Wednesday 25 May 2011


Yesterday I went to a talk by Marilynne Robinson... I was very star-struck. Or possibly star struck. Or even starstruck. Maybe all of the above. Just being in the same room as her was pretty crazy - this must be how teenage girls feel when they see the cast of Twilight, or how my brother would feel if Wolverhampton Wanderers football team popped around for tea. When Colin phoned me to talk about Wolves (they didn't get relegated, btw - I am only interested because this means he is happy, rather than glum; it will not surprise you to learn that I loathe football) I told him about seeing Marilynne Robinson, and he didn't know who she was. So I suppose it is rather a niche thing, but it still felt bizarre to be in the same room as one of the finest living writers. I even took a poor quality photograph on my mobile 'phone...

Truth be told, I didn't understand a word of her talk. It was called 'Where A
re We? What Are We Doing Here? Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist' and seemed to be a state-of-the-nation talk, with huge doses of philosophy and politics. I know almost nothing about philosophy, and I care almost nothing about politics - so I was lost from the outset. But I was pretty prepared for that. I wish I'd been to hear her last time she was in Oxford, talking about her own writing, but at that point I'd not read anything by her. Even now I've only read Gilead, though Susan in TX and I have a plan to read Home together soon, don't we, Susan?

So, I'd readied myself to zone out when Robinson got onto topics I know zilch about, and instead I spent the hour being a bit overwhelmed by being in the same room as her. For the record, she is funny and personable - especially during the off-script moments - and I'm sure I'd love to hear her speak about writing or reading or Christianity; anything I can get on board with. But that didn't diminish an exacting afternoon for me.

Which leads me to the over-to-you bit - have you heard any authors speak, and which living writers would you love to see? I've seen a few others - all those at the Vintage day this month (Sebastian Faulks, Mark Haddon, Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain etc.) but the only other notable one I can remember right now is Penelope Lively. And I still haven't read any of her books...

[EDIT: I forget Susan Hill! And doubtless many others. I was very excited to chat with Mary Cadogan once - the biographer of Richmal Crompton. But most fun has been meeting lesser-known, but brilliant and lovely, authors like Angela Young, Jenn Ashworth, Natasha Solomon, Ned Beauman....]


  1. Wow, I am starstruck just reading that. I love her books- and I haven't even read Gilead yet! Sad that the talk wasn't more accessible though.

  2. When Marilynne Robinson came to the National Book Festival, she read a long excerpt from Home and talked a bit about her writing. I could have done with more talk and less reading, but I was thrilled to see her speak and to get my copy of Gilead signed. (Waited in the rain for that!)

    I've tried to read some of her philosophical essays, and they are tough going. What I can follow is interesting, but I can't follow it all.

  3. I am so envious of your meeting Penelope Lively, she is one of my favorite authors. If you have City of the Mind, that's a great one of hers to start with. I was star-struck meeting Ursula LeGuin, and I could barely speak to Dorothy Dunnett when I met her. I've been lucky enough to meet several mystery writers through a local mystery bookshop, including Connie Willis and Laurie R. King. Louise Penny will be signing there this year.

  4. Simon, on your recommendation I read "The Gilead". It was one of the best books I ever read. I have told numerous people about it and all have been raving about it. I have it in my library and no one is allowed borrow it. I have met few authors, one I loved listening to is Maeve Binchy, the Irish writer, she is highly amusing. I just finished Susan Lyall's The Anglo Files. I enjoyed it. It makes interesting comparisons between Americans and English people. Lyall is an excellent writer.
    Have a great week and thanks for your blog

  5. I would have been wetting myself!! How wonderful. I am SUPER jealous. Did you get to speak to her?!

    I saw Karen Armstrong speak a few weeks ago and that was a really great experience - Karen was so personable and interesting and warm - I was so pleased that she came across just as she does in her books. I was too shy to say anything to her after the talk though!

  6. I think I would've felt exactly the same way, but lucky you for getting to go! And yes, we are going to read Home. We're done with school so pick a date, and hopefully others will read along with us. :)
    I think most of the living authors I've met have been nonfiction writers, but I always listen in awe.

  7. Lisa May - I loved the idea of mystery writers and a mystery book bookshop - at first reading it conjured up a picture of a shop emerging from the mist, only to disappear again before you could reach it (unless you had solved the mystery and held the secret to its revelation). I had visions of lost souls, wandering forever in search of books.
    Then I read your comment again and 'the penny dropped'.
    ps glad you had fun Simon.

  8. I've had lunch with Fay Weldon a couple of times and coffee once with Celia Brayfield, but we didn't discuss literature all that much (any more than we discussed physics!)

  9. I've been to lots of talks in the past two years and my favourites were China Mieville, Jasper Fforde, David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman. Interesting, funny and all lovely people.

  10. In the past 6 months or so I have been lucky enough to hear a authors reading - Julian Fellowes at the book launch for Nancy Mitford's 'Highland Fling' (, and Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman (amongst others) at the launch for World Book Night ( Wonderful experiences :o)

  11. Cat - at least I wasn't disappointed; I had known that I wouldn't understand it!

    Teresa - how lovely to speak to her! I don't think I'll be trying her philosophical essays...

