Jesus, jigsaws and chickens – things that make a writer tick

Piers Plowright on the Writers Talking series at Hampstead Arts Festival

Sometimes sentences float into my head. Usually at night. For example: “The moment Beryl got in front of the firing-squad she felt a good deal better.’ Or “George, forgetting he was public executioner, carried the body-parts back to the palace.”

What are these about? Beginnings of short stories or novels? Dreadful warnings? Coded messages? A gathering of things I’ve read – Dostoevsky, Arabian Nights, Anthony Burgess – into one surreal sentence? No idea. Except – and I’ve noticed this with my dreams too – they perhaps have to do with careers I’ve never pursued and, deep down, wish I had (and I’m not talking about wanting to be an executioner): film director, actor, impresario, ringmaster, writer.

The last category is the one that intrigues me most and the one I’d most like to have belonged to. To create characters and stories out of nothing as a fiction writer does; to interrogate events and discover patterns like a historian; to dig deep into people’s lives and reveal “the truth” about them as a biographer tries to do; to make something universal out of the particular as a poet does; these seem to me wonderful and mysterious achievements. Magical even.

But you have to have (a) the gift and (b) the patience. Having neither, I’ve found another road to creativity and, I must say, a very satisfying one: to draw out of others their stories, plots, memories, connections, anecdotes, jokes, and prophecies in speech. Once I did this as a radio producer. Now I do it as an interviewer. And it’s writers that I most enjoy talking to. Not just to find out how they create character and plot or how they do research – sometimes the writers don’t know – but to find out about their own personal landscapes, the kind of thing they don’t usually get asked at book promotions or literary festivals.

Which is why I’m really looking forward to the five lunchtime interviews I’m doing this November for the Hampstead Arts Festival. I’ve chosen writers whose work I admire but whose interests and passions behind, and sometimes beyond, their work I want to explore: to talk to Margaret Drabble about landscape, photography, and jig-saw puzzles; Deborah Moggach about allotments, chickens, and death; Howard Jacobson about ping-pong, Jesus, and apocalypse; Kate Summerscale about murder, scandal, and history, and Nick Harkaway about snooker, spies, and submarines.

And, of course, to all of them, about why they write, what they love and hate, and what’s to become of us. Then, if you need a pre-Christmas tonic after all that, there’s a celebration of the most energetic, passionate and charismatic, English novelist of them all, in the first Thursday lunchtime in December.

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n Writers Talking, part of the 2012 Hampstead Arts Festival, is at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, every Thursday lunchtime in November, 1pm-2pm. Doors open 12.30pm. Tickets �8 at or on the door.