Ilkley Literature Festival: Helen Dunmore

14th Oct 2010

Helen Dunmore

I write because I am interested in people,” the bestselling novelist, poet and children’s book writer Helen Dunmore told the captivated audience at the Ilkey Literature Festival, where she was in conversation with the beautifully-voiced James Nash, whose honeyed tones glided over the ear like whisky over ice.

Dunmore herself was equally as pleasant to listen to, and her talk was both informative and entertaining. A writer whose scope is as wide as her vocabulary, Dunmore spoke at length about her latest Booker long-listed novel The Betrayal, its predecessor The Siege (published in 2001 and nominated for both the Orange Prize and the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award), and about her latest achievement; winning the anonymous National Poetry Competition.

For a writer who has both won and been nominated for so many awards, Helen Dunmore is remarkably blasé about them. “It is a shame that our literary culture relies so much on prizes,” she says when asked if literary prizes, especially those specifically for female authors, are still relevant. “But their cannot be too many opportunities to bring writers and readers together, anything that does this is beneficial”.

But what about women writers? The Orange Prize, when launched by Kate Mosse and some female friends in 1996, gained much controversy, with a proportion of the literary establishment seemingly insulted by a prize that only half the human race could enter (with AS Byatt condemning it as sexist), and the other half bemused as to why a prize was needed in the first place.

It is the dedication and commitment to the prize the organisers showed in ’96, and continue to show to this day that Dunmore, the  first winner of the award for her excellent and powerful novel A Spell of Winter, applauds. She is clearly passionately in favour of the prize, believes that women writers need a forum, and that the Orange Prize has risen in stature (a journalist recently described it as “the prize for imaginative fiction you want to read”) because of the ongoing need for this forum: “It made people recognise not all great writing has to be male – though of course there are great male writers”.

The popularity of the Orange Prize, and the strength of its shortlists, has been tested somewhat in recent years with retorts that the women’s fiction can be too ‘gloomy’. Reading A Spell of Winter and The Siege, it’s hard to imagine that this is a recent trend. The Siege and its sequel The Betrayal, an excerpt of which was read by Dunmore during the event, cover a period from the 1941 siege of Leningrad by Nazi troops, who systematically surrounded the city, cut off the supply lines and waited for its occupants to either freeze or starve to death.

Into these circumstances Dunmore introduces a fictional family comprising of Anna, her father and young brother, and her newly-found love, Andrei. The Siege hits you in the stomach with its intensity; like all Dunmore’s writing it is incredibly provocative and personal. You see their day-to-day lives as clearly as if you are there alongside them in the freezing tenement, burning volumes of the encyclopaedia, trying to figure out the nutritional value of  boiled-down wallpaper. Is this intentional? Yes, explains Dunmore, for the private lives of individuals are more interesting than lists of figures. Novelists are different from historians, in that they are not pretending to have an omnipotent overview. The reader engages their imagination through individual stories.

Unlike other award-winning novelists who have recently made forays into historical fiction, Dunmore focuses on the day-to-day lives of normal people; Anna works in a nursery school and through her we see the corruption and ridiculous pettiness of Stalinist Russia, where your neighbour hates you because your father quotes Shakespeare, and your boss threatens to throw you into prison for the smallest discretion.

In The Betrayal, Dunmore continues the story of Anna and Andrei as they try to live their lives in the last year of Stalin’s, 1952. The book has a much quicker pace; rather than the occasionally sluggish Siege, where the form matched the endless days of starvation and loss of hope, the mood in the Betrayal is almost manic in parts. This, according to Dunmore, matches the change in the character’s lives; Anna’s baby brother is now a moody adolescent, and middle-aged Anna is trying for a baby, with not much time left.

As the book hurtles, along the characters lives unfold and the true horror of the time is displayed. Dunmore is remarkably knowledgeable about Russia, which stems from a lifelong interest in the country, its history and its literature, and this fascination comes across both in her conversation and in the text.

Dunmore comes across as not just a writer, but a reader as well. When talking about the advent of eBooks, she gets that recognisable gleam in her eye describing how people love the touch and feel of books, the collecting of them, the swapping with their friends. She is, throughout the evening, approachable and kind, offering tips to prospective novelists and being incredibly welcoming and generous during the signing at the end (being a total fan I brought rather a lot with me, which she signed with good humour and without a trace of weariness, very different from other book signings I’ve attended in the past).

A coup for Ilkley Lit Fest, whose programme was as varied and appealing as always, Dunmore is definitely a writer I would go hear speak again and I cannot recommend her books highly enough. You can buy a collection of ten of  Helen Dunmore’s books (unfortunately minus The Betrayal which is currently only in hardback) from Amazon for only £8.98.

Jess Haigh


  • Jane Bradley says:

    Thanks, Jess, for such a comprehensive write-up – makes me much less bitter about missing out!

    Good to see Ilkley giving other literary festivals a run for their money too – after working at the festival as a Stage Manager many moons ago, I still have a soft spot for them!

  • Kerry Ryan says:

    I heart Helen Dunmore. The Siege is one of the best historical novels ever written as far as I’m concerned. And Zennor in Darkness is cracking too.

  • James Nash says:

    What a lovely critique’; just stumbled over this today, only a year late. It was a magical event with the charming and super intelligent Helen Dunmore. And how nice that I apparently have ‘honeyed tones’.