Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hanif Kureishi at Hay Festival Cartagena

One of the greatest things about going to literary Festivals is having the chance to become reacquainted with writers whose work I used to know and read. Yesterday, I saw British writer Hanif Kureishi on stage and the conversation started around his early work (a screenplay in this case), My Beautiful Laundrette. I was so crazy about Kureishi when I was in my early and late 20s. The entire world he created was a new one to me: contemporary London, Pakistani migrants, skinheads. It was a movie I saw several times with various groups of friends.

The conversation yesterday centred around this early work and not much else was said about his later work (a little about his excellent novel The Buddha of Suburbia) but not a single thing was said about his new book, The Last Word. Odd to invite a writer halfway across the world and talk only about his career from 20-25 years ago.

Still it was good to hear him talk about the screenplay and a bit about Buddha. I also found that the details about the reception the film had was interesting: because there are themes of homosexuality in the book and the two protagonists share a kiss, the film was picketed in New York when it opened in 1985. His last book seemed to get very little buzz (I heard nothing about it until I googled him and looked up his recent work on Amazon).

Kureishi is in a unusual position in many ways: he's quite famous in the writing and literary scene but people rarely talk about his work except Laundrette and Buddha (maybe inside the UK it's different). And he's a good writer. The thought occurred to vis a vis a recent post: how do writers like Kureishi make money? He talked about his house in London, etc., which clearly means he has somehow managed to do OK though it's not clear if his money has come from his writing or somewhere else (his family, etc.). He teaches creative writing, sure, but owning a house in London?

Not that it matters but the thought does occur to me frequently since it is so hard to make money from writing nowadays. And when I hear about writers who live in Manhattan (even Brooklyn to some extent), London, Paris or Vancouver, I wonder: how on earth do they survive?!

Kureishi mentioned this in passing, how London was a city of the very rich and the very poor. That practically no middle class people live there. And this is my sense of New York, as well, especially Manhattan. How that must change your perception of life, of traveling, of immigration, of a working life. If everyone you know is wealthy and all you see are chains of huge corporations, you have an odd view of the rest of the world perhaps...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Trying to finalize the 2016 program in Colombia, catching some literary events on the side at Hay Festival - Cartagena, and I managed to read all my books brought along and so headed out yesterday to try and find something (anything) in English to read.

I was surprised at the terrible selection of English books. Nothing local (why not stock translations of Colombian writers somewhere in a big Colombian bookstore in a town full of tourists?!) and mainly just crap. Twilight, romance, bad crime fiction. But among the crap, I spied something of interest: Neil Gaiman's book The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

A good little read, something that I did today in between bouts of emailing, writing event descriptions and scheduling events. The novel is structured as a flashback, a middle-aged man returning home for a funeral and being suddenly struck by a childhood friend and experience that he'd almost wiped from his memory.

The book is magical: scary, mysterious, exciting, adventurous, involving a magical trio of women (grandmother, mother, daughter) with special powers and insights into the invisible worlds all around us.

Typical YA story of a child triumphing over evil and learning about the true secret nature of the world but told in a captivating and engaging way.

I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work - this isn't one of his strongest but it felt like he was in it, much more so than his other works. It felt personal.

In any case, a great read on a hot Caribbean day in the sun. Perfect kind of book to give to an early adolescent for a gift.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Philip Pullman is wrong (though writers should be paid): Oxford Literary Festival and Paying Writers

Phillip Pullman has resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival because, he argues, the Festival doesn't pay its writers My first reaction is that Pullman clearly has little to no understanding how the Festival system works.

Pullman: Money money money
First off, Blue Met pays all its authors. I know many Festivals who proudly say "we've never paid an author," but for me this isn't something to shout about. What these Festival people are actually saying when they make this boast is that their Festival is so important that writers WANT to do it and are willing to do it for free. I've never been convinced that this is true. In fact, I know it's not true because writers who attend these Festivals often complain to me about it.

We Are Not All Stephen King

Some writers don't need the money. Stephen King probably doesn't care about the $300 you're going to pay him to do an event, even the $5,000 you might pay him (though he'd probably be more in the $30,000 range honestly because it's his agent who manages this part of his career). But the truth of the matter is that very few writers are Stephen King and very very few writers make money from their writing. They might have a good year. Or a good month. They might have extraordinary luck and do well for a few years. But writing a best-seller doesn't mean that writer is wealthy. No, the money doesn't just start pouring in. I could literally name right now the writers (literary writers) who make a living from their writing and nothing else. Very very few. Even huge names most people know rarely make enough from their writing to live on. That's why most big name writers teach at universities. Writing isn't enough.

