Edinburgh Book Festival: The Final Weekend

As the Edinburgh International Book Festival draws to a close, The Skinny stopped by one final round of the festival's 2019 events, encompassing writers from across Scotland, the UK, and wider world

Feature | 29 Aug 2019
  • Edinburgh Book Festival: The Final Weekend

Matt Haig – Surviving and Thriving in 2019

“I never asked to be an ambassador of mental health. I’m just a person who has a story,” Matt Haig says, despite being described as a ‘force for good’ by Meghan Markle, and a ‘champion of mental health’. “I used to wake up every day wanting to die and had no idea how to cope with living.”

More people are talking about how they are feeling, which is a step forward. “20 years ago, when I was first ill, there weren’t a massive list of famous people who were open about their mental health – there was Hemingway, Cobain. I thought I was one of those sensitive people and I really thought I was going to die.” 

In his latest book Notes On A Nervous Planet, he writes about the compulsive power of social media and how it affects our everyday lives. With 330,000 Twitter followers, Haig has a love-hate relationship with social media. “It’s good for raising awareness of issues,” he says, before swiftly adding: “Social networks are designed to be addictive. I think eventually they will be seen as potentially addictive substances.”

Despite still getting anxious, he can manage his feelings much better nowadays, and writing has been a way for him to channel his energy. “I’m a great believer in the arts helping with mental health. I won’t ever stop writing about mental health. I’m grateful that I got ill because that has made me the person that I am today.” [Tina Koenig]

Kathleen Jamie – What Surfaces?

Climate change, the past and politics have been on Kathleen Jamie’s mind during the writing of her latest collection of essays, Surfacing. Known primarily as a nature and travel writer and poet, Jamie has made a career observing the nature world, something that is more political than it’s ever been. “We are living through a time of grotesque inattention,” Jamie says. “Bearing witness is an act of resistance.” 

With a history as an archaeologist, Jamie is concerned with the past, something that climate change is revealing as sand dunes are being blown away on Scottish islands revealing a preserved layer of the past. “The past is still redolent in the landscape,” Jamie muses. Climate change is eroding our history as much as it destroying the natural world. It’s an engrossing evening punctuated by Jamie reading from Surfacing, a collection asking us to look up. [Katie Goh]

Sarah Henstra and Elle Nash – Sex, Violence and Obsession

Beginning with readings of their respective novels, Sarah Henstra from The Red Word and Elle Nash from Animals Eat Each Other, comparisons between the two books are easily made. Both have 19-year-old protagonists coming to terms with their sexuality, both are immersed in the body and explore unconventional sexual relations. The panel’s chair Helen McClory brings up the quote attributed to Oscar Wilde: “Everything is about sex, except sex which is about power.” 

Both of the writers discuss how power and sex is explored in their books and the nuances of gendered power dynamics. Henstra writing about a rape that happens on campus and Nash about a polyamorous relationship Animals Eat Each Other’s protagonist has with a couple. “A person can be a monster and a victim at the same time,” says Nash. “There are complexities and nuances.”

While the event is about the larger, vague themes of sex and power, the discussion stays on the specific writing of these themes in the books. The evening comes to an end with what writing rituals Henstra and Nash do before sitting down to actually write: Hendra in cafes with other writers creating space for the process, and Nash anytime she can get her baby to sleep. [KG]