Book and food lovers are in for a treat this week with the return of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Returning tomorrow night at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City, the festival's annual mix of entertainment and education - through its panel discussions, literary dinners and masterclasses by popular and emerging authors - has placed it among the UAE's most anticipated cultural events.
With only a few days left to begin, a slew of sessions and the festival's yearly literary lunch are already sold out.
According to the bestselling British crime author Mark Billingham, it is the festival's deft combination of literary glamour and education that is responsible for its appeal.
And Billingham should know. This is the popular author's third appearance at the festival, whose eclectic line-up is as alluring to visiting authors as it is to the public.
"Really, it is a chance for us to mingle with a whole bunch of authors and writers whom you wouldn't necessarily meet at other events," he says.
"When you put us all together for one week - and the festival does put on great social events for us - you end up bonding. For me, I am really looking forward to meeting people like Brian Moore, Terry Wogan and Michael Portillo. It should be great fun."
But it's not all play for Billingham. He is set to become one of the busiest authors in the festival, appearing in three sessions to discuss his acclaimed crime series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne and running an already sold-out masterclass on crime fiction.
Billingham will also use the skills learnt from his former careers as an actor and stand-up comedian when hosting The Lit Fest Grand Quiz at the hotel's Eclipse Bar on Friday evening.
"Yes, that is the way I like to do things," he chuckles. "When you are coming for a week, I would rather have things to do on most days. I mean, this is not a holiday."
For the young Italian writer and physicist Paolo Giordano, the festival presents itself as a temporary escape from his homeland.
The 30-year-old's debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers continues to be discussed in Italy despite its release four years ago.
"The book feels old to me," he sighs. "But if you go to another country and talk to a new audience, you get a little bit of that original feeling back."
Such is the slow road to success taken by acclaimed international novels. While Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist may appear as one that enjoyed instant success, the novel first captured the attention of western audiences years after its publishing in the author's native Brazil.
Released in 2008, The Solitude of Prime Numbers follows a young couple and their attempt to keep their turbulent relationship afloat despite the tyranny of distance and childhood traumas.
"It is a very classical story in the end," Giordano says.
"It is a love story, but an incomplete one. It is a story about growth and dealing with trauma. I think it is not really set in Italy but in an imaginary place. I think this is what kind of made it universal."
The book was immediately acclaimed in the Italian press and went on to scoop the 2008 Premio Strega award - the Italian equivalent of the English Man Booker prize.
Giordano recalls the attention the novel received after his big win stirred some animosity within Italian literary circles. They wondered how a young physicist could suddenly swoop in and win the nation's eminent literary prize on his first outing.
"They thought of me as being curious and not dangerous at first," he says.
"They were reactions about the prize and now I do feel that there is some tension around me."
Giordano says that after the novel's success, the tables have turned when it comes to his writing habits. He used to write only after getting home from a long day in a laboratory. Now, the lab has become a place of solace from penning his anticipated follow-up.
"Maybe it is a way to avoid [writing] the second book, actually," he laughs.
"You know, when I was writing the first book, I felt like I was not smart. I was not clever or good enough. That was very frustrating. Now that I know there is an audience, it makes me more relaxed ... more confident."
The award-winning UK author and writing instructor David Almond knows that feeling all too well.
During his Friday morning masterclass, Creativity Demystified, he will attempt to tackle the doubtful whispers that plague aspiring writers.
The sold-out two-hour event will have Almond instilling in students the belief that creating is a universal exercise.
"It's the thing that makes us human," he says.
"Writers, wherever they are from or whatever they are writing about, are often drawing from the same core of stories and the same core of language."
Almond, who has been giving masterclasses for more than 20 years, believes the pressure "to be creative and original" is largely responsible for ideas not reaching the page.
"It has the opposite effect. So what I try to do with my workshops is to show that we have a really powerful fund of stories and extraordinary imagination," he says.
"The imagination is central to the human condition, it's not something that we have to search inside ourselves to achieve, it sits inside there in all of us."
Almond says the growth of masterclasses in global literature festivals is a sign such events are moving from traditional talk-fests to becoming more inclusive.
"To partake in the writing process is a very important thing," he says.
"It's great for people to come and hear writers read and talk about the work themselves. And to really understand and appreciate literature, you have to try and do it yourself," Almond says.
"Everybody knows what a story is until they begin to write one themselves."
• The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will take place from Tuesday to Saturday. Paolo Giordano will speak about his book on Friday morning. The Opening Night will be held at Al Mazmar Theatre, Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association. Other sessions will run in the InterContinental Hotel Dubai, Festival City. For all event details, go to www.emirateslitfest.com
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