Especially in Canada where a best-seller may not even mean that much money.

Case in point: a writer I know has had a book that garnered a ton of attention here in Canada. Her book was featured in most every newspaper and magazine. It was covered in the US (in some of the biggest publications there as well), nominated for several very important prizes. She has toured the world, literally, with this book. But she still hasn't made back her (very modest) advance. Her book is about as successful as a book can be in this country and yet she still hasn't earned enough to pay rent for even a month from the sales of the book.

And in the US, I imagine it's even harder as there is a lot more competition.

So writers do deserve to be paid to speak at events. "Promoting" their book is not enough.

We Are Not All the Jazz Festival

However, there is another side to this. Festivals don't make money either. We eek by every year. We are a staff of four and we put on between 200-300 events each year. None of us is getting rich in the Festival business either. We work 50 or 60 hours a week much of the year. I'm not complaining because many of us like our jobs and there are many exciting opportunities that come with working here. But our Festival barely survives each year with just enough to cover our bills, fly in writers, pay the hotel, pay for the photocopier, the phone bill, the graphic designers, the printers, the office rent, the posters, the paper clips, the furniture, the computers, the research, and all the countless things that all come together to make a literary Festival.

And keep in mind that we are one of the biggest literary Festivals in North America. There are countless other, smaller Festivals that don't have the same financial stability or resources that we do.

Yes, we pay our writers though we don't pay them much. Also, we don't provide all our writers meals
All that paper costs $$
because we pay them (most Festival provide all the meals in lieu of payment; we opt for the opposite arrangement though we do cover some meals).

If I had my way, we'd pay writers more, provide all meals, let everyone who wants to stay a week stay for a week, cover all their expenses while here. But we'd soon be out of business. Again, each year we have a small surplus (very small) that means we're not in the red but this is thanks to the huge amount of work that we all do to ensure that we meet grant deadlines, dazzle sponsors, charm funding bodies, etc. It doesn't just happen magically.

Festival Organizers Should be Invisible

In many ways running a Festival is a thankless task: you only notice us when something goes wrong (the room is too hot, the schedule is wrong, the writer is late).

When things go right and you're here at an event, enjoying yourself, listening to a writer pontificate on something relevant and brilliant in a comfortable room, you're not thinking about the Festival organizers or the countless hours of work and stress that go into every single thing which led to that event being so interesting. That's how it should be. We don't want to be noticed.

But Mr Pullman should use his ample resources and connections to find solutions to the problem that he identifies. Instead of just resigning, he should tout for a company to sponsor writer appearances or use his name recognition to convince someone to donate the cash that is earmarked only for writer appearances. Just walking away and bitching about something you don't like shows a lack of commitment and a serious lack of understanding of how a Festival works. A missed opportunity for him but also for the Festival who should have spent their resources convincing him to help find a solution. Walking away with a parting shot like that doesn't really help anyone, much less any writer to get paid.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Refugee by Pierre Nepveu


This takes place in another time, he lands here, his face still congested
by the blue sky that sucked him out of hell and made him regret, for
a moment, the sweet herbs and the women of his country. But some
things are not forgotten long, a bloodied garden, a street ringing with
the hobnailed boots of destiny. For one whole night the bullet-riddled
houses prayed in silence and in the morning there was the black smoke
of identification papers and family records, while in the distance, tail
to the wind, an orphaned donkey brayed, stranger to the lamentations
of the women trying to mend the puzzles of the shirts and vainly
smoothing their sons' hair. So much cold light welcomes this fugitive
to the air terminal that it sticks to his skin and chills and frightens
him, as if a world that washes its wounds it cannot know had something
of the monster or the tyrant -- and even as he washes his hands in the
spray of disinfectants, he's still thinking: white, white, glacial purity,
chasm where whirlpools of blood are lost, where misfortune itself is
sluiced down the drain -- and what can the colour of the earth here

                                      -- from Mirabel by Pierre Nepveu (translated by Judith Cowan)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Most Anticipated International Books of 2016!

