No more than two weeks into the new academic year, and the celebrated (23rd) UEA Literary Festival is underway. This year’s events are particularly special, in that all of the speakers are UEA graduates, something fitting for the University’s 50th year.
Speaking to an audience of hundreds, Rose Tremain opened the series in conversation with UEA’s Christopher Bigsby. Tremain has received numerous accolades throughout her career as an author, notably the Whitbread Award and Orange Prize, as well as most recently being shortlisted for the 2013 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for her novel ‘Merivel: A Man of his Time’.
However it is her academic history that generated such a sense of comfort and warmth in Lecture Theatre 1. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree at UEA, Tremain went on to teach Creative Writing, and earlier this year was appointed Chancellor of our concrete paradise. Of her appointment, Tremain says that UEA ‘helped to change the direction of my life’, and that she hopes to ‘pay this back by being a vibrant spokeswoman’. On the evening she was covering topics as diverse as New Zealand, fashion, and bears.
Before the event began, there was a sense in the hall of the Norwich community’s allegiance with UEA, compared to other universities that find themselves embroiled in ‘town vs gown’ debates. The majority of the audience were excited locals, especially the couple sitting directly behind me, conversing about how the Literary festival is one of their ‘highlights of the year’.
On her first years at the University, Tremain recalled how she’d applied to UEA in that hope that by ‘simply being in close proximity’ to a ‘real’ writer (novelist and former professor Sir Angus Wilson) she would improve as one herself. Judging by her success, her theory may well have worked. Interestingly for Concrete enthusiasts, Tremain remembered starting a student newspaper at UEA prior to Concrete’s existence, inexplicably titled ‘Decanter’. Moving on to discuss her teaching years, she spoke about how in Creative Writing workshops she’d ‘hear [herself] saying things [she] didn’t know [she] knew’, in turn allowing her to gain further insight into her own work.
The conversation didn’t focus entirely around UEA, as the audience were granted insight into Tremain’s views on ‘historical fiction’, often the genre that she finds herself labelled with. When asked about why British writers tend to focus on the past, Tremain revealed how, for her, history is less of a ‘receding road’ and more of a ‘great lighted mansion’, in whose rooms she can discover hidden truths and stories. In response to the same question, Tremain pointed out another reason for this preoccupation – that ‘the contemporary is so swiftly passing…it is viciously hard to get hold of’. Whether writing about the past or present, the author also explained how it is important to allow a story ‘journeying room’ while writing it, as ‘absolutes have a way of crushing the imaginative inventions’. We can only hope that the next seven talks are as entertaining and insightful as the first.