The Rooftop Book Club

The Rooftop Book Club

Event: The Rooftop Book Club: A Literary Adventure with Tinder Press

Venue: Carmelite House

Report by Eleanor Baggley

The theme for this latest Rooftop Book Club, hosted by Headline at their offices in Carmelite House, was travel and adventure. Indeed exploring distant climes seemed to be the order of the day, with two of the authors here from very different parts of the world: Alaska and Australia.

Cathy Rentzenbrink led the panel and was joined by Eowyn Ivey, who was talking about her new novel To the Bright Edge of the World, Stephanie Bishop, who was talking about her latest novel The Other Side of the World, and Morgan McCarthy, whose novel The House of Birds is due in November.

These three novels, all published by Tinder Press, span history and the world, but have some quite key themes in common. Notably, they all discuss the role of women, particularly women as mothers. Moreover, location is also a hugely important element of the novels, so much so that Cathy Rentzenbrink went as far as to suggest that location is like an additional character in all three. Although this was countered by one of the authors, from this discussion alone it was clear to see how all three have been influenced and defined by place.


Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop

All three of these novels could be considered to fit under the heading of historical fiction. For that reason much of the discussion focused on how the authors researched their novels and what inspired them initially.

For Eowyn Ivey a report of an exploration to Alaska in the 1880s provided the initial inspiration. To the Bright Edge of the World is a mixture of fact and fiction based on this exploration. She found this intertwining of fact and fiction ‘challenging and exciting’, but found that ‘fiction works best when it takes on a life of its own’ and doesn’t just recreate history.

Both Ivey and McCarthy talked about their fears of factual inaccuracies and the resulting compulsive fact checking. McCarthy in particular writes about a character in the 1920s that has an interest in history, so it was important not to put in historical fact that wouldn’t have yet been known in by a historian in that period.

Stephanie Bishop, on the other hand, does not consider her novel, The Other Side of the World, to be historical fiction. Her research is ‘lazy and fraudulent’ because it is heavily based on the experiences of her grandparents. She relied on taking oral histories from her family and it was particularly touching to hear that her grandmother responded so positively to a version of her own life, saying that Bishop captured her own feelings of dislocation perfectly.

Women and Children

Although all three novels explore the role of women, it is perhaps more pronounced in Morgan McCarthy’s The House of Birds. Set in part in the 1920s it would be difficult not to include some exploration of the issue. McCarthy talked engagingly about how she hadn’t initially intended this idea of women to take such a leading role in the novel, but as her research progressed she became more and more fascinated with the way women were treated. Specifically the novel explores fertility and the suggestion that women’s bodies were not their own. Ivey too, writes about this separation of women from their own physical selves and the idea that women do not know their own bodies. McCarthy explores this theme through her main character and a doctor, who she calls a throw back to the Victorian era.

Whilst the threat of the asylum looms in McCarthy’s novel, Stephanie Bishop explores the idea of motherhood and what defines someone as a good or a bad mother. Interestingly these two discussions merged when Bishop talked about the diagnosis of post-natal depression as an attempt to pathologise a woman’s innate lack of “good” mothering skills. She questioned why medical professionals of the past felt such a need to define and, in doing so, confine, female emotion.

I sincerely hope that the team behind the Book Club are not starting to run out of steam. The authors and hosts of their events continue to be of the highest calibre, but I found this last one lacking. Perhaps it was the intense heat. The conversations were engaging and the questions well considered, but to me it felt like more of an opportunity to admire the London skyline from the terrace as opposed to a fantastic literary event. I would have loved to hear more from the authors – possibly a reading, or two – which, in reality, is perhaps less a criticism and more a testament to the quality of the evening.

Report by Eleanor Baggley

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