January 14th-19th 2013

High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries

6 December 2012

As preparations for High Impact go into turbo drive I take my seat as tour blogger. High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries – to give its full title – is a festival and tour in which six top Dutch-language writers from Flanders and The Netherlands will give readings in six cities around the UK. Today I’d like to introduce the concept and thinking behind the whole project. Here’s my interview with the Artistic Director Rosie Goldsmith about what it all means.

Q: Where did the idea for the High Impact tour come from?

Rosie: I love travel, literature and performing, so when I was given this wonderful festival to curate it had to be a literary tour! In my heart I also call it a road show because that conjures up rock stars turning up at a new city every night with their guitars (aka books!), playing (aka reading!) to packed houses, staying up late eating, drinking and debating, then moving on. All very High Impact! The six authors on this tour are indeed great writers and great performers. As to the name High Impact: it came to me in July 2012, after the Dutch Embassy and Flanders House in London jointly commissioned a festival of Dutch-language literature in the UK. They said ‘Rosie, we’d like you to curate a Low Countries Literature Festival’. So, ‘low’ and ‘high’ – it made sense.

Q: Do you have a particular link with the Low Countries or with Dutch language literature?

Rosie: When I was a child my parents took me on an unforgettable holiday there. I fell in love with the cycling, chocolate and cheese – I discovered the literature later! For nearly a decade now, parallel to my BBC journalism, I’ve been chairing and curating literary events, and because I speak languages and work in foreign affairs, I often interview writers from abroad – Dutch and Flemish among them. This specialism in international literature developed when I helped launch the annual European Literature Night at The British Library in 2009, with various European and other cultural organizations in London. For five years now ELN has been a showcase for the best literature from the continent in English translation – and the Dutch and Flemish are (honestly) up there with the best. It is always a pleasure to interview them, not only because they speak excellent English (Dutch is not one of my languages!) but because I believe our countries and cultures share a great affinity.

Q: How did you select the writers?

Rosie: The Dutch Embassy and Flanders House stipulated that they’d prefer equal numbers of Flemish and Dutch writers; also budgets dictated that we could afford six writers. They also had to be translated in English, free to travel in January and writing in different genres. My brilliant and generous colleagues at the Dutch and Flemish Literature Foundations – who are our literature consultants on High Impact - swiftly drew up long lists of ‘contenders’ and organized a trip to Antwerp and Amsterdam for me to meet them. I was spoiled for choice. But logistics and juggling genres and personalities delivered up this stunning group of Low Countries Literati. I’m also hoping no one can count! On the last two nights Geert Mak is making a rock star style appearance, and on the final night in London – a gala evening of music and readings – I’ve invited some famous musicians and some of my favourite UK authors who’ve written books set in the Low Countries: Tracy Chevalier, David Mitchell and Deborah Moggach. So that’s not six but ten writers and two musicians! Thank goodness I have Nick Chapman of Speaking Volumes to manage the tour, the budgets – and me. He can also count!

Q: How did you select the cities for the tour?

Rosie: We’d like to make an impact all over the UK – next time! – but we don’t have the time, money or staff. So, with the approval of my Embassy colleagues, we are focusing on Norwich, Sheffield, Liverpool, Oxford, Birmingham and London, each for different reasons. E.g. Birmingham has collaborated with Dutch writers before; Norwich is well-known for its historic Dutch links and its international literature work; Sheffield University has one of the country’s leading Dutch Language and Literature Departments, and so on. I also wanted to make each event and venue different: in Liverpool we’re at the famous Epstein Theatre, in Oxford Blackwell’s Bookshop and in London we’re performing at The Tabernacle, famous for its gigs with Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and The Clash (so, no pressure there!).

Q: What do you hope to achieve with the tour?

Rosie: High impact! That audiences round the country meet the writers, hear them speak, discover this wonderful literature, and think, not that they are ‘foreign’ but that they are just darn good writers and that we should be reading and translating more of their work into English. Although the status of international fiction published in the UK is improving, it’s still shamefully low. All the writers on this tour are big names. Take Herman Koch for example, whose novel The Dinner has sold over a million copies round the world. But he’s written six novels already and this is the only one in translation. I also hope that High Impact will achieve a lasting legacy. I’m inviting as many media, academics, students, friends, colleagues and social media enthusiasts as possible to attend, report and help promote it. And thanks to our dedicated blogger, the Dutch literature specialist and translator, Michele Hutchison (yes, that’s you Michele!), there will be interviews and articles about the tour and writers available online for ever and ever, amen.

Q: Literary events seem to be increasingly popular, but do you think people will actually go off and buy the books afterwards?

Rosie: Thousands of literary events and festivals take place in the UK, more each year. There’s a real hunger although still too few featuring international writers (and almost none in January!). But there are many dedicated and determined publishers, translators and festival directors championing the cause. It’s an exciting time and, yes, people are still buying books (please!).

Q: What is going to be so special about these events?

Rosie: Each event will have a different theme and structure. In Sheffield, for example, the writers will be workshopping with the university students in the afternoon and in the evening the best students will be on stage with ‘the stars’. And the fact that I’m personally chairing each event should give the festival some creative cohesion and identity. Festivals work best when they have a strong identity, get audiences excited and, very importantly, when the writers enjoy themselves – after all, they are going to be on stage every night, together, for six nights.

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Michele Hutchison

Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) has lived in Amsterdam since 2004 and is an editor, translator and literary blogger. She studied at UEA, Cambridge and Lyon universities and worked in UK publishing for a number of years. Published translations include Rupert by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Fit to Print by Joris Luyendijk and thrillers by Simone van der Vlugt.

See all weblogs by Michele Hutchison