x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Get to know the Festival of Literature authors

Worried that the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will expose some embarrassing gaps in your knowledge? Read our crib notes on what to say about the biggest names attending, from Margaret Atwood to Wole Soyinka.

American writer Lionel Shriver.
American writer Lionel Shriver.

The Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature, which begins today, goes from strength to strength, attracting some of the world's biggest authors to Dubai for five days of talks, readings and debates.

It's not all about mammoth book sales, of course. Indeed, what's interesting about this year's programme is that million-selling authors haven't simply been plucked out of the air and asked to read from their work. Rather, all the best-selling writers coming to Dubai have genuinely intriguing reasons for being here - Margaret Atwood will discuss the impact of the digital world on authors, while Tess Gerritsen takes part in two events investigating why and how crime fiction continues to enthral. There's truly something for everyone, from science fiction to children's books, travel writing to book-club favourites.

Of course, the essence of literary festivals is conversation, but what to do if you get buttonholed by someone who is desperate to discuss a writer you haven't quite got around to reading yet? Never fear. To save your blushes, here's The National's guide to what to say about 10 of the festivals biggest names.

Margaret Atwood

Age: 71

Sales: More than 5 million

Biggest title: The Handmaid's Tale

What to say about her: The coolest 71-year-old in the literary world, Atwood enjoys huge critical acclaim as well as a dedicated following on Twitter. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize a whopping five times, it's something of a mystery that it's only her spiritual detective story The Blind Assassin that has actually gone on to win the most prestigious award in literature. Also a poet, essayist, campaigner and critic, her interests reflect her impressively broad range of work, which has seen her take on science fiction, Victoriana and the nature of debt in the 21st century. But whatever her subject, it's the engaging, thoughtful, dryly comic and, most of all, perceptive writing that really shines through.

Fadhil Al-Azzawi

Age: 70

Sales: Figures not available

Biggest title: The Last of the Angels

What to say about him: Hugely respected for his poetry and fiction, Al-Azzawi now lives in Germany but continues to be fascinated by his homeland of Iraq. And increasingly, his perceptive writing is finding international audiences. The Last of the Angels is a black comedy dealing with the British grab for oil in Iraq but it was written in the 1980s. Simon & Schuster saw the potential, however, and published the translation in 2008. Al-Azzawi is also an editor, a critic and translator of English literary work into Arabic - making him the perfect chairman for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the winner of which will be announced next weekend in Abu Dhabi.

Wole Soyinka

Age: 76

Sales: Figures not available

Biggest title: A Dance of the Forests

What to say about him: The first African winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this Nigerian playwright, poet and writer has been, throughout his life, a constant critic of tyranny and corruption. And this has meant he's gone to prison for his beliefs and lived in exile for long periods. But Soyinka isn't a writer who hides behind intellectual words or deeds - he's a man of action too, forming Nigerian political party Democratic Front for a People's Federation last year. Through all the controversy, what's often forgotten is that his work is as philosophical as it is political: Death and the King's Horseman - revived in grand style at The National in London a few years ago - is as much a Greek tragedy as it is a Yoruba myth, taking on issues such as identity and tradition.

Eoin Colfer

Age: 55

Sales: More than 20 million

Biggest title: Artemis Fowl series

What to say about him: To be "better than Roald Dahl" is quite an accolade for any author, and Colfer can proudly say he is just that: his Artemis Fowl series beat Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to first place in a prestigious children's literature poll last year. But to be honest, who wouldn't be thrilled by the exploits of a criminal mastermind who is also a child genius, whose stories are lovingly referred to by their creator as "like Die Hard with fairies"? With expert plotting and an eye for the comic, it was no surprise Colfer was also asked to write the next book in the late Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series... or that he did so with such aplomb.

Tess Gerritsen

Age: 57

Sales: More than 15 million

Biggest title: Harvest

What to say about her: Romance, for Gerritsen, is clearly dead. This Chinese-American novelist ditched her career as a doctor when the romantic thrillers she liked to write in her spare time took off. But it was only when she combined the thriller genre with her previous occupation, medicine, that she really began to sell books. A lot of books. And the organ donor drama that was Harvest led Gerritsen further into the crime world, her homicide detective Jane Rizzoli the protagonist of seven books and a television adaptation. Since then, she's essentially transposed the thriller template she's so at ease with writing into historical fiction with another incredibly successful book, The Bone Garden.

Lionel Shriver

Age: 53

Sales: 2 million

Biggest title: We Need to Talk About Kevin

What to say about her: Novels taking in subjects such as high school shootings and the American health-care system might not sound particularly enticing, but in Shriver's acerbic hands such topics have been at the heart of award-winning, best-selling books. And yet they're also about so much more: in We Need to Talk About Kevin (voted the best Orange Prize winner in the award's history last year), it isn't the shootings themselves that are crucial but their aftershocks, and what they say about nature, nurture and parenting. Similarly, last year's So Much for That saw Shriver at the height of her powers - emotionally powerful, caustically funny and uncomfortably perceptive about the way we live life today.

Michael Palin

Age: 67

Sales: 3 million

Biggest title: Around the World in 80 Days

What to say about him: He'll forever be synonymous with Monty Python, but when the knights that say "ni" went their separate ways, Palin pursued a phenomenally successful career as a travel presenter. Widely credited with transforming travel on television, Around the World in 80 Days's most famous - and hilarious - section memorably began on a dhow in Dubai, with the presenter suffering a rather bad stomach upset on the mammoth journey to India. Once the journey was complete, Palin made another groundbreaking decision - to write the tie-in book - and an incredibly successful writing career has followed. In 2009 he added the second part of his memoir, Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88, but it's the travel books that will remain snapshots of the world at the end of the 20th century. Happily, you can now download them for free from his website.

Tony Parsons

Age: 57

Sales: More than 3 million

Biggest title: Man and Boy

What to say about him: A Parsons book. Is a little like this. In very short sentences he will speak about slightly grumpy middle aged men. And there will be coincidences. A lot. Of coincidences. And talk of masculinity. And what it means. And how men are all a bit rubbish really. You get the point. Still, Man and Boy transformed Parsons from rock journalist to thoughtful novelist back in 1999. Since then, there have been five more novels and two more books in the Man and Boy series - we're now up to Men from the Boys - and while none have quite matched the refreshing insight of the original, he's still an enjoyably readable author. If you're. A bloke.

Michael Morpurgo

Age: 67

Sales: More than 4 million

Biggest title: War Horse

What to say about him: JK Rowling might do wizards, but Morpurgo just writes perfectly crafted fiction for children. Taking in everything from desert island drama (Kensuke's Kingdom) to the horrors of war (Private Peaceful), he's written over 90 books. But if there's one tale that every journey into Morpurgo's magical back catalogue must begin with, it's War Horse. The story of a boy whose horse is taken to France to be used in the war effort has been transformed into a magical play, and Steven Spielberg is currently adapting it for the screen, starring Emily Watson as the boy's mum.

Marina Lewycka

Age: 64

Sales: More than 1 million

Biggest title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

What to say about her: Lewycka is proof that perseverance is key to a successful career in literature. A journalism and PR lecturer, she had always wanted to be a published author, but was rejected countless times before Penguin took a punt on her outstanding family drama A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - when she was 58. The novel struck a chord with book groups thanks to its warmth, humour and vitality and two similarly entertaining novels have followed: Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue. Lewycka, who was born in a post-Second World War refugee camp, is brilliant at nailing cultural differences between nationalities - which is probably why Tractors has been translated into 29 languages. Including Ukrainian.

  • The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs from today until March 12. For more details, visit www.eaifl.com.