“It’s one of the interesting things about the writing life,” says Geoff Dyer, “the extent to which you are not in control of what you write.”
The author of novels like Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and non-fiction works such as Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, Dyer doesn’t consider himself to be a political writer. His greatest hero and mentor, he says, was the politically committed British critic John Berger, who died earlier this year.
“Then, if you went through other writers who were big influences on me, it would be Camus, Orwell, Raymond Williams,” he says. “It’s really been quite a surprise to me that I’ve ended up not being politically engaged in the writing at all like that. It’s not exactly a disappointment to me, but it remains a surprise by how it’s turned out.”
Nonetheless, Dyer is among the 200 literary figures participating in the third Bay Area Book Festival, to be held on multiple stages in Downtown Berkeley on Saturday and Sunday, June 3 and 4. (A single $15 pass gets you into all indoor sessions.) This year’s theme is “highlighting the power of literature for social change,” and one area where Dyer has always been at the forefront is the evolving importance of genre.
Born in the United Kingdom and a resident of Los Angeles, Dyer’s prodigious output includes books on a wide range of subjects — from jazz to World War I to photography — plus three novels. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi might be better described as two loosely related novellas riffing on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice by way of the contemporary Venice Biennale and a spiritual awakening in a holy city in India. Consequently, bookstores throughout his career have seldom known exactly where to place him.
“When I started writing these funny, neither-one-thing-nor-another books that I’ve been doing, I was pretty much the only person doing it,” he says.
Then, more and more people started doing the same thing, leading to what Dyer calls the “now-popular genre of the genre-less book.” It raised his profile.
“Now that other people are doing it, I’ve become sort of somewhat better known,” he says. “Part of, as it were, some sort of movement or zeitgeist-y thing — whereas before, I was just sort of this poor, lonely loser who couldn’t write a proper book.”
At the festival, he’ll speak about genre — on Saturday from 3:00 to 4:15 p.m., with Icelandic author Oddný Eir and Ethan Nosowsky — and then about travel writing on Sunday from 3:15 to 4:30 p.m., with Josh Jelly-Schapiro and Tom Lutz, moderated by Leah Garchik. But what he’s most excited about is some auxiliary programming the Thursday before. Dyer will introduce a newly restored print of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi art-house film Stalker, which he’s previously written about.
“For many years, there was just this one increasingly weary, scratchy, exhausted-looking print serving the whole of the English-speaking world,” Dyer says. “Since Stalker is a film that can only be seen in the cinema, it really is just a fantastic opportunity to see one of the greatest films ever made, in perfect conditions.”
Officially, there are 10 films on the docket, but the focus remains on the written word. Among the many other panel discussions and interviews, Bay Area heavy-hitters like LGBT activist Cleve Jones (the force behind the AIDS Memorial Quilt) and the husband-and-wife duo Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) and Ayelet Waldman (A Really Good Day) will be there, as will Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers).
Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist), Jeff Chang (Who We Be: The Colorization of America), and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow are coming to town, and the festival has expanded its reach internationally to include writers from Uganda (Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi), Norway (Per Petterson), and elsewhere.
Attending the festival is par for the course for the peripatetic Dyer, who has roamed over great distances for his work. (He was preparing for a trip to Joshua Tree National Park the day we spoke, but not before side jaunts to San Francisco for the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibit at SFMOMA, and then back to Pasadena for a U2 concert at the Rose Bowl.) While venturing through the desert, he has no plans to swing by Doug Aitken’s Mirage, a land art piece in the form of a mirrored house near Palm Springs. But — perhaps surprisingly for someone who wrote a novel depicting the Venice Biennale as a less-than-pleasant institution — he spoke highly of another art festival on the Salton Sea, the Bombay Beach Biennale.
“Aesthetically, it’s similar to Burning Man,” Dyer says. “It’s got that quality to it. It’ll be better than ever next year.
“I would love to be going to the [Venice] Biennale again,” he adds, “but of course, it’s too far to go to the opening from here — plus I have my teaching job at USC in the spring semester every year. I really love Biennales. I’m so fond of them that I really like the way the Bombay Beach Biennale takes place not biannually, but annually!”
Bay Area Book Festival, Saturday and Sunday, June 3-4, in Downtown Berkeley, $8-$50, baybookfest.org