FESTIVALS AND THE ART OF INTERVIEWING AN AUTHOR
NOTE: This post was originally written on 22 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog
Two weeks ago I participated in the new Barcelona festival devoted to the fantastic, understood as science fiction, horror/gothic and fantasy in all the media, not just print fiction. The event is called Festival 42 in celebration of the answer that Arthur Dent, the protagonist of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker Guide’s to the Galaxy, gets from super-computer Deep Thought to his question about the meaning of life. Coordinated by author and creative writing teacher Ricard Ruiz Garzón, the festival has been finally celebrated five years after Eurocon 2016, and two years after the I Seminar on the Genres of the Fantastic, also curated by Ruiz Garzón. It could have been celebrated earlier if it weren’t for Covid-19, but better late than never.
Barcelona, a UNESCO City of Literature, has quite a good number of literary festivals, some directly organized by the town council. Among the latter, BCNegra, devoted to detective fiction and held every February is no doubt the biggest one, as corresponds to the popularity of the genre and the efforts of the festival’s founder, the late Paco Camarasa, to publicize it. I myself took some timid steps after Eurocon 2016 to set the ball rolling and start a festival devoted to the fantastic but, lacking the contacts and the energy, I let the project go. Fortunately, Ricard Ruiz Garzón was available to offer Barcelona his own project, brilliantly culminated in five intense days at cultural centre Fabra i Coats (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/en/).
I have been unfortunately too busy to see all of the festival, but I intend to catch up this weekend, seeing some of the videos online (https://www.barcelona.cat/festival42/en/transmedia). I have already written here about the matter of the dearth of fantasy translations from other foreign languages apart from English into Catalan, a topic inspired by what I saw in the festival, and I would say that this is my only objection: Festival 42 had too many English-language writers, and too few authors from other foreign languages. I believe that the Spanish fantastic was well represented (I’m told that Edmundo Paz Soldán is the man to follow, and I have his novel El delirio de Turing already in my hands), and of course, so were the Catalan authors (please do check Víctor García Tur). Yet, I wonder why debutante Naomi Gibson, author of Every Line of You, deserved an invitation (despite her international success) while authors in other languages with longer careers did not get one. This is, in any case, a very minor critique of a festival that has been born with terrific ambition and that has announced with its long programme that it is here to stay. I’m not sure that the name, which only the cognoscenti will get and which lacks a direct reference to the fantastic, is the best possible choice, but starting the festival is in itself a triumph.
Ruiz Garzón contacted me last summer to be the interviewer of British author Richard K. Morgan for Festival 42, which both made me happy and dismayed me a bit. I interviewed Morgan back in 2016 for Eurocon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYL_Ls3uhJo), and that was a satisfying but also quite intense experience, coming after a previous written interview with this interesting British author. I subsequently published an article on his novel Black Man in the journal Science Fiction Studies, and interviewed Morgan again in writing on his most recent novel, Thin Air (2018) for the journal I co-edit, Hélice (Autumn-Winter 2019 issue). The Festival 42 interview has been, therefore, my fourth encounter with Morgan. It is always a pleasure to be able to talk with a writer, being myself a non-writer (at least of fiction), but I must say that live interviews are quite a chore. I am, besides, quite uncomfortable seeing myself online, but there am I.
My experience of interviewing authors live before an audience is reduced to the two encounters with Morgan and one with Ian McDonald (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzDg_BxJZ1A) and I cannot, therefore, say that I am a practised interviewer. I have also interviewed Roddy Doyle, Patricia Anthony, and Nick Hornby in writing but the point is the same. Interviews in writing are not, in any case, as stressful experiences for me as live interviews because no audience is there watching you bungle your English out of sheer nervousness, and I can go over the interview with the interviewee to iron out inconsistencies or misunderstandings. In a live interview, there is no second chance: whatever is said, stays said, and on video universally available. Then, there is the matter of translation. In the interviews with Morgan we used English (also Spanish for the Q&A with the audience) and I needn’t worry about translation–except for how awkwardly simultaneous translation works on the online videos. In the interview with McDonald, however, we had no money for any interpreters and since I couldn’t see myself interviewing and translating, I used a PowerPoint in which you could see the Catalan version of the questions, and two of my students took turns offering consecutive translation from English into Catalan. A bit odd, yes, but I think it worked.
The hardest part of a live interview is understanding your audience and keeping track of time. I have interviewed Morgan and McDonald in the context of festivals attended by readers familiar with science fiction, horror and fantasy. Morgan is now, after the success of the two-season Netflix series based on his novel Altered Carbon (2002) much better known than he was in 2016, but even so the audience was in the hundreds for the Eurocon interview and about fifty for Festival 42. All, though, had seen the series, except myself and I was worried that this might show… For the McDonald interview, the audience was also about fifty but possibly only a handful had read his works. Problem number one, then, is that there must be a balance between presenting the writer’s career in a general and in a detailed way. I saw some interviews in Festival 42 that went straight to discussing a particular novel, but, being a teacher and not a journalist, I did give an overview of Morgan’s career (as I did for McDonald) in the same didactic way I would use in class. In both cases, I did ask as many questions as I could about the craft of writing, and not just about specific novels, because that’s what I personally enjoy in live interviews with authors. My impression is that authors enjoy discussing technical matters and I am always curious about issues such as whether they plan or improvise, if characters ever take the lead, why certain scenes are necessary, how locations are chosen, and so on.
As for keeping track of time, this totally kills me. Before interviewing Morgan, I attended with him Desiré de Fez’s interview session with Carmen María Machado, and to my horror and consternation I saw de Fez keep the conversation going with no notes and never glancing at her watch. That’s when I got really nervous. That’s the difference, of course, between an experienced journalist and an amateur like myself. Or not, I’m not sure. In the session before Machado’s, experienced interviewer Borja Bilbao had to start the Q&A question, as he sheepishly granted, before he had even asked half the questions he had prepared for Stuart Turton. He had simply prepared too many, though the worst-case scenario must be one in which the author gives very short replies and the interviewer runs out of questions, ooops. In my case, I had written thirty questions, the same number I used for the Eurocon interview, but this time Morgan, very relaxed, gave such long answers that I had to skip also about half of my questions. I must confess that I didn’t even hear some of his words, so anxious was I to cover all the main angles and not exceed my 45 minutes. To be honest, I think I only truly enjoyed the conversation when I saw it online. This does not mean that was my last live interview, just that I admire journalists now more than ever for being able to do interviews days after day.
In the two cases, with Morgan and McDonald, I have had the chance to socialise over a meal before the interview, and that is the truly fun part of doing interviews: conversation. The live interview is not for oneself but for the audience, but when socializing I can ask my own questions and learn. Morgan told me privately basically the same things he explained in the interview about his involvement in the Netflix series but I learned more in conversation since I could ask more nuanced questions without worrying whether someone else would be interested. Selfish, I know! But if I think about it, I’m not sure I will ever accept doing another interview without that perk.
To conclude, I have written this post sharing my experience because interviews are not experiences we usually discuss as scholars, much less live interviews. Of course, writers’ interviews are common in print (I see that the Paris Review continues its marvellous task, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews) and in video online: you can see interviews with practically any writer you want. What is less common is for scholars to interview writers live. This may happen in the context of conferences, but in festivals and other events such as book presentations, it is more common to have journalists or other authors play that role. I have often been annoyed by that situation, as I believe we scholars are underused in these public occasions, and I am just saying with my post today that we are here, and available. Just a little nervous, perhaps.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/