Sunday, 22 May 2011

Don't Forget Your Wellies by Dan Holloway

It’s festival time, season of indeterminate noodles, oxygen bars and trenchfoot. Now I’ve got nothing against such gatherings. I’ve been to my fair share (even written about one particularly muddy one). But what I’m talking about is decidedly more, er, indoors.

This coming week sees the start of Hay Festival (where mud is decidedly on the cards), which is the spiritual home of all things bookish. So what better time to talk about why it’s a really good idea for writers to make it a resolution to go to at least one event at one festival this year. Of course, the fact that I have a words and music show, The New Libertines, that will be performed at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 4th and Oxfringe on June 13th is by the by.

OK, before I start, in the light of the piece I’ve written alongside Cat for this month’s Words With Jam about the event NOT The Oxford Literary Festival, I should come clean. There are lots of things about literary festivals I’m not keen on. The big ones especially. The line-ups are pretty much all the same – whoever’s got a new book or a new TV series out does a talk about it, some of them even in conversation with Melvyn Bragg. They sign copies and move on to the next one. Local authors and experimental writing rarely get a look in. And they are corporate beyond belief with their impromptu Blackwell’s store and their official festival whisky.

But the fact remains that every writer should go to a big festival at least once, even if it’s just for one event. Though if you can afford it, I would recommend going for the day, because the milling around between events and soaking