By Jamie Stewart
The third event in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Manchester Writing series, held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation this week, welcomed guest author Patrick Marnham. Patrick came to Manchester to talk about his career as a journalist in Africa, as a biographer and also to read passages from some of his work with emphasis on the ties between fiction and non-fiction.
Manchester Writing is a series of events that opens a dialogue between established and emerging writers, connecting them through a deep love of literature. It also looks at the techniques that writers use in their work.
Firstly, students from Manchester Writing School’s MA in Creative Writing were invited onto the stage to share their work. Introduced by Senior Lecturer Joe Stretch, student Anne Worthington read from her novel: an account of a 15-year-old girl, Maggie. “There is sun on the pavement, in the trees. The sun has found its way onto my legs, his hands, his hair. I open the window, let the air blow. This man, this man. I don’t know why, what, I’m here for.” She continued: “A smile for him, not for me. And when he looks over, I let him look.”
MA Creative Writing Student Lewis Cox also took to the stage to perform a short piece from a novel he’s writing for his MA portfolio. Lewis said, “It’s about a guy called Leon, who works in a library. He comes up with a game where he has to make deductions about the lives of his customers from their reading habits.”
After the students’ readings, Patrick Marnham was invited to the stage to read a few short passages from his biography, Army of the Night: The Life and Death of Jean Moulin, Legend of the French Resistance. The book tells the story of the life and death of a French war hero, Jean Moulin, a member of the French Resistance in World War II who died after being tortured by the Gestapo, possibly by his own hand .
Patrick said of the book, “It’s based on a lot of research, a great deal, looking for holes in previous accounts of the narrative, looking for what hasn’t been covered, and the obvious questions that haven’t been asked.” He added, “I use biography in an attempt to find out what happened that afternoon.”
Asked why Jean Moulin appealed to him as an inspiration for a biography, he replied: “A man’s life can sometimes be defined by his death.”
Patrick then read from Snake Dance: Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky. This book follows the journey of uranium from the Congo, where it was mined, to New Mexico, where it was made into the atomic bomb. Finally, it travelled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the bombs were dropped. The chronology of the uranium is a strong narrative thread that holds the piece together.
Patrick told Humanity Hallows, “The biography form works for me.”
The content of Marnham’s biographies and travelogues, however, are not merely a relay of information and facts. They each have individual and unique narrative voices that discern them from other works of fiction and non-fiction. A biography isn’t merely the act of retelling the facts in a chronological order, but rather finding a narrative voice that mirrors and compliments the content of a life. There is, therefore, a great deal of creativity needed in non-fiction and biography.
Narrative voice continued to be a dominating theme for the night, one audience member asking Patrick, “Is it difficult to find a narrative voice in non-fiction?”
Patrick replied, “I find that the wrong first sentence – that you can throw away at a later point – gets you going and gives you a very strong narrative voice. For Snake Dance, I found the opening sentence almost at the end of the book.”
Patrick’s career in journalism was touched upon by another audience member, who said, “With what’s going on today in Syria, do you find it possible to trust the information about what’s really happening?”
He replied, “We’re all much better informed than we used to be, but I remain cynical.”
Patrick also had advice and encouragement for Creative Writing students. He said, “Write every day, and read. Read everything you can get your hands on, read as many different authors as you can.”
For more information about upcoming events hosted by the Manchester Writing School, see their events page.
Jamie is from Manchester and is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School. He enjoys reading and baking.