An Embarrassment of Riches at the (Digital) Hay Festival 2021

There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.


Richard Flanagan

Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.

The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.

Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!

Three take-aways:

  • The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
  • Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
  • “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”


Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen

All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.

Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.


Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani

Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”

Three take-aways:

  • Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
  • While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
  • Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.


Maggie Shipstead

Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.

Three take-aways:

  • Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
  • She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
  • While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.


Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.

Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.


Julianne Pachico

Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.


Brit Bennett

Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).

Three take-aways:

  • “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
  • “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
  • An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.


Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti

I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”

Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.

Three take-aways:

  • A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
  • Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
  • A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.

22 responses

  1. I also signed up to some Hay Festival events, but unfortunately I was not able to watch them live 😦 Will catch up during the weekend, especially the Brit Bennett and Richard Flanagan discussions! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I only watched a few of these live; it was possible to catch up within 24 hours from the same link (any later than that and you have to go to the archive and subscribe). The Flanagan was probably my favourite event, because it was also a favourite book being discussed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve only watched the Deborah Levy so far. She is my current favourite writer and I could listen to her speak for hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I knew that! Hot Milk is still the most recent thing I’ve read by her. I didn’t get on with The Man Who…


      1. You should try her three volumes of living autobiography – they are quite special.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I would love to — they sound right up my street. Alas, my library hasn’t acquired any of them.


  3. I signed up for the Richard Flanagan and the Clarke/Rosen discussion but couldnt get to them live. The cost of access to the archive is so reasonable though that I’ve just bought that so I can watch at leisure. Clarke’s book Dear Life is one of the most impactful I’ve read in many years and I was impressed by her appearances on Question Time where she was very direct about the management of the pandemic

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Dear Life as well. Unfortunately, I did not find Breathtaking as insightful and have already read better books about Covid. I appreciate her as a public figure calling out the government and standing up for the NHS, though.


  4. Wow – thanks for sharing your experience with this festival. I’d be interested especially in listening to the Brit Bennett and Leilani/Washington conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was really impressed with all three. They speak so eloquently, especially for young people.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for reporting back on this – some fascinating sessions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a really fantastic programme this year. I could easily have attended twice as many events.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Do you have a preference for hearing an author speak before it after you’ve read their book? My impression is you’ve done some of both here. While I’m often reluctant to attend a talk on a book I’ve not read, I sometimes find the content of the talk redundant with reading the book, so I’m interested in your thoughts on the two options.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see what you mean. It’s a tough call! There were a few other events I decided not to attend because I’d already read the book and didn’t feel I needed to hear more about it. A few of these authors I hadn’t seen in person before and I liked their books enough that I wanted to know more, and then there were a few books I hadn’t read yet but wanted to, so I used the event to whet my appetite. There weren’t any particular spoilers in the talks I attended, but if you really didn’t want to know any details about a book, you probably wouldn’t want to attend a discussion (just like you wouldn’t want to read reviews).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! That’s helpful. I hadn’t thought of this before reading your comment, but it seems possible that author talks closer to book publication are more likely to avoid spoilers (although audience questions are probably still a risk). I definitely don’t mind the amount of spoilers in an average review, so I’m guessing if I stick to talks earlier in a books lifespan, I’ll be alright 🙂


  7. Wow – this post is filled with lots of goodies! I love your take-away points – that was a good way to sum up.
    I have added Flanagan’s book to my list even though I’ve never read him before. I would also like to read Lockwood’s. I’m not so sure I’ll like Cusk’s new book any more than I’ve liked her others… Are you going to try it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I ended up having lots of extra quotes and points I didn’t know how to work in otherwise. Luckily, my laziness probably equated to greater readability!

      I have the Cusk on order from the library — the D.H. Lawrence connection is a real draw for me. But if I don’t like the initial pages I’ll have no qualms about returning it unread.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be curious to hear…


  8. What a great array of experiences! I would have enjoyed any of these I’m sure. Fortunately I don’t feel entirely like I’ve missed out, thanks to your fantastic summaries!
    I feel as though I should add more !! to refer back to your Cusk event! And to express my enjoyment of Bryan Washington’s stories…he pulls me in, every time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a surprise to me because I don’t think of Cusk as an effusive writer. I expect to find her protagonist someone who bends over backward to not offend the males in her life.

      I read the first few stories in Washington’s collection some months ago and need to get back into it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I enjoyed Lot…a lot. (*giggles*) But I enjoyed Memorial even though. Mainly because it was longer and I was content to spend more time in their company. (A food angle in that one too.)


  9. […] I saw Cusk speak at the online Hay Festival, I learned that Second Place (my review) was loosely inspired by Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir […]


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