Interview with Diana Reich, of the Small Wonder short story festival
18th Sep 2017
Diana Reich is artistic director of Charleston Festivals, home of the Small Wonder Short story festival, which this year includes an event with three Sunday Times EFG short story award judges, who will be discussing judging the award ‘blind’. She talks to Sophie Haydock about literary death threats, what she’s learnt about the essence of the short story over the past 30 years, and how the form will continue to thrive
Small Wonder is a festival that celebrates the short story. Why is maintaining energy for the short story so important, and what about them do you particularly enjoy?
Short stories are an intrinsic part of our literary tradition, from the time when cave men and women sat around the camp fire swapping tales. They predate novels by far, in all cultures. There is a risk that they can become swamped by the noise around the blockbuster/state-of-the-nation novel. Therefore, ring-fencing a separate space for them to flourish, whether in a festival or via dedicated prizes, reaffirms their value. I particularly enjoy the fact that they offer glimpses into other worlds, and leave the rest to linger in the imagination.
You’ve been organising the Charleston literary festival for 28 years (and Small Wonder for nearly 15 years) – what have been the most important lessons you’ve learned during that time – about literature and storytelling and the art of the short story?
One of the most important lessons that I have learnt is that people still love the communal experience of sharing stories, whether short fiction, novels or non-fiction. A literary festival usually develops into an extended conversation between writers and members of the audience during and in between events. Literature in all its forms help us to understand who we are and even more importantly, to engage emotionally and intellectually with people whom we would not normally encounter or feel any affinity towards.
The first Charleston event was held in an apple-shed with nine speakers and an audience of 30. Tell us about the festival today and the kind of writers and stories it attracts? What made that growth possible?
The Charleston events in May now take place in a marquee seating 400 and we host over 100 writers, performers and chairs. However, we are still a boutique and bespoke festival, with 40-45 carefully curated sessions. Charleston, which was the former home of the Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Duncan Grant, confers an automatic artistic and literary resonance. It is also a beautiful setting, at the foot of the South Downs.
Small Wonder has also developed. It has a deliberately different vibe to the May festival, insofar as it is more international, interactive and experimental. We also award a prize during Small Wonder: The Charleston-Bede’s Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. This year’s winner is Penelope Lively. Previous winners have been Ali Smith, Jane Gardam, Edna O’Brien and William Trevor.
When you launched, there were only three other literature festivals – Hay, Edinburgh and Cheltenham. Now there are more than 300. In a digital age, why are literary festivals so very popular and enduring, do you think?
In this digital age, people still appreciate opportunities for direct human contact and connection. Literary festivals also provide an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of our heroines and heroes and to be touched by the magic of creativity as writers discuss their craft. At times of turmoil, such as ours, writers can help us to make sense of the world and to stay in touch with universal values of humanity and compassion.
You’ve reportedly had death threats for not including certain writers in the programme in the past. Does that sort of thing still happen?
There is still considerable pressure to include people in the festival, but death threats are few and far between. A literary festival is a golden opportunity to learn about authors whom one may not previously have considered. I receive far more comments from attendees who feel they have discovered someone new and unexpected, than from people simply endorsing long-standing favourites. My aim is to provide a mixture of popular authors and exciting new writers and ideas and I think that most people who attend festivals do so in a spirit of openness.
What does the next 25 years have in store for the short story “scene” do you think?
The short story will continue to thrive. It is a valuable tool for aspiring writers, not because it is easy to compose a good short story (quite the contrary), but because it is less fearsome to complete than a novel. Given the proliferation of creative writing courses, short stories will continue to be written and a few will become classics. Short stories also lend themselves to interaction with other media, so that could become a new dimension.
Three of the 2017 Sunday Times EFG short story award judges, Anne Enright, Neel Mukherjee and The Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate will be at Small Wonder to discuss the art and current state of the short story. They will also reflect on how reading ‘blind’ affects their judgement. Do you agree that short story competitions should be judged without knowing or making assumptions about the author?
I do agree with this and it applies to all literary awards. Entries should be read without any preconceived assumptions. However, the literary scene is still relatively small and judges tend to be selected from quite a small pool, so inevitably recognition occurs from time to time.
Which short stories have had the most profound effect on you and is there one in particular that you would recommend that others read?
This is the most difficult question to answer, as it obviously depends on mood and interests and taste that change over time. So I am going to avoid controversy and select a story that I read in late adolescence, which I have never forgotten. It was written by JD Salinger and is called: A Perfect Day for Banana Fish. I still think that it is an exemplary short story, as it says so much in so few words. It is simple and startling, illusive yet clear. It is included in his collection, For Esmé, with Love and Squalor, which contains some other unforgettable stories, including the title story. If I were to select one writer whose stories I can read again and again because they continue to resonate, it would be William Trevor.
The Small Wonder Short story festival is on from September 27 to October 1. For more information, visit: www.charleston.org.uk/smallwonder
On Sunday, October 1, two 2017 judges, Man Booker-shortlisted Neel Mukherjee and Booker winner Anne Enright, join Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate at the Small Wonder festival, Charleston, East Sussex, to discuss their work and judging the prize
Photograph by Penelope Fewste