Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Around the world in 16 days

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

This year's Manchester Literature Festival includes a number of events badged in our World Literature category, and we will be welcoming to Manchester acclaimed authors from across the globe, many in conversation with leading homegrown writers.  

There will be short stories from Poland's Pawell Huelle and Croatia's Roman Simic, Icelandic and Kurdish poetry courtesy Arc Poets, three novelists - Ge Fei, Han Song and Wang Anyi - joining us from China, plus Jamaican-born Kei Miller, Peruvian essayist Fernando Iwasaki Cauti, Icelandic thriller writer Hallgrimur Helgason, Indian comic creator Samit Basu, and tales from Bombay, Brussels and Budapest in our Sex and the Cities event. Cities also feature in two discussions, city-pick Manchester and From St Petersburg to Manchester. From the States, meanwhile, we are pleased to present Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Michael Chabon and Richard Ford, and accomplished spoken word advocate Amiri Baraka.  

The online correspondence, meanwhile, between North West author Jenn Ashworth and Turkish writer Nirmin Yildirim continues apace in the run-up to their appearance together at Tanpinar Literature Festival in Istanbul on 1 October and the event at MLF on Saturday 20 October. Jenn's fourth letter has just been published on the Manchester Letters website: click here to read the latest missive and previous ones, and be sure to add your own comments!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Verse conditions

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon.
National Poetry Day falls on 4 October, just before the seventh annual Manchester Literature Festival gets underway officially on the 8th, but we're joining forces with Manchester-based poetry publisher Carcanet Press for a special celebration.

In a fortnight, MLF, Carcanet and friends will be taking over Waterstones’ flagship Deansgate store in the city centre, with various exciting events starting at noon. The cafĂ© will be serving up a tasty poetry-themed menu especially for the day, and verse will be read live in the Event Room throughout the afternoon and piped over the shop’s announcement system. A number of well-known poets are confirmed so far, with more expected to join the line-up in due course. Here's the running order:

12 noon - Jeffrey Wainwright (Carcanet)
12.30pm - Jon Glover (Carcanet)
1pm - Andrew McMillan (Red Squirrel Press)
2pm - John McAuliffe (Gallery)
2.30pm - Okey Nzelu (Carcanet)
3pm - Helen Tookey (Carcanet)
3.30pm - Vona Groarke (Gallery)
4pm - Owen Lowery (Carcanet)
5pm - Peter Sansom (Carcanet)
5.15pm - River Wolton (Smith/Doorstop)
5.30pm - Geoff Hattersley (Smith/Doorstop)
5.45pm - Mike di Placido (Smith/Doorstop)
6pm - Grevel Lindop (Carcanet)
6.30pm - Amanda Dalton (Bloodaxe)

From 7pm, National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke will be reading extracts from her new collection Ice and also chatting to Carcanet’s Editorial and Managing Director Michael Schmidt. 

Following on from this, Manchester Literature Festival will be holding a number of poetry events over the 16-day programme. Poet Laureate and Festival patron Carol Ann Duffy is among the performers on this year’s bill (9 October), which also includes Simon Armitage (16 October) – awarded a CBE for services to poetry – and world-renowned spoken word advocate Amiri Baraka (10 October). Up-and-coming voices will be heard in a special Faber showcase (12 October), with Joe Dunthorne, Inua Ellams and editor Matthew Hollis, while Arc Publications will present work in translation (19 October). The winner of the biannual international Manchester Poetry Prize will be announced at a special gala event (19 October) and the Cathedral Poetry Prize will also be handed out (11 October). 

The Poets & Players group will see award-winning Leontia Flynn perform alongside a traditional Irish band (13 October), while the Sailing To Byzantium event sets WB Yeats’ poems to music (21 October). The Out Of Bounds collection brings together black and Asian writers, including John Siddique (20 October), while readers including NPD Director Jo Bell will perform works by the likes of Ian McMillan and George Szirtes at the launch of the Split Screen anthology (14 October). Other events include a guided walk, Poems Of The City (11 October), and a discussion, featuring Carcanet's Michael Schmidt, about the value of editing in the 21st Century (17 October).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Youth culture

