The 2019 Spring Literary Festival will be hosting some of the most prominent figures in the world of words. From the author of the experimental and profoundly moving Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, to Rachel Cusk, the ground-breaking writer of auto-fiction. Singer-songwriter and author Tracey Thorn from the band Everything but the Girl will make an appearance, as will Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James. UEA alumnus and author of the heart-breaking bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne will also be here, so will the hugely successful writer Tessa Hadley, and, of course, Gina Miller- the political activist who has been at the forefront of recent events. The festival will close with writer and journalist Damian Barr, author of the memoir Maggie & Me. Festival director, author and co-convenor of the MA in Creative Writing Philip Langeskov has this to say about this year’s guests:
Rachel Cusk, I think, is amazing. I really love the recent vogue for auto-fictional writing. Knausgård, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Kris Kraus, all of that kind of stuff, I love it! I find it really interesting that many of the most exciting books that I have read in the last ten years have been books that don’t look like novels, don’t feel like novels, and are not written like novels. I think she’s done something really interesting with three volumes of auto-fiction that she’s written. Cusk, I think, thinks that the moral problem is with the kind of literary realism writing that seeks to invent or create situations to which the writer is not personally connected. And she sees that as a kind of moral fault in writing, which is really interesting. I’m really interested to speak to her. I’m a little bit daunted, because I think she’s really, really clever!
Tracey Thorn is a really, really interesting thinker. She’s one of the generation of kind of literary women popstars who arose in the 80s, who had a lot of interesting things to say. And since her performing career has ended, she doesn’t perform very much at all, she’s written two or three books, all of them really interesting. Her first one was called Memoir of a Disco Bedsit Queen about her formative years in and around music, and this book [A Teenager in Suburbia] is about growing up in the suburbs. Particularly in the 70s and 80s in this country, the suburbs were kind of the strange hinterland on the fringes of cities which seemed quite civilised, and they seemed like they were trying to create a kind of safe bubble of living, quite conformist, middle-manager kind of people. All of the streets looked the same, lots of cul-de-sacs looked the same, lots of houses looked the same, and she grew up in that environment, as did a lot of really interesting pop-stars in the 80s and 90s who emerged out of this very conformist environment, but the conformity that this very close knit environment placed on people encouraged them to seek other things. So, I think she’s a really inspiring kind of figure, really interesting writer, really interesting person, just to talk about the experience of living.
John Boynne studied here. His new novel, A Ladder to the Sky is set partly at UEA, it’s a very dark novel of literary ambition. It’s sort of frightening, about the kind of naked ruthlessness of writers. And it’s interesting to read a novel that is set here with cameo appearances of members of the faculty.
Tessa Hadley is a genuinely interesting figure in British writing in the sense that she’s still doing literary realism, but she’s doing in a way that looks back at a golden age of British writers, like Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen, writing in the middle part of the 20th century. She skipped over the calcification of realism that happened in the latter part of the century when realism became often quite boring, comfortable, and lacking in energy. She seems to have missed out that bit, and gone back to the kind of mid- 20th century great British women writers, but also she has a sort of clean eye on the present moment; she writes in this very, very seemingly conventional fashion of attending to the detail of scenes and moments, but as you go along it also has this very modern veneer. A review of her book Late in the Day just came out in the Washington Post, and the reviewer said that he thinks she’s one of the great prose stylists in the world!
I think I found his new book, Lanny, even more powerful than Grief is the Thing with Feathers. I thought Grief is the Thing with Feathers was amazing, but this is a different kind of book. It’s this really strange polyphonic novel about how we live, how we judge people, how we live among people. A couple of years ago, George Saunders came to the Literary Festival, and he talked about the difficulty of existing in America in the age of Trump. He said that it’s a bit like you’ve got two people at either side of this river, and they’re just throwing rocks at each other, and they’re not listening- they’re just throwing rocks at each other, and so the voice is not travelling, the voice is not reaching the other, they’re just throwing things. And there’s a bit in the middle of Lanny which is kind of like an English version of that. We are in this weird moment when we just say things out into the world, we don’t listen to the responses. So I think it’s really exciting – I think he’s a writer destined for big things.
‘His is probably the coolest event of the lot, an Afrofuturist masterpiece about which Neil Gaiman has said: ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the kind of novel I never realised I was missing until I read it. A dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa, which becomes a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made, with language as powerful as Angela Carter’s.’ It’s an unmissable event.’
I’m really excited that Gina Miller is coming. The meaningful vote that we had on Brexit the other day, we wouldn’t have had that vote if Gina Miller hadn’t taken the government to court. If it hadn’t been for her, the government could have just pressed on with their plan, they didn’t need to seek the approval of parliament, that was the initial situation. So, they could have just gone ahead with the deal that had just been rejected, and there could have been nothing the Parliament could do, but Gina Miller intervened. I think she’s a really inspiring, really important figure in the landscape of politics and culture. I hope she will be a really inspiring figure to people on campus, students in particular, about how you can get on and make a difference in the world, although you may not be part of the political machinery, because she wasn’t a politician, she wasn’t connected to politics, but she made a decision as a private individual that something in the political landscape wasn’t right, and she did something about it, which is kind of amazing.
He wrote a memoir about growing up gay under Thatcher, in the 80s, in Scotland, called Maggie and Me which won lots of prizes a few years ago. You Will Be Safe Here is his first novel. Set partly in South Africa in 1900, in a concentration camp where Africana women in particular were imprisoned by the British after the Boer war, and it’s about the experience of one particular woman and then there’s a second narrative that happens roughly in 2010 in modern day South Africa. It’s a pretty shocking story about violence- historical violence and present day violence- and the way in which that is visited upon people. It is about gender, it is about sexuality, it is about all kinds of things, it’s really good.