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U.K.'s Hay Book Festival May Head West
Donna Martin -- 7/24/00
Festival founder Peter Florence
also talks onstage to writers;
here, Joanna Trollope.
Two towering American writers, once noted for their confrontations, bookended the annual Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, held in that Welsh border village in June. Gore Vidal was headliner for the start of the 10-day festival, and Norman Mailer delivered the closing appearance.
Founded by Hay resident Peter Florence in 1988, the festival plays host to about 200 writers from both sides of the Atlantic, and has become the largest such occasion in Britain, attracting 50,000 visitors to the picturesque village of only 1,300 people in the hills between the borders of Wales and England. It has become so successful that after its 13th running this year, Florence told PW that he has decided to launch a similar event in the U.S. next year--probably somewhere in New England, with the Tanglewood area seen as a distinct possibility. He said media sponsors were already lined up, and it would probably take place over the Labor Day weekend.

Vidal and Mailer, certainly this year's biggest American stars, were at the festival, like most of the speakers, to promote books: in Vidal's case an anthology called The Essential Gore Vidal, and in Mailer's the U.K. publication of his wife Norris Church's novel Windchill Summer.

Hay first found its identity as a book town in 1961, when Richard Booth launched an eponymous used books store there. His shop was eventually followed to the little town by more than three dozen others, making it probably the largest collection of such stores in so small an area.

Authors appearing this year included, from Britain, Ian McEwan (who has made a habit of reading from unfinished work and seeking audience advice on fine points), Joanna Trollope, Martin Amis, Michael Frayn, Kazuo Ishiguro, P.D. James, Michael Holroyd and British p t laureate Andrew Motion. From Australia came Germaine Greer, touting her new book, The Perfect Woman. Susan Sontag was there on behalf of In America, and Canada's Carol Shields announced that her appearance would be the last she would make on behalf of her books. Maya Angelou has visited five times.

Although the crowds are predominantly British, an increasing number of Americans have begun to travel to Hay, and Florence sees distinct possibilities in exporting the show to the States. As an actor, Florence has performed in arts festivals all over Europe and wanted, he said, to bring that ambience to his hometown, "and since Hay is known as the British book town, it made sense that the Hay Festival concentrate on books." He adds, "The informality of the discussions here is wonderful," and he is anxious to bring some of that flavor to the States.

Donna Martin is a former publishing executive, most recently at Andrews & McMeel.
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