Unlikely story

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 March, 2009, 12:00am

On the penultimate evening of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, top-of-the-bill author Margaret Atwood was driven from another sell-out event to her temporary home at the Excelsior hotel in Causeway Bay.

As the car stopped, the Canadian superstar of letters turned to her escort, a senior festival organiser, and said: 'I'll bet you're glad I'm leaving tomorrow, aren't you?'

'Oh! N ... ' began the organiser. 'Actually, yes!' Atwood, reliably unpredictable, smiled, hugged her companion and left the car.

The author of The Handmaid's Tale and a former Booker Prize winner, Atwood can be tempera-mental, but not here. Throughout the festival she packed houses of all sizes, bore the cross of fame amiably during the repeated ritual of the book-autographing conclave and proved an unstoppable interrogator on at least one occasion from the other side of the fence, as part of the audience. (The event in question, featuring novelist Sophie Gee and environmentalist Julia Whitty, became immortalised in festival circles as 'the sex and s*** talk', but that's at least one other story.)

Rather, the ex-Excelsior exchange was indicative of relief on the part of the festival team that a week and a half of events had been navigated successfully - excepting the calamities built into such Hydra-headed gatherings.

Near the end of 2008, the prospect of the ninth Hong Kong literary festival taking place was improbable. Political wrangling necessitated the installation of a revamped board of directors. But capping that was the surprise resignation of the festival's new general manager; previous incumbent Melissa Long jumped back into the breach.

Sponsorship, in these trying economic times, was a more foreseeable complication. Alongside the title sponsor and the South China Morning Post, former festival director Ilyas Khan's journal the Asia Literary Review shouldered an increased financial burden.

The unlikely offspring of all the off-stage labour pains was a main programme of 54 events, more than 50 per cent of which were sold out or full (seven, including five university lectures, were free), attended by 4,200 festival goers; and a parallel, 26-event schools programme catering to 6,000 pupils, which translated into almost 90 per cent of capacity.

The organisers also defied the fates in pulling the rabbit out of the straw hat. Children's author Tony Ross, having flown from England to Shanghai en route to Hong Kong, was surprised to find he needed a visa to enter the mainland. He immediately flew home, only to return east a few days later to avoid disappointing untold young fans.

Mohammed Hanif initially failed to show up from Pakistan, having neglected to look at the clock before missing his flight, then developed a toothache when he did. Nam Le, despite having missed a connection thanks to a cancelled European flight, did show up; sadly his luggage did not.

And for Michael Wood, suggested Long, the festival was groundhog day: instant over-subscription of the television archaeologist-author's three talks saw him gallantly adding repeat events to a crowded schedule.

Such are the perils of popularity when a literary festival gathers steam. And as the organisers' office confirmed, 'more events than ever' were fully booked.

One of the most popular was the discussion at M at the Fringe, Central, starring Australian Markus Zusak, author of global best-seller The Book Thief. Zusak advised any writer struggling with a book: 'Do it how you want to do it, because no one's going to read it anyway.'

That thought, he said, had sustained him, even when it appeared it might come true. For his first public reading, he revealed, at a library in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, no one turned up.

But the librarian made him read anyway.