67. Durham Reads ‘Possessions of Doctor Forrest’: Darkness at the 2011 BookFest

Inside Durham's mighty Cathedral: Photo - Sarah Harris

You have to know that for me there’s no finer place on earth than County Durham. It’s where us Kellys come from – at least where my great-grandparents had got themselves to by the dawn of the 1900s: South Moor and Burnhope, Pelton Fell and Eden Hill. Which is why a goodly chunk of my first novel Crusaders was set in the DH1 postcode – Durham City, Framwellgate Moor, Newton Hall, the exquisitely-named Pity Me. Evocative nomenclature comes with the territory up there, and in Crusaders the main character John Gore is seen in his childhood to be a keen collector of intriguing place-names that point to his future vocation as a solitary Anglican priest: Craghead, Monk Hesleden, Quaking Houses, Sacriston.
All this by way of saying that it means the world to me that the 2011 Durham Book Festival has picked The Possessions of Doctor Forrest for its first countywide civic reading project, and has released a thousand copies of the novel for free distribution through local reading groups, libraries, civic and cultural venues and hand-picked ‘ambassadors.’
The effort has been directed by the truly superb New Writing North agency, who gave a no less staunch support to Crusaders back in 2008 – such that with that book, too, a number of reading groups much more accustomed to spending their valuable reading time on proven/bestselling titles by known/acclaimed names were persuaded to give my stuff a try-out. If you’re not a front-rank recognisable novelist then it’s a very, very precious experience to get your work commended to readers in this manner for inspection and discussion. Consequently you do get a lot of straight-spoken opinions coming back at you; but in this day and age it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful and educational experience for a writer. In these situations the readers who have enjoyed a book tend to evince an embrace of it that’s hugely more ardent than any review you could imagine. And with those who weren’t so struck on it… well, the opinion will usually be candid and also fresh, free of the formula and conveyor-nature of newspaper write-ups. I certainly learned a lot on Crusaders, and very much look forward to the same once Durham’s had a read and made its mind up on Doctor Forrest.
I was asked by Durham Book Festival to create content for a Reading Guide to be used by anyone seeking a bit of background on the novel and what inspired it; along with a set of questions for consideration by reading groups. That guide has been very handsomely designed and is downloadable here.
The Festival is also programming a selection of gothic-themed movies which will tour Durham by mobile cinema, and there will be a number of guided walks around the city that explore the gothic architecture and the darker side of local history. A writers’ workshop exploring Doctor Forrest will happen on Friday 21 October
And on Tuesday 18 October I will be talking about the novel at the Gala Theatre, as well as reading selections from Doctor Forrest and also (abetted by actors) some of the great Victorian gothic classics.
A whole lot of Forrest, then, in Durham come October. ‘Come and play with us’, as those sweet little girls say in The Shining

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