An Interview with Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley
By Marc McEntegart
The Edinburgh Book Festival is one of the largest literary festivals in the world, drawing authors and attendees from around the globe. When it was launched in 1983, the festival managed to muster 30 events. This year, it will play host to over 700, in what it describes as its “tented village” in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens.
The Edinburgh Book Festival is also responsible for Word Alliance, which sees literary festivals around the world collaborating in an effort to help promote ideas with international reach, as well as promoting authors local to each festival among other festivals.
This week, we had the chance to put some questions to the festival’s director, Nick Barley. Barley has been the festival’s director since 2009. While his appointment caused something of a stir at the time, the Edinburgh Book Festival has continued to grow and prosper under his leadership.
This year's Edinburgh Book Festival will run from August 13th to 29th.
First and foremost, are there any particular talks or debates that you’re looking forward to in this year’s festival? Are there any talks that didn’t quite work out that you’d have liked to see?
When we programmed this year’s festival we knew there were big political decisions and challenges ahead (a Scottish election, a European referendum, a refugee crisis, a US election in which Donald Trump would be a noisy feature), but we couldn’t possibly have imagined that so much would be thrown in the air. But these changes make the Book Festival all the more important as a forum for democratic discussion now. I’m hugely looking forward to Allan Little’s Big Debate (18th August), which asks ‘Is this the end of the Transatlantic era?’ That’s a question with so many facets: cultural, political, economic. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. But I’m also very excited about our event on 26th August called Building Scotland. This is not only a question of how Scotland can shape its buildings, but also how it shapes its future as a nation, in a post-Brexit era.
In 2010, the Edinburgh Book Festival formed Word Alliance. In the years since, what impact has Word Alliance had?
The Word Alliance is a network which aims to support some of the world’s most interesting and ambitious literary festivals. It includes the Beijing Bookworm in China; the Melbourne Literary Festival in Australia; the Berlin Literaturfestival in Germany; the Jaipur Lit Fest in India; Etonnants Voyageurs in St. Malo, France; PEN World Voices in New York; and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, Canada, as well as my own festival. It’s a network that’s light on its feet, free from bureaucracy and highly flexible – and as such it avoids unnecessary overheads. But as a formula this also leans heavily on the friendship, goodwill and hard work of its directors. The impact has been felt by the member festivals in all sorts of ways. Most importantly, this is a network which has overseen the rapid professionalization of the festivals community.
We’ve helped each other raise standards in terms of organization, author care and programming ideas. Many of the benefits have been felt behind the scenes: we are better festivals as a result of the partnership. From a public perspective we’ve used the Alliance to raise money from our respective governments and this has supported international travel for authors. Thanks to the Word Alliance, for example, Irvine Welsh has appeared in New York and Berlin; Louise Welsh and Michel Faber have appeared in Beijing; Ryan van Winkle has performed poetry in Melbourne; Ian Rankin, Kirstin Innes and Alan Bissett have travelled to Toronto; while we’ve supported trips to Jaipur for the likes of Leila Aboulela and John Burnside.
At the same time, French authors have travelled to Beijing and Toronto; Australian authors have appeared in Edinburgh and Jaipur; Canadian authors have been showcased in St. Malo.
We have put together some amazing international initiatives such as a festival in the capital of the Republic of the Congo, in Brazzaville, with Alain Mabanckou as guest director. It has been a fantastic initiative and it will continue to grow as we bring in new partners in Africa and Latin America.
You have expressed the opinion before that a book festival should be a space for debate, “where politicians’ voices are not the only voices we hear.” This year’s schedule certainly seems to back that up. What do you feel literary festivals can add to these debates?
I see book festivals as factories for human happiness and enlightenment. But just as importantly I see them as vehicles for public democracy, with novels and poetry taking their rightful place alongside non-fiction and other forms of literature, as tools for helping us make sense of the world around us. It’s the same reason why stories are so important for the development of children; stories are fragments of shared understanding from which the human world is built. When they are non-hierarchical and egalitarian, book festivals give people an opportunity to voice their ideas, and to listen to writers express theirs in a format which is very different from the soundbite culture of mainstream television and radio.
Given the renewed interest in Scottish independence, how do you feel an independent Scotland would affect the festival?
That all depends on what independence would look like: there are so many different possibilities for greater devolution. What I’m sure about is that Scotland will remain a vibrant cultural nation, and its Enlightenment heritage means that we will also remain passionate about books, words and ideas. So the Book Festival has a bright future.
What do you hope that the book festival can achieve? Do you have any very long term aspirations for the festival? Where do you see the festival going in the future?
The Book Festival is already one of the most successful and best-respected events of its kind in the world. I want to make sure that the magical experience of a visit to our events can be enjoyed by the most diverse possible audience, whether from Scotland or abroad. Everyone who visits the festival deserves a deep and meaningful engagement with ideas, and we will strive to ensure the deepest possible engagement in future. My vision is that the festival really can play a part in helping its participants make sense of the world, and play their part in constructing a successful, productive society for the future. It’s an Olympics for the mind.
It was recently announced that you’ll be chairing the Man Booker International judging panel for 2017. What kind of perspective do you think you can bring to the judging process?
I’m greatly honoured to be chairing the Man Booker International Prize but most of all I think it reflects well on the Book Festival and on the vibrancy of Scotland’s literary scene. I think it’s because of this vibrant scene that our translation events are so well supported by audiences, and I therefore get the chance to programme so many of them. I’ve been lucky enough to persuade a stellar group of people to join me on the judging panel, and I’m looking forward to learning from them about new ways of seeing the world through literature.
If you were to describe one moment that summed up your experience with the Edinburgh Book Festival over the last six years, what would it be?
The standing ovation that was given to Eskenderella, the group of Egyptian poets and musicians who had performed to massive groups of protesters in Tahrir Square as bullets flew and stones were thrown during the Uprisings of 2011. These revolutionary artists epitomized the hope, the eloquence and the visionary articulation that poetry and music can achieve, and I was proud to bring this unknown group to Edinburgh. Nobody who witnessed their performance that day will ever forget it.
Before we let you go, could you tell us what you’re reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Sudden Death by Alvaro Enrigue; 30 Days by Annelies Verbeke; Under Majordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt; and At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison.
At the moment I’m reading The Sorrows of Mexico, an amazing new book of Mexican journalism that was inspired by discussions we staged at the Book Festival last summer, and which is launched by the wonderful MacLehose Press on 27th August this year.