by Vaseem Khan, #DubaiLitFest 2017 author
Literary festivals are a fixture on every author’s calendar. They are the means by which we connect with our readers, gain publicity for our work, and keep our finger on the pulse of our industry. And yet standards vary greatly. With so many festivals now crowding the calendar, it is inevitable that some will be ‘better’ than others. Two years ago, after a twenty-year wait, my first novel was published. The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, a cosy crime mystery set in India, became a Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Debut pick. Thus, began a whirlwind journey, the sort of thing every author dreams of: TV and radio interviews, book signings, and, of course, festivals.
This year I attended the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai for the first time. After an exhilarating week, I came back convinced that this event will soon appear on lists of ‘the best lit fests in the world’. A tall claim, given the many established and well-recognised contenders for that title: from the Hay festival in Wales to the Miami Book Fair to the 90-year-old PEN World Voice Festival of International Literature.
Allow me to justify my faith.
Most festivals pride themselves on their hospitality, but the Emirates LitFest takes this to a new level, from the pleasant flight with Emirates airline (for myself and my wife – they really make a great effort to include partners in the experience), to the middle-of-the-night pick-up at the airport, to the five-star hotel stay with stomach-busting buffets on tap. Most festivals are a great way for authors to meet potential customers. But the LitFest invests equal energy in ensuring the authors can meet each other. A terrific ‘Green Room’, peopled at all times by helpful, knowledgeable event organisers allowed us to chat deep into the night. And then there are the excursions. Trips into Dubai are laid on every day. These trips are the perfect way to spark friendships. For instance, we were taken out into the desert for an evening of grilled food and poetry. I arrived, turned around, and there, standing before me, was Peter F. Hamilton, a world-famous science fiction author I have been reading for twenty years! I rubbed my eyes in case it was a mirage, then just started talking to him. A few minutes later we were both on camels.
I kid you not.
The next day I ended up on a boat with Eric Van Lustbader, author of the recent Jason Bourne novels, and Costa Book Winner, Frances Hardinge who wrote The Lie Tree. I spoke on panels with Alan Titchmarsh, renowned gardener and bestselling fiction author, and Kathy Reichs, globally popular creator of the Temperance Brennan series and the Bones TV series. I toured the incredible Dubai Opera House with Martin Edwards, incoming chair of the UK Crime Writer’s Association. The festival gave us time to interact, to get to know each other, and this sparked collaborations. For instance: I have been invited to contribute to an anthology of short stories Martin is working on; I have been invited to talk at the ‘Writers of the World Unite’ Festival by Rosie Goldsmith.
The Festival also makes a commendable effort to involve authors with local schools. My own visit to The School of Research Science was an immersive experience. Aside from the fact that the school resembled a palace, I discovered that kids basically are the same as anywhere else. The same things motivate them, excite them.
But my most enduring memory of this festival is the city of Dubai itself, a breathtaking backdrop to this wonderful event. With its ex-pat community of over 200 nationalities, and its seemingly limitless ambition, this is a city of the future. It glitters like a jewel in the desert, an architecture lover’s dream come to life.
Of course, a festival lives and dies by its ability to connect writers with their audience. And at the Emirates LitFest the interactions with readers were second to none, expertly facilitated by knowledgeable moderators, and conducted in top-rank venues. I was able to introduce my work to a new audience, and I think (hope!) we both benefited from the result. (My first novel The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra introduces readers to Inspector Ashwin Chopra of the Mumbai police as he moves through the turbulent, colourful fabric of modern Indian society in search of a murderer, whilst simultaneously coming to grips with the surreal dilemma of caring for a one-year-old baby elephant that has been sent into his care.)
Having returned now to London, hard at work on the next book in my series, I find myself pausing every now and again in front of my laptop, a smile playing over my lips, as I delve into the store of wonderful memories I brought back with me from Dubai. And isn’t that, ultimately, the highest compliment anyone – be they reader or author – can pay to any literary festival?