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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


It always helps to be in the company of friends. And this session was one of those. It was the last of the literary events in the packed calendar of the Ubud Writers Festival. One that promised to let you unwind with a glass of Hutton wine. Unwind is just what we did.

When Janet asked me in the morning of the session whether I was upto moderating this one, I had more than a donkey grin (had to learn more on the art of grinning a little later in this session) on my face and an ecstatic 'YES'. After all, I've seen the kind of work that Janet de Neefe (Festival Director, Ubud Writers Festival), Jill Eddington (till recently the Festival Director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival) and Nury Vittachi (founder of the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival) put in to get their respective festivals off the ground.

It may only seem like a week of action, but work in true earnest starts over a year prior to any festival. Since I communicate with Janet on an almost daily basis, I know that she is often sourcing for authors for the next fest even while working round the clock on the present one. Apart from sourcing for authors, there is the crying need to look for potential sponsors. Some sign up, some say yes, some painfully back out. Then there is the theme, matching authors to the panels, finding the right moderators, selling the tickets, working with the right bunch of people - each madly passionate about all things literary.

Having watched, the three Fest Directors in action, I can tell you none of the above is a walk in the park. I, for one, couldn't wait to exhale if given a job so huge. But each of them has pulled it off with apparent ease over the years. Not just that, they have taken their festival from strength to strength, roping in more sponsors, getting the top authors and getting the reading audience hooked.

Given that they deal with so many people at so many levels, we tried in a light hearted manner to cover some of the unheard bits about what goes on behind the scenes. While I was at Byron Bay, Jill had mentioned how some authors never want to leave the picturesque town, there are still others who simply find love on a plane and decide not to show up at a festival at all. While most authors are the stuff of dreams, some can typically drive festival directors and audiences up the well. We heard of authors who had stepped on the audience's toes with the most irreverent tales resulting in mass cancellations, some who let love take precedence over literary sessions, others whose mere obsession happened to be breakfast.

Often Festival Directors ended up sounding like the harried Ahn-Drea from 'The Devil Wears Prada', having to rustle up all Starbucks has to offer at their Festival venue. That's partly why their gear says a lot about their job. For those of you who have watched Jill in action at the Byron Festival grounds, she is the epitome of the general in action. Flitting in and out of sessions, she has a bag that is packed with all she needs to get through the day. More than the physical abilities of each of the Festival Directors to push themselves to their limits, it is their ability to make mental notes and deliver on them that never ceases to amaze me.

They have to remember who asked for what, when and ensure its gets to them. They have to be masters of the craft of managing expectations (trust me, there is a motherload of them), all of which calls for the finest PR skills. That's partly why all festival directors ask for by the end of each action packed week annually is quite simply a decent meal. A glass of wine helps invariably (unless you are Nury of course, then aqua pura would suffice).

Each has their own tales of survival, on what it takes to be omnipotent and omnipresent through the testing week. Some take it all upon themselves, right from answering their calls to meeting all the folks, others like the affable Nury simply:
"forward their calls to the Manager - Su."

The persistent grinning takes a toll within the week. Nury told us all about the intelligent grin versus the jackass one. So the next time you see the harried Festival Directors smile to themselves, they just might be perfecting that Nury grin.

In the interim, don't stop to say hello and nice things about their Festival. Trust me, its tons of hard work and if I were put up to the challenge, I, for one, simply wouldn't be able to grin and bear it.