Interview: Michelle Garnaut

Celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year, the team behind the Shanghai Literary Festival have concocted a magnificent programme brimming with an eclectic mix of local and international talents, and a few surprises thrown in between.

From The Simpsons and Futurama creator, Matt Groening to homegrown talents Li Er and Xu Xi, bestselling novelist Amy Tan to American journalist Barbara Demick to children’s author HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, this year’s lineup spans across diverse genres and auteurs.

In the lead up to the festival, we spoke with Founder and Director Michelle Garnaut about where it all started and what goes on behind the scenes.

The Shanghai Literary Festival is now in it’s 10th year, congratulations!
Thank you!

Can you tell us about the festival’s beginnings and how it has evolved
over the years?

I’m sure you’ve heard the story – it all started with a martini (or six). We invited Frank Moorhouse, who had a manuscript – it wasn’t a book yet – on the Martini in Literature, because we thought it would go so perfectly with our newly opened Glamour Room and Bar [now the Crystal Room, Glamour moved into a bigger space in 2006]. We served martinis, of course, everyone had a grand time, and we thought, we should do this again.

We had also arranged for Frank to speak at the Hong Kong Literary Festival, and so the following year we asked them if any authors would be interested in coming. It turns out a handful were – Maxine Hong Kingston among them – and we stretched it into a weekend. We had no sponsors and no volunteers – and no money – and people would call the restaurant for tickets – this went on until the lines were tied up with ticket sales and restaurant customers couldn’t get a reservation!

The Festival has grown organically, from one author, to one weekend, to two, and now three. Our audiences have grown, too. At some of those early sessions, it would be literally two people, and Tina [Kanagaratnam, Festival co-director] and I would be pretending like we were audience, too. Sponsors have grown as well, many of them long-term now, and their support enables us to do what we do. We now have an amazing group of volunteers, the Elves, who do so much of the heavy lifting during the Festival. We can’t grow any more, as we’re limited by space (the Festival is held at M on the Bund and Glamour, in two rooms), and also resources – all of us who do this do it as volunteers and have other day jobs!

Has the festival become what you envisioned?
To be honest, I didn’t really envision much at the beginning, when it was just a couple of people in an empty room, but I did think it was worth doing, even if a handful of people came. I still do.

The festival draws in a host of well known international authors. How do you start the selecting process each year?
It’s very, very organic. We always have a list of authors who couldn’t make it this year, but ask to be put down for 2013, so they’re the starting point. We keep books and book reviews that we’ve read, and add our favorites to the list. We speak to the consulates and arts bodies that sponsor writers, and they get added. Trusted friends and Festival alumni make recommendations, and writers also approach us directly.

Do you look at authors who are relevant and important right now or do you try to get a diverse range of literary talents?
We have quite a mix, because our audience is so international, “relevant and important” is different for everyone!

Who are your favourite writers and what makes them special to you?
The ones I’m about to discover!

Visitors to the festival this year will be able to enjoy events at the newly revamped Glamour Bar. Can you tell us about the design and what inspired the new look?
The design has not undergone an enormous change, but we have added a full new menu, with an array of food – from nibbles to feasts – and a wine bar, with 32 bottles by the glass and another 32 by the bottle, a Champagne bar, with a range of Champagnes by the glass and an extensive list, and our dramatic cocktail bar, serving classics and contemporary twists.

Are there some special surprises in store for the festival’s 10th
anniversary celebrations?

Our 10th anniversary concert by the Rock Bottom Remainders, the all-star, all-author rock band!

What events this year are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to all of them, in Beijing at our Capital Literary Festival and Shanghai! Hope to see you there.

Shanghai International Literary Festival 2012
Feb 29 – March 18, 2012
6/F, No 5. The Bund, 20 Guangdong Road, Shanghai