We are often asked how organising a 9 day festival can take us all year. Let us first say that we do not work full time but only 3 days a week, only going up to 5 in the period when we finalise the programme and then 7 in the run up to JBW itself. We promised you a look behind the scenes, here it is.What are we up to now? Mostly gathering information about possible speakers. We have written to publishers, we’ve got the catalogues but it’s always nice to meet face to face.
I went for instance to see Barbara Schwepke, the founder of Haus publishing in London. Her lovely office is on top of a boutique bookshop, very close to Sloane Square, selling mostly Haus books but not exclusively and a charming venue for small events. It is well worth a visit. The place is so tiny that the furniture in her office is either antique camping chairs and tables which you imagine were familiar to the likes of Livingstone or a spectacular triangular desk (ideal for brainstorming) which was assembled in situ. Haus started with an interesting concept: short biographies, the kind you would read to know the essential about a major historical figure, while still displaying on your shelves the huge doorstopper you bought but never found the time to read… Since then, they’ve also published travel writing, general non fiction and are now launching into fiction in translation, Barbara’s old passion.
In these extremely difficult times, a small outfit like Haus can thrive because of very low costs and overheads. Contrary to the big publishers, they cannot afford to pay large advances to their writers or spend huge amount of money on marketing but they are also happy with small print runs. So knowing her readers and reaching out to the right audiences is essential, which makes taking part in a festival quite useful. Interestingly Barbara also sings the praises of Amazon at a time when bookshops won’t take risks and can definitely not stock all that is published in the UK.
She tells me of a forthcoming and very exciting biography of Clarice Lispector by Ben Moser. The Brazilian writer was famously described as looking like Marlene Dietrich and writing like Virginia Woolf. They will also be publishing one of her novels. Now we have to contact the author and decide what is the best format for the event: a talk on Lispector, a conversation between Ben and other writers who admired Lispector such as Cixous, readings of her work? This will all be decided in the coming months.
Barbara also tells me about a fascinating project: the publication of a series of books on the peace conferences of 1919 to 1923. There will be one book for each of the 32 delegations attending, published over 3 years. We may do an event around two of them: Chaim Weizmann: The Zionist Dream by TG Fraser and The Ashemites: The Dream of Arabia by Robert McNamara. This is the kind of long view project which might appeal to Jonathan Freedland.
A visit to Penguin is a completely different experience. First of all, I love going there because it is my ideal bike ride through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, down Green Park and along the Mall. Their stunning very modern offices are on the Strand over several floors of eerily quiet open plan desks but we meet in the break up area with very highbacked pods and a gorgeous view over the South Bank. I see the lovely ladies from their various divisions who tell me about the wealth of authors we’d surely like to invite to JBW.
I find out that Marina Lewycka’s new novel We are all Made of Glue has an eccentric old Jewish emigre as one of her main characters. I look forward to reading it. We’d love Marina to come but unfortunately she apparently spends part of the year in New Zealand now so we just have to hope she’ll be in the UK at the beginning of March. William D Cohan’s book House of Cards, How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism will be published in paperback. A former investigative journalist and investment banker, he won the FT Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award for The Last Tycoons. We know we definitely want to address the recession at the next JBW but at a time when we expect sponsors to be much less generous, we are not sure we can bring him over from the US; maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll have planned to be in the UK at that time. Another possibility is Rupert Isaacson whom I heard at the Hay Festival. Penguin will most probably fly him back to the UK from Dallas to talk about The Horse Boy, the amazing story of his autistic son and how he reacted positively to shamans and horses and the tough but healing trip they took to Mongolia. I know he is a most inspirational speaker and, when I heard him, he did joke about his Jewishness making him prone to feeling guilty. But when we know we’ll have fewer sessions next year, is that the right one for us? Then there is the republication by Penguin Classics of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev (with an introduction by Norman Lebrecht) and The Chosen, something definitely to be celebrated. Norman Lebrecht is full of ideas and we definitely want him on board. Sadly, there will be a new novel by Naomi Alderman but too late for us, snif!
I have been and will be talking to many more publishers. The pile of books to read is getting higher and higher. Then there are also the emails from writers getting in touch directly, often because they are self published. I wish I could say yes to every one but, unfortunately, it’s impossible. Next year’s festival will be slightly smaller so we have to be very careful in our choices and combinations so you, our audience, have the best possible experience. We want to bring you the authors you love but also take you to the ones you’ve never heard about and that we have discovered for you. The only thing we need is your trust.