Emirates Literature Festival 2016 author interviews

From crime writers to historians and novelists, Chanelle Tourish speaks to five authors worth checking out at the 8th annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, hitting the city March 1-12

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The historian
Antony Beevor is the author of 11 non-fiction books and four novels. His works have been translated into 30 languages and have sold more than six-and-a-half million copies.

Through his writing, Beevor captures the events of battle and ambushes, and the horrifying nature of war, brilliantly. “I often have unexpected compassion when coming across accounts. During the research process, I can hardly look at a plate of food because you think of what that would have meant to the soldiers then. As a historian, your job is to get all the information down accurately. But then it will get you in the middle of the night and you’ll wake up,” he says.

Beevor studied at Winchester College and The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where his tutor was military historian, lecturer, writer and journalist John Keegan. Beevor was an officer with the 11th Hussars for five years, before leaving the army to take up writing. His latest book, Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble, went to number one on The Sunday Times Best Seller List. When it comes to penning factual and historical accounts, Beevor says the research process is detrimental to the success of your book. “There’s no point writing a new history book unless you come up with new material, which comes from history archives,” he says.

“Basically, you start with background reading and then discuss with fellow historians in the US, Germany, UK and other countries, to get a wider idea of sources. We all help each other. Only then can you create some sort of skeleton structure to a book, then start copying the material from the archives to the chapters of your work.”

Many of his accounts detail events during The Second World War, a time that he describes as “the most grim period for humanity”. So where does his interest stem from? “I think there is a real fascination with the whole question of evil and does it exist, which comes out in The Second World War. It also sums up moral courage and moral choice,” he explains.

During the festival, Beevor will join a panel of historians to investigate whether historical fiction helps or hinders the understanding of the events of the past and the forces at play in the modern world.
Thu 10 & Fri Mar 11 at Festival city.

The genre-hopper
British novelist Matt Haig tells us how he went from bestselling author to film script writer.

Matt Haig’s works span fiction, fantasy and children’s books. The Humans is a novel about our race as seen by an alien, while Reasons to Stay Alive reads like a part memoir about his struggles with depression. His latest offering, a children’s tale entitled A Boy Called Christmas, is a story about how Santa Claus came to be. While the themes of his books may differ, Haig's talent for creating bestselling titles remains, some of which have piqued the interest of the movie industry. Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón has eyes on his 2011 vampire novel The Radleys, while A Boy Called Christmas is currently being optioned by Studio Canal (the creators of family film Paddington), with Benedict Cumberbatch linked to playing a role.

So what makes an author want to switch to the movies? “Scriptwriting feels more like a job. I was a writer on Paddington and I just think with films, the stakes are a bit higher, as is the money. The only thing is, if you want it too much and you put all of your energy into trying to get it made, and then it takes five years to happen, that’s a lot of books you could have been writing,” Haig says.

The Sheffield-born writer says he usually produces a book a year, with his latest children’s story taking around three months to pen. He says others, including his Reasons to Stay Alive, can take up to six months to finish. The key to starting a book, he says, is having the idea in your head. “I always start with the most exciting and intense theme I can think of. The Humans had been in my head for a decade before I penned the opening, which sees a man walking naked on the motorway. The worst crime you can commit in a book is to be boring.”

With his novels translated into 29 languages, it’s clear that Haig’s works are far from dreary. He is currently writing a fictional tale about a man who ages slowly and lives for more than 500 years. “It will be a love story, and travel will have a great influence on it,” he tells us. Whether that story will be made into a movie, only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, you can expect plenty more stories from this talented author. “Writing is just like freedom. It’s very therapeutic for me and I’d do it regardless of being published.”
Thu Mar 10, Fri 11 & Sat 12 at Festival City.

The crime king
Scottish author Ian Rankin has sold more than 20 million books and has had his works adapted into a TV series. He tells us what inspires a bestselling novel.

Ian Rankin is best known for his Inspector Rebus novels, which have been made into a television series in the UK. His books tell tales of murder and mystery and address questions about morality, society and the human mind. On his way to achieving a doctorate in Scottish literature in the late ’80s at the University of Edinburgh, Rankin began writing his debut novel Knots & Crosses, about a grim detective inspector named John Rebus. The idea soon turned into a series of books, of which there are now 23. “Rebus accesses every layer of society, from top to bottom, so he can be investigating politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen,” Rankin explains.

Since his first book was published in 1987, Rankin’s work has been translated into 22 languages and is a fixture on bestseller lists worldwide. So where do his ideas come from? “Everywhere where people are telling stories,” he says. “In a bar, in a café or from a newspaper. I can pick whatever idea I think would look good in a book. I guess this is one of the main characteristics of the novelist. They have to be able to pick ideas from everywhere and manipulate them into their work.”

