Spark to ignite book festival's 21st birthday party

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The Edinburgh International Book Festival celebrates its 21st birthday this year with the biggest line-up of international authors in its history, including Dame Muriel Spark, Louis de Bernieres and Toni Morrison.

At the head of the names is Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie . Although she is a native of Edinburgh, it will the 86-year-old writer's first visit to the festival. The event has transformed itself over the past two decades from an exhibition of books to the biggest annual literary and cultural showcase in the world.

Among the 550 authors from 30 countries participating in more than 650 events will be de Bernieres, reading from his first major novel since Captain Corelli's Mandolin and the Nobel prize-winner Morrison. The festival says they are paid no more than a flat-rate fee of £100 to appear.

Other big-name attractions include Amos Oz, Alex Garland, Carlos Fuentes, James Kelman, Doris Lessing, Jeanette Winterson, Anita Desai, Germaine Greer, Julian Barnes, Michael Ignatieff, Richard Dawkins, Alan Garner, Tony Parsons, Kathy Lette, Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh, and Tony Benn.

In the past four years attendance figures for the two-week festival have more than doubled, with more than 185,000 tickets being sold last year, and the organisers expect to at least match if not improve on those numbers this year.

"The festival just goes from strength to strength," said the director, Catherine Lockerbie. "We are a thriving, healthy, world-leading Scottish organisation."

Since the festival began in 1983, it has become a major part of Edinburgh's festival scene, generating a turnover of more than £1m a year for the local economy and earning a world-wide reputation for being able to attract the biggest names.

It started with 40 events and now has more than 650 as the emphasis has changed from authors' readings to a more participatory event encouraging discussions on a vast array of topics from war in the Middle East to the environment and the state of the media.

From 14 to 30 August this year the city's Charlotte Square Gardens will again play host not just to novelists and poets, historians and biographers, but also to politicians, scientists and journalists.

"A 21st birthday calls for a party, and we are throwing the planet's biggest and best literary party this August," Ms Lockerbie said. "We'll be celebrating the writers of the future as well as of the present, and enjoying democratic discussions on everything under the sun, including democracy itself."