Francis Geffard is an adventurer of the word, a cartographer of the literary landscape. As a child, growing up in France, he was pulled into the universe of American fiction writers, and the experience marked him. In 2002, in his hometown of Vincennes, he created Festival America, a literary festival that attracts several dozens of writers, established and upcoming, for a weekend of readings and exchanges with audiences eager to know more about the literary scene in North America. This year the guest of honor will be Canada, with a special tribute to American writer John Irving.
Since 2016, Passaporta House of Literature in Brussels, has been able to bring some of these magnificent writers to the Belgian capital, this year being the occasion to welcome Richard Powers and Colson Whitehead on September 19th, 2018 at Flagey.
This week Brussels Express speaks with Francis Geffard about his love for books, the importance of literary festivals, his eye as an editor, and much more.
How did Festival America come about? What motivated you to embark on this adventure and how did you make it possible the first time around?
I have always been a reader of American Fiction and I thought that it was a pity not to have a major cultural event dedicated to a body of literature which has really mattered since the beginning of the 20th century. It is also very rare to have a significant number of foreign writers gathered in one place at the same time, it offers a glimpse of what Fiction represents on the scale of a continent since the festival also welcomes authors from Canada, Québec, Haïti, Mexico and Cuba. As a book editor myself, I thought it would be great to have a collective event gathering publishing houses from France, Québec, Switzerland and Belgium, but also French booksellers, librarians, translators and literary journalists and critics, literary agents. And of course, creating an event oriented towards readers. Vincennes, being my hometown and having myself started a bookstore there when I was 20 and which I still own today, seemed like the perfect place.
Where does your interest in literature from the Americas stem from (over other geographies such as China, Japan, Russia, Middle East, etc)?
You never know which literature is going to reveal oneself as a reader, for me it was American Fiction, even if I read a lot of French authors, and as well Italian, Japanese or South American writers. The more you know about a country and/or a culture, the more you understand its literature, it makes for a virtuous circle. And the French have always had a strong relationship with North America as much as a large chunk of shared history.
The festival attracts several literary luminaries (Lauren Groff, Richard Powers, Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Eugenides, to name just a handful). How do you accomplish such an amazing feat? Could you give us a peek into all the efforts you and your team have to put into making the festival possible?
It is not really difficult to invite North American writers, they love coming to Paris and the reception of their work in France means a lot to them. For the right or wrong reasons, France is seen as a place where books and culture do matter.
How was the link with Brussels established? Why?
We share a language and history plus proximity has developed ties between our countries. Brussels is an important cultural capital and it seemed obvious that we needed to establish a connection.
How is the festival financed? (To the extent of what you are able to share with us)
We are all volunteers within the organization so it simplifies a lot of things. The festival is almost entirely funded with public money coming from national, regional and local governments, plus the countries from which the writers originate do offer some support for logistics.
John Irving. Could you share with us what impact his oeuvre has had on you?
Reading “The World According To Garp” was both a shock and a revelation, John Irving is able to mine the infinite richness of what “being human” means. “The Cider House Rules”, “The Hotel New Hampshire”, “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, and many other novels are true gems of his imaginative and compelling work.
Plenty of these writers have come to stay at literary residencies in Europe, such as Passaporta in Belgium. How do these residencies and events like Festival America help foster the cross-fertilization of ideas, peoples and cultures?
Traveling, meeting other people, discovering another culture, what is true for everyone is true as well as for a writer. It enlarges our understanding and fuels our imagination. We experience the same when we watch movies or exhibitions, when we read books. It makes our lives richer and more complete.
As an editor, what do you look for? If you had to put it in words, how would you articulate the qualities you spot in the work of a new great writer?
I am always looking for a voice, which carries a vision and a personality. For me, a writer needs to be singular, and I will favor the intention more than the technical perfection. Something which draws you into the book and gives you a strong experience.