In the quest for a good story, Rankin has interviewed murderers and prisoners on death row, and has tried to tap into the mind of police officers and detectives to understand every aspect of a crime. “I gather information on a crime, to try and understand what evil is. It is indeed easy to judge an act as evil, but how do you know if a person as a whole is evil?” he asks. The experience of visiting prisoners on death row, he says, drew various emotions from him. “After 40 minutes of chatting to an inmate behind bulletproof glass, I started to feel sorry for him. Other inmates were being visited by their families, but he was only visited by his lawyers. As a human, I felt sorry for him. I was aware of his crime – he murdered someone, though didn’t mean to kill. However, he still murdered someone, so I think he deserves to be punished.”

Aside from the emotional challenges that come with writing a book, Rankin says the fear of failing never goes away. “It doesn’t matter how many good books you have written, you are going to be judged on the new one. However, rejection doesn’t have to interfere with your passion. Write what you want to write and think about the industry later.” With a new book due out in November, we’ll have to wait and see if Ian Rankin can remain the king of his genre, but the evidence would suggest yes.
Fri Mar 11 & Sat 12 at Festival city.

The kids’ whizz
Dubai-based writer Rachel Hamilton talks about returning to the Literature Festival and penning new books.

Rachel Hamilton describes her books as “quirky stories for kids of all ages”. Her debut novel, The Case of the Exploding Loo, was runner-up in the Montegrappa First Fiction competition at the 2013 edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. It went on to win the Worcestershire Awesomest Book Award as well as being nominated for the Redbridge Children’s Book Award and Leeds Book Awards. “The Literature Festival has been a huge part of my writing journey. Over the seven years I’ve been attending, my writing has evolved from random scribbles to work that three international publishing houses [Simon & Schuster, Oxford University Press and Scholastic] have wanted to buy. It is no exaggeration to say that the last couple of years of my life have been a dream come true,” Hamilton says.

This year will see the author return to the festival that helped launch her career, to take part in a panel session called Scintillating Science, alongside fellow authors Christopher Edge, Nick Arnold and Nicola Davies. They will discuss the ways in which science is used in storytelling, and Hamilton will also launch her latest kids’ book series Unicorn in New York. So what attracts the author to children’s tales? “I love kids,” she says. “They have a great sense of the ridiculous and can see the comedy in almost anything. I’ve got a very juvenile sense of humour, so most things that make me giggle make kids giggle too.”

When it comes to writing a book, Hamilton says she doesn’t have a particular routine. “I am the world’s most haphazard writer. I basically just sit down and write whenever I feel the urge to. I’m not a very good sleeper, so some of my best writing is done at 3am, when I wake up full of ideas,” she says. One of her latest ideas is to write a book set locally, in collaboration with an Arabic author. So perhaps her next book will see that unicorn let loose in the desert…
Sat Mar 5 at Novo cinema, Sat mar 12 at Festival city.

The drama queen
Freya North is one of the most enduring and popular women’s writers around, but she's certainly not chick-lit, she says. Here, she tells us why.

In her 20 years as a novelist, Freya North has written 13 bestsellers and has acquired an army of fans who love her modern take on tales of love, family and friendship. A passionate reader since childhood, North was born in London and was inspired by Mary Wesley, Rose Tremain and Barbara Trapido to write fiction with strong female leads and original, sometimes eccentric characters. Her first book, Sally, was published in 1996 and she has since written four books in the McCabe Sisters series. In 2008, North won the Romantic Novel of the Year award for her ninth book Pillow Talk.

“Although my works always feature a relationship, I don’t really see them as romance novels. I see them more as domestic dramas and family and personal struggles,” says North. Despite writing strong, female characters, she argues that she is most definitely not a chick-lit author and hates the term. “I’m 48 years old. You can’t define me as a chick, so I don’t understand why my books are referred to as chick novels. I don’t know any author who would say they are proud of that [label].”

North says that books that have defined her include Black Beauty and Ruby Ferguson’s Jill novels. “I live in a fantasy world. I also love movies. I would love to be able to adapt one of my novels to a TV show or film, so right now I am taking some time to study screenwriting,” she explains.

North’s latest novel, The Turning Point, is described as “an unforgettably affecting story stretching between the Norfolk coast and the wild beauty of Canada’s British Columbia”, and saw the author go to great lengths in the name of research. “I wouldn’t dare write about something I didn’t know about. The Turning Point’s characters are Canadian, so I went over to Canada to understand them more. It was an extraordinary experience, my book is richer for it,” she says.

As part of the festival, North will lead a workshop on Friday March 11 at the InterContinental Festival City, offering advice on how to find a suitable writing strategy. “I always say don’t get into this because you want to be an author, get into it because you want to write.”

North lives in rural Hertfordshire and writes from a stable in her back garden. She says the amount she writes daily depends on how productive she is feeling that day. “My zone can only happen between 9am and 4.30pm, which is in between my kids’ school runs. I have to sit there and get it out. When it flows, there are days when I write 5,000 words and others when I write just a few hundred.”
Wed Mar 9, Thu 10 & Fri 11 at Festival city, Sat Mar 12 at Novo cinema.

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