Q&A with Christopher Bigsby on the Autumn Literary Festival

Christopher Bigsby is an award winning novelist, biographer, academic and radio presenter who has worked at UEA since 1969. In 1991 he helped found what is now the UEA Literary Festival. Bigsby has published over forty books, most notably a two-volume biography of writer Arthur Miller. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.

The Autumn Literary Festival has been an annual event at UEA for over 25 years. How has the festival changed throughout this time?

The Festival began as a one-off. The first one featured Arthur Miller, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Doris Lessing, Gore Vidal, Fay Weldon, Brian Aldiss and William Styron. It was called ‘An Autumn Spectacular.’ I organised it because I was bored and nothing seemed to be happening that autumn. When I thought of doing a second my wife said if you do that they’ll expect one every year. So I missed a year but, irritatingly, she turned out to be right. Hence this is the 26th.

It has also changed in that it has broadened out the kind of authors we feature. So, though we have had, I think, nine Nobel Prize winners, two of which have studied at UEA, alongside novelist, poets, playwrights and biographers, we also invite scientists, surgeons, historians, politicians, directors, actors, in short writers of all kinds.

Do you consider how each guest would fit into the programme as a whole? For example, there are many non-fiction writers on the programme for this autumn – is this a coincidence?

Normally, I go for a balance between different kinds of writers. It is true that this time we do have two historians, one of MI5 and the KGB, the other of Vietnam, plus a famous brain surgeon. We do, after all, have a medical school. We sometimes catch international writers briefly in the country – we have had writers from the US, Canada, Peru, Egypt, Germany, Spain, Ireland and the West Indies.

Sometimes they are major figures that I work hard to lure here. I had to persuade a publisher to bring forward the UK publication of a book and get them to pay for a trans-Atlantic fare to bring Arthur Miller while persuading another publisher to pay for his wife’s fare. With Peter Ustinov, I had to work my way through publishers, a production company and, finally, his secretary in Switzerland. Paul McCartney came through an unlikely UEA connection, arriving by helicopter, as did Richard E. Grant whose daughter, unbeknown to me, I had been supervising.

When the fatwa was declared on Salman Rushdie I brought him to UEA to show solidarity. This required a high level of security with armed protection squad personnel, who advised us to inform the VC only an hour and a half before his appearance. He subsequently returned on several occasions and UEA gave him an honorary degree, which, he told me, was more than his old university had.

How do you prepare your questions for the different guests?

I prepare by reading everything possible and then figuring out a logical path, though always ready to follow any new path that opens up as the conversation begins. I don’t know why, but I am always agreeably surprised about how open guests are given that they are facing many hundred people. There is an intimacy about conversations. On the whole, they are impressed by the audiences, sometimes much bigger than they are used to.

You’ve had the opportunity to get to know such a wide range of authors – what books do you find yourself recommending the most?

I have found myself urging people to read Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Frank Herbert’s Dune, though the book which really turned me on to literature was Dr. Zhivago.

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