Getting a Read on Keith Acheson, Belfast Book Festival Director

The man behind Belfast's leading literary event opens up about this year's programme, the titles he can't put down and why books are more important than ever

Deepa Mann-Kler, Chair of Crescent Arts Centre, Keith Acheson, Festival Director and Petra Wolsey, Director of Marketing, Bullitt Hotel & the Beannchor Group

Running a successful book festival isn't easy. Peter Florence, joint founder of the celebrated Hay-on-Wye literary festival, dubbed a 'Woodstock of the mind' has said it's a very stressful, albeit rewarding job. And Keith Acheson (42), director of Belfast's equivalent, the Belfast Book Festival (June 7-17), tells me down the line that pulling together this year's event has been far from plain sailing. He's proud to say however that the mammoth 11-day programme has managed to move a record number of tickets.

Originally from Enniskillen, and a student at the famous Portora school, whose alumni include Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, Acheson is a musician first and foremost. 'I went to Ulster University and studied music and composition,' he says. 'My own work included pieces for orchestra and I guess my style would have been of the Harrison Birtwistle or George Benjamin school.' We discuss where classical music has gone since the birth of atonality and modernism in the early 20th century. 'Music is a pluralistic world, there is such a range of styles. To me, it doesn't matter what music sounds like but whether it has emotional content.'

This year's literary festival, unsurprisingly, has some ace music-related events, with the director putting particular focus on a night dedicated to recent Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan on Saturday June 10. There will be live music from Jamie Neish (ex-More Than Conquerors) and LARKS, readings and even a game of bingo celebrating the enduring songwriter and lyricist. 'We also have the Will Butterworth string quartet bringing a suite of music, newly composed by him, relating to Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose,' Acheson adds. Local actor Adam Turns, who has appeared in Game of Thrones, will narrate the short story prior to the performance.

So which titles is Keith Acheson reading at the moment? 'I am enjoying Gary Younge's new book Another Day in the Death of America which packs an emotional punch. It's been described as his masterpiece, and is about gun crime in the USA.' A very current subject of course, and Acheson's other bedside reading is similarly important: 'Lorca's love poetry – although I'm not in love at the moment unfortunately!'

Acheson, whose day job is director of the Crescent Arts Centre, took charge of the Belfast Book Festival four years ago, and has organised number of events to be proud of in that time. 'Last year, Paul Mason was superb talking in the Elmwood Hall,' he recalls. 'Yes, the Labour Party was mentioned but his theme was democracy in Europe, now rather topical.'

The process of planning a programme with tens of events over a week and a half starts early. The team – Keith, Peter McCloskey and marketing officer Gail Jones - draw up a wish list and have already begun planning a serious line-up for 2018. 'We're hoping to get Will Self with a piece that's all about place,' reveals Acheson. 'A string quartet is performing new music and there will be input from several writers. I'm a huge fan of Mr Self.'

But why do we need books? The festival director pauses, before answering: 'It's all about communication, I think. Human beings are mostly natural storytellers. Recent reports on literacy levels, including those revealed in Andrew Neil's interview with Nicola Sturgeon showing a decline in Scotland, indicate the importance of books. Ms Sturgeon came under some flak over this.' We talk about the ways in which books bring people together and he agrees that those 'with everyday subjects link us in a divorced kind of way'.

The first book Acheson remembers reading was one of the Peter and Jane series. 'I went to Derrygonnelly Primary School and that's what we read,' he says. And like many of us, he is the author of several started but not finished novels – 'I have attempted several but won't tell you the titles.'

Acheson is less shy however when given the chance to talk about some of the more influential books in his life, citing Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and End of Faith by Sam Harris as two which had a notable impact. 'In terms of Irish authors, I guess Samuel Beckett who went to my school,' he adds. 'There's so much mysticism in the country where I grew up.'

We move on to this year's festival programme, and the events the director identifies as must-attend. 'Some of the poets and poetry we have is great, for example Kayo Chingonyi (June 7), a London-based African poet whose latest collection is about inclusion and immigration.' He'll be joined by National Poetry Competition winner Stephen Sexton, heralded as one of the most exciting voices in Ireland.

There is also an event with much garlanded Dr Sinead Morrissey (June 16), formerly of this literary parish, who is now teaching at Newcastle University. Acheson notes that she is a great loss to Belfast, and will be performing with two Newcastle colleagues at what may be one of her final Northern Irish events for the moment.

Sinead Morrissey

Dr Sinead Morrissey

One undoubted intellectual highlight will be the encounter between the author of Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom Norman Finkelstein and one of Ulster's top interviewers and political murals expert, Bill Rolston (June 8). Expect 100 watt brainpower. On the same day, coincidentally the date of the general election, the Belfast Book Festival will host a genuinely significant event with Tariq Ramadan. The activist and scholar will be giving a lecture and answering questions arising from his important book, Islam, The Essentials. If you want to know more about the real faith behind some of the news headlines, you should attend.

Also tempting, in a slightly different way, is the festival event built around the short story genre. Prolific Jan Carson and three other practitioners will be instructing listeners in the rules and non-regulations surrounding the novel's younger sibling which still punches above its weight (June 8).

Meanwhile, we are in for a treat as Louis de Bernières joins us (June 16) and on the opening day the magnificent Anna Lo talks about her autobiography, The Place I Call Home (Blackstaff Press).

If this all sounds like exceedingly serious fare then fear not as the lighter end of the programme offers some heavyweight comedy, the most eye-catching of which being – other than for the obvious reasons - My Dad Wrote a Porno. Based on the number one iTunes podcast and book, the hilarious live event centres around the same seriously steamy piece of fiction penned by the presenter's father. As I'm doing likewise, this is one for me. And if you're remotely into books, whether it's listening to them, scrolling through them or – whisper it - flipping through their pages, then this festival's for you.

MDWAP

My Dad Wrote a Porno

Belfast Book Festival features over 100 events at the Crescent Arts Centre and other venues throughout Belfast from June 7 to 17. For full details and ticket booking go to www.belfastbookfestival.com or call 028 9024 2338.