Literature festivals are crucial to the ecosystem of the literary arts. They not only provide a secondary income for writers and direct sales for publishers, but most importantly, they allow writers to build a rapport with their audiences. It might have looked as if such festivals were likely to dwindle in significance, as the publishing world evolved and governments around the world cut funding to the arts, but, mercifully, this has not been the case. The International Literature Festival Dublin kicks off later this month, its name change in 2015 a reflection of its status as a player on a thriving, global stage. We caught up with Programme Director Martin Colthorpe ahead of the festival to hear about the programming process and what we can look forward to as part of the ILFD this year.
Is it all systems go in the run up to the festival at this stage?
It is, yep! We launched the festival in the first week of April and we’re now selling tickets, marketing, and doing press around the authors, many of whom have new books coming out over the next couple of months.
How do you begin the programming process? Is the dream to be able to look at the festival as a body of work, or thematically? Or is it much more determined by which authors might be available and interested in coming to Dublin to promote their work?
Well, we look at authors who have new books coming out, who I’m particularly interested in and whom I think will draw a good audience in Dublin, and make their mark on the city. It’s important to have a very international programme because I think that’s what this festival can do, perhaps above others in Ireland. We rebranded the festival last year to make it International Literature Festival Dublin, and I think that that comes through not just in inviting authors from different countries, but in it having more of a geopolitical focus. You could argue that perhaps the three headline names in the core programme are Naomi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis and Svetlana Alexievich, all writers whose work has a sort of global resonance in terms of what they write about.
You mentioned the name change there – I know it’s your second year as the International Literature Festival Dublin [formerly the festival was known as Dublin Writers’ Festival]. I do want to chat to you about the name change of the festival, and what you might say to the idea that it alludes to a shift in focus, from the writers to their product?
I don’t think that the name change reflects a different policy in terms of styles of events, and I think that we’re still very much focussed on writers meeting their audiences, so there’s not a change there. I actually think “literature” can sometimes be seen as an intimidating word, but it’s a useful way of encompassing the many different genres that make up literature. This year, for instance, we have a performance of Thirst by Flann O’Brien, and then we have the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature from last year, Svetlana Alexievich, who writes reportage and essays, not fiction, so literature can be a very broad and encompassing term. Really, I think the change was more about focussing on the international flavour of our festival than anything else.
I assume that Dublin proves quite an easy place to convince writers to come out to?
Yes, absolutely, particularly international authors. French authors for example, are very influenced by the great modernist tradition in Dublin, so Joyce and Beckett, and key names like that are particularly poignant to perhaps some of the more experimental writing across Europe. Certainly Dublin is steeped in literary heritage, so thankfully a lot of people want to come to the city to be part of the festival. That said, it’s becoming a much more competitive global marketplace, so writers receive invitations from festivals all around the world. In India for example, in Australia, in Canada, English-speaking authors are in demand around the world. Luckily, I’ve found so far that Dublin has been very appealing to a whole range of different authors.
In an increasingly digitised world, and one where it seems so plausible that a number of festivals could be going on simultaneously around the globe, how do you see the ILFD, and its role in a wider literary infrastructure between writers and their readers?
My feeling about the digitalisation of books is that, that’s a very important platform for writers to meet their readership but at the same time, it’s not something that’s necessarily in conflict with printed books and the live events. It’s just another way of disseminating great literature to audiences, so alongside the writers’ digital formats, you see an increase in appetite for live events at festivals all around the UK and across Ireland as well. I think there’s still a lot of value in meeting authors face-to-face and in getting a book signed after the event and hearing them speak in public. Of course events can be broadcast live, and there is an audience for that. It’s not necessarily something that we do at ILFD, it can be quite expensive to do that, but that is another way to transmit the work, and the live events, across the globe.
There’s always a balance with literature festivals, I assume, of promoting emerging writers alongside celebrating established ones – how do you factor that into your programming?
