By Linda Spalding
The Hay Festival is mythic to Canadians. What I mean is that we all covet an invitation. Mine came by email a few months before the event so I had time to relish the imagined readings I would hear and writers I would meet. I tried to imagine a lot of audience adulation after my own reading, lines of book-buyers and the new friends I’d meet over drinks in the green room.
What happened was different. I was on a tight schedule when I got to London from Toronto and had to be picked up at Bristol Temple Meads Station by my publicist, Rachel Kennedy. This was in order to save time, but it gave us an hour to dig into each others’ pasts and become friends. Unfortunately, because of my schedule, by the time we got to the festival there were only a few damp hours to be spent in the great tents beyond the mucky swamp where we parked. I crossed that swamp in a pair of Rachel’s mum’s wet wellies and then squished my way to the door of the green room where I ran smack into Toni Morrison. We have met. We have good mutual friends, and yet I was so struck by her presence that I was unable to call her by her given name. I offered mine instead. “Please get us tickets for her interview tonight,” I begged Rachel. Because this is the way festivals work. There is the networking with other writers, which is often easily forgotten, and then there are the surprises; finding out that Toni Morrison is going to be interviewed on the one evening I have available; finding out Rachel and I share a passion for things Japanese; finding out that we both want more than anything to share a meal and sit together at Toni Morrison’s interview.
Then out of the wellies and into my too-fancy sandals, which were a chilly mistake. The look at Hay was boots – a good jolt of feminine butch with an expensive scarf wound casually around neck and shoulders. My partner on stage – the other interviewee – Philipp Meyer has written a brilliant book called The Son, that maps the legacy of violence brought about by one Texas family and no doubt we were partnered because our books are both about the American south in times past. In any case, our brilliant interlocutor, Kirsty Wark created a lively conversation about the kind of land grabbing our ancestors had so unthinkingly and selfishly done. Theft, I think is how we put it (since the indigenous Americans were shoved aside) although my book is about a God-fearing Quaker who makes the mistake – the great breach of faith – of buying a slave. All my life I’ve been wondering about this ancestor who set out with two horses, a wagon full of belongings, his five children, a 15-year-old orphan wife, and a few land warrants for a homestead which had no doubt belonged to the Cherokee tribe. Why did he slip so far from his own beliefs? Kirsty knew our books intimately and bridged the gaps between them by asking questions that made us sound edgy and smart, which is how anyone at a festival wants to sound. The audience was large and enthusiastic and Philipp and I sold enough books to please our publishers, which is the primary reason we writers are sent out like weavers or smiths from one festival to another.
Even so, the best was yet to come. Rachel secured the last two tickets for Toni Morrison’s interview and we sat in gratitude, listening to the seasoned wit and wisdom of one of our greatest living writers. I have heard her several times over the years and she gets better, richer of voice and thought, sweeter and juicier – which is why “seasoned” is the right word. I thought then that if this was all I got to hear during my few hours at the Hay Festival, it was enough. We stood, every one of us in our hundreds, and roared and clapped and wept for the miracle of a writer who has made her life and work such inspiration. Then I went off to my charming inn to sleep and the next day it was straight to the train and this is where the final surprise occurred when I met Samanta Schweblin who was being driven to the station with me after which, of course, we sat together on the train back to London. Samanta is Argentinian and lives in Berlin and soon we were chattering in my bad Spanish and her excellent English and within a short time and shorter distance, perhaps even while we were still in beautiful Wales, we were trading books (hers is Pajaros en la Boca) and planning my visit to see her in Berlin. And that is exactly how things at a really good festival are meant to transpire.
Linda Spalding, The Purchase (Sandstone Press, 2013) 978-1908737519, 368 pages, paperback.
Philipp Meyer, The Son (Simon & Schuster, 2014) 978-0857209443, 608 pages, paperback.