Hay Festival: Jessie Burton and Jon Ronson

I went to two events during my second day at the Hay Festival on Monday. First up in the morning was Jessie Burton in conversation with Georgina Godwin about her novel ‘The Miniaturist’ in the Tata tent. The event was the last day of the official tour to promote her novel which was on of the biggest debuts of 2014. As Godwin noted in her introduction, the book “went viral in an analogue way” becoming a word-of-mouth bestseller and has since been published in 34 countries.

Hay Festival Jessie Burton Jon Ronson

I had only read just over half of ‘The Miniaturist’ when I went to the event. This turned out to be ideal in that I knew enough about the book and main characters to appreciate what was being said about it but fortunately, Burton was careful not to give away spoilers about the ending. Set in the seventeenth century in Amsterdam, the book tells the story of eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman who has recently married a wealthy merchant called Johannes Brandt. His wedding gift to her is a cabinet-sized replica of their home and Nella commissions an elusive miniaturist to make furnishings for it. However, the miniaturist’s creations start to mirror real events in the Brandt household with the mystery surrounding whether or not Nella’s fate lies in the miniaturist’s hands.

The novel was inspired by a dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam belonging to a real woman called Petronella Oortman although Burton’s story and characters are entirely fictional. The cabinet house was a status symbol for wealthy families and was often worth as much as the house itself. Burton said she had been curious about what motivated people to invest so much time and effort in recreating their homes in miniature form.

Burton talked about the experience of writing the book whilst working as an actress and PA in London and the long process of getting it edited and published. In total, the book took four years to write and was drafted seventeen times. She said that writing and researching the book was mostly a parallel process. I think this is evident in the book itself as the historical detail appears to be relatively light and doesn’t cloud over the story, but the descriptions remains colourful and vivid.

Burton has nearly finished drafting her second novel, provisionally titled ‘Belonging’, which is set during the Spanish Civil War and will hopefully be published in 2016 or 2017. Fans of ‘The Miniaturist’ will be pleased to hear that TV rights have been sold to the company who produced ‘Wolf Hall’ and that Burton hasn’t ruled out writing a sequel or accompanying novel which she imagines will be set around sixteen years after the first book and will explore the life of one of the secondary characters.

Jessie Burton Jon Ronson Hay Festival

In the evening, I went to see Jon Ronson in conversation with John Mitchinson on the Telegraph stage.  Like Jessie Burton, Ronson’s event at the Hay Festival came at the end of a twelve week tour to promote his book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’. Ronson is best known for his book ‘The Psychopath Test’ and his new book deals with an equally fascinating yet terrifying subject.

Public shaming in the Internet age, where one ill-advised comment or tweet can go viral in a matter of hours, is essentially about the fine line between critiquing someone for “misusing their privilege” and completely humiliating and demonising them to the point where their whole existence or identity is deemed to be worthless. Ronson made some sharp observations about social media, Twitter in particular, as a “mutual approval network” which gives voiceless people a voice and where “beautiful naivety is clashing with increasingly horrific reality”. For now, public shaming seems unstoppable as a cathartic form of social (mob) justice.

One of the most famous examples of public shaming on Twitter featured in the book is the aftermath which followed an ostensibly racist tweet made by Justine Sacco, a PR officer from New York, shortly before she got on a flight to Cape Town in December 2013. By the time her plane had landed, the tweet had been shared thousands of times and she had lost her job. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide as thousands eagerly awaited the heartstopping moment when she realised what had happened. As Ronson noted, it was Sacco’s total obliviousness to the situation while she was in the air which fuelled the public shaming. Moreover, even months later, few people saw Sacco as a victim of bullying due to her actions and “privilege”.

Although public shaming is a largely depressing subject, the event ended with a more positive account of how the online community rallied together to honour Chris Sievey, aka Frank Sidebottom, and raise money for his funeral. Ronson spoke eloquently about public shaming with both humour and compassion and I look forward to reading the book soon.


Filed under Books

20 responses to “Hay Festival: Jessie Burton and Jon Ronson

  1. Hi, really enjoyed reading this update and very green around the gills re your dual events – must be so interesting. Thanks for sharing the stories – didn’t love “The Miniaturist” but interested to see how novel number two is – and have a friend who just recently recommended the Ronson book in the context of the public shaming incident, so will look forward to your reviewing of it. Nicola


  2. They sound like great events! Jon Ronson is someone I’d particularly like to see. I love all his little anecdotes! I haven’t read his latest book yet, but it sounds like an important warning. Twitter is a dangerous place sometimes.


  3. Great to read: I was at both of those events, working as a steward, and whilst I’d read the Ronson on the train to Wales, I am now very tempted by The Miniaturist… although I have already bought around twenty books here, so it may have to wait!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on the story writes itself… and commented:
    Well, I couldn’t go this year, so thanks for sharing Clare. Two wonderful authors.


  5. Thanks for looking in on my Hay article Clare, really wished I could have gone myself this year. Great blog, I love a good book review, wouldn’t buy a book without one now.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read the Miniaturist and was blown away – magical realism at its best.


  7. I’ve read two articles about the Shaming book now – definitely a book that has to be written for our times.
    Hope you will review The Minituarist – will be interested to see what you think.


  8. I’m learning so much by reading your blog regularly, Clare. I am amazed at how much you do (conferences, traveling, etc.) related to books/authors/reviews, etc. May I ask if you are a writer, yourself? What got you into reviewing books? (I’ve included a link to your site on my blog: recniky.com – Inklings of a Bookworm).


    • Thank you 🙂 I’m not a budding author but I do enjoy reading and blogging about books with like-minded people. Hay was the first literature festival I’ve ever been to – I don’t get to go to as many events as I’d like to unfortunately!


  9. Having returned from 9 days at Hay as a steward, I read The Miniaturist in one sitting (have to these days as the book pile is too big to allow novels to take up too much time). I enjoyed it as a story, and agree that the descriptions were vivid and brought the scenes to life, but I was left with more and more questions as it went along. I would say that it was enjoyable, but no more than that.


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