The general manager of Asia's foremost literary event tells Chris Wood you don't need to be a bookworm to enjoy the festival - you just need to be able to appreciate a good story.
'RTHK Radio 3 wakes me up at 6am. I start the day with prayers and a passage from the Bible - right now I'm making my way through the Book of Psalms. My current breakfast haunt is a small Shanghainese place in Causeway Bay where I'm usually the first customer of the day. While I'm eating, the staff like to quiz me about their favourite Korean actors and actresses - they're more au courant than me! Then I take one of those red-topped minibuses driven by Formula One driver manques to the office in Wan Chai.
The first hour at the office is one of my favourite times of day. I look to see I'm on track in terms of the big picture and dream up possibilities. I've been part of the festival for seven years now - coordinating the schools programme since the festival's first year, as assistant general manager last year and as general manager this year.
I love the work. I'm the third general manager and I often think I've come to the role at the best time - it's established enough now to have some great relationships and resources, yet young enough that there's still so much potential growth. The upcoming festival reflects that with a record number of star authors, new sponsors and audiences joining us.
For me what's most striking about the work is the staggering amount of goodwill involved. What surprises me most is that many people think you have to be a bookworm to attend - all you really need is to enjoy hearing wonderful stories for an hour.
People are often surprised when they learn it takes a good 18 months for us to put together a 10-day festival and that running a festival rarely involves lunching with literary stars and instead mostly involves workaday details. Courting authors, for instance, is a rather prosaic affair, involving mostly persistent sleuthing online, through publishers, agents, friends of friends of friends.
The guest list this year came about serendipitously - a result of who happened to be available, passing through, writers met at other festivals and what sponsorship was available. The programme comes about by dreaming up magic moments we'd love to enjoy ourselves - sipping champagne with Jan Morris at M at the Fringe, singing the Gruffalo song with Julia Donaldson at Pacific Coffee. It's all wishful thinking though as part of organising a festival is that in reality you only get to see snippets of each event.
I work with three fantastic colleagues - Kelly, Melissa and Sally - who do most of the real work, are a constant source of ideas and encouragement and also make it possible for me to leave the office at a decent hour. Ours is a small office, so instead of formal meetings we're popping by each other's desks throughout the day with quick questions, brainstorming or just shouting to each other when we're busy. During the festival we'll all be in swan-mode - looking graceful and serene while furiously paddling away underneath. I also check in with the festival directors throughout the day - they're a well
of experience, opinions and advice.
Our attitude is plan for the worst and hope for the best. We plot the logistics like a military operation - traffic flow, photographers, ticket collection, equipment, right down to having an author's favourite drink on hand. Multiply that across the 70-odd events we have for adults and children, plus the ones we're working on with our sister festival in Shanghai that runs concurrently.
One of the authors I designed a particularly gruelling visit for a couple of years back taught me a rather useful trick - when things get stressful, read about life in the gulags. Something like Kang Chol-hwan's Aquariums of Pyongyang does wonders to keep life in perspective.
The other morning we were at the Disneyland Hotel looking at the function room Disney, a festival sponsor, is donating for one of the children's authors tea events. We know the authors are going to have the audience laughing and crying throughout their talks. Our work is making sure everything is right so the authors give the best talk possible and the audience enjoys it as much as possible.
The schools programme is in many ways closest to my heart. I grew up in Hong Kong, a ravenous reader, and something like the festival would have changed my life. When you see all those students come out of the author talks, eyes bright with excitement about reading and writing, it's incredibly rewarding.
At the moment we're especially busy lining up interviews for our authors and selling tickets. One of my current obsessions is poring over the ticket sales report, rejoicing over the events people are flocking to, worrying about the late-bloomers. Every ticket taken feels like an affirmation of months of preparation and it's a great feeling to be putting up the 'sold out' sign on so many events so early this year.
Now that we're almost done with the preparations, what's to come is the best part - the festival itself.
It's a thrill now leaving work at about 6pm every day having spent up till December working into the early hours of the morning. If there's no work-related engagement, ideally I go straight to the gym, then drinks and dinner with friends. As we get closer to the festival I find myself begging off most social engagements and going home early to curl up with a book.
I've recently read Madhur Jaffrey's Climbing the Mango Trees, which is an absolute delight. I've also just finished Baby Halder's A Life Less Ordinary. Hers is the Cinderella story of our festival: a maid turned literary star, with her story being published in over a dozen countries. She's getting her first passport to come to our festival.'
For details of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, see today's Review and the festival guide pullout.