    Lisa May - what fun! I don't think I've *spoken* to any famous authors at all... none spring to mind, I'm always far too shy to say anything.

    Helen - I'm delighted! Although I owned it, I am indebted to Rachel for making me read it - it's one of those that you want to tell everyone about.
    I've not heard of Lyall, thanks for the recommendation...

    Rachel - sadly no, far too shy... And I haven't read any Karen Armstrong! I have a feeling someone shouted at me the other day about that, maybe Naomi...

    Susan - oo, ok... maybe the middle of June?

    Mum - :) Does remind of that shop in Hay on Wye that mostly sells mysteries, what was that called?

    Pete - oo, name-dropper! I would suggest, tentatively, that novels are of wider general interest than physics... plus anybody can talk about novels.

    Sakura - how lovely to have good experiences with them all! It's horrible when authors turn out (through interviews or biographies or whatever) not to have been quite how you expected....

  12. My favorite author talk was many years ago when Madeleine L'Engle spoke on children's writing at a local college near Chicago. She also signed books, and since there were so many of us there with our children's copies of "A Wrinkle in Time" she could not finish. That lovely woman asked us to write our names and the name of the child who owned the book on a slip of paper and took them back to her room where she signed them all, personally addressed to each reader!

    I loved her for doing that, and my son, now 37, treasures his copy telling him to "Tesser well!"

    Barbara M.

  13. In Toronto we are lucky to have many visiting (and resident) authors, so I catch who I can. A recent treat was Jasper Fforde, who was gobs of fun.

  14. Many years ago, one rainy evening I went to a talk and reading by Laurie Lee. It was a wonderful evening and he was such a warm charming man that I wrote a letter to him care of his publisher and received a handwritten reply that I have to this day.

  15. I heard Marilynne Robinson speak at Skidmore College (in the upstate NY town where we live) just few months ago. I, too, was overwhelmed at the very idea of being in her presence! I was just able to follow her talk, but it took all my concentration. I have since tried to read a book of her essays (which I had her sign that night) and found it completely over my head, but I don't want to give up as I am sure I could learn a lot from them. And one of her sons has recently moved to our town, so I expect we'll be seeing more of her!

    About 10 years ago Seamus Heaney came to speak at the college. I almost fainted when I went up to him afterwards and asked him to sign my copy of Beowulf. I couldn't believe I was breathing the same air as a Nobel Laureate!

    More recently, I heard Cornel West, an African-American activist and Christian. I also had to focus very intently to understand his talk as he used so many literary references and especially cultural references that I didn't understand, even though I had read one of his books.

    There are famous authors speaking at Skidmore almost every night during the month of July. Unfortunately, they are almost all American. ;-)

  16. The comments are as interesting as the post! Speaking of Penelope Lively, I was in Blackwell's last week and I got one of her children's books -- The House in Norham Gardens.

    I've heard Margaret Atwood, and even spoke to her briefly. She was rather intimidating. I have warmer memories of hearing Naomi Shihab Nye -- an American poet.

    I've had Gilead for ages now, but still haven't read it. I remember, vividly, reading Robinson's first book (Housekeeping) when I was a student in London in the 1980s.

  17. Oh, where to start! Other comments kept bringing things to mind. FIRST(!) of all - if you can possibly see/hear Colin Dexter, it will be one of the most entertaining author evenings you can have! Next: Enjoyed seeing Salman Rushdie & though I've not read his books, he was very entertaining. Most recent, would be seeing, hearing, speaking _with_, & getting a book signed by Alexander McCall Smith. Ialso had him sign a particular page that had to do with a common interest/fanship of ours (E.F. Benson) - & I gave him a button/badge of the (now past) Tilling Society. My h. & I both enjoyed hearing Seamus Heany & Maurice Sendak. The only disappointing speaker was Margaret Atwood. I think many people there expected & had looked forward to hearing her speak about her writing, but she talked _only_ about environmental issues - & as good as that sounds, it is still disappointing if wanting to hear about writing & books.

  18. Sorry, forgot about Madeleine L'Engle - had forgotten her since it was quite some time ago.

  19. I should love to see Susan Hill - she comes over as a warm, interesting person & I love her books.
    I very much enjoyed hearing her husband, Professor Stanley Wells, at the Ilkley Literature. Festival. Also Gervase Phinn is a most entertaining speaker.

  20. In the 80s I saw P.D. James speak at the Dallas Library and it was a wonderful talk - she was in her simple shirtwaist floral dress. For possibly the only time in my life, I was rapt (as some novelists say).

  21. I love to go and hear authors talk - too many to list, but the one I found most fascinating was Philip Pullman in Oxford last Easter talking about the Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

    On a totally different level - I'm seeing thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver tonight at a James Bond event at the Diamond Light! (Deaver has written the new Bond book - report to come soon).


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at