literary festivals

Ilkley Literature Festival: parting notes

This year’s festival finished over a week ago and I’m still catching up with the things that were put aside because of it, the notes I wrote during it, and the thoughts I meant to write down but never did (which have been buzzing round my head with decreasing energy ever since). You can tell how much catching up I need to do by the fact that the first line said ‘finished on Sunday’ when I started to write this post…

I took part in the Open Mic on the final Sunday evening. An interesting experience and I’m glad I tried it, but I wouldn’t do it again with prose. 16 of the 19 performers were poets, the judges were poets, the compere was a poet, and even the email said ‘you have been chosen to read your poetry’ (which gave me a moment of panic when I got it). So reading a comic fantasy story that took all but 4 seconds of the allotted 3 minutes did make me feel a little out of place. One chap did a humorous monologue on changing his life, with the refrain ‘it’s not for me’ – which I found myself saying at appropriate junctures last week, with a laugh (when the person offering you a slice of cake hasn’t heard the monologue, you just come across as odd). There was also a fabulous poem about spades, bane of poets because you have to call a spade a spade.

Two weeks ago I went to see Mark Thomas, who sometimes seems to do things just to get a rise out of people, but more often than not there’s a point to it and he causes change. And he’s very funny. I confess I was a little uncomfortable when he seemed to be saying that it’s all one big art project, a sort of performance and participation art. How is a gruff northern ‘modern art? It’s just an empty room with faulty light fittings’ socialist supposed to reconcile that with Mark Thomas being an angry, funny, long-standing left-wing activist who makes a difference?

There were a few other events I either didn’t enjoy enough or didn’t understand enough to write about here, and I’ve probably forgotten deeply insightful things I thought in the gaps between events (festival time does involve a lot of waiting around). However, that’s all for this year. The festival blog is apparently spreading its event reviews over the next couple of months rather than putting them all up in an exciting flurry (don’t ask me why), so you can continue to discover new views on the events over there for a while yet.

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Ilkley Literature Festival review: Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg

Liza Klaussmann and Jami Attenberg were paired up on Sunday afternoon at the Ilkley Literature Festival because as well as both being American, both women have recently written novels whose main characters were real people. The idea fascinated me as I wanted to know whether all that historical detail helps or hinders a writer of fiction, and how much you should worry about misrepresenting them.

Liza’s novel (her second) is Villa America (which I’m afraid I haven’t read), bringing Sara and Gerald Murphy to centre stage amid their friends Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso etc, in 1920s France. Because most of her central characters were well-known and well-documented, Liza commented that she felt quite constrained in what she could write, having to ensure that everyone was in certain locations doing certain things at certain times, because it’s known that this was the case (in fact she said she envied Jami’s freedom, more of which in a moment). To give her an outlet for fiction – as she said, she’s a ‘professional liar’ and it’s hard not to make things up! – she invented a character who then threads among the real figures helping to bring out their inner lives.

Jami’s fifth book is Saint Mazie, which I’ve already reviewed here. Set in New York predominantly during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, it introduces us to Mazie Gordon-Phillips the ‘Queen of the Bowery’ who ran a cinema by day and helped homeless men at night. By contrast to the Murphys, almost nothing is recorded about Mazie, in fact Jami mentioned she’d found only two articles (on Mazie’s retirement and memorial service) and an obituary. One of the articles mentions that Mazie was going to write her memoirs, but they never seem to have appeared, and from such a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary woman’s life Jami set out to write the memoirs that she would have loved to read. She knew a few places that Mazie had lived, and from that (and some trips around the relevant neighbourhoods in New York) she crafted her novel.

During the question and answer session I asked Jami what had made her structure the novel in the way she had, with Mazie’s diary entries, a few excerpts from her memoirs, interviews with people who’d known her, all woven together. She explained that she’d started out writing a straightforward memoir, with Mazie looking back on her life and telling her story, but it hadn’t felt immediate enough and she switched to the diary which lands the reader right into the events as they’re happening, with the interviewees adding a different viewpoint or the benefit of hindsight.

Both authors talked about the importance of book clubs, with the members buying the novel then recommending it to friends and family (the importance of word of mouth promotion). However, they did also mention the daunting task of doing skype interviews with book clubs. Liza had found the book clubbers to be keen and well-read, comparing her work to things she hadn’t read herself, and asking tough questions.

One last thing I’ll mention here is book covers. They were asked how much input they have into the covers of their books, and it sounds like sometimes at least they do have a choice. However, Jami told us about one of her books (which must be The Melting Season) where the cover was a woman running through a field of wheat (sure to appeal to the middle-aged book-clubbing woman) despite the story being ‘scandalous’ (Jami’s word) and about a woman running off to Las Vegas. It did make me think of the whole book cover problem, which I’ve read about before (and which Joanne Harris has handily complained about this week in terms of children’s books) where publishers have a market in mind, and some kind of formula for covers to appeal to that market (how? why?) and they just go with it. It doesn’t seem to have done Jami Attenberg’s career too much harm, though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Postcapitalism

Paul Mason from Channel 4 News was at the festival this afternoon to talk about his new book PostCapitalism (he didn’t want to talk about ‘socialism’ because he says his ideas are not like the socialism we’re used to, yet it apparently fits in with the utopian socialist trajectory begun in the 12th century). You can imagine (if you’re at all used to me and my ramblings) that this is just the sort of thing I’d love on a Sunday afternoon. I did enjoy the hour he spent in the King’s Hall more or less lecturing on his pet topic, but I remain unconvinced. And I am, as you may already know, not all that keen on capitalism.

