Book Ahead! [SKINNYFEST]

Festival director Catherine Lockerbie gives us the skinny on the festival and reveals her top picks of 2006.

Feature by Julian Smith | 14 Aug 2006
The Edinburgh International Book Festival bills itself as the world's largest celebration of the written word, and a quick glance at the programme reveals the staggering quantity and diversity of events on offer. From August 12th the normally inviolate grounds of Charlotte Square shall be transformed into a tent city and will play host to all manner of wordsmiths, from Nobel Prize winners and knighted scientists to autistic savants and members of Franz Ferdinand. Some of the 'strands' on this year's festival include Embryos and Ethics, International Fiction, Matters of the Mind, War & Terrorism and the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series. We asked festival director, Catherina Lockerbie to give us the skinny on the festival along with her top picks.

Skinny: Why are book festivals important? What is their function?

Catherine Lockerbie: Book Festivals are important because they show that the most sophisticated, interactive, portable, idea-generating device known to mankind remains the book. Our audience has grown 120% in five festivals - from 100,000 to 220,000 - so every time someone suggests to me that society is dumbing down or that people are simply slumped in front of Big Brother twentyfour-seven, I ask them to consider our festival. We have very few spaces where ordinary members of the public of any age or background can test their opinions with other like-minded strangers, and with authors who have thought deeply about a given subject - whether that is poetry or politics, the environment or art, comedy or crime, great literature or cutting-edge current affairs. The festival actually happens in the moment of exchange between author and audience, and between punter and punter.

Skinny: Who or what are you most excited about this year?
CL: I'm immensely excited about the international reach of the programme. This is something which distinguishes our festival from the hundreds of smaller imitators now springing up - we are bringing authors from over 35 different countries, voices we would never normally hear in Scotland, revealing other cultures and lives. This is essential to get beyond the stereotypes we are so often fed, especially as regards the Middle East and the Islamic world. I'm specially pleased to have been able to invite authors from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria and Egypt, giving real insight into lands badly misrepresented in the media.

Skinny: What are your top 5 recommendations?

CL: There are some huge world figures, beyond the most immediately familiar names. Ismail Kadare is one of the world's greatest living writers. He won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize over an incredible list of literary titans, and he will surely win the Nobel one day soon. His fiction gives a unique insight into the strange, bloody history of his native Albania and is astoundingly powerful stuff. This is his first ever public event in Scotland and should on no account be missed. (RBS Main Theatre, August 19, 11:30am)

Another really important figure on his first public visit to Scotland is the great Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. He was imprisoned in Kenya and fled into exile - he had dared to write in his own native language. His massive new novel 'Wizard of the Crow' is a must-read for those wanting to understand a bit more about Africa. (RBS Main Theatre, August 14, 11:30am)
Of the Middle Eastern writers one of the most important is the Lebanese novelist, journalist and critic Elias Khoury. His amazing book 'Gate Of The Sun' is a brilliant depiction of the plight of Palestinian refugees - I am overjoyed he is coming and everyone should seize the chance to meet him. (ScottishPower Studio Theatre, August 19, 5:00pm)

Close to home, no one should miss the chance to hear Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly The Sheep and at the forefront of some of the most futuristic developments in genetic science. This is work which will affect every one of us very soon, and is already changing the future faster than was ever thought possible. (RBS Main Theatre, August 22, 1:30pm) I'd also recommend, an event full of scurrilous and very funny anecdotes, from the critic John Gross - telling tales about writers and what they get up to. (RBS Main Theatre, August 15, 3:00pm)

Skinny: And who are some of the relatively unknown authors that you are excited about?
CL: The programme is full of little-known authors about whom I am very excited - so much so, we have dropped our already low ticket prices to allow everyone to try them. Let me mention two in particular: M J Hyland and Lisa Moore are going to blow you away with some of the best prose you have heard from new novelists (Writer's Retreat, August 15, 6:00pm), and Rachel Hore and D J Taylor, who happen to be married, will read from their excellent novels and talk about what it is like to be a young writing couple. (Writer's Retreat, August 15, 7:30pm)
The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from August 12 to August 28 in Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.