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Bucks Fizz and canapés were the prologue to the very entertaining Picador Panel evening in St Anne’s, on 16 March, as fiction fans enjoyed readings and conversation with authors David Whiteside, Emily St John Mandel and Sarah Butler in the Pavilion Café, Ashton Gardens.

Pan Macmillan publicist Sam Meade enthusiastically hosted the event, organised by the owners of the award-winning bookshop, Storytellers Inc.

Sarah Butler described her inspiration for her second novel, Before the Fire: “I was angered by the media’s portrayal of young people during the riots of summer 2011,” she said. “Everyone has a story and a history, and I explore the events of that summer through an individual’s point of view, rather than a sweeping generalisation about young people.”

Her book is a brilliant and compassionate story which centres on a teenage boy’s journey into manhood and she admitted it was sometimes challenging to see through the eyes of her main character, “I have worked with many young people who  sometimes feel  lost. And yes, they can be difficult and annoying, but they can also be quite wonderful. But the book isn’t just about the riots. Those events top and tail it but it’s also about friends, family and love.”

David Whitehouse, author of the quirky and wonderful Mobile Library, agreed that it was difficult to make sense of the world from the perspective of twelve year old Bobby Nusku in this second novel by the former journalist. “Children compute things differently,” he explained.

Part fable, part road trip, Mobile Library tells the story of Bobby’s physical and metaphorical escape from his miserable life. He finds happiness in his friendship with Val, who cleans the mobile library, and her daughter, Rosa. He becomes obsessed with reading and when he, Rosa and Val are in trouble, the mobile library seems the obvious way out.  David explained his inspiration for the book: “My mum was the cleaner on our local mobile library and had keys to it. At weekends she would open it just for my brother and me. We lived in a drab town so having access to all those books was brilliant. It freed our imaginations.”

Family is at the heart of this often dark tale. “Family is where you find it,” said David. “Just because you are born into a group of people does that mean you stay with them forever? Stories don’t have to have happy endings. I am obsessed with the darkness in children’s books and there is a lot of darkness in this book, seen through a child’s eyes.”

Similar themes run through Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven. Set in a post-apocolyptic North America, twenty years after civilization has collapsed, this brilliantly written book tells the story of a Shakespearian travelling group: “I wanted to write something completely different from my previous three novels,” said Emily. “I love film and theatre and I am fascinated by what it means to devote your life to your art.”

Station Eleven is not a zombie apocalypse tale; “I didn’t want to write a horror novel. Mayhem is just not sustainable. I was more interested in what can grow from that. What kind of new world would it be?” explained the Canadian born writer, “I am in awe of this world we live in, I can walk into a room, flick a switch and it is flooded with light. What happens when everything is gone? No internet, no TV, no air travel, no cars…it fascinates me.”

The narrative moves effortlessly between past and present which provided its own challenges. “Towards the end I had to have a spreadsheet,” laughed Emily, “I needed to know which character was where in which chapter.”

The Station Eleven of the title is a graphic novel written before civilization’s collapse which, twenty years later, is the treasured possession of Kirsten as she travels around the settlements of the new world. “The graphic novel is the through line which connects the story,” commented Emily, “Is just surviving enough? If the world is lost what would you preserve and how far would you go to protect it? I think as humans we have an instinct to preserve objects that mean a lot to us.”

As the evening drew to a close, audience question time was greeted with patience and good humour from the three authors.

Carolyn and Katie Clapham, owners of Storytellers Inc, were delighted by the success of the evening. The dynamic mother and daughter team are committed to providing high quality literary events at an affordable price. “It’s lovely to see so many readers here enjoying the evening,” said Carolyn.

 

Featured image by Lynn Scarles, left to right: David Whitehouse, Emily St John Mandel and Sarah Butler

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