#EdBookFest: Alexander Masters

Since I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see Alexander Masters speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday, I decided a short companion piece to my earlier review was in order.

The talk was hosted by James Runcie, who after a brief introduction, led the author through a series of questions about how the book came into being, and the various revelations he had experienced as he pursued the elusive diarist’s trail. 

The decision to approach the talk in the same order as the process detailed in the book lent it immediacy, as it felt like we experienced the discoveries alonside the author (also an effect of the book), which provoked audible gasps from those who have yet to read it. 

Masters proved as witty and engaging in person as he is in writing, noting, when asked about his visit to a graphologist, that he has no faith in graphology, but he likes graphologists – or, at least, that he’s met two and liked them both enormously.

There was little time for audience questions, but the first raised an excellent point about the ethics of reading another person’s private papers and publishing work based on them. Masters agreed that there is a point in every project of this kind where permission needs to be sought from the subject or their estate, and a decision made on how to proceed. This question allowed him to segue into the final reveal of the afternoon – that the diarist is still alive – and talk about how, when the subject is a private person (as opposed to a celebrity), care must be taken not to ‘trash’ them, because you’re writing about someone who has limited, if any, means to respond. While the diarist had been happy to have excerpts of her writing published, the author still changed her name to preserve anonymity. The proceeds of the book are shared between them.

Further questions revealed that Masters still has the diaries, and the diarist now writes 2 diaries: a continuation of her original diaries, and one for him. While Masters’ reaction to the idea that the diarist might leave her diaries to him was “God, I hope not!” he did say that he felt that there was scope to fictionalise certain incidents in the diarist’s life (in particular a passionate, but chaste, love affair) in the form of short stories.

To the final question – who put the diaries in the skip – he said that he’d revealed enough, and suggested we read the book.