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I spoke to two classes, senior boys and girls respectively (the school's segregated) and the girls were generally more amused and proactive than the boys, who were a little reserved.
The staff members were understandably a little nervous, given the content of my books and my own inclination to go off on the deep end. They have to tread a fine line between tradition and the exploration of international literature, at the same time managing a number of bright, sparky and inquisitive minds. Needless to say, I had a blast. We talked about narrative and its importance, the characterisation of the Middle East by Hollywood and the impact of technology and the Internet on publishing, heralding the inevitable doom of the print run/sales team model of publishing.
After the classroom sessions with the seniors, we were joined by the 8-11 year-olds in the auditorium. This, I was not prepared for. They'd asked me to prepare some readings to give the kids and I gazed down at small, angelic girls with missing teeth beaming up at me and on the instant junked the lot. I couldn't really see my reading from A Decent Bomber helping the 8 year olds sleep that night...
The torture was methodical. Quinlan shrieked himself hoarse, flailing around tied to the kitchen chair until he hurled himself to the floor. They righted him and beat him as dispassionately as they’d pulled out his thumbnails.
And not one word. Not a question. It made it all worse, to think there was nothing they wanted he could give them to make it stop.
They started on his fingers. He called to God, he called to his dear, dead mother. He begged them. Dear Jesus, how he begged. They beat him again to shut him up. His mind slammed down to buy him respite.
A gentle tapping on his cheek. A wipe of wet cloth on his forehead. The awareness of light though his swollen lids. An insistent voice, deep, repeated his name. ‘Mister Quinlan, Mister Quinlan.’ Accented, the title sounded more like mist air.
He took a deep, juddering breath and tried to focus. His hands flared pain. He tasted blood, his mouth dry. Cool ceramic touched his lips and he leaned forwards to sip gratefully at the icy water. His shattered ribs grated and forced him to cry out, bubbling the water. He spilled a pink dribble down his sodden, spattered shirt.
And it went downhill from there fast when we started looking at readings from Birdkill and Shemlan...
So instead I showed them how to write a book using Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz as a template and then answered their questions. What a bright bunch they were, too!
Which book is your favourite? Why do you write books? How much money do you make? How do you build characters? Do you favour direct or indirect characterisation? You mentioned protagonists but what about antagonists? What are your books about (very carefully answered, given the question was from one of the 8 year-olds!)? What do you do about writer's block? What inspires you to create characters?
The questions came in rushes, arms across the auditorium waving in the air. And then I signed pages of A4 paper for the kids who were too young to be let buy my books. Thousands of them. The longest signing line of my life and nobody from the LitFest to see 'Mr Three Signers' doing a serious session. Emiratis, Brits, Pakistanis, Jordanians, South Africans, Indians. A real rainbow. My hand hurt by the time the last grin disappeared away off the stage.
I do love the dear old LitFest. Really.