Sunday, 29 November 2015

Hola! Guadalajara Calling

'There's an opportunity to go to Mexico in a week or two. Do you fancy going?' 

I look at Richard, blink twice, and say something eloquent and profound. I say something like '––What––?' 

Outside the Dylan Thomas Centre, a grey Welsh November was getting itself into a bit of an Abertawe flap with the obese circling gulls. Inside the official book launch and signing for Rebecca F. John's debut collection Clown's Shoes has begun to wind down. Richard and I are enjoying a glass of wine with Jeremy Osborne from Sweet Talk productions who had produced Rebecca's stories for both Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra. It is hard to conjure up the heat and colour of Mexico, to comprehend his question. 

Richard explains that two of the authors we work with, Rebecca F. John and John Harrison, have been invited by the British Council and British Council Wales to attend the international book fair FIL Guadalajara in Mexico's second city later that month. The UK are Guest of Honour at this festival  and the British delegation at Guadalajara International Book Fair were to be organised by the British Council and made up of more than 150 writers, academics, artists and representatives of publishing houses.

Thirty writers from across the UK are part of a 150-strong delegation at this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair (Feria Internacional del libro – FIL) in Mexico. Writers including Irvine Welsh, Jeanette Winterson, Philippa Gregory, Andrew Motion, Val McDermid, Naomi Alderman, Tessa Hadley, Joe Dunthorne and Owen Jones will feature as part of the UK Guest of Honour Literary Programme.

Rebecca going off somewhere else exotic made sense. Her stories were being broadcast on national radio. She was not long back from a whistlestop-trophy-grab in Canada where she scooped the PEN International New Voices Award for her story 'Moon Dog' and shared the stage with Margaret Atwood, and she's more travel booked for 2016. For a self-confessed homebird she was leaving it rather a lot.

John has travelled to this part of the world before. Award-winning travel writer John Harrison's latest book 1519: A Journey to the End of Time follows Hernán Cortés' 1519 route along the Mexican coast and across country to modern Mexico City, home of the Aztecs. He was always going somewhere, it seemed to me, or hoping to at any rate. He was leaving in just over a week's time and Rebecca would follow, with me if I liked, after her reading at Hay Castle as part of the Hay Winter Weekend. 

The delegation has been carefully selected to reflect the strong regional identities that make up the UK and the unique breadth of British literature in the 21st century. It includes established novelists and poets, emerging writers, those that are still experimenting with themes and literary form, writers testing the limits of existing genre definitions and boundaries; and those exploring new media such as digital, spoken word and graphic novels. Six Welsh writers had been added to that list: Joe Dunthorne, Iain Sinclair, Jon Ronson, John Harrison, Owen Martell and Rebecca F. John. 

Eight if you included Mari Griffith, also reading at the festival, and myself. More if you gave Tessa Hadley honorary status for thirty years living here, although she, herself, corrected the chair for calling her Welsh during the short story panel I saw her at in FIL with John Burnside and 'I'm Welsh' wisecracking literary rock star Irvine. I'm getting a bit bored of the differences between the novel and the short story discussion though, so I'll spare you the rest of what was said there.

In Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre my head was full of German words and German plans – I'm off to Hamburg for the bulk of the festive season and a whole 25% fluent according to DuoLingo. What little Spanish I'd picked up from films, restaurants and youthful visits to Barcelona and Madrid had faded to blank. I closed my eyes and saw Breaking Bad, faces painted for Day of the Dead, Frida (obviously), then montages of Breaking Bad again wth SFA's song 'Guacamole' as soundtrack. 

Unlike Rebecca, Mexico had always been a place I'd wanted to visit. I have long been interested in Frida Kahlo's life and work, the Aztecs, and lately I have become more and more interested in the Day of the Dead. I've also a soft spot for magical realism, mariachi bands, peasant dresses and shawls, bright paint, chilli, and Tequila. Mexican cuisine is one of my favourite types of food both to eat and cook, and I recall a Christmas where I even cooked it for festive dinner complete with Margaritas of course. I love to travel though, so I generally say yes to things, even if when I get to my destination I wish I'd done more research before snapping to a decision. This time I took the weekend to sleep on it and spend a bit of time typing things into Google and talking to my darling man. And then I said yes, despite of that spider and not because of the drug smuggling possibilities. Once the decision was made I panicked, I planned and I packed! And then I repacked.

With books to sign off for printing and production and a lot of press to complete before I went, research was squeezed in to evenings and weekends as I trawled the internet for a place for us to stay – we settle on a vibrant, friendly place a short walk from the old town and the cathedral and around the corner from Musa (Museo de las Artes). There were lots of forms to fill out and emails to fire off to Mexican publishers to see if anyone was free to meet with me to discuss international rights for our titles and translation rights for theirs at such a late stage. I was met with the sound of silence.

This was my first time attempting to sell publishing and translation rights internationally or visiting an international rights fair where English was not to be the first language. I was not going to be fluent in Spanish in a week and so I practised a few basic phrases and packed a phrase book, along with maps of the main places I needed to go. I gathered some bullet-pointed advice from an excellent rights agent I knew and more from another publisher who'd been thrust into the deep end like this before too. Both said they thought it was unlikely I would make a sale while I was there, that rights is about relationship building and took time. I had to hope for chance meetings with the people I needed to speak to or a good literary scout at a party or networking event and prepare some promo material. I put together AI sheets and samples, packed catalogues and a few books and crossed my fingers for some good luck. And then I went to Wahaca, purely for research purposes, you understand.

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