Sian Smyth, director of Dalkey Book Festival, on launching the biggest literary prize in Ireland …
It’s been universally acknowledged that 2020 has been a dreadful year for writers. Book launches have been postponed, advances rescinded, publication dates missed, signings cancelled, public readings called off and, of course, book shops have been shuttered. And if this were a normal year, Sian Smyth would be at this very moment co-ordinating author interviews and events behind the scenes at the annual Dalkey Book Festival, which she co-founded ten years ago with David McWilliams. The festival, which celebrates literature, theatre, film and comedy as well as ideas, current affairs, and global trends, was due to start on June 20, when the usually discreet south Dublin suburb morphs into a bohemian mix of celebrities, bibliophiles and press agents. The vibe is upbeat with venues popping up all over town – the chance to bump into literary heroes an added bonus.
The international reputation of the festival has accrued year on year by dint of Smyth’s passion and sense of purpose. “So many other festivals are organised on a part time basis or by individuals on short term contracts,” she explains. Dalkey Literary Festival’s success is due in part to the seaside location and also the stellar line up of authors and participants, hosting Oscar, Pulitzer and Booker prize winners. Writers such as Salman Rushdie, Edna O’Brien, Elif Shafak and Stephen Fry have all been former participants, though Seamus Heaney was a standout memory for Smyth. “He was just so warm and generous asking me, ‘Can I read a Little More?’ There was only one answer to that – a resounding yes!” Smyth is the first to admit the bonus of organising such an event is that you can include your own favourite authors – Smyth’s include Maggie O’Farrell (author of Hamnet), Olivia Laing (author of The Lonely City) and Jeanine Cummings (author of American Dirt) who was due to appear this year.
When Covid-19 struck Smyth says she was in denial but then, “We decided to call it. With social distancing and participants travelling from all over the world, the US, UK and EU, we made the difficult decision to cancel the event entirely and replace it with the inaugural Dalkey Literary Awards, detracting from the communal disappointment and at the same time celebrating Irish writing. As Smyth says, “Just because the world has stopped in many ways, creativity doesn’t have to.” Indeed the awards have been a much needed boost to the literary community with an impressive €30,000 in prize money being donated from Zurich Insurance. Already an established patron of the arts, Zurich Insurance has sponsored the Festival for the last six years.
As the most lucrative award in the Irish literary calendar, there are two categories “Novel of the Year” and “Emerging Writer” for writers resident in or born in Ireland and published in Ireland or the UK in 2019.
The shortlist for each category was nominated by a designated panel made up of 14 well-known critics, writers, and public figures including Bridget Hourican, Colum McCann, John Boyne, Martina Devlin and Hilary Fannin. Each category had three judges who reviewed the shortlisted authors and selected one overall winner. The judges included Andrea Catherwood, Caoilinn Hughes, Fiach Mac Conghail, Gary Jermyn and Rick O’Shea.
Though Smyth, like many of us, found it hard to concentrate on books during lockdown, she has read all of the nominations, including the shortlisted titles (see below) several times. Smyth says of the process, which began last December, “It’s sad the judges and I did not get to meet in person. The Emerging Writer category especially was very wide – spanning poetry to biography and from short stories to novels. And half of the entrants were over 40; you don’t have to be young necessarily, just not well established.”
The winners were decided via Zoom meetings and, while there was healthy discussion, the decisions were unanimous. Announced last night during a digital award ceremony, which has been captured on YouTube, Sinéad Gleeson, author of the memoir Constellations, was the overall winner in the Emerging Writer category. Constellations is a mesmerising collection of essays on blood, ghosts, hair, love, loss, motherhood, abortion and hospitals, collectively providing a sketch of Gleeson’s life, while exploring the relationship between our bodies and our identity. Smyth is resounding in her praise, “Gleeson is a leading voice, and such an intellect. The award could not have come at a better time for her. Fortunately the prize money [€10,000] has allowed her to concentrate on her writing rather than the looming spectre of taking on other work as she lost a lot of income during lockdown.”
As for the Novel of the Year, the winner is The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, who received €20,000. Smyth waxes lyrical about Hickey’s book which slipped under the radar when it was first published last year. “I think everyone would like it. It’s deceptively simple and a pleasure to read yet has so many layers – about long relationships [in this case of artist Edward Hopper and his wife Jo], their complexities, and the pressures and compromises of the creative life. It’s set in 1950, just after World War 2 and at the outbreak of the Korean war – against the atmospheric backdrop of Cape Cod.” Smyth relates the poignancy of Hickey’s win. “The Narrow Land had taken Christine six years to research and write and due to the disappointing lack of reviews or notice, she says she was on the verge of giving up. She was beyond thrilled,” says Smyth. “Hopefully this award will not only encourage Hickey to write more but also for other Irish writers to apply in future.”
While Smyth has missed the buzz and working with her small team this year, she is already looking ahead. “We will be back in 2021 stronger than ever. I hope our announcement will prompt the reading (or re-reading) of these shortlisted books. I like to imagine our festival team, our partners at Zurich and our loyal festival audience forming a kind of reading community, reading some of these titles together while being apart.”
Treat this as your summer reading list:
Novel of the Year
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Girl by Edna O’Brien
The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
The River Capture’ by Mary Costello
Adrian Duncan for Loves Notes from A German Building Site
Eleanor Fitzsimons for The Life & Loves of E. Nesbit
Lucy Sweeney Byrne for Paris Syndrome
Nicole Flattery for Show Them A Good Time
Rónán Hession for Leonard and Hungry Paul
Sinéad Gleeson for Constellations
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