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Writing Real Lives in Historical Fiction

Stephen May, author of Sell Us the Rope featuring a young Joseph Stalin, discusses the pleasures and challenges of writing historical fiction about real people with Devika Ponnambalam, author of I Am Not Your Eve, which tells the story of Teha’amana, the 13-year-old girl sold to the artist Paul Gaugin in Tahiti.

Sell Us the Rope: May 1907. Young Stalin – poet, bank- robber, spy – is in London for the 5th Congress of the Russian Communist Party. As he builds his powerbase in the party, Stalin manipulates alliances with Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg under the eyes of the Czar’s secret police. Meanwhile he is drawn to the fiery Finnish activist Elli Vuokko and risks everything in a relationship as complicated as it is dangerous. ‘Original, adept and confident… What can I say except I wish I had written it myself?’ Hilary Mantel

Stephen May is the author of five novels including Life! Death! Prizes! which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and The Guardian Not The Booker Prize. He has also been shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and is a winner of the Media Wales Reader’s Prize. He has also written plays, as well as for television and film. He lives in West Yorkshire.

I Am Not Your Eve tells the story of Teha’amana, the 13-year-old girl who was sold to artist Paul Gaugin during his first stay on Tahiti in 1891. Teha’amana can be seen in some of Gaugin’s most famous works, such as The Spriit of the Dead Keeps Watch, and is written about in Gaugin’s journals. The story explores the themes of power, abuse and colonialism, and incorporates the origin myths that underpinned Tahitian society before French colonists arrived on the island, as well as diary entries from Gaugin’s daughter, Aline.

Devika Ponnambalam is a writer and film-maker based in Edinburgh. She graduated with a BA (Hons) in Film & Video from West Surrey College of Art & Design in 1991, and from 1995 to 1998 specialised in Fiction Directing at the National Film and Television School, before moving into mainstream television, directing over 25 episodes of Hollyoaks and a number of shorts. In 2003, she undertook an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. I Am Not Your Eve is her first novel.

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Location: Festival Hub