Like open-mouth kisses and dark liquor hangovers, you never forget your first Literary Festival. The excitement of seeing all those big-name authors rubbing shoulders at the bar, the thrill of ‘discovering’ the next generation of Booker Prize winners. Even the semi-embarrassing Q&A sessions where you might succeed in asking a question so wise and witty that the writer on stage seeks you out at the bar afterwards to congratulate you…Well, at least two of those things have happened to me at Literary Festivals, and with my guide to this year’s Festival offerings these things can happen to you too.
I can trace my seminal festival experience back to the summer of 1987 when my Dad took me to the 45th World Science Fiction Convention (Aka ‘Worldcon’, Aka Conspiracy ‘87) at the Brighton Centre. Doris Lessing was the guest of honour and the toastmaster was Brian Aldiss, although I’m ashamed to say that I was too busy queuing up for Tom Baker’s autograph and gawking at the Star Trek fans to appreciate such literary greatness. What I really remember about that day was the wonderful sense of being part of a pop-up world of books, books and more books. And I wasn’t alone; there were 4,000 other people there that weekend, all with the same passion for them as me.
Generally speaking, reading is a solitary pursuit, so literary festivals give readers an opportunity to share their love of books, not only with their writing heroes but with fellow readers. The best festivals have something of a party atmosphere about them; authors are relaxed and chatty – it’s a chance for them to bask in our appreciation and meet their writing heroes too - and festival-goers are keen to be entertained. Book festivals are about celebrating the spoken word as much as the written one, and they’re trendy now too; as popular music events become the dinosaurs of the festival circuit – literary ones look set to take the lead as the sell-out events in the cultural calendar.
You might be lucky and have a great literary festival taking place right on your doorstep, but even if you do, I’d heartily recommend packing yourself a weekend bag and going on holiday to one in a town or city you don’t know so well. Get stuck right into the programme and book yourself up with events from dawn till dusk…A lot of events now offer a weekend or festival pass which makes good financial sense if you plan to attend several events, and some will even help you find accommodation.
These days Literary Festivals cater not only to readers but to budding writers and you can pick up some fabulous workshopping and mentoring opportunities that would cost you big bucks if they were offered by the likes of the Faber Academy or Guardian Masterclasses. Book ahead and you could find yourself pitching your novel to a panel of top industry professionals, or gaining insight and advice from a successful author. A lot of writing festivals also run competitions with cash prizes, so do your research in advance and get your entries in early. You never know, it could be you up on that stage graciously acknowledging the audience’s applause.
So here’s my own personal Festival planner for the year ahead – don’t suppose I’ll manage to get round to all of them in person, but I’ll definitely see you at a few. And please send us your recommendations for your favourites. Or, sign up as a roving Writers’ Hub reporter and send us your blogs, reviews and back-room bar gossip.
Don’t worry, with just one week left of January 2013, you haven’t missed anything – yet. Use the rest of this month for planning your festival diary, booking time off work, and making lists of all the books you’ll need to read before you go. Don’t forget to work on your audience questions as well, and remember “Where do you get your inspiration from?” should not be one of them.
UEA Spring Literary Festival
Starts 6th February 2013 with events happening throughout the spring
On your marks, get set, and go to Norwich! The University of East Anglia has been at the vanguard of Creative Writing in British universities for the last forty years, so you’d expect big things from their literary festival, and I’m happy to say they don’t disappoint. As well as headline-grabbing names like Lee Child, Posy Simmonds and Colm Tóibín, there’s a particularly strong line-up of poets including Ruth Padel, Kathleen Jamie and Michael Symmons Roberts. You can also catch James Meek talking about his Costa-nominated novel The Heart broke In.
LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival
26th Feb – 2nd March 2013
Now polish up your brain and head down to the uber-intellectual, 5th Space for Thought Literary Festival at The London School of Economics. This year the theme is ‘branching out’ in homage to the 300th anniversary of the birth of Denis Diderot, who developed the figurative system of branches of human knowledge (I expect you knew that already). Key 'branches' will focus on “Narratives, Innovation, Changing World and Uniting the Branches of Knowledge” and guest speakers include PD James, Kate Mosse, Kate Featherstone, Ken Livingstone and Jenny Uglow, as well as a brain-melt of professors, doctors and Very Bright Thinkers. The festival culminates on Saturday 2nd March in a day of Creative Writing workshops and readings supported by London’s Liars’ League and Arachne Press.