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

Manchester Literature Festival is committed to developing and delivering work that offers children and young people access to the very best in contemporary writing from across the world. A wide range of projects and events take place throughout the year as well as during the annual festival, encouraging children and young people to be inspired by stories and literature. Here, the Festival's Children and YP Co-ordinator Liz Postlethwaite explains a little more about the programme. If you'd like more information, she can be contacted via email:

MLF: There are a number of events and opportunities for children and young people to become involved in Manchester Literature Festival this year – what’s available for the different age groups?
LP: We have something for readers and story-lovers of all ages. Our schools’ programme includes writers such as Ulf Stark, Alex Scarrow and Barry Hutchison, with events particularly targeted at young people coming towards the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary. We also have a Family Reading Day on 21 October, which includes workshops, readings and performances for children from three upwards, including Juliet Clare Bell, Tom Palmer, Sita Brahmchari and V Campbell. We’re delighted to have a performance of The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe by Theatreworks Arts Lab and also Stanley’s Stick, which has been adapted for stage from John Hegley’s book by Oldham Coliseum. To top that all off, we have a lunchtime storytelling session from Cerrie Burnell and Alex Winters of CBeebies fame.

For older readers aged 13 and upwards we have a brand new film and book club called Read It, WatchIt, Talk About It, which is an exciting new partnership with Contact. We’re also looking forward to having a group of young journalists working as digital reporters on events across the festival. Finally, we have been working with young parents and their children in Wythenshawe to develop their storytelling skills. It really is a jam-packed programme of events!

MLF: Read It, Watch It, Talk About It sounds like an interesting way to get young people into reading. How did the idea come about?
LP: We are always keen to create projects that cross between different art forms to get young people interested in stories and reading. This project uses films that have been adapted from books as a way of inspiring excitement from young people in stories that are new to them. It also lets them learn more about stories they love in their original format - a book! The first session is on Saturday 20 October and we’ll be reading / watching Tsotsi based on the novel by Athol Fugard. After that, we’re watching Hunger Games in November and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Play List in December. The group is totally free of charge and participants can even borrow copies of the related book before or after the session if they’re inspired to give reading it a go.

MLF: As well as encouraging reading, a couple of MLF projects aim to help young people with writing, don’t they? Could you tell us a little more about the Writing Squad and the digital reporter scheme, and how to get involved.
LP: WritingSquad has been running in Yorkshire for ten years and we’re delighted to be part of bringing it to Manchester this year. The scheme supports emerging young writers and helps them to develop their craft. In the North West, this means we will be working with ten young writers giving them the chance to work with each other and with professional tutors for two years. This will be followed up with ongoing support to help writers make their way in the literature industry as well as offering a sounding board and support network for a growing community of young writers and producers in the North West.

Our digital reporters project will see young people from across the city attending events at the festival to write reviews, record podcasts and take photos, giving their own opinions on the events that they have attended. Keep an eye out on our website during the Festival to get a taste for the content that they are creating.

MLF: If you could pick one event from the Schools & Families programming at this year’s Festival, what’s going to be your highlight, do you think?
LP: For me, it has to be Ulf Stark. He’s a writer who’s very well known for his children’s books and screenplays in his native Sweden but who is less well known here. In anticipation of his event at the festival on 2 October I did some background preparation by starting to read his books and I was absolutely astonished. Can You Whistle Johanna? is one of the loveliest pieces of writing that I have read in a long time. I can’t believe that I had never heard of him before but now I’m super excited! I feel like I’ve discovered a new hero and now I’m going to hear him talk about his work within a matter of weeks!

MLF: What other projects is MLF involved in?
LP: We’ve been running a brilliant project in partnership with Barnardo’s developing storytelling skills with young parents in Wythenshawe. This has included reading, crafts, cookery and nature walks included by children’s stories! It has allowed us to build a new relationship with Baguely Children’s Centre and continue developing our friendship with the library at Wythenshawe Forum, without whose kind support this project wouldn’t have been possible.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Scientific progress

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

To celebrate 100 years since mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing was born, MLF have teamed up with independent Manchester-based publisher Comma Press to launch Turing Text - a new experiment in social narrative. This micro-blogging game will apply the iconic Turing Test to the social media context and will be open for everyone to take part. Turing Text aims to create new pieces of fiction and the project will officially get underway at the Blog North Awards, on 17 October (click here for more). Here, Comma's Editorial Manager Ra Page explains a little more about the experiment and tells us about some of the other events he's looking forward to at MLF 2012.

