Bath Independent Literature Festival 2015: Sarah Churchwell and David Nicholls

Around this time last year, Bath hosted their literature festival and it passed me by pretty much unnoticed until the last few events. Obviously by that point everything had sold out, and I was pretty gutted to have missed out, especially when I discovered there had been a talk by Shaun Usher, the man responsible for the amazing ‘Letters of Note’ book that sits in pride of place on my bookshelf. Anyway, this year I was determined that history would not be repeated.

I opted to go and see two of the events (almost three but my partner in crime was away for Omid Djalili’s evening!). The first of these was The Secret History of the American Dream by Sarah Churchwell. I was unfamiliar with her work, although by the end of the talk I wasn’t quite sure why I hadn’t already heard of her, and the idea behind the talk completely sold me. Maybe it’s the use of the word secret that drew me in, but as half of my degree is in American Literature, I just had to hear more about the origins of the American Dream, and it was astonishing to learn how it has become a warped version of its initial usage.

It was also interesting to learn that while we all probably assume it stems back to America’s early days, it is in fact much newer than that. It stands for many things, ideas like opportunity, but it was never intended to signify billionaire status, massive houses – the materialistic side of success.

Churchwell has also published a book called ‘Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby’. As soon as someone says the word Gatsby, my eyes light up and they have my full attention, and it’s hardly surprising that ideas on ‘the American Dream’ can be linked to Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. The fact that Churchwell was such an engaging and funny speaker, as well as quite obviously being very intelligent, further persuaded me that this is a book I need to read, and it’s already found its way onto my reading list.

The second event I went to was an interview with David Nicholls, author of ‘Starter For Ten,’ ‘One Day’ and, most recently, ‘Us.’ I have to admit that I haven’t actually ever read any of Nicholls work. I’ve seen the film adaptation of ‘One Day’ and liked it, but I definitely seem to be in the minority after the provocative comments made by Viv Groskop showed that his fans really didn’t warm to the movie.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect, was even a little apprehensive about the thought of sitting for an hour listening to an author I knew next to nothing about, but I needn’t have been. Nicholls was charming, humble, funny, and incredibly modest. He even labelled himself as ‘boring’ several times, but as he recounted his days of trying to make it as an actor, nothing could have been further from the truth.

He also didn’t shy away from the difficult questions that were thrown at him. He admitted that he should have left the adaptation of ‘One Day’ to someone who was less emotionally attached to the novel, and he also thought long and hard about the idea that he had achieved such great success in his genre not for the quality of his work, but because he is a male writer. Viv Groskop did make an interesting point here – if a woman were to write the sorts of books Nicholls finds himself creating, she may very well be dismissed for writing ‘chick lit’. He wholeheartedly agreed that this could be the case, and he tussled with wanting to defend female writers and friends of his with recognising that this maybe wasn’t entirely his fight. You can read more about this particular question raised here; it’s definitely something I hadn’t thought that much about before the talk but is now something I’m doing some research on.

I really enjoyed both events I went to and found myself wishing that I could have gone to more – there’s always next year!

Did any of you go to the festival? Are any of you familiar with Sarah Churchwell’s work, or can you recommend which of David Nicholls’ books I should start with? I’m always keen to hear your thoughts.


Holly x


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