The Independent Bath Literature Festival
1st – 10th March 2013
Now in its 17th year, the Bath Literature Festival is taking 1913 as a jumping off point this year, focusing on themes of war, landscape and Britain’s folk tradition. Big-name guests include J.K. Rowling, Hilary Mantel, P.D. James, Kate Mosse, Pat Barker, Darcey Bussell, Sandi Toksvig, Robert Fisk, Gavin Esler, A.N. Wilson and Ben Goldacre.
In the Writers’ Lab series of events there’s an opportunity to pitch your own novel to a panel of judges from Bath University and take part in master-classes on book illustration, book-binding, PR for writers, creating your own book app. and sports writing. Also, check out Mez Packer’s workshop on how to develop your online writing and get it noticed.
Essex Book Festival
1st – 31st March 2013
This county-wide festival takes place throughout March at a number of venues. Highlights include Anthony Horowitz talking about the inspirations, passions and experiences behind writing some of his most loved books, Josephine Cox talking about her new novel, Broken Man, Man Booker Prize longlister Rachel Joyce and appearances from Michael Rosen, Roger McGough and veteran politico Jack Straw. There’s also plenty on offer for the aspiring writer – check their website for more details.
Oxford Literary Festival
16th - 24th March 2013
This year’s Oxford Literary Festival is set to be one of the biggest in recent years, having already secured a rare public appearance from Julian Barnes, who will receive the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence at a special event. You can also see Hilary Mantel talking about her latest work and Andrew Miller on his 2012 Costa Prize-winning book – Pure. Nobel Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney, Alexander McCall Smith, Edna O’Brien, Iain Sinclair, Joanne Harris, Jon Ronson, Philip Pullman, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell add to an impressive line-up. With 160 events already listed and more being added in the weeks leading up to the festival, Oxford is definitely the place to be for the middle week of March.
For aspiring writers with cash to spare there is the chance to sign up to an exclusive 5-day residential Creative Writing running alongside the festival. Combining 5 two-hour tutor-led workshops with 10 one hour masterclasses with leading lights from the literary world, this course is designed to “serve the needs of writers who are interested in honing their creative skills in the company of a small, dedicated group”. Get your credit card out and book now – there are just 30 places available.
Stratford Upon Avon Literary Festival
21st April – 5th May 2013
Shakespeare’s birthplace hosts its 6th literary festival in 2013. Highlights include festival-favourite Mark Billingham in conversation with fellow crime-writer John Connolly. Even if you’ve never read any of Mark’s books or seen the dramatization of his Tom Thorne novels, I can thoroughly recommend spending an hour in his company as he is funny, entertaining and wise about writing and reading and the book industry. Other Stratford headliners include much-loved children’s author Michael Morpurgo, whose novel War Horse got the Hollywood treatment in 2011, and Adrian Mole creator Sue Townsend. Sign up for the newsletter to receive further details in the ever-evolving programme and get news of events tailored for writers.
Liverpool In Other Words Festival
Starts 23rd April 2013 and runs for 3 weeks
A rare chance to be part of a brand new literary festival as Liverpool City Council asks organisations, schools and other groups to help curate a festival to celebrate the re-opening of the central Library. Coming together under the banner ‘In Other Words – a celebration of the written and spoken word’, events will include author readings, performances in unique venues, book swaps, debates and poetry competitions. Watch their website for more details.
23rd May – 2nd June 2013
The Big Daddy of the Literary Festival scene is undeniably Hay-on-Wye, Bill Clinton called it “The Woodstock of the mind”, which is pretty poetic for an ex-president. Now in its 26th year, Hay has become the benchmark for all other book fests, attracting international big names and record-breaking crowds to its tent-city venues. This year Hay will welcome John le Carré, Carl Bernstein, Elif Shafak, Christy Moore and Dara Ó Briain, among others - full listings will be available from April, but sign up now for earlybird offers and the chance to get regular updates from the mailing list. Hay is a particularly child-friendly Lit Fest, giving kids their own mini-fest called Hayfever featuring author events, craft sessions, drama and joining-in sessions.
4th - 26th May 2013
Strictly speaking, the Brighton festival celebrates a full range of arts and culture, but with childrens’ author Michael Rosen as guest director at this year’s three-weeker, books and reading are bound to play a major part in events. For a full festival programme you’ll have to visit the website in late February, but I would especially recommend checking out the fringe events for writers and readers – always something quirky to get your creative juices flowing.
