The Kent Literature Festival, which started lo these many years ago (though after most of the country’s other literary festivals) has gone through a fair number of name and location changes over the years. It now seems to be settled as the Folkestone Book Festival. One thing has been consistent over all this time: it has been something of a tail-end Charlie of book festivals, coming late in the year and drawing on a number of participants already familiar and tired from a year on the circuit. There have, from time to time, been somewhat misplaced attempts to live the thing up. I remember one notorious occasion when they had Iain Banks, and the organiser therefore decided it would be a Scottish Evening with himself and all the staff in tartans.
The more recent incarnation of the festival does seem rather more adventurous, however. This year, the cast included Siri Hustvedt, which felt like a real coup to me, though I did wonder if anyone else in Folkestone would have even heard of Siri Hustvedt (it didn’t help that they misspelled her name in the programme). I am inveterately early for things like this, and for a while my worries about how popular she might be seemed to have borne out: I was sitting outside the auditorium for over 20 minutes before anyone else turned up. Still, in the end there were around 40 of us in the audience, though I hadn’t taken on board that she seems to have become something of a feminist idol, and the only other few men in the audience were accompanying more intense wives.
Initially, I confess, I was disappointed. It turned out that we were not having an audience with Siri Hustvedt, we were having a Skype chat with her: she was sitting in a sunny room in her home in Brooklyn, we were in a dark theatre in Folkestone. It is, admittedly, a creative way to broaden the range of writers we might get to see at our tired little late-year book festival, but at the same time, bang goes my hope of getting her to sign The Blazing World. And I was a little annoyed that this wasn’t made clear in the programme: the Siri Hustvedt talk was under a heading “Words from a Wider World”, and if you worked your way patiently through the programme book you would find, several pages away, a note about this thread that, mid-paragraph, included a passing reference to “live link-up”, but that wasn’t at all clear.
On the plus side, her head filled a six-foot screen, which meant we had a wonderful view of how animated she is. Her eyes were particularly expressive, opening wide, rolling, glancing away to left or right. Her face was never still, and she laughed a lot; maybe, being in her own home, she was more relaxed that she might have been on stage. When we came to questions from the audience, someone asked inevitably about what conversations were like over the Siri Hustvedt/Paul Auster dining table. I saw Auster once at a reading, and I suddenly had an image of the light and lively Hustvedt against the dark and static Auster, and nearly burst out laughing.
The real problem was the interviewer. She wasn’t a writer or a critic, or even a psychiatrist (Hustvedt is a lecturer in psychiatry, so that might have been an interesting dynamic); she was an artist interested in “text and image”, the sort of bland phrase that means nothing. I’m not sure she’d had much experience interviewing, because her questions were rambling statements to which she somehow managed to append a question mark. And she had a habit of still hesitating and qualifying her question long after Hustvedt had started trying to answer it, which for me is a capital offence among interviewers.
But Hustvedt was gold: full of perceptions and ideas that moved effortlessly and revealingly from the structure of writing to the history of science to the character of memory to the role of women to the fluidity of gender. Everything was grist to her mill, everything interweaved with the way she wanted to write her novels. It was fascinating.
From the audience, after the usual fluffy questions from people who don’t really know how to talk to writers (the Hustvedt/Auster dining table, can you tell me something about that picture on the wall behind you) I managed to ask how she came to Margaret Cavendish. She immediately started on an excited five-minute talk about researching 17th century science and how the name Cavendish kept coming up and how she knew it from Virginia Woolf’s dismissive comments and how she therefore hadn’t read any Cavendish (because, well, Woolf), but then she did and how the scientific ideas still resonate with ideas we’re asking about today. When she finally wound down, she added: “And thank you for asking that question.”
So, a good evening. But I still don’t have my copy of The Blazing World signed.