Vanessa LaFaye – English v American market at Swindon Festival of Literature

9 May

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The sticky subject of simplifying modern literature for an American audience was discussed during an interview with author Vanessa LaFaye on Friday.

Sticky, because Vanessa is an American living in the Wiltshire. And sticky, because the author is being forced to choose between her preferred nuances within the novel, and commercial success in the US market.

Summertime is Vanessa’s third novel, and the first to be picked up by a publisher. It is being compared to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and it’s fair to say that it’s become something of a runaway success.

The audio book is read by Adjoa Andoh, voice of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Tastemakers Richard and Judy have chosen it as one of their eight Summer Reads.

It has been, or is being, translated into an array of languages, including German, Italian, Dutch, French, Norwegian and – it would seem – American…

Interviewed by Festival Chronicler Louisa Davison on the stage of Swindon Festival of Literature, Vanessa – in her first festival performance – expressed disappointment that edits were being made to the American version, but understood the reasons.

“Some subtleties didn’t make it through the editing of the US version,” she said. “There is a lowest common denominator impulse among publishers to make it easier to understand.”

Set in segregated Florida, a white woman with a white husband gives birth to a black baby. “In the UK, everyone is happy to accept that I never reveal who the father of the baby is,” said Vanessa.

“But in the US, the publisher insisted the identity is revealed. They really wanted everything tidy, But that’s not how life is. You don’t get all the answers.”

Even the title of the book is being changed for American audiences. In the UK, the novel is known as Summertime. It’s a hat-tip to the aria from George Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, a jazz classic, and the first opera written to be performed for a black cast.

Vanessa confirmed that the plot of the novel is loosely inspired by the lyrics of the song: “Your daddy’s rich, and your mamma’s good lookin’” – those characters are there. “Fish are jumpin’, And the cotton is high” suggests an idyll, but the “wonderful minor key melody” suggests all is not well.

“The song means a lot to me,” said Vanessa, who while squirrelling away on the novel was publicly better known locally for forming and leading Marlborough Community Choir. “I have sung Summertime on this stage.”

Her US publisher, however, is not keen on the Summertime title. They think purchasers will be expecting a jolly summer read. So when it comes out in the States on June 9, it will be called Under a Dark Summer Sky.

A question about who would star in the film if she were to pick her dream cast – Denzel Washington, even though at 60 he’s officially too old, for the lead; Queen Latifah; and Oprah Winfrey – brought a smile back to the author’s face.

With a nod to her other love – singing – Festival director Matt Holland concluded the event by inviting a handful of her supporters from the community choir onto the stage to give an impromptu performance of Summertime.

For the uninitiated, Summertime shines a spotlight on two pieces of modern US history largely forgotten by the American public.

The first is the appalling treatment doled out to black American veterans of the Great War on their return from Europe. Put to manual work by their American commanders, who did not trust them to fight, they tasted respect under the French, whose officers led two regiments of black soldiers into battle.

Given a taste of equality, the expected change on their return home, but instead found the same prejudices. And in the Florida Keys, a camp of 450 veterans – set to work building bridges following the Great Depression – were abandoned by their government as the worst hurricane ever to hit America struck on July 4 1935.

Nine in ten died in horrific circumstances – the clothes ripped from their bodies, skin torn from flesh by sand caught in the wind, and their bodies carried out to sea by the storm, never to be recovered.

Vanessa agreed with Louisa’s assertion that the hurricane was a character – and a psychopathic one at that – in its own right.

“I wanted it to come across as a psychopathic character,” she said. “One that knows nothing except destruction.

“The storm scenes were the most difficult to write. They were physically and emotionally exhausting. I wanted the reader to feel like they’d been through the washing machine on a spin cycle. When I came to the end I had to go outside and breathe and look at the sun.”

And Louisa wondered how an author retains the reader in suspense when – as is so often the case in an historical drama – he knows what is ultimately going to happen.

“It’s about creating characters that the reader cares about before the author puts them in peril. The reader has invested in those characters, and wants to know what happens to them. Do they live, or do they die?”

Vanessa said it would have been too easy to save the ‘good’ characters and kill the ‘bad’. “The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither could I,” she said.

But Vanessa, who trained as a zoologist, did stick to one golden rule of writing: “Kill any human you want, but never, ever kill the dog.”

Summertime is published in the UK by Orion, and is widely available in hardback and paperback.

Words and other on-stage pictures by Peter Davison.

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