The finale of this year’s Autumn Literature Festival marks the end of an era, as Chris Bigsby stands down from his leadership position, and the Arthur Miller Institute begins to evolve over the coming months. In a truly touching and appropriate manner for the last conversation, Bigsby interviewed renowned author and good friend, Louis de Bernieres. This interview also saw a slight change as halfway through the discussion, the tables turned, and our beloved interviewer found himself in the hot seat. Hot not due to a grilling by de Bernieres but rather due to the former’s embarrassment at being – for once – in the limelight, and a humility towards his extensive list of achievements. When asked why he began the Literary Festival, Bigsby admitted it was because he “loved it” and because he “was bored”. It’s incredible to look back now and see how far that boredom took UEA and Norwich on the whole, given we are now the first UNESCO City of Literature.
But let’s start with Louis, a man of considerable achievements himself. Perhaps most famous for his book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which was made into a surprisingly good film starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, he is also a distinguished poet and musician whose group, The Antonius Players, are currently touring. He sees himself as “British with foreign parts” or a “global citizen”, having lived and comprehended so much of the larger world. Yet, there was humbleness to this admission as he recognises the potential colonialist elements these phrases can invoke. The sharpness of de Bernieres’ mind is plain to see as he recognises his own privileges as a white man. Yet his ability to write from positions around the world would imply this citizenship is a label he rightly deserves; from Italian WWII soldiers to women living through the Columbian Armed Conflict he has always been praised for the believability of the narrative.
Listeners at the event were lucky enough to receive two masterclasses: one in poetry, and the other in interviewing technique. The former was thanks to de Bernieres exploration of language which he has discovered is “intrinsically musical”. To write good poetry, he believes you must understand how words work together and why. When asked why his interviewing technique was so strong, Bigsby answered on a similar tone of you must know your subject matter. Read everything you can about and by the author because they will recognise and respect you if you do.
An overarching theme of the night was the sharing of stories, de Bernieres was the perfect person to interview Bigsby as they have a shared past and therefore riffed off each other about comical interactions and events they both attended. They also addressed Arthur Miller himself on more than one occasion, given his connection to the institute and UEA, having loved the university and Norwich on the whole – he was given honorary Freedom of the City before his death.
A final, rather touching moment Chris Bigsby ended with was to claim that while Miller “thought he was having a dialogue with America, he was having a dialogue with the world.” Similarly, what started with Bigsby exploring literature has become a truly marvellous journey through understanding our world and society. We have been truly lucky to be along for the ride with him.