Chip RolleyToday on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Chip Rolley, senior director of literary programs at PEN America and director of the PEN World Voices Festival. While the 2020 PEN World Voices Festival was, like many literary events and public programs, canceled as a result of the public health crisis, Chip spoke with us about why you should “do your own festival in your head,” the importance and magic of events like the World Voices Festival, and what he’s reading now. Check out the full episode below.

Tell us a bit about what festivals are and what they mean to the larger literary community. Why are they so important?
Festivals are kind of an exercise in hopeful thinking and magic to begin with. I’m getting quite philosophical these days about the fact that we did have to cancel this year’s festival, which is, not to make light of it at all, an unprecedented step. I do believe it was obviously the right thing to do, for the safety of our participants and for the safety of our audiences. If you think about it, we’re taking two essentially solitary activities—the activity of writing a book and the act of reading a book—and we’re saying, hey, let’s get together and throw a party. Let’s put you guys in the same room, and let’s try to turn what happens in those solitary activities into something that is lively, engaging, communicative, community-forming. And it’s really unlike other art forms. If you go to a play, you’ve got a playwright who’s written every line, or if you go to the opera, that music’s written, the libretto is written, and everyone’s operating and planning towards a script. With these festival events, they are completely unpredictable. They’re spontaneous. They’re alive. I, as a curator, director, and producer, have no idea what those writers are going to say. I can give them props, I can give them suggestions, I can ask questions, but I don’t know what’s going to come out of their mouths. And that’s one of the truly incredibly exhilarating things about these live events that we do every year.

“Let’s put you guys in the same room, and let’s try to turn what happens in those solitary activities into something that is lively, engaging, communicative, community-forming.”

Festivals are also a big economic boon for writers, and with festivals and book tours being canceled and bookshops closing, this is a big sort of financial blow for the industry and for writers in particular.
Yeah, and I think we really focus on the writers who had books coming out. Books don’t just happen. They take years of labor sometimes—five to ten years, they can be—of rewriting and redrafting and editing and all that, everything that goes into it. Then your launch is set, your book is printed, and then something like this hits. And so every opportunity that you have to find the public for that book, to find a readership and create a readership, has been pulled away from you. We’re very sensitive to that and very aware of that. And we want to see if we can find different ways to help the authors that were going to be in this festival, and authors in general, who are trying to get their books out to a readership.

What are some of those things that you can tell readers to do to support those writers right now?
The very first thing to do is to check out our program. We spent the last year stitching it together, reading books, figuring out who we wanted to present, who we wanted to celebrate, who we wanted to feature in this extravaganza in May. We’ve deliberately left our program up, with notices that the events themselves are canceled. But we want people to browse that program, so they should go to Look at the program that we put together. Look at the writers who were there. Search out their books; their books can still be bought. And you should buy their books. You should be investigating, looking at some of the ideas that we put together, and do your own festival in your head, if you will. Use our festival as a blueprint and as a guide. I think it could be a really wonderful resource.

“Look at the program that we put together. Look at the writers who were there. Search out their books; their books can still be bought.”

What are you reading right now that’s either providing you a distraction or giving you more context around this public health crisis?
One thing that’s on my mind is every single one of those books, many of which I’ve read, but I’m reading them again, and I’m reading them in a new light to see what ways we can bring that content to people, because we want to exploit some of the digital opportunities that are out there, and new ideas that are native to the digital environment, to bring those ideas to them. For instance, I’m reading Ben Okri’s The Freedom Artist over again, and I’m reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, two books that really struck me earlier this year. Another book that’s been on my bookshelf for quite a while, that I’m finally going to have time to turn to is No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. Behrouz is a Kurdish journalist who was illegally detained on Manus Island by the Australian government when he tried to go to Australia to seek asylum, and he wrote this book by sending texts to friends on his phone. It’s a substantial work, and friends back in Australia have told me it is an extraordinary book. It’s been awarded some of the biggest prizes in Australian literature, and I actually just can’t wait to dig into it.

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