Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Mean Writers

I've been thinking the last several days about what it means to be a mean writer in the context of a literary Festival.

People often ask me for "gossip," for which writers are nice, which are awful, and the truth is that most writers I've dealt with throughout the years are kind, lovely people. I can think of many who stand out as particularly kind.

Some are kind on the surface but say horrible things to other people or treat other members of the
staff badly. Unforgivable.

Some are just plain horrible people.

No I'm not going to name names, as much as I'd like to!

But it intrigues me how someone can travel for hours by plane as a guest and then be awful: rude, cutting, patronizing or just plain mean.

I get that people have bad experiences. People don't like hotel rooms. Flights get delayed. People might be having personal problems that are interfering with their professional lives. I get all that.

But some people are just plain mean. And why is it that these are the writers I remember: the very small number who were unpleasant.

One writer threw a fit because she hates Laguardia and insisted that she didn't want to fly through it. Since I don't control airlines and since Air Canada tends to fly almost all their flights through LGA, I tried to explain to her that we don't have a private jet to fly her to the Festival. Still she arrived, strumpy and furious and complained non-stop about everything from beginning to end. She had not a single nice thing to say about anything. She hated the weather, the hotel, her events, the food, the neighborhood we were in. I was so happy when she left.

I can think of several like this...
Another writer insisted (before he even arrived in Montreal ) that he couldn't possibly spend a free afternoon in town and wanted to fly back home as early as possible. When we explained that Montreal had New York flights early in the morning and in the early evening and almost none in the middle of the day and that perhaps he might head out of the hotel and explore the city for a few hours, have lunch, see a movie (he had like 4 hours to kill and he could have even stayed in his room if he'd wanted), he smiled and said OK that's fine. Later, I found out he called everyone in his class scheduled for Sunday morning, asked them to come in early (only a few of whom could), met with them very briefly, rescheduled his flight and left. WTF?!

Not to say that we're allergic to complaints: sometimes people do have legitimate things to gripe about. We sometimes mess something up. With 200+ events and 200+ writers coming in, we mess things up every single year. No question. Again, 95% of people are kind and forgiving and understanding when this happens. One writer complained to me after his event that the producer didn't show up and that his event went off terribly and no one seemed to be in charge. That happens. Understandable once in a while. But what I felt horrible about was how it made him feel: it was his first book and he said he felt like we just didn't care about him, that he was unimportant and not even important enough to plan his event properly. Ugh. Words like that kill me because I never want any writer to feel that way.

Still: that writer didn't throw a fit or act rude or scream and yell. He was professional. He told me (after some prodding though he did tell several other people and I heard about it later). We chalk that one up to lesson learned and try to do better.

One other thing about mean writers: if you're mean, you get a reputation. There are writers I would
Inspired by Meanness
never invite back because they were so awful. I wouldn't read their book. There have even been a few writers whose work I liked a lot but after they left, I had to bring their books into my office because I couldn't stand my eyes falling on their book at home and remembering how horrible they were. And Festivals know this: there are writers who are known to be horrible, who are known to cancel at the last minute, who are known to show up drunk or high.

But it works the other way, too: writers whose work I didn't necessarily like that much until I met them and found them so charming and kind and friendly and then became a fan. These writers also get a reputation and I'd rather have 25 kind nice and unfamous writers at a Festival than 25 awful boors. Always.

One thing I've noticed: generally the big writers are nice. I think it's not a coincidence. If you're nice, word spreads and other Festivals invite you. I get far more pitches than I can possibly handle each year and if I have to choose between two books or writers and one is known as being unkind, forget about it.

I am not much on trite one liners or self-help maxims. But one thing is true: Being nice is always a good idea no matter what line of work you're in. Maybe some people think being unkind makes them seem smart or better than everyone but it has the opposite effect. People might kow-tow to your face or you might get what you want, but people remember being disrespected and that comes back to haunt you sooner or later.

Be nice!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Cristina García: The Agüero Sisters

Cristina García is one of those writers whose name I've heard many times but whose work I'd never read myself. Since I am in Colombia currently with wonky Internet access and limited English books available, I have been picking through the small corner in the bookshops devoted to English and coming across some odd choices I never would read at home. The other day I discovered this old 1997 novel from García, The Agüero Sisters.

I've read about half of it so far and I'm enjoying it. It tells the story of two Cuban sisters, long estranged, one still living in Cuba, becoming disillusioned with the revolution, the other in Miami, wealthy and terribly unhappy. Both are coming to terms in their own ways with the deaths of their parents and the way that fate determined the circumstances of their lives.

The story is told from multiple perspectives: from each sister, from their children, from their parents. It skips around in time. There's a vague allusion to a plot to overthrow Castro (or at least it's vague so far, the book is set in the early 90s) and it's certainly written from a Cuban exile's perspective (I'm intrigued with how negative portrayals of Cuba often are when written by exiles as opposed to work by Cubans themselves which tend to be more subtle and complex).

What is subtle and complex here, though, is the emotional lives of these characters. The complexities of their memories, of their relationships.  And the writing is gorgeous, colorful, rhythmic, long sections could be read aloud and performed.

I've written before on Cuban writing and how amazing much of it is, but this is a new world for me: the entire world of Cuban exile writers. They tend to be a conservative lot which puts me off a bit, but then again, they know more about the situation in Cuba than I do so I certainly have no right to speak as an expert when my entire relationship with Cuba is through the news and its literature (and the odd movie now and then).

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!