A lot of people visit Crossing Border for the musical acts, kind of forgetting that it draws amazing authors as well. That the literary aspect of the festival gets downplayed is obvious when you look at the line-up. The musical performances get 45 minutes at the least, while most authors will have to do with a meager 30 minutes of interview time. This is completely undeserved, because the literary portion of Crossing Border this year was great. The visiting authors were interesting and proved to be great conversationalists if paired with the right interviewer.
This didn’t go right from the get go. Our first author was Michaïl Sjisjkin who was being interviewed by Laura Starink. After some introductory notes on his book Maidenhair, Starink immediately delved into the current situation in Russia and never really moved away from there anymore. Luckily Sjisjkin was a delight to listen to, talking about his novel or his dislike of the Putin-regime and he often ignored the interviewer to be able to keep talking about his life. His observations about Russia, calling it The Putin Show instead of The Truman Show and comparing Putin to a werewolf, kept us on the edge of our seat, even though the interview went 15 minutes over time.
Hans Bouman interviewed the friendly Akhil Sharma about his newest novel Family Life. It took him 12,5 years to write and he made it explicitly clear that he would never have started this novel if he knew it was going to take him this much effort, calling it a horror. The book has obvious connections to his own life and this is where he often draws his inspiration from. His own brother had a terrible accident when he was younger, leaving him with a life-long injury and in need of care. Because of this, he often felt ignored as a young boy. Writing is his way of demanding attention, of bothering people with his feelings and making sure he is being heard. His parents didn’t mind that he wrote about them, his father doesn’t even believe that people read books. He told him that if you want to keep a secret, you put it in a book and that is exactly what Sharma did.
We were then dumb enough to think that we could show up at Paolo Giordano’s interview at the last moment. When we finally found the venue, the entire room was filled to the brim with excited women. A Crossing Border employee had to stand in front of the door to keep more women from barging in. He was truly the hunkiest author around.
So instead we broke our promise and went to see Gary Shteyngart instead and thank god we did. Tim de Gier asked him some great questions, but Shteyngart really stole the show. He’s funny and definitely not afraid to make fun of himself or anyone around him. He told us about his nickname in college (Scary Gary) and his first novel (Lenin and his Magical Goose). Almost every answer he gave, no matter how serious the question, ended up with the entire audience laughing. This was definitely a highlight of the festival and if you get to chance to go see him Monday at John Adams, definitely take it!
Friday evening ended with a very odd, but definitely intriguing musical reading by Alma Mathijsen. The music was provided by Milena Haverkamp who played a keyboard and a horn-violin – such a strange instrument – and the combination provided a very hypnotic reading of Mathijsen’s new book De Grote Goede Dingen.
Crossing Border organised a special Saturday afternoon program in their good-looking mirror tent with authors Joanna Rakoff and Ian McEwan. Unfortunately a lot of people hadn’t hear of Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year in which she writes about her life when she worked for Salinger’s literary agency. The anecdotes she can tell about that period in her life are hilarious and heartwarming at the same time and it definitely helps that she is a great story teller. Interviewer Libby Austin compared the book to Girls meets Mad Men, but Rakoff’s impression of her boss felt much more akin to The Devil Wears Prada. Her enthusiasm for Salinger made it a very engaging interview. Just hearing that the mysterious author was actually a very kind man that urged Rakoff to write every morning, telling her she’s not a secretary but a writer, puts him in a whole different light. But her memoir really is about her own life, not a story about Salinger. It’s a book that relates to the struggles of those early years after college in which you are most likely poor and don’t know where to go with your life. Luckily we can take the successful and very happy Rakoff as an example that it will all turn out alright.
By then it was pouring outside and the heavy rain was coming down on the tent in an hypnotic rhythm. Jaap Robben got to interview Ian McEwan who seemed to be the man everyone was waiting for. They talking about an older book of his, Daydreamer, which was a very special occasion as McEwan had never talked about this work in public. Back then he had sworn off interviews and book tours, so it truly was a once in a lifetime experience. Learning about his process while writing Daydreamer – reading to his two young sons and asking them for editorial comments – made the reading that followed even more intimate. The tent was warm and cozy while McEwan read us a children’s story. We got to listen to his soothing British voice while the rain kept falling down on the canvas. If only we could have had a cup of hot coco and a blanket, it really would have been the perfect afternoon.