MLF: You’re launching the Turing Text during MLF. Can you explain what this is and how people can get involved?
RP: One of the many fascinating by-products of social media is the way in which authors and aspiring writers now find themselves talking to readers (and other writers) in an incredibly regular and personal way, sharing their experience of the writing process, and every last detail of how they get through their working day. What was once, presumably, a very private process has suddenly become a completely public one. I wanted to know how, if at all, this has affected the author’s voice, and I also wanted to commission pieces of writing that reflected the growing presence of social media in their characters’ lives. 

Quite separately from this, I’ve always been interested in the Turing Test as a definition of artificial intelligence. Facebook and Twitter allow us to acquire so many friends, it’s very possible that we’ve never actually met some of them, and therefore in theory, that they’re not actually who or what they seem. (Facebook recently estimated that they have around 83 million illegitimate accounts, and ‘illegitimate’ is a broad term.)

The idea with this project was to put these two ideas together – social media and the Turing Test – and to see if any new pieces of fiction could be teased into existence through a very new route. The rules are (fairly) simple. We ask players to sign up to a specially created social media space in the weeks leading up to the festival, but to choose a pseudonym, and they can then play it one of two ways:
     (a) carry on ‘being themselves’ – making status updates, comments, likes, etc, as themselves and as they would normally, but under this pseudonym, or
     (b) use the account to play out a fictional character’s development; ie write all his or her updates and comments from the point of view of a fictional character and start a story within the medium (note players may need to create other fictional characters to ‘engage’ with them, and create dialogue, etc).

Additional to this, there will be a third category of accounts on this network – namely one or two ‘chatbots’ these being computer programs disguised as actual people, writing all their updates and comments in the style of humans (indeed human authors!).

At the end of the project we will all get together and vote on who we think is real, who we think is fictional and who we think is a robot. For more details on how to take part, go to

MLF: Could you give us a bit of background on Alan Turing and his importance to Manchester’s history, and what is significant about 2012?
RP: Well, obviously 2012 is the centenary of Turing’s birth, so there have been myriad events taking place in the city throughout the year. Although Turing wasn’t born in Manchester and arguably did his most important work elsewhere – in Cambridge, Bletchley Park, and famously thought-experimenting about David Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem in a meadow in Grantchester (his Newton’s Apple moment) – Turing did spend his last few years here in Manchester, working at the University. So to summarise: that’s inventing computers, cracking the Nazi Enigma code, and devising the Turing Test – elsewhere. Check, check, check. Formulating morphogenesis, his mathematical approach to pattern formation in nature (through reaction-diffusion equations) – here. Check. His unhappy demise came about whilst working at the university also, so there’s a double-edge to our civic appropriation of him.

MLF: How do Alan Turing and the Turing Text experiment link back to Comma Press?
RP: Comma has always been interested in the relationship between short fiction and ‘science narratives’ – be these thought experiments, case studies, discovery myths (‘Eureka moments’), or cautionary tales of future technologies. There’s a great deal of traffic between the two categories – more than scientists are often aware of. Indeed if scientists don’t take command of their own story-telling, their stories will only be told (and simplified) by others – namely politicians and the media who, of course, have other motivations.

For this reason, Comma has commissioned a whole series of ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies, where scientists have consulted very closely in the composition of short fictions featuring scientific ideas, and have accompanied the stories with afterwords, explaining the science in greater detail. This series started with When It Changed, edited by Geoff Ryman, which was launched at MLF in 2009, and then continued with Litmus, which explored discovery stories from the history of science, and the forthcoming Bio-Punk, which extrapolates possible ‘cautionary tales’ from current bio-medical research (this book is being launched on Saturday 13 October at this year’s MLF; click here for more). We also have a collection of stories from Sara Maitland, due out next year, which is entirely based on science consultations.

The Litmus book also featured a story about Turing’s last Manchester-based theory, morphogenesis, so we’re not completely new to Turing territory as a publisher.

