I was invited to attend the Toronto International Writers Festival and what a treat! It is fascinating to see how other people in different countries do things. Some you can hope to learn from and possibly replicate, others you know you won’t be able to, such as having your office and green room in the penthouse suite of a luxury hotel…
The opening night was a heart warming event with Diana Athill and Alice Munro in support of Pen. The audience had paid $100 for the cocktail and talk and it was a full house. The two grand ladies of letters were funny, honest and obviously enjoyed meeting each other. The words “short stories” were not mentioned once and I wondered when, in the UK, people would realise that a short story writer is not simply someone who still has to grow up to writing long stories. Munro won the Man Booker International but is not eligible for the Booker! at least for the moment. You can listen to their podcast on the Globe and Mail website.
The next day, with Orhan Pamuk, the mood was quite different . He started with a 20 minutes reading of his new novel, The Museum of Innocence, followed by an interview. He was charming, tongue in cheek, thoughtful but became icy cold when asked about politics. Why is it that writers who come from “difficult” countries can’t simply talk about their novels. It’s journalists who ask political questions about topics that are simply not in the books. And no he does not regret expressing the views he did but was not going to be drawn onto that terrain. As to talking about his assassinated friend, the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink whose photo was on the stage, he was simply not the subject of a talk show. I felt sorry for his lovely interviewer who was looking more and more uneasy. I also felt sorry for his translator whose name he simply did not mention but explained that it did not reflect the amount of work put in by him and other people to make the English text his own. He talked beautifully about writing about a town, either as an outsider regretting what’s missing or an insider tracing a personal map of all the places relevant to the author’s own story. He dismissed writers who say they are led by their characters whereas his novels are carefully plotted. He was there, as in his books, perfectly in control and most brilliant to watch and listen to. I had once dreamt of having Pamuk in conversation with either Amos Oz or David Grossman but I doubt this will ever happen. Pity!
I attended an interesting event trying to bring in new technology to the book festival. The room was set up cabaret style and the young woman I sat next to didn’t seem overjoyed by my company. She had probably hoped for a handsome stranger not a middle aged lady. People were invited to tweet about the session as it went along, a bit like thinking aloud in writing, their tweets for all to read on a screen. There also was a journalist from the Toronto Globe blogging live on the event. The discussion was all about Peep culture as opposed to Pop culture, writers blogging in character, etc… The most interactive moment of the session was still when people were invited to get up and learn how to open a coconut. That’s also when I finally chatted with my neighbour. Then a band riffed to screened You Tube videos, a woman being spanked, a kid bewildered by anasthesia, Susan Boyle… That’s when I left. Probably not one to bring home, apart maybe for the coconuts.
The festival went on with a mix of readings and round tables. Readings are a serious affair, with 4 or 5 authors (novelists, poets or even non fiction writers) reading for 20 minutes or so each and an interval in the middle, no questions or discussions. Some writers love it and are very good at it, others tell me they don’t see the point of it. I think the odd mixing enables to introduce new voices or genres. It can also be a sort of best of the festival. Maybe one to try at JBW… I would love to hear what people think. I was only at the festival for a few days but heard an impressive of international authors such as Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Boualem Sansal, Colm Toibin, Sherman Alexie, Iain Pears, Adam Thorpe, Sarah Waters, Tash Aw, John Irving, Michael Ignatieff and, of course, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood.
I was impressed by the relatively young average age of the audience and so were my colleagues from New Zealand and Australia. There were even some amazingly stunning Punks complete with Mohicans and studded jackets come to meet David Byrne who was talking about his Bicycle Diaries. Students go in free although apparently most of them don’t take advantage of the offer and will buy their tickets. I also learnt a new term: “toilet review” as practiced by my of my colleagues who will shut herself up in a cubicle after an event to hear what people say about it. In that case, it was after AL Kennedy‘s superb show “Words” and the review was enthusiastic as it should be.
Back in the UK, I was greeted by Amanda Craig’s blog giving some advice to festival organisers. Her list of dos and don’ts makes sense and I hope we don’t suffer from too much of the faults she attacks. The question of how much a writer should be paid is a difficult one. We tend to think we help an author promoting a new book but it must be said that even established writers today receive advances which become pityful if divided by the time it’s taken them to produce their new work. I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and make sure what we offer is worth coming to JBW. It may definitely not be the payment but hopefully the pairing with another writer, an attentive audience, a good and well-prepared chair and, of course, good book sales. Definitely for me the most exciting part of devising the programme is the matchmaking between authors. I was delighted to know that AL Kennedy and Shalom Auslander or Sarah Dunant and Amy Bloom are still in touch. And at our next festival, I look forward to conversations between Susan Neiman and the Chief Rabbi, Philippe Sington and Frank Tallis, Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer and last but not least, Michael Arditti and … Amanda Craig. If you have not yet read her wonderful Hearts and Minds, rush and get a copy.