For me, the Book Festival has always been about conversations. Reading groups work because people like talking about what they read, sharing and comparing what they get out of books. That was the secret of the open space in Charlotte Square, as it will be in the Edinburgh Futures Institute from 2024.
The Festival events that work best are where those conversations are most genuine. I remember attending a 2019 seminar on Bob Dylan led by Alan Taylor, which made me feel fifty years younger and back at university. And surprisingly, I think my most satisfying memories have been when the interviewer is on song. Good interviewers are empathetic, encouraging the author to offer just a little more to the audience. They’re conduits between the writer and everyone else listening.
Some of those moments can be very funny. When Nicola Sturgeon interviewed Ali Smith in 2018, she’d prepared for the event by re-reading one of Ms Smith’s famously impenetrable early works, Like. The then First Minister began by reminding everyone of what the novel was about, then turned to the author for approval, who simply said, ‘No, that’s not what it’s about at all.’ To be fair, Nicola found that as funny as the audience.
But the star interviewer has to be the Book Festival’s own Allan Little. Invariably well-prepared, Little invites audiences to listen into something much more intimate than an interview; I sometimes wonder if writers shouldn’t be offered a psychiatrist’s couch instead of a chair. Surprisingly, the ‘lockdown’ Festival of 2020 produced my most extraordinary moment, an Allan Little interview with James Naughtie, in which the latter predicts the post-US Election events of 6th January 2021 with uncanny accuracy. You can still watch it here:
Bravo, Edinburgh International Book Festival. Here’s to the next 40.