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25 June 2017Last updated
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Life lessons from the Lit Fest

February sees the return of the popular Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Here, four internationally renowned writers open up and give us their take on everything from freedom to fearless women

By Belle Yates
9 Feb 2016 | 12:36 pm
  • Source:Supplied

What makes women strong?

Freya North is a British author of 13 bestselling novels. She tells us about the female characters in her books…

My novels explore relationships in a contemporary, domestic setting – but they’re not exclusively about love. I’m not interested in writing about modern-day handsome princes ‘rescuing’ my female characters, nor are the men in my novels responsible for giving the women their happily-ever-afters.

For the women I write about, true happiness and contentment arrives in the form of self-knowledge – which itself is achieved only after they have had many personal trials to confront. In my books, a woman’s self-belief and sense of strength comes after her journey through the story. That, for me, is a happy ending! Self-belief and self-confidence are different things though, and many of my characters – especially Chloe (in Chloe, 1997), Fen (in Fen, 2002), Thea (in Love Rules, 2005), Petra (in Pillow Talk, 2007), Oriana (in The Way Back Home, 2014) and Frankie (in The Turning Point, 2015) aren’t what I’d call ‘sassy and confident women’ – but through the course of their stories their self-belief develops. Their personalities might remain a little shy or quiet but they are all strong women – strength doesn’t need to be expressed in an outward show of bravura.

These characters are interesting to write because, personally, I’m always trying to increase my own self-belief.

It is hugely important to me to write strong female characters across the generations – I have a close relationship with my own mother and my 13-year-old daughter and I grew up lucky enough to have both grandmothers and many great aunts in my life who were wonderful and inspirational. So I particularly loved writing the characters of Celia (in Sally, 1996), Jocelyn (in Chloe, 1997) and, of course, Lydia (in Rumours, 2012).

In The Turning Point, Frankie’s mother, though not immediately likeable, is a woman whose strength has a purpose – to assist her daughter via a little tough love. Also in The Turning Point there was an exciting challenge to write the nine-year-old Annabel. She may be a child but I didn’t want to sentimentalise her, or make her twee or girly or dependent – she has a lot to say to other characters and some of it is very pertinent. She’s a strong female character of whom I’m very proud.

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What freedom means to me...

Anchee Min is a Chinese-American author who fled China for the US during the Cultural Revolution. There, she learned to speak English by watching Sesame Street, had her daughter, and wrote her first bestseller, Red Azalea. We asked her what freedom means…

To me, freedom means to be able to be myself. Giving myself the permission to be so has been a battle I finally won. Every cloud has a silver lining. Each struggle I’ve had in my life has, in retrospect, not only contributed to my understanding of life, people and myself, but also strengthened my belief that I am more than my circumstance – it enabled me to see the light in darkness. If I had to pass on a piece of knowledge to my daughter, I’d tell her, “Take nothing for granted. The world doesn’t owe you. You have to earn your way in. You have to put your mind to it and work your way tirelessly. I didn’t speak English, and had never written, in 10 years I became a bestselling author by earning my way.”

The greatest gift a woman can give to her daughter is self-confidence. I raised mine to believe she was her own boss. From when she was just two, I communicated with her as if she were my equal. The tricky part was I couldn’t really let her ‘drive the car’ (of her life) until she was 16. While I was shaping her, leading her to believe she was ‘the driver’ all along was my biggest achievement. It was rewarding when she told me she’d raise her kids “the same way”.

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Are teenagers a different race?

Holly Smale, British writer and creator of the Geek Girl world, tells us how she gets into the mind of a teenager…

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve essentially changed that much since I was a teenager: for a woman in her 30s, it’s probably not as much of a leap as it could or potentially should be!

I think when you’re writing for (and especially as) a teenager, the important thing to remember is that as an adult, you get used to life; each experience – good and bad – brings with it both knowledge and expectation.

As a teenager, it’s frequently all new. Life is a constant series of firsts, of revelations, of fresh perspectives. You’re working out who you are, what you want, how you feel, what is important to you: who you want to be. Emotions are sharp and sometimes unanticipated and unprocessed, and they can be overwhelming. You don’t have enough practice to know how you’ll react in any given situation or navigate relationships with the people around you, and it sometimes feels like you’re on a ride you can’t control. It’s a raw, brutal and exciting time, and my teenage years are still probably the most vivid of my life.

When I’m writing, that’s all I do: try to be as honest to that experience as I possibly can. To dig deep and constantly ask myself how I would genuinely have felt and reacted to this situation at 15, at 16, at 17.

Sometimes it’s how I would react to it now, sometimes it’s not, but the key is to be as unsparing with that truth as
I can be.

Ironically, the fact that I was a teenager before the vast majority of my readers were born doesn’t seem to matter. The reason I can write a convincing modern teenager character is the same reason so many adults enjoy reading teenage books – we’ve all been there, we remember clearly, and the basics don’t change.

Fashions might alter, bands and celebrity crushes definitely will, but the essence of what it is to grow up – to blaze through everything for the first time, to see it all new – remains the same.

That’s what really hooks me in writing teenage fiction. My readers are as smart as any adults, but they’re also unjaded and hungry – for life, for experience, for emotion, for knowledge. As an author, that’s a very exciting audience to write for and about.

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When they were young...

We ask Gill Hornby, author of best-selling book The Hive what she misses about her children being small…

That’s an easy one: I miss them. 
I am saying this at the beginning of a weekend of goodbyes. It’s a few weeks after Christmas, my eldest son is about to leave for six months in Canada and my younger daughter is setting off for six weeks in Italy. That means that twice in two days I am going to have to force myself to smile as I watch them walk away from me, carrying their own bags, holding their own passports, living their own lives. After all the years of adventures that we all took together, they are now – completely properly, entirely as it should be – taking their own adventures independently. And of course I’m delighted for them. Yet, at the same time, so very, very sad.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my children enormously now that they are adult. We can sit around the table, the six of us – six of us! We’re a ready-made dinner party – and we chat, and everybody eats their vegetables and nobody crawls under the table and we can go for hours and hours without any tears at all. They are moving off into a world that didn’t exist for us, their parents, when we were that age. There they are, my own offspring, whose bodies and souls are as familiar to me as my own and yet whose experiences, language and customs are as alien as those from the planet Zarg. I look at and listen to them with wonder.

But I loved having small children. I had four, over 10 years, so for a huge period of my life, it seemed, there was always someone in my lap. Their problems were solvable, the dangers were minimal, we were happy and busy and so intense was that period, I couldn’t see that it would ever end. It’s a curious thing, parenting: all the important stuff you do for your children, you do with a view to their future. And yet, while you are doing it, so rushed, engrossed, enchanted or just plain knackered are you, that you can’t see past the end of the afternoon. And then, approximately 10 years before you expect anything of the sort, very suddenly, without any sort of intermediate phase, they stop being children. They change, they up and they go.

So what do I miss about them being babies – about all of us being together, all of the time, breathing the same air, eating the same food, sharing the same bathroom, knowing everything that there is to know about each other? What do I miss about being able to hold them when I want, stroke their faces when they sleep? What do I miss about being the centre of their
small and containable worlds? That’s an easy one, too: I miss absolutely nothing at all.

By Belle Yates

By Belle Yates