The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature may be fast approaching with the recent release of the authors' lineup, session times and ticket information, but festival director Isobel Abulhoul is already talking about it like it is old news.
The recent Order of British Empire honoree and co-founder of the Magrudy's book shop chain explains that her team started working on locking in this year's authors - featuring best-sellers such as Nicholas Sparks, David Nicholls and Mark Billingham, as well as Arabic literary stalwarts Mourid Barghouti and Nawal El Saadawi - and organising panel events as far back as the beginning of last year's festival.
Such is the work of a literary director, a job requiring a visionary zeal and supreme organisational skills, along with the deft ability to re-juggle everything in an instant.
"Every year is completely different," Abulhoul says. "I know that something is going to happen that I will have no idea about when I start. We don't know what's coming but we have to be ready, open to welcome it and change our plans to accommodate things that fall into our lap."
Abulhoul uses the festival appearance of the UAE-based architect Sandra Piesik as a case in point.
After reading a proof of Arish: Palm Leaf Architecture, Abulhoul was so impressed, she cast aside a carefully organised panel and session time plan to accommodate her.
Michael Curtis, a former member of the legendary Trucial Oman Scouts, is another example. Curtis will present Arabian Days, a detailed account of the scouts who this year celebrate their 40th anniversary.
"These scouts were here before the Emirates were born," Abulhoul says. "They were happening to come back to the UAE for their reunion, so what can I do except say 'please come!' This is a fantastic opportunity."
Bigger names need little coaxing, she said, as a recommendation by a fellow writer is more effective than any marketing campaign.
"The writers who came to the festival to date, I would say 98 per cent of them have had a wonderful time," Abulhoul says. "They were very helpful in spreading the word to other authors. So the word is out there that Dubai is a lovely place for a literary festival, they will get looked after and they will have a great audience and people are interested in books."
Abulhoul describes this year's lineup as "bursting at the seams" with more than 100 international writers from 25 countries and 150 sessions ranging from the conversational to masterclasses, literary lunches and cooking demos.
No matter how successful the author, Abulhoul won't bring them over unless they are compelling in person, too.
"They must be good speakers," she says. "Being a good writer, we take that for granted, but are they a good speaker? Do they enjoy coming to festivals? Most writers are very intelligent, they will not say yes to coming to the festival if they weren't good speakers because they won't enjoy it."
Close to Abulhoul's heart are the festival's two education days, where more authors travel to different schools in the UAE and hold free informal sessions discussing the importance and inspiration of literature.
Last year saw more than 3,000 students participate, with some students coming from Oman to attend.
Abulhoul explains that it's not only the students who are thrilled by the exchange.
She recalls a bittersweet moment during the inaugural festival when the late Irish author Frank McCourt spoke to students from Dubai Women's College about his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela's Ashes - it proved to be the author's last festival appearance. He died months later in July 2009.
"He was worried if there was going to be a language barrier and how was he going to talk about his work," Abulhoul says. "He said, 'My book talks about my Catholic upbringing and alcoholism, et cetera'. I said just tell it like it is, Frank."
As often happens, Abulhoul says the festival works to educate the writers as much as those who attend.
"He had an audience of probably six to eight hundred Emirati ladies and he had the most wonderful time. He sent an email saying it was one of the most interesting sessions he had ever been to, so his misconceptions were laid to rest."
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