MLF: What other events is Comma connected with during this year’s Festival?
RP: As well as the Bio-Punk launch, we also have launches of four new single-author collections, from David Constantine and Pawel Huelle (Monday 8 October), and Adam Marek and Guy Ware (Sunday 21 October); four books we’ve been working on for a long time and perhaps represent what Comma is about better than anything else.

MLF: What has Comma got planned for the rest of the year that we should be looking out for?
RP: Our first smartphone app – provisionally called ‘Tramlines’ – is currently being devised by us in partnership with a company called Toru Interactive, with support from Literature Across Frontiers. This will be launched in April hopefully. There will also be a teaser event for it with Michelle Green and Roman Simic at this year’s MLF (Saturday 20 October). Next year we’d also like to commission our own Comma app for Android phones, and maybe a Comma Film app the year after that.

We also have a host of new Comma Film commissions (short film adaptations of poems) which will be premiered at MadLab on 6 December, in conjunction with Bokeh Yeah. We’ve also got the second collection of stories from the Kafka-esque genius that is Hassan Blasim, titled The Iraqi Christ. Hassan is coming over for a series of readings in December to launch the book. Early next year we’ll be launching books by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Sara Maitland and Michelle Green. We also have our first new writer anthology in a long time (get your submissions in soon if you want to be ‘discovered’!), plus a second collection of poetry from Gaia Holmes, an anthology of Dystopian short stories (‘Ten Years Asleep’) and a book of essays on short story structure. So lots to look out for!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

NW in the North West

Zadie Smith, Thursday 30th August, 7pm, Town Hall

Words by Ben East. Photographs by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years might be called NW, in tribute to the north-west London where she grew up, but there’s a pleasing symmetry to her appearance at Manchester Literature Festival’s Trailblazer event. NW in the North West is more than just a glib play on words. Smith’s fourth book might be set in London, amid the complicated lives of four thirtysomethings who grew up on the same estate. But its concerns are more universal. It deals with time, aging, family, friendship, memory and living in the city - any city.

Listening to Smith read an excerpt (as pictured below), it also sounds fantastic.

The common conception of Smith is that she’s a relatively private, reserved person. Public appearances such as these are rare, and she holds little truck with celebrity; in fact, 2002’s The Autograph Man has a nice line on its effect on authenticity. And yet the reading from NW has almost a gleeful, performative aspect to it. Smith genuinely inhabits her characters - it helps that she has such an ear for the rhythms of dialogue - and makes them feel dramatically real. Just don’t expect her to agree. “It’s all a confidence trick,” she says when writer and journalist Anita Sethi (below right) asks afterwards how she captures conversation. “People loved the authenticity of the dialogue in The Wire, didn’t they? But that’s not really how people from Baltimore speak. That’s the trick of fiction; it never actually is authentic, but it seems to be.”

Still, reality is something that clearly concerned Smith in the writing of NW. Having spent time teaching in the States, it’s obvious she’s thought deeply about the mechanics of the novel and its uses - and in particular what it doesn’t do and perhaps could or should.

“Novels manipulate time in a way that isn’t anything like how we live our lives,” she says, by way of example. “So when I sat down to write NW, I began listening to my friends, and how they felt like time was really speeding up as they approached their 40s. I tried to replicate that idea in NW, rather than give it this stately weight of time passing at the same pace. Maybe that makes the book uneven and strange, but then, so is life.”

And just as strange, for Smith, is writing itself. Growing up in the public eye - White Teeth was published when she was in her mid 20s - she reveals that, when she does go back to her debut novel, she can barely believe she wrote it. All the plaudits and prizes seem, for her, to have been awarded to someone else. Even the process of writing is a strange, out-of-body experience.

“If I have one talent, it’s that I’m able to write something, and then read it, and edit it, dispassionately. As if somebody else has written it other than me,” she says.

Of course, Smith has more talents than that, as just a brief introduction to the world of NW proves. She’s wryly comic, perceptive and disarmingly wise for a thirtysomething. But perhaps it's exactly this disassociation from the norms of novel-writing which makes Zadie Smith such an intriguing novelist.

NW is published today by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99).

Ben East is an arts and culture journalist based in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @beneast74