookTalk attendees’ later discussion of the ways that neo-Victorian material uses the nineteenth-century as a mirror that reflects our current period back to us.
Once Ann’s introduction was complete, Gaynor and John read aloud selected passages from their works. Afterwards, Gaynor and John engaged in conversation with Ann on variety of subjects. Amongst other matters, Ann asked the two authors about their evolving relationship with their literary and historical sources. Additionally, they talked about the literary or historical ambiguities that inspired them to write and the ambiguities that remain within their own novels. To this end, Ann queried Gaynor and John about why their novels feature photography as tools of discovery for the reader (but not for the characters). In answer to this question, Gaynor mentioned that she was responding to the infamous pictures of Alice taken by Carroll whilst John wished to underscore Florence’s unreliability as a narrator. Lastly, Ann asked them about the ongoing cultural afterlives of their novels and their current writing projects.
For the rest of the evening, Gaynor and John took questions from the BookTalk attendees. Many of the questioners asked them to enlarge on the experience of writing a novel, particularly the process of creating and occasionally inhabiting the subjectivities of their characters. Along the way, Gaynor underscored the importance of her experiences in social work whilst John revealed that a good copy editor is an invaluable asset. As well as being queried about the practicalities of being novelist, Gaynor and John were asked to consider the ethics of their appropriation of the Victorian period and—in some cases—historical figures.
After the event wrapped up, Gaynor and John continued to engage with the many BookTalk attendees who queued up to have their copies of After Such Kindness and Florence and Giles autographed.