I think you’re absolutely right. We have events at the festival such as our opening event, on Saturday 21st May, with Poetry Ireland, celebrating their new issue, The Rising Generation, which is focussed on a new generation poets in Ireland, who are emerging, and not necessarily there on the back of four or five collections. So, that’s an example of an event where we’re bringing new writers to the fore. As I said, I think the international focus is very important for us so, by contrast we have French author Maylis de Kerangal who was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. She’s very well known in her native France, but not so well known – or is becoming better known – in the English-speaking world, so it’s great to be bringing her to Dublin. And alongside events like that we have very well established authors, like AL Kennedy, like Iain Sinclair, like Deborah Levy: authors who have been around for two decades or more. I think as you suggest it’s about getting the right balance between the less and more established authors, to create a varied programme that promotes certain authors and consolidates the reputation of others.
I’d love to get your thoughts on how smaller or less established festivals with perhaps less prestige or smaller budgets should navigate the dangers of exploiting these newer voices. Is it ever acceptable to not pay writers for their time, if it means they get the chance to tap into more diversified audiences?
Well, I think all festivals are different – lots of smaller festivals in Ireland and the UK offer a different physical experience, they’re often set in more rural locations or coastal locations, and going to those festivals is perhaps a little more about the atmosphere of the place and the opportunities for different events that that can provide. It might be a place where all locally based authors go, so something like the West Cork Literary Festival in Ireland is putting on really innovative events, you know inviting certain big names, but also inviting a larger proportion of Irish writers. I think the challenge for festivals like the one I work on in Dublin, is that Dublin’s a buzzing cultural city with lots of different festivals and lots of different cultural events often happening at the same time. The festival is 19 years here, so it’s very well established, but it’s still relatively small in terms of number of events and budget, compared to say, the Edinburgh Festival, or Cheltenham, or certain other festivals like Jaipur in India – it’s relatively small compared to those ones.
Which events are you particularly excited about, as a reader primarily – or indeed as the festival’s Programme Director?
I’m in the lucky position, of being able to select the writers who take part! I have colleagues who do a brilliant job programming the young people’s events, but in terms of the events I’m looking forward to, I’m very much looking forward to meeting Chris Kraus, who’s something of a cult author really, who’s coming to the festival on Saturday 21st May. I’m a huge fan of Iain Sinclair, who writes mainly about London, but of course studied at Trinity College in the 1960s and is a big advocate for the city. He loves the city, and is looking forward to returning, talking about his memories of the city, and the literary ghosts that haunt it. I’m looking forward to meeting writers that I’ve never met before like Juan Gabriel Vásquez who won the IMPAC award here in Dublin in 2014, and looking forward to broadening my horizons with writers who write about topics that I don’t know so much about like Marcus du Sautoy. He’s coming to the festival on Sunday 22nd May, and he’s a mathematician and scientist, areas I don’t know a great deal about, but I’m looking forward to finding out more.
Alongside a growth of literary festivals we’ve seen a huge growth in book groups and reading groups, and I think that there’s a lot of authors in this festival that will appeal to people who attend book groups in the city, authors like Lionel Shriver, who of course wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, is here to introduce her new novel, that’s the kind of event that might appeal to reading groups. I think that there’s lots of different ways in for different audiences, different constituencies, within Dublin to break into the festival and I’m just looking forward to those moments.
The International Literary Festival Dublin takes place from Saturday 21st to Sunday 29th May at a variety of locations around the city. There are also some one-off ILF Dublin events taking place earlier in May, so check out their website ilfdublin.com for a full run down and to buy tickets.
Thursday 5th May | RDS | 6pm, €7 (adults) / €5 (children)
A children’s author on a mission to tackle issues that many shy away from, Jacqueline Wilson takes to the RDS stage early in May. Expect an audience that have had their internal monologues eternally shaped by this force majeure of young adult fiction.
Friday 27th May | Liberty Hall | 6pm, €12/10
The infamous former Greek Finance Minister had plenty of advice for the Irish public when they went to the polls this year, and his reception in Dublin will give way to a no doubt hearty Q and A session with Vincent Browne at the helm.
Wednesday 25th May | Smock Alley Theatre | 6pm, €12/10
What does it mean to rewrite a city? Karl Whitney hosts Iain Sinclair in an evening promising to traverse literary Dublin, the Hidden City of Whitney’s latest book, and Sinclair’s London with equal aplomb.
Wednesday 25th May | Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College | 8pm, €12/10
Nobel Prize winner Alexievich discusses her work Second-Hand Time and shines a light on the ordinary people caught up in and by the collapse of the USSR, in her first public appearance in Western Europe.
Words: Julia O’Mahony