Star authors en vogue at Frankfurt book fair

Michelle FITZPATRICK
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Margaret Atwood will be presented with the German book trade's 'peace prize'

Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks are among the big names descending on Frankfurt this week as the world's oldest book fair glams up for the Instagram generation, hoping to wow the crowds with "live events" by star authors.

And with France as this year's guest country it's not just writers who are getting top billing: President Emmanuel Macron is set to formally open the fair with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday, accompanied by a who's-who of the French literary scene.

After last year's edition focused on ways for publishers to tap into new technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing, organisers this year are going back to basics, putting the spotlight back on writers and their readers.

"There's a desire to see authors, to experience them in real life," the fair's spokeswoman Katja Boehne told reporters ahead of the five-day event, expected to attract over 270,000 visitors.

"The book is more alive than ever," Boehne said, describing a growing trend of fans queuing to see their favourite author in a "pop concert-like" atmosphere.

Legendary Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, whose 1985 dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale" is now a successful TV show, will be among the top draws in Frankfurt where she will be presented with the German book trade's "peace prize" for her prescient body of work.

Fairgoers are also expected to jostle for a glimpse of US romance novelist Nicholas Sparks, whose mega-hits include "The Notebook" and "Message in a Bottle", while historical thriller writer Ken Follett, Irish novelist Cecelia Ahern, and Paula Hawkins of "The Girl on the Train" fame will likewise draw readers hoping for an autograph or a selfie.

But the undisputed highlight comes on Saturday, when Dan Brown presents his new thriller "Origin" -- the latest instalment in the bestselling "The Da Vinci Code" series -- in front of an audience of 1,800 book lovers.

In what has been billed a "live event" with tickets selling for 24.50 euros ($29), Brown will lift the veil on professor Robert Langdon's latest high-adrenaline quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

"An event like this, that attracts nearly 2,000 people, we couldn't have done that in the past," said the fair's director Juergen Boos, adding that he planned to "massively expand" on the concept in the coming years.

"Our industry simply has to think about image as well, we have to make our business more glamorous," he said.

- French flair -

Guest nation France will lead by example by bringing over 180 writers to Germany, including some of the world's best-known French-language authors.

The star-studded line-up boasts serial provocateur Michel Houellebecq, new-enfant-terrible-on-the-block Edouard Louis, acclaimed Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou and Moroccan-born Leila Slimani, who scared parents everywhere with her award-winning tale of a killer nanny.

Macron and Merkel will sprinkle some political stardust on the literary extravaganza when they open the French pavilion on the eve of the fair. Their high-profile joint appearance comes as the French leader seeks to strengthen the German-Franco tandem in his push for European reforms.

"The presence of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron at the opening of the Frankfurter Buchmesse symbolises the close relationship between Germany and France and their commitment to a strong, unified Europe," said Boos.

This year's fair will also be politically charged in other ways, with organisers planning to highlight concerns about freedom of expression in Turkey, where several German nationals have been detained in what Germany described as politically motivated cases that have strained ties between Ankara and Berlin.

The former editor-in-chief of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar, who faces imprisonment in Turkey, will speak about writing in exile, while supporters of Germany's jailed Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yucel will stage events calling for his release under the banner #Freedeniz.

The Frankfurt book fair is the world's largest publishing event, bringing together over 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries.

It dates back to the Middle Ages, with the first edition taking place shortly after the Gutenberg printing press was invented in nearby Mainz.