A LITERARY JOURNEY
Find inspiration at a literary festival.
Personally, I’ve never been tempted by the huge crowds and loud music of Glastonbury. My idea of a festival is somewhat di erent. For me, they mean celebrations of books and writing: authors, readers and the ideas that bring them together. I can be uplifted and inspired without a muddy welly in sight. And as summer turns to autumn, they are the perfect choice for recharging your creative batteries before winter.
A book festival is really what you make it – strangely they’re not even necessarily about books. “You don’t have to have read the book, know the author – or even have read any books,” says Rachel Feldberg, festival director of Ilkley Literature Festival in Yorkshire, UK. “The author talks about their ideas, which you can follow – even if you don’t know their book. It’s about extraordinary moments you couldn’t script and the chance to meet people you’d never normally meet.”
The origins of a novel are often linked to life-changing moments. Whether that moment was seemingly insigni cant to onlookers or incredibly challenging, you are there to hear about it rst hand. If you are familiar with the author already, this experience can change how you interact with their work for the rest of your life. I saw author Dinah Je eries speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival about her rst book
The Separation. Whenever I hear of her subsequent novels, I have such a clear picture of her talking movingly about her son (who died in an accident aged just 14), and how that in uences her writing.
For women, especially, literature festivals are very
easy places to visit solo. “We pride ourselves on making you feel safe and welcome,” says Rachel. Sarah-Jane Roberts, co-director of the Manchester Literature Festival, explains that the event’s audience is around 70-75 percent female, which she partially attributes to its “showcasing of excellent women writers, poets, biographers and activists”.
Festivals o er so many di erent voices in one place in just one week – especially women’s voices. At Ilkley, Maya Angelou was so gracious and incredibly inspiring, telling her audience, “what literature enables us to do is to understand each others’ lives”. Names such as Hillary Clinton capture festival headlines, yet equally, emerging poets are there reading to their rst audience.
Cheltenham is my ‘local’ literature festival – one of the world’s largest and oldest events of this type. Regency buildings surround a large white marquee village and deckchairs sit on the lawns of Montpellier Gardens, most years in autumnal sunshine. Like a kid in a candy shop, every year I try something new.
“Names such as Hillary Clinton capture festival headlines, yet equally, emerging poets are there reading to
their first audience.”
Creative workshops, festival volunteering and, at the height of my festival bravery, taking part in an open mic session.
A festival often gets its character from its location. In Manchester, Sarah-Jane recommends exploring “the wealth of literary history and heritage in the city, as well as brilliant walking tours following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens”. In the heart of London, the Literary Footprints Festival from Footprints of London describes itself as an annual “walking book club” exploring the locations that inspired famous titles. It’s on for the whole of October.
Festivals can also step into the natural world; Ilkley’s visitors are right in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. One author demonstrated wild swimming – the subject of his book – in the river Wharfe before drying o and addressing his audience. The Stanza Stones Walk, featuring six rocks inscribed with poetry by Simon Armitage, was a collaboration with the festival. A short walk from local landmark Cow and Calf Rocks takes you to the Beck Stone and its poem. Or, what about books by the beach? The Isle of Wight Literary Festival is another autumn option. And if it does rain then you’re not stuck outside in a leaky tent; as Rachel suggests: “It’s a literature festival after all – stay inside with us and a cup of tea!”
If your reading life is usually a satisfying yet solitary a air, meeting authors and other book lovers can be an amazing experience. “It’s always a pleasure to see people listen to, then meet one of their favourite authors,”
says Sarah-Jane. “Some people bring gifts, some people are too overwhelmed to speak and others cry with sheer happiness.” I love the welcoming atmosphere at the author event and the ‘after-party’: signings, book tents and tea rooms. Reading chat often ows easily between strangers. Rachel puts it perfectly: “You are surrounded by books, splendid people and piles of cake – what more could you want?”
For the authors, too, this social aspect is a huge part of visiting these festivals; creating books, poetry and drama can be a solitary business. “As an author, I spend a ridiculous amount of time alone,” says Emma Kavanagh, the successful crime writer. “Festivals allow me a chance to get out of my own head, spend time with my fellow authors (a hugely supportive group) and to get to meet my readers. They’re not only fun, but a great way to remind yourself why you do it.”
One of my go-to book recommendations is
Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. She admits to pre-event nerves, although they soon disappear. “I’m having conversations with people who love books, and what could be more fun?” she says. “I also love turning the questions back, and when I’m asked something like what my favourite book is, I like to ask the questioner the same question. It’s a great way of getting recommendations.”
“Emerging from a festival with a head of ideas, you may start to think
about your own writing.”
small, casual… attractive to the novice writer and hobbyist. However, there are those who have published work (either self-published or with an ‘indie’ press or a traditional house) and they enjoy attending for the same reasons.”
I went to WOTS as my rst writing festival, knowing that most of my ‘writing’ was a pile of private notebooks. I’d never written ction. I’d never really nished anything that could be shared or sent to an editor. So, I chose intriguingly titled sessions such as ‘Pitching for beginners’ and ‘Deconstructing children’s picture books’. I felt happy simply sitting among the buzz. As the event was in the
USA, I was listening to many new voices, and experiencing a wonderful Paci c Northwest location. Really, what could be better than planning a trip around books and the locals who love them?
A few months after that rst writing weekend, I found a full year’s evening course on feature writing. Within six months, my rst hundred words had been published in a tiny magazine in Washington State. I still treasure my copy of the cheque for $20 I received in payment. That’s the thing about being inspired by words, ideas and the people who create them, you start to listen to your own story and you never know where it will take you. This two-way conversation is so much part of the festival experience; whether it’s a full theatre or a more intimate session, you have the chance to question, to challenge and to contribute.
Emerging from a festival with a head of ideas, you may start to think about your own writing. So, what about a writing festival? These events can be di erent to the pick ‘n’ mix book festival schedule, where you select as much or as little as you like. Attendance at writing festivals tends to be by day ticket or packages for a full weekend with accommodation. Programs have key speakers and practical workshops for every morning and afternoon. Costs can also include short 1:1 sessions with an agent, for those who have aspirations to publish their work.
Attending my rst writing festival, I had an attack of imposter syndrome. To go to a book festival, you just need to be ‘a reader’. So to go to a writing festival, don’t you have to be ‘a writer’, or have published something? Not at all, assures Laurie Rose, organiser of the Write on the Sound Writers’ Conference (WOTS) in Edmonds, Washington State, USA. “WOTS is
Clockwise from top: the Hay Festival in Wales has been running for 31 years; Suzanne Hindle reading from punk poet John Cooper Clarke’s work at the Manchester Literature Festival; guests enjoy the atmosphere at the Cheltenham festival; Maya Angelou inspires her audience at the Ilkley event.
Clockwise your creative from spirit top: free at aliterature festival; ShamiChakrabarti in conversationwith Rachel Holmes at theManchester event; relaxingwith a good book at Hay.