Ali Smith visits Shropshire Reading Group
The Independent Bookseller of the Year Wenlock Books in Shropshire were the lucky recipients of a visit by Ali Smith as part of the Penguin/Orange Reading Group prize.
The evening with Ali Smith was my first 'meet the author' experience. I feared that it would involve a solemn academic discussion, deconstructing her writing until the pleasure of reading her works would be lost. I was wrong.
Ali Smith's warmth and expressed preference for informality started a lively question and answer session: Anna and the audience asking wide-ranging and interesting questions. The answers were thoughtful and considered and had no ring of well-practised, routine responses.
We heard about Ali's love of words for their power and beauty, the motivations and mechanics of her writing, her businesslike approach to work and some of her writing 'heroes'. She described how she approaches the process of writing. She doesn't start with any clear idea of where the book is going to go nor even necessarily whether it is going to be a novel or a short story. Her starting point is character, and from their development and continuous, rigorous editing, the story and plot emerge. Everything she writes helps her with this development even though much of it may not be used. Each edit gives her direction as to where she goes next. Ali is keen to encourage others to write, perhaps calling on her previous experience as a lecturer in Cambridge, not necessarily to attempt a novel but to write about the small things in life purely for enjoyment and satisfaction.
She then read the prologue of her novel The Accidental, continuing by request into the first chapter. It was fascinating to see how the power of reading aloud clarified the character and renewed interest in the story, particularly for a fellow participant who had initially found it rather inaccessible. This led to discussion about whether readers needed to find 'a voice' for a character to properly engage with them.
We moved on to discussion of short stories, a loved genre for Ali, whose latest collection has just been published. Ali finished the more formal part of the evening by reading one of her stories Writ, written for the 2006 Oundle Literary Festival. The story is the complex and engaging narration of a mother's experiences reflected through what she anticipates and fears for her fourteen year old daughter.
During coffee, Ali wandered around talking to smaller groups and willingly signing books with personalised messages. This gave people the chance for further individual discussion. She was in no hurry to get away but all good things have to come to an end. She had been very generous with her time, as were our hosts Clare, Richard and Harriet, who were too kind to throw us out.
By the end of the evening I had the clear impression that everyone had really enjoyed meeting Ali and that she, in turn, had enjoyed meeting us!
Written by Diane Jones, with additional input from Lorna Taylor.