On Sunday night I flew back from Dubai where I had spent the previous week as part of the 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Attending this festival has proved to be one of the most inspirational experiences of my writing career to date and I just wanted to write this brief blog post to share some of my thoughts and feelings about the experience.
I arrived in Dubai in the early hours of Tuesday morning and that evening attended an Oasis in Time, an event to celebrate the opening of the festival with readings from Carol Ann Duffy, Anthony Horowitz, Meera Syal and Robert Lindsay to name but a few. This event contained two highlights for me. The first was listening to the eight-year-old Emirati author Abdullah Ali Hassan speaking from the stage with such youthful power and vigour that he put authors five times his age (i.e. me!) to shame. The second was listening to the astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield talk about the power of books and imagination. He spoke about his childhood dreams, of humanity’s greatest achievements, the wonders of the universe and the power of inspiration. “It begins with the spark of an idea,” he said, “It begins with literature.” And over the next few days at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I saw for myself how true these words were.
On Wednesday morning I had an event scheduled at the Nord Anglia International School in Dubai, where students from twelve different schools were due to hear me talk about Twelve Minutes to Midnight and the Penelope Tredwell series, but as monsoon rains fell and the car sped through flooded streets, I wondered whether even one student would be able to make it through the chaos that the rain in Dubai brings. Luckily, I had reckoned without the indomitable thirst for books that students in Dubai possess and managed to speak to an auditorium of over 150 students about where I found inspiration for Twelve Minutes to Midnight, exploring with them the world of 19th century stories from Sherlock Holmes to The War of the Worlds, and talking about how Penelope Tredwell fights against the expectations of her age to succeed in her endeavours. After the event I had the chance to chat to the students, who seemed to come from every corner of the world, and it was an honour to share in the love of books that they had. Huge thanks to the staff at Nord Anglia school for looking after me, especially Jasmine Ismael who is the wonderful librarian there.
Racing back through flooded streets to the festival site, I quickly got myself ready for my first How To Write Your Best Story Ever event, a creating writing workshop for children aged 9-11. In these sessions I talk about the process of writing a story, helping children to develop story ideas from initial sparks of inspiration, create characters and settings and finally write the openings to their own stories. There was a great mix of children at the event with a panoply of ideas and we had great fun developing their story sparks into some fantastic stories.
One prompt I give children if they have trouble coming up with an initial spark of inspiration is to take down a book from the shelf and flick through this until they find a line that could inspire their own story. The example I used in the session was a line taken from The Adventures of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie:
“By and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.”
In the workshop, we talked about the stories this line might inspire. An eight-year-old Emirati girl suggested that the mermaids might be singing to their cousins who lived on the moon, moon mermaids made of sand and dust who were longing to visit the Earth. I asked the girl where in the world the sand mermaids would want to visit, and, of course, the answer was Dubai. This girl then wrote the opening to the most magical story: a story about a young Emirati girl who walked out into the desert one day to discover a sand mermaid who had fallen from the moon. It was a real honour to share in this girl’s creative process and see how a line written in England over a hundred years ago could inspire a 21st century Emirati girl to create the most wondrous tale.
I took part in several other inspirational events as part of the festival: a creative workshop for teen authors, a panel event talking ‘scintillating science’ and The Many Worlds of Albie Bright alongside the amazing authors Nick Arnold, Rachel Hamilton and Rehan Khan, and a ‘Now There’s a Scary Thought’ panel moderated by Jo Wroe where I appeared alongside the fantastic authors Curtis Jobling and Darren Shan talking about fiction that chills and thrills. And in every event I was reminded of the power of books: to engage and open minds, to share ideas and to inspire.
After the final panel event, I had the chance to meet Hanna Ladha, an eight-year-old girl from Dubai who had been prevented by the rain from attending my Education Day event, and she presented me with a piece of art that she’d created inspired by Twelve Minutes to Midnight. This beautiful gift brought home for me the wonder that can be found in stories – how the solitary act of writing can create connections that span the continents.
Perhaps more selfishly, another way in which the festival inspired me was by giving me the chance to meet some incredible authors. From chatting about the writing process with Ian Rankin to letting Simon Armitage know that I owed him money from my days as a student when I bought his collected works for 20 pence from a bookshop which priced books by their weight – a debt now karmically repaid – the writers who I met reminded me of the inspiration that books have given me, taking me on a once unimagined journey into another life.
Apart from the wonderful readers that I met, the people I spent the most time with at the festival were fellow authors from the world of children’s books: Jonathan Meres, Holly Smale, Lauren St John, A. F. Harrold, Curtis Jobling, Chris Haughton, Rachel Hamilton, Gill Lewis, Petr Horacek, David Melling, Garth Nix, Lauren Child, Sean Fay-Wolfe, Darren Shan, Jacqueline Wilson. Thank you one and all for being such great company.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature hasn’t been without controversy this year, with several people calling for a boycott of the festival. The author Chris Cleave writes here why he decided not to boycott the festival and his reasons echo my own – although they’re much more eloquently expressed. But one experience crystallized for me what I think the festival achieves.
On Thursday night I was in the audience for Desert Stanzas, a night of poetry from John Agard, Simon Armitage, Harry Baker, Nujoom Al Ghanem and Grace Nicholls. As I listened to these incredible poets from all around the world, I was reminded of these lines from William Blake’s poetry:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
And as these poets scattered their words like grains of sand into the desert night, I thought to myself this is what is happening here. Writers and readers being brought together to share in the wonder of words. Sparks of inspiration, worlds of stories and ideas, scattered like dust into thousands of minds.
It was a real honour to be part of the 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and I’d like to say a huge thank you to Isobel Abulhoul, Yvette Judge and everyone else involved in the festival, from the organisers to the volunteers. Thank you for inviting me to scatter my grains of sand.