He talked about the sharing economy, and mentioned Wikipedia. I thought ok, people do that for fun, for free, and other people use it but it’s not a widespread model surely. Then he talked about Linux, and Apache, and how large parts of the ‘real’ (capitalist) economy rely on them, and I thought maybe he has a point. There is more to global transactions and society these days than handing over money for stuff.

He talked about the erosion of workers’ rights, and the nature of precarious living, the recent rise of the left in Europe, and the boom-bust economic cycles of the last few decades. Lots of things that left me with more questions than answers. Like how do creative types manage to feed themselves when everyone’s sharing their digital content (photos, music, films, e-books) online for free? He also talked about things like the massive bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard for credit unions and peer to peer lending to get going, meaning we all still rely on the old-fashioned banks.

I would like to read his book, it sounds like it’s full of thought-provoking material, but at 17 quid for a hardback I think I’ll go for the sharing economy approach, and wait till I can borrow it from my local library.

Ilkley Literature Festival Review: What Lies Beneath

Is it cheeky to review your own event? Naturally I’m going to say that the eight members of Ilkley Writers (there are more of us, but only eight on stage last night) gave a wonderful performance at the festival fringe, and if you weren’t there then you completely missed out, but that in a way is by the by.

What I can offer is a backstage view, at least from my perspective. Last night’s performance of eight stories, with a backdrop of a 50-minute silent film of the river Wharfe at various points through Ilkley and Ben Rhydding, accompanied by a glossy programme to say who’s who, and a booklet of seven of the stories for the bargain price of £2, was the culmination of at least three months’ work. All the stories we read in front of the audience had been through several drafts, and not all of them were the stories we started out with – I had written another beforehand, someone else was on their third I think.

We read our stories to each other at a dozen or so meetings, suggested improvements or reassured each other as the self-doubt set in. We laughed a lot, despaired occasionally, and spent a fair amount of time in the pub (we did set out for an evening picnic by the river some time in the summer, but it turned chilly that teatime and we ended up in a pub a stone’s throw from the river, complete with a variety of camping stools and blankets). Yesterday the nerves set in, some suffering far more than others (with a certain amount of gin and red wine being consumed in the hour or two before curtain-up. Not by me, I might add), but for me at least, the excitement as we sat on a line of wooden chairs in the wings and glimpsed the audience filing into the auditorium through a gap in the curtains, washed everything else away.

From where I sat I couldn’t see the film properly, but I listened to each story as though I was in the audience, enjoying the performance, being caught up by the characters and noticing where yet another change had been made since I last heard it. When I stepped out onto the stage and adjusted the microphone (being probably six inches taller than the person before me), I realised to my horror that I couldn’t see the audience at all, just blackness with a dazzling spotlight shining forth. All that looking up and making eye contact I’d been practising at home, wasted! I tried it anyway, guessing at where OneMonkey was and aiming my gaze there from time to time (I missed, apparently, and was looking intently at the side aisle) as well as peering into the gloom here and there. It was a surreal experience (we were in a studio theatre last year, sitting among the audience ourselves until we went to the front to read) and I did have a dizzying moment of belief that I’d somehow managed to go through the wrong curtain or point in the wrong direction, and wasn’t standing in front of 80-odd people at all.

Afterwards in the foyer, people I didn’t know came up and said nice things (some of them were connected to other members of Ilkley Writers but some seemed unknown). OneMonkey and Mark the artist exuded enough pride to light up the town, and I was half a grin away from dancing up the hill singing I Feel Pretty from West Side Story (thankfully, I didn’t, but I do have a character who does in one of the stories in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations, which you can download free here. Seamless plug).

The Ilkley Writers literary festival appearance is over for this season, but I’ve got another crack at it, at the Open Mic night on Sunday October 18th. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Stuart Maconie

Stuart Maconie – writer, broadcaster, unashamed wearer of red trousers – provided well over the allotted hour of insight and mirth this evening in Ilkley’s King’s Hall. The event was billed as relating to his most recent book, The Pie at Night (which even he keeps calling Pies and Prejudice by accident) but although he did keep referring back to it in passing, and read a short extract eventually, the bulk of his readings were from earlier works and the bulk of the delivery was comedic and anecdotal.

Particular stand-outs for me both revolved around his mum. The wonderful tale of him interviewing her some years ago about her taking the two-year-old Stuart to see The Beatles in 1964: she can’t remember what the band played or who supported them, but can recount at length the weather, the neighbours in the queue, the refreshments, and what the family had for tea later.

