Writers on Craic! PEN Festival Carries On Despite ‘Freak Year’

“I think this year is just a freak year,” said the writer Salman Rushdie, during a wine-and-cheese reception at the Instituto Cervantes on Wednesday, March 25, to announce the lineup for next month’s fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival, “when just to be able to do it at all is an achievement—and especially to do it on this scale.”

Mr. Rushdie, who chairs the literary festival, which opens on April 27, said organizers had to cancel about 10 events this year. Still, the lineup includes some 160 writers in more than 60 events, with a whole batting order of household names: Paul Auster, Paul Krugman, Laurie Anderson, Rick Moody, Richard Ford, Michael Ondaatje, George Soros, even Lou Reed.

“We really are having a party, and it’s more than a party, we’re saying books still matter to people and reading still matters to people, and this is how you find out about the world,” said Caro Llewellyn, the festival’s director.

And for all those hermitlike writer types—certainly not you, Salman!—it’s especially nice to bump into one another. “Part of any festival is that it’s fun to hang out with your friends, you know, because writers are all over the place and they gather in these types of things,” said Mr. Rushdie.

Irish novelist Colum McCann put it more like, well, an Irish novelist. “I think it’s the whole idea of the international mongrels of the world, like everyone from somewhere else—no motherland, no fatherland—and we all like land in New York and here we are yelping at each other,” said Mr. McCann, who also teaches at Hunter College and is participating in this year’s festival. 

“All those late-night parties at the hotels, where everyone’s hanging out,” Mr. McCann continued.  “Why not?  It’s a bit of crack…”

Come again?

“C-R-A-I-C.  That’s an Irish term, it’s a bit of fun,” Mr. McCann clarified.

Mr. Rushdie let slip one of his own new addictions: the Kindle. “It’s kind of exciting,” he said of the ability to download a book almost instantly. He said he read Dave Eggers’ What Is The What on his Kindle (Mr. Rushdie “liked it a lot”), but insisted he only uses it when traveling. He compared digital books to the early days of audio books. “People were buying books on tape or CD, not instead of buying books, but just other extra people were buying books to hear them in the car or whatever,” Mr. Rushdie said. “I think it may be like that.”

Mr. Rushdie even tried to make the e-book appealing to the gaggle of young reporters: “You can read The New York Times on it, or you can read, I don’t know, Gawker.com, if that’s your taste.”

Wait, does the author of Satanic Verses really read Gawker?

“No, I do not,” Mr. Rushdie replied. “But there was a time when someone told me I should, so there was a point where I actually downloaded it, but I said, ‘I can’t read this,’ so I canceled it.”

Mr. Rushdie may not love Gawker, but he does think blogs testify to the young appeal of PEN World Voices. “If you look at the blogs, it’s incredible, the coverage of this festival in the blogosphere, it’s colossal and very, very positive,” Mr. Rushdie said.  “And you know, the blogs are all kids. I don’t write a blog.”


Writers on Craic! PEN Festival Carries On Despite ‘Freak Year’