A meeting of the sharpest literary minds at Cúirt
The key to the success of the Cúirt literary festival is putting contrasting writers in the same room and letting them at it – this year was no exception
Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley at Cúirt. Photograph: Boyd Challenger
THE reason there are so few good conversations, wrote Truman Capote, is two intelligent talkers seldom meet. He had clearly never been to a literary festival. Bring two writers together, add an audience, and you get an event that often amounts to much more than the sum of those relatively simple parts.
As Galway City Council’s arts officer James Harrold put it, introducing such a pairing at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature last week: “It will last for about an hour, but will – hopefully – linger in the mind for years to come.”
Choosing which writers to bring together is a tricky business. “To be honest, I spend a lot of my time working on those pairings,” says Cúirt’s director Dani Gill. “Sometimes I pick someone to juxtapose with their opposite. That can work well, to have a difference of opinion and different views. Other times I will pick people who have something in common. For instance, Ron Rash and Claire Keegan. They both have an amazing way of bringing dark stories into the light – and they’re both, I think, quite interested in their origins.”
This is Gill’s third year at Cúirt, where her mission has been to introduce the most interesting young writers from Ireland and abroad. She also likes to focus minds by suggesting a particular topic for discussion at each session; this year’s festival found Laurent Binet and Sheila Heti talking about characterisation in the novel, and Ben Marcus and Keith Ridgway talking about surrealism.
Cast a glow
For Cúirt’s opening event, Gill pulled off a pairing so spectacular it cast a glow over the following few days: a joint reading, at Galway’s Town Hall Theatre, by the poets Michael Longley and Séamus Heaney. Any worries about who should get top billing, or hog the stage, faded into insignificance as the two literary superstars treated the audience to an awe-inspiring display of creativity, humour and mutual affection.
The following day’s pairing of poets Leanne O’Sullivan and Matthew Sweeney looked like a distinctly dodgier proposition. They are opposites in just about every way: O’Sullivan wispy and blonde, Sweeney forceful as a stand-up comic. O’Sullivan’s poems excavate the sometimes painful place where family meets folklore, Sweeney celebrates such wildly unlikely subjects as fish and chips or magic horses, with dark humour. Despite the contrasts, which might have made for an excruciating change of tonal gear, the reading was hugely enjoyable.
According to Geoffrey Taylor – who is director of Authors at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, north America’s biggest literary festival – a willingness to experiment, to mix, match and try new things, is crucial to a festival’s success.
“I’ve been to Cúirt five, or maybe six times now and I would say it has found its identity placing international authors on a local stage, but at the same time placing Irish authors on an international stage. And I think that’s the right kind of mix to have,” he says.
“A festival does not have a vested interest in one viewpoint. It has the opportunity to curate or look at the world in a different way. If someone was to look through the programme guide for this festival, they’d probably see some names they’re very, very familiar with. But if they trust the festival, they’ll come and see writers whose names they don’t know, too. I think this festival has created that trust – so people are willing to take a gamble on an author who might be very well known in their own market but not in this one.”
At Cúirt, the Welsh-Indian writer Tishani Doshi could be placed in the latter category, as might Canadian novelist Sheila Heti. Paired, respectively, with the Belfast writer Lucy Caldwell and the French novelist Laurent Binet, both events packed out the Town Hall Theatre’s tiny studio and could have sold many more tickets, says Dani Gill – except she wanted to keep them intimate and allow the audience to get up close and personal with the writers.
Caldwell and Doshi, it turned out, know each other quite well – they met at a festival and kept in touch – adding a genuinely conversational tone to their sparky, frank encounter.
Heti, by contrast, had never met Binet, and confessed before the event she has had some bad experiences with pairings in the past. “Somebody paired me up for this thing in New York. We were supposed to discuss happiness – and before we got on stage we were talking really freely. Then we got on stage, and it was just . . . gone. I don’t know what it was.”
Another time, she got annoyed with a fellow participant and sat fuming throughout the evening – which, she suggested, was better than not having any chemistry at all.
In the event, she and Binet created a memorable chemistry as they read from, and talked about, their respective novels How Should A Person Be? and HHhH.
Again, this was partly down to the differences between the two. Binet quoted Milan Kundera, while Heti described how she wanted to write about “an exhibitionist sex girl like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton”.
Binet insisted that the narrator in his historical fiction about an assassination attempt on a notorious Nazi are one and the same: “It’s me, but a caricature.” Meanwhile, Heti asserted that her book didn’t feel like her at all. But there were also clear similarities: both books are quirky and unsettling, and both use a direct address to the reader.
“Magic sometimes happens at a live event,” says Taylor, who attended festivals and book fairs in 17 countries last year.
“The planets are in alignment. The moderator, the host, the guests have all come together. And the interesting thing is, you can’t predict what those events are going to be. If you were to take the same mix and put it on another day, it might not work.”
It worked at Cúirt, and then some. Better yet, a summer of festivals lies ahead, promising many magical literary evenings to come.