Isle Of Wight Literary Festival 2019 – Part One

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I did something new last weekend and attended my first Literary Festival. I did go to the London Book Fair a few years ago but that was a much larger more impersonal commercial event which lacked the cosy meet-the-authors feel of the smaller festivals. This is the 8th year of the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival which takes place in Cowes, centred around Northwood House. This year spread over three days there were a diverse range of speakers including Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, Jo Brand, Jack Straw, Elly Griffiths, Sir Tim Waterstone, Dan Snow and Kate Adie. These were obviously the big crowd-pullers. Their talks took place in a marquee where the audience were herded around corrals and crammed in to listen to their heroes.
I, very sensibly I think, opted to attend two smaller events to hear authors who this year have thrilled me with their writing. The first of these was Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott whose fictional account of the later years of Truman Capote is certainly in contention for my Book of The Year and listening to Kelleigh talk about her work in the Ballroom of Northwood House on a very wet October Saturday has certainly made its challenge stronger.

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Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Swan Song” is a book which seems to have slipped a little under the radar, as when I read it I expected it to be one of the big publishing sensations of the year. It did get longlisted for the The Women’s Prize in Fiction but missed out on the shortlist and probably was never going to join the Booker longlist because it is so readable. Of the 24 or so people who attended her presentation it did seem only a handful had read it. I felt an urge throughout to let her know how much I had loved the book but kept quiet. When it came to question time I couldn’t frame my response to it as a question and what usually tends to happen is that people who haven’t read the book ask questions which is a little irritating for those who have made the effort, but then that is part and parcel of these sort of occasions as the author is there, in least in part, to shift and sign books and probably doesn’t want a roomful of people who already own a copy.

Kelleigh described her fascination with Capote beginning as a twelve year old when she read “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”. She fell in love with his raconteur style and his ability to use words as weapons. With a background in screenwriting she might have been expected to focus in on a more filmic aspect of Capote’s life but it was the story of a literary crime which kept drawing her attention, not the murder of the Clutter family which cemented Capote’s reputation as a leading American writer with his true crime classic “In Cold Blood” but his betrayal in 1975 of a group of women who he loved and who loved him. He did this by publishing thinly-veiled secrets they had told him over the years and mocked them mercilessly in an extract in “Esquire” of his unfinished novel. A crime, because it destroyed him and a number of them indirectly and was almost certainly the cause of a suicide of one woman he dished the dirt on.

As much of her love for the work of Capote triggered this novel Kelleigh found the pull of these society women irresistible and over time came up with the ingenious third person collective voices- the chorus of Capote’s “swans”.

I was fascinated by a bit of back-story of his ambitious mother who almost reached the social standing she believed was her due until her husband’s arrest for fraud led to her suicide. Could this have been an underlying motive for Capote’s literary mauling of these high society women? The six “swans” were pretty much hand-picked by Capote probably because of their potential as characters. If this was a calculated move he certainly played the long game, there was a 20 year delay during which he became very close to all of these women before spilling the beans and devastating their own (and also his own) lives.

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I’m sure I will be talking about this book again at the end of the year which will give you a chance in the meantime to seek it out and become as seduced by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing as I have been.

100 Essential Books – Swan Song – Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (2018)

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This is sublime.  A debut novel from an American writer who has poured ten years of research and four years of writing to produce this critically acclaimed little gem.  You can tell it has been a real labour of love for this author, picking up prizes when still a work in progress and now one of the 16 books selected for consideration for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  

 In 1975 Esquire Magazine produced an extract of an unfinished novel by literary giant Truman Capote which showed a writer past his prime and with a subject matter which shook his circle of friends.  The women in high society with whom Capote spent much of his time with saw themselves mocked and their secrets revealed in an astounding case of literary treachery.  They turned against him and he never got over it.

 I was hooked from the moment I saw printed on the back cover; “They told him everything.  He told everybody else.”  It is a novel fuelled by gossip which makes it sound tacky but it is so beautifully written and every word seems considered and measured.   Some may tire of reading of these privileged lifestyles and the manoeuvrings to keep their place in society but I certainly didn’t. Salaciousness as literature – just fabulous!

 Narrated unusually in the third person this is the voice of the wronged chorus, Capote’s women, his swans, as they dip in to various parts of their lives, the times when they left themselves open to betrayal.  Truman Capote is the central figure, absolutely fascinating and repugnant and totally convincing in this portrayal.  His spark of genius faded as he became wrapped up in these swans, the six women whose lives he shattered.  The women themselves would mean more to the American reader but amongst them is Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy, one amongst the circuit of society women in an age not too far away but which now seems to us an echo of distant glamour.

 In the supporting cast is everyone whose light shone during this period when showbiz, politics, power and finance combined including Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, various Kennedys, Gore Vidal, The Rolling Stones.  I find the whole era fascinating and Capote was at the centre.  We rediscover him at various points in his life from a child playing with a young Harper Lee who would later immortalise him as Dill in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to dancing to his own tune as an alcoholic on the disco floor at Studio 54.  Hanging over him throughout this time is his relationship with his mother, engendering in him a need for revenge which comes across in his dealings with these society women, his belief in his own talent even when the writing dried up and his obsession with the perpetrators of the crime behind his most celebrated non-fiction work “In Cold Blood”.  The complexities of the real man come across so clearly through this re-creation.

 But it is Capote’s dynamics with these women who weave in and out of this beautifully written prose which is this novel’s greatest success.  Its heavily factual basis has left me thirsting for more and to want to find out about these people and their time but I feel as if I can’t rush into doing this because I want this author’s creations and her versions of events to linger before I start exploring the facts behind this astonishing piece of fiction.

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Swan Song was published in hardback by Hutchinson in 2018.  The paperback published by Windmill Books is due on 27th June 2019.

Oct 19 Update:  Read about Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott at the Isle Of Wight Literary Festival here.