This year marks 70 years since the Edinburgh Festival began. 70 years since we became Festival City and 70 years since the world started to come calling every summer. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is young in comparison at ‘just’ 34 but they’re still marking the anniversary. At the Director’s Preview for the 2017 book festival director Nick Barley, programme director Roland Gulliver, and children’s programme director Janet Smyth explained that 1947 had been a year when the need for hope and reconciliation brought Festival City to life. Now, 70 years later, we need to remind ourselves of that spirit in this time of political earthquakes. In an age of anxiety where turning on the news brings repeated disbelief and confusion they set out to bring together writers who could give us the answers. After all, if the first draft of history belongs to the journalists then the second, hopefully more coherent, draft belongs to the writers of the age.
The title of this year’s programme is Brave New Words. They have set out to ask provocative questions and provide answers, not in black and white, but in all their complex nuanced glory. This year’s festival encompasses over 1000 events and authors from 50 countries. Edinburgh’s book festival is large but it is deeply loved because every event is so carefully crafted. Every strand to the programme is carefully selected and thought out. There are people who come to speak who do so because they know they can be interviewed by people like Alan Little (who is also the chair of the board for the book festival) and they know they will have a good event.
There are a number of themes tying the programme together. One, Nick Barley jokes, is their very own hung parliament of politicians from across the board who have been invited to speak. Not to spout manifesto or campaign speak but to engage with subjects and ideas. Nicola Sturgeon will speak, not as Scotland’s First Minister, but as the interviewer of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The UK’s first Muslim Cabinet Minister, Sayeeda Warsi, will talk about the future Islam has in a secular western society.
Most of these politicians, though not all, are speaking under the Age of Political Earthquakes strand, which will also feature events with experts from across the board. Labour politician Jess Phillips is speaking within the strand of This Woman Can, which features inspiring women from novelist Siri Hustvedt to Farida Khalif who escaped ISIS. Other strands will focus on subjects such as the 70th anniversary of the Indian subcontinent’s independence from British rule, visions of the future in a variety of forms, and the way we conceptualise and talk about death.
Other components of the adult programme mentioned are more specific. Paul Auster is an American novelist that they have been trying to persuade to come to Edinburgh for 20 or 30 years. It seems appropriate that he has agreed to come in his 70th year to talk about his new book 4321, which tells the story of the same 70 year old’s life under 4 different sets of circumstances. Continuing with the 70th anniversary theme they have a selection of septuagenarians speaking on a range of topics. Plenty American authors are coming, and a great number of British ones, including Zadie Smith and a number of Man Booker Prize winners. And, because a literary festival in Scotland wouldn’t be complete without some Tartan Noire influence, there are over 60 crime writers in this year’s programme.
The guest selectors for the adult programme this year are Elif Shafak, David Mitchell, Ken MacLeod, and Roxanne Gay with Jackie Kay. Turkish novelist and Man Booker Prize judge Elif Shafak will investigate writers relationship with the truth, especially in a post-truth world. One of her events will see her talking to Nicola Sturgeon and publisher Heather McDaid of 404 Ink about life in the public eye. David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, will explore the boundaries between writing and music, including reading his unpublished short stories in St Mary’s Cathedral accompanied by sonatas played by virtuoso pianist David Greilsammer. Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod will bring leading science fiction, fantasy and horror writers to explore their visions of the future. Novelists Roxanne Gay and Jackie Kay will look at feminism in an international 21st century world and the intersections of identity and culture.
The children’s programme will tackle just as many questions as the adult events will. After all children’s fiction is often the place where the big questions are asked and some form of answer provided. Children’s fiction has evolved rapidly in the last 70 years and continues to do so, several of the authors taking part this year are ones who continue to push the boundaries. The larger issues of the world and society also play extremely well in Young Adult fiction. This is where you see the dystopian worlds really flourishing, where questions about identity, feminism, and society are tackled by an increasing number of authors. People from every field move into writing for children and this year’s authors feature everyone from Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider series, to Olympic cyclist Chris Hoy who has written a cycling adventure series.
Illustrator in Residence and children’s author Kristina Stephenson is the guest selector for the children’s programme. She has worked to bring illustrators and writers together and to create free events that will make the festival more accessible to children who might not come otherwise.
The festival will also expand outwards onto George Street this year. The subject immediately brings up the multiple reports of the possibility of them being forced to stop using Charlotte Square Gardens and Nick Barley gently suggests that we not believe everything we read in the Scotsman. They love having the festival in Charlotte Square Gardens and the owners of the Gardens are proud to have them there. They are in fact working together to improve the infrastructure so that they have less of an impact on the Gardens. The festival will never be completely free of mud and marshy patches in Scotland’s climate, but they are most definitely not leaving. The new venues in George Street will host a variety of events including free drop ins that aim to connect and engage with a wider audience. Literary audiences are not passive spectators, especially not in Edinburgh, and they are keen to encourage new participants, especially given the other events and themes linked to this 70th year of festival city.
Everything being said is another reminder that the old style of the book festival where a parade of authors wave their latest book is a thing of the past. Edinburgh’s book festival is one that seeks to explore the big questions and gather the minds that are best able to tackle them. This seeps into all of the events they hold. In recent years I’ve noticed more and more that authors are not simply asked about their work and where they see a character going. Increasingly hands go up to ask questions about the nature of what they do, the nature of the world, and the effect of recent events on themselves and their writing. Barley explains that authors repeatedly tell him that Edinburgh has the most engaged and informed audience of any literary festival and it’s something I find easy to believe. The question section of every event has become more of a debate about the world and writing within it than a simple Q&A and it can often be the most fascinating part.
In previous years the Director’s Preview featured Barley standing and giving a presentation. He’s a good speaker and it worked but having the programme discussed by a panel of the organisers allowed the passion and excitement of the team to shine through. At times they were like kids in a candy store, barely able to contain their excitement as they remembered yet another event they were desperate to tell us about. It was fascinating to get an insight into how the programme is actually put together, both from inside the team and out. Barley took a 3 month sabbatical to be a judge for the Man Booker International Prize and Jenny Niven from Creative Scotland stepped in. She spoke briefly about how it had been a huge privilege to work with the team and learn exactly what goes into the construction of the book festival.
I look forward to August every year and generally spend a large portion of it in Charlotte Square but this year I’m more excited than ever. It’s wonderful to see the book festival getting bigger and better and I loved being able to get a glimpse of the passion and work that goes into it. Going through the programme there were multiple points where I had to stop and agonise over what to go to because three or four interesting events overlapped and I didn’t know how to pick just one. It looks set to be a fantastic year and I can’t wait to see the tents go up and the gates stand open.