The other one was a trait which all northern women (used to) have, of relational story-telling such as ‘you know, Gladys. Worked with your mum at the chip shop before she married that feller from Rotherham with the false leg. He had a caravan two berths down from your Norman at Brid that summer, when Flo and Arthur won the teddy bear on the front’. It wasn’t his mum’s long-winded argument about Blackpool so much as the way Stuart Maconie linked it with Icelandic sagas, and northerners being the true inheritors of our forefathers’ means of expression (instead of Agbard son of Gimli who slew the troll, we have Ethel wife of Peter who drove the bus. He put it better than I have though…). I like that idea, I shall return to it at some point, I’m sure.

Interestingly, the hall was only about two-thirds full, and I do wonder if it’s the prices that are the problem. There was a list of ‘over 100 events with tickets remaining’, including some big names. I bought a whole raft of tickets weeks ago, and I got a shock pulling these ones out of the pack tonight and realising in some moment of madness in late summer I’d handed over nearly thirty quid for OneMonkey and I to sit and listen to an admittedly amusing raconteur for an hour. There are so many events packed into such a short time at the Ilkley litfest, and so much I’m interested in every year, but only so much I can afford to go to (and don’t expect me to have any left over to buy the books).

As for Stuart Maconie’s latest book, this evening’s left me none the wiser as to whether I should read it. It has made me want to go borrow Pies and Prejudice from Big Brother though.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: Writing and Reading in the Digital Age

More from New Writing North this evening, as Claire Malcolm chaired a discussion on connecting readers and writers in the era of the internet. Book blogger/podcaster Simon Savidge, author and book vlogger Jen Campbell, and Rachael Kerr from Unbound (crowdfunded publisher) shared their views on reviewing books, the dominance (and distance from modern reality) of mainstream publishers and national newspapers, and lots more besides.

An important point made about blogs/vlogs (incidentally, vlogs and vlogging are hard to say and ugly to write – is there another term out there?) is that the reader/viewer can get to know the personality and taste of the writer/presenter in a way that’s not possible with sparse (often faceless) book reviewing in print media, and in this way come to know which recommendations to trust. This can help people read out of their comfort zone, which is probably a good thing.

Despite dire predictions, people are continuing to read print books, children are reading more than they have in years, and book sales are up lately (though no-one on the panel mentioned that that might just be a result of closing libraries…). Jen offered the interesting snippet (from her new book on the history of bookshops) that a late medieval bookseller in Florence declared the advent of printed books ‘the death of the book’ and shut up shop, so basically there have been dire predictions for about as long as there have been books.

The other part of the discussion (though really everything melded together quite well) was about crowdfunding, and that direct link between author and readership. On the face of it (having not had time to look into it at all) Unbound sounds like a great idea: authors submit a manuscript or book project idea, if Unbound decide they like it they set a funding target (the cost to print X number of copies, or for instance the cost to print plus the cost of giving the author a couple of months off the day-job so they can finish the thing) and interested readers pledge money. Anything made over the funding target gets split fifty-fifty between Unbound and the author, and they’ve already had some critical and commercial successes like The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

I came away with many things to think about, some of which I may write about here soon. Or perhaps I should branch out into podcasting. Don’t expect me to make videos anytime soon, however.

Ilkley Literature Festival review: New Writing North roadshow

The first event I went to at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival was a free hour with New Writing North, talking about their Northern Writers’ Awards. I was genuinely astonished that the audience was so small (in fact without a few late arrivals it would barely have outnumbered the panel of five) as this seemed like a great opportunity to find out more about a clutch of awards that for some of the former winners on the panel have been career-defining, and indeed life-changing.

The main impression I walked out of the room with was that to win one of these awards is to be welcomed into a warm and supportive family. For a notably gruff Yorkshireman (albeit female, I’ve said before Yorkshirewoman just doesn’t seem to trip off the tongue) that sounds like a sentimental reaction, but they genuinely seem to stay in touch with former winners as long as possible, to lend a hand (or receptive ear) where necessary, and to be thoroughly chuffed when said former winners do well elsewhere. I’ve been signed up for the New Writing North newsletter for a while now and seen various updates, but they could seem like bald marketing ‘hey look, this writer we tipped a couple of years ago has done well. Aren’t we clever for being ahead of the curve’ – once you’ve heard Claire Malcolm in person, enthusing so sincerely, you know it’s not like that at all.

Practically speaking, there were plenty of tips on making an application, but actually they’re quite laid back about it. Reading the rules in the past and finding there are no specific guidelines I’ve wondered if it’s something ‘insiders’ somehow know, and I’m going to reveal my ignorance if I genuinely do my own thing, but no, they’re just not that precious about things like word count, or what you feel the money would best be spent on. If the writing’s good (and apparently they read extracts/stories before synopses, so a poor synopsis isn’t necessarily the end of the road) that’s all you’ve got to worry about. Don’t know all the technicalities of script formatting? Fine, that’s part of what the award would help you with.

All in all, a reassuring experience and after 2 years where I wavered over applying and then decided against it, the 2016 awards might be the batch where I actually send something in. Applications open next month.