Stoke Newington Literary Festival
Early June 2013
Having brushed the sand out of your Kindle and the salty sea air from your hair, why not head to North East London for a relative newcomer to the Lit Fest circuit. Known as stokeylitfest to its twitter followers, this bijou mini-festival seeks to celebrate the area’s radical history and literary heritage. Last year’s festival featured lots of events for kids, including a chance to meet the Gruffalo and for older kids, a ‘Write Your Own Storybook’ session from Usborne author Louie Stowell. There were writing workshops for grown-ups too, and plenty of events involving food and drink –here’s hoping for more of the same this year.
Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing festival, Harrogate
18th – 21st July 2013
If you’re even remotely partial to murder and mystery in your reading diet, then the 2013 Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Festival is an absolute must. Held in Harrogate over three jam-packed days, the A-list line-up includes Val McDermid, Lee Child, Susan Hill, Kate Atkinson and Ruth Rendell interviewed by Jeanette Winterson. Phew! This is the perfect festival weekend to immerse yourself in. Almost all the events take place at the Old Swan Hotel, and if you sign up for the whole event you’ll get the chance to mingle with the talent at the bar, in the pop-up bookshop, during the gala dinner, at the quiz, and in and out of all the lovely teashops around town. A fabulous opportunity to see the purveyors of grim and grisly death letting their hair down and having a giggle. Don’t miss it.
West Cork Festival
7th - 13th July 2013
Ever since this festival’s inception in the mid 1990s, workshops for adults have been at the heart of the programme – both for novices and experienced authors alike. The festival offers 5 and 3 day workshops which look at all aspects of writing from getting past page one to getting published. Check their website for details of this year’s courses, and sign up for a one-to-one session with Editor-in-residence, Francesca Main.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
10th - 26th August 2013
Billed as the largest public celebration of the written word in the world, the Edinburgh book festival brings together over 800 writers and thinkers from across the planet. It’s too soon for listings, but sign up at the website today to get first notice of all the delights on offer at this year’s event.
Small Wonder Festival of Short Stories
Charlston Farmhouse, East Sussex
This is a lovely weekend event in a beautiful setting, inspired by the power and beauty of the short story. Featuring readings, discussions, workshops and performances by innovative national and international writers, the festival will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2013. Although the programme is yet to be announced, you can listen to some of last year’s highlights at the festival website and sign up for email updates. One of 2012’s workshops for writers was tutored by Jackie Kay and previous speakers have included Hilary Spurling, Sarah Hall, Jonathan Coe, M.J. Hyland and AL Kennedy.
Ilkley Literature Festival
Billed as the North’s liveliest, most prestigious Literature Festival with over 200 events over seventeen days, this Lit Fest includes authors’ events, discussions, readings, performances, workshops, reader’s events, literary walks, poetry, festival fringe, children’s and young people’s weekend. Another gorgeous setting, not just because of the glorious scenery, but because Ilkley is a place that genuinely loves to read, as evidenced by the number of bookshops in this small, pretty town. Check their website in April for listings and also for details of their writing competitions. Prizes will be presented at the festival in October.
And while you’re there check out the Stanza Stones; an imaginative collaboration between Simon Armitage and Ilkley Literature Festival in association with imove, a Cultural Olympiad programme in Yorkshire. The project saw Armitage write a set of poems inspired by the language and landscape of the Pennine Watershed, which were then carved onto stones across the upland by stone artist Pip Hall, forming a permanent ‘Poetry Trail’ from Armitage’s home town of Marsden to the Festival’s base in Ilkley
Hastings Storytelling Festival
Celebrating the oral tradition of story-telling, this seaside festival will be in its 3rd year in 2013. Last year’s event featured a performance from anarchic creative whirlwind, Billy Childish, and appearances by Quentin Blake and Joolz Denby. Hastings is an atmospheric venue and becoming artier and trendier by the minute. The Fishy Tales theme of this youngster on the Lit Fest circuit sets it apart from other small town festivals and gives it an edge. Check the website later in the year for more details.
What, you want more? Well I’m sorry to disappoint but even Literary Festivals like to put their feet up at Christmas and so should you. Time to stay home, curl up by the fire and get reading. Here’s to more Festival fun in 2014.