Dubai, deserts and debates

I have just spent the past week at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL), soaking up sunshine, poetry, literature and conversation in one of the most glamorous locations for a literature festival that you could think of.

The mix of speakers at the opening ceremony to the sixth annual EAFOL, which took place on Tuesday 4th March, gave a small glimpse at just how varied this year's events programme was. Politician and author Paddy Ashdown, lyricist Tim Rice, presenter and historian Jeremy Paxman, chef and novelist Pam Ayres and Christina Lamb OBE, a renowned journalist and I Am Malala co-author, all took to the stage…alongside a guest video-appearance from Malala herself.

Speaking before the festival, its founder Isobel Abulhoul told me that she wanted it to be, “as open and accessible to everyone as possible. We shouldn’t be keepers of taste, and I am a great believer that any reading is good for you, so unusually for a literature festival I see as us as a festival for non-readers rather than avid readers, because I want us to encourage people pick up a book for pleasure.”

With this in mind the mix of authors, journalists and poets speaking at this year’s festival was a refreshing blend of members of the literati, big celebrity names, and bestselling authors, with the varied line up including Darcey Bussell, Amit Chaudhuri, Eoin Colfer, Justin Cronin, Judy Finnigan, Joanne Harris, Simon Kernick, Prue Leith, Deon Meyer, Richard Madeley, Hassan Massoudy, Andrew Motion, Jojo Moyes, Francesca Simon, Ahdaf Soueif, DJ Taylor and Rachel Hore.

Spread over five days with over 200 events, including special sessions for children, a Female Focus strand, literary lunches, writing master classes, a murder mystery dinner and night of poetry under the desert stars, the EAFOL truly achieves its aims and is indeed a festival open to all – with attendees and authors all in one space discussing writing in all its forms. As Jeremy Paxman explained to me:  “Writers are often quite solitary creatures, so it is fantastic to see them all here in Duabi, out and about and mingling. Being at festival like this and talking to readers who all have their own ideas often makes you think about things for the first time in a completely different way. Which is great.”

With around 170 authors from 35 countries attending the fair it would be impossible to write up every aspect, but here are a few of my highlights:

Dessert Stanzas

The second edition of ‘Desert Stanzas’ - a night of poetry performed in sand dunes under the Arabian desert sky – featured performances from some of the world’s most prestigious poets, including the UAE’s own Khalid Al Budoor and Khulood Al Mu’alla, Germany’s Frank Klötgen and the UK’s Andrew Motion and Lemn Sissay. An atmospheric night, Desert Stanzas was a once in a lifetime experience. As Lemn Sissay himself said: “Poetry! Camels! Deserts! – at no other time will I be able to say that!”

Christina Lamb on Hearing Malala

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one so well known it hardly needs an introduction, but in this engaging seminar foreign-correspondent Christina Lamb gave a fascinating insight into the editorial process of co-authoring I Am Malala with the young activist.  Lamb, who visited the SWAT valley and stayed with Malala’s cousins in her parent’s village explained that, “despite all the different parties involved I got to write the book I wanted to write, in Malala’s voice, which is remarkable.” She also gave the funniest anecdote of the week, telling us that upon hearing that Malala had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize her son exclaimed: “But, how can she be nominated, she is always fighting with her brother?”

The Thrill of the Chase & the Twist in the Tale - The Crime Panel with Peter James, Simon Kernick, Camilla Lackberg & Deon Meyer

Featuring a stellar line up of crime superstars this seminar gave attendees insider clues on how to write the perfect crime novel. Peter James’ top tip was that, “a likely impossibility is always preferable to an unlikely possibility,” and for Deon Meyer it is that crime writers need, “to create a flawed, three dimensional character that readers can identify with and care about, and then make his journey as difficult as possible. If you can get that right, everything else will come much easier,” Fast-paced thriller writer Simon Kernick’s advice was short and sweet: “You need to have a good plan before you put pen to paper so that you know exactly what is going to happen.”

The Murder Mystery Dinner…

On Thursday night myself and a bevy of other festival attendees, and wannabe sleuths, sat down to dinner with authors including Kate Adie, Eoin Colfer, Charlie Higson, Peter James and Francesca Simon to solve a crime. With a murder mystery enacted by a local drama group in front of our very eyes, we had to gather clues, ask questions and search for a motive. With the idea of openness at the heart of the festival, this dinner was one of the best ways of attendees and authors interacting in a relaxed way. Although I can’t help feeling that Peter James’ table had an unfair advantage.

From Pitch to Publishing

With so many authors in one place, the festival creates a very inspiring and creative atmosphere, and alongside events featuring those that are already published, there were many geared towards the potential publishing stars of tomorrow. The UK publishing industry was represented by Picador’s Francesca Main and agent Luigi Bonomi, both of whom were incredibly excited about finding new talent at the fair and hearing brand new voices at seminars like: From Page to Publication, the by appointment only Quick Pitch and Literary Idol – where budding authors could have their work judged on the spot by publishing professionals.

The Festival itself took place in Dubai from 4th to 8th March under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice-President & Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, and in partnership with Emirates and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture), the Emirate’s dedicated Authority for culture, arts, and heritage. The Festival is now part of the Emirates Literature Foundation, which was established last year by Royal decree.

Felicity Wood is deputy features and supplements editor at The Bookseller. This is the first of two pieces on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.