As we wrap up our reading for the 2016 Festival planning and now get down into the nuts and bolts of creating events, it's time to look ahead and see what is coming out this year. It might seem geeky, but I actually plan my reading by first taking stock of what will be published and what will be buzzed about. Here are the books that are (so far) on my list for 2016:

The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun. The Moroccan novelist (the book was originally written in French) tells the story of a disentegrating marriage in contemporary Casablance, alternating between his and her point of view. Jelloun is a writer whose few works I've read have deeply affected me.

I Saw Her That Night by Drago Jančar. The Slovenian writer's latest translation into English tells the story of a young woman who mysteriously disappears during the war. In doing so, Jančar explores the legacy of the war on contemporary Europe and the long shadow it continues to cast, influencing the way we think about society.

The Past by Tessa Hadley. British writer Hadley is one of these writers who many people have suggested we invite to the Festival. We've tried is all I can say. Her short stories are dazzling little gems that are endlessly fascinating (a cursory search online will link to a few New Yorker pieces she's published in recent years). Her new novel explores one of Hadley's consistent themese: the role of a young girl within a family.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal. De Kerangal was at our Festival a few years back and all she'd had translated then was one book. But her nomination for the Goncourt (France's biggest literary prize) and her general booming reputation as one of France's most engaging writers has ensured that some of her works, at least, are on publishers' radar and lined up for translation. In typical De Kerangal style, this one tells the story of a heart, an actual heart, as it makes its way from one body via transplant to another.

Spill Simmer Falter Wilter by Sara Baume. As has been noted by several commentators and literary journalists, Ireland is going through a short story and fiction renaissance and Baume is one of the writers leading the way. Her stories are rich, deep and moving. Her new novel, too, got rave reviews when it came out last spring. It's not being released in North America and it's at the top of my list for this year as well.

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin. Like Baume, Danielle McLaughlin is considered one of Ireland's rising voices in short literary fiction. Her collecion of stories isn't out in North America until the summer but it's one that will be worth the wait. Her piece in The New Yorker last year, and several other pieces published online, have made her a short story writer to pay close attention to.

Also writers with books out in 2016 include Edmund White, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler and Javier Marias.

Going to be doing a LOT of reading this year!

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Last Kingdom

Over the holiday break, I watched most of the Netflix series, The Last Kingdom. I enjoyed it. It's full of swashbuckling adventure, the acting is good (David Dawson, who plays King Alfred, is phenomenal) and while the drama feels a bit manufactured now and then, it still manages to seem like real drama that medieval warriors and royalty might have faced. The series tells the story of a young Saxon boy who is orphaned and then kidnapped by Norsemen (Danes) and raised as one of them. As an adult, he's not sure where he fits and this tension between his Saxon English identity and his Norse Danish identity is one of the driving forces of the series.

People are often comparing this series to Game of Thrones though I've never seen that one or read any of those books. I do like these medieval period pieces for various reasons (since coming back from Scotland a couple of years ago, I got into medieval Viking sagas and the history of the Celts, etc.) and for me the one that sparked my interest was the show The Vikings. This one is good (I only saw the first two seasons) but I did kind of start to lose interest in it when it became a bit too modern (the fact that the hero is such a proto-feminist seems very unrealistic, even though Norse women did have slightly more rights than European women broadly, these were not moden people in any sense of the word: I am no historian or even an expert on this subject so it's just my impression).

In any case, I went out to the bookstore and picked up a copy of The Last Kingdom over the break
and started reading this, too. I'm enjoying it. This is not the kind of book I would typically read (though I fully admit it's a kind of prejudice, when someone says "fantasy" or "science fiction" I have a negative visceral reaction, probably because so much of this writing, in my opinion, is badly written) but I find this one pretty easy to read and the writing's not grating on me (so far). This one is written in first person but that makes it a fairly straightforward story and it helps to have watched the series on Netflix beforehand. Of the writer, Bernard Cornwell, I know nothing but what is written on the book: he's a former BBC journalist and lives in the US. But he's a good writer and I think the book is full of historical detail which shows a good deal of research was done.

I still have yet to view the final two episodes of Season One (there is no Season beyond, at least not at this point) so I will watch them this week but luckily there are several books in the series which may keep me occupied for some time.

(That sad feeling of watching a Netflix series you're enjoying and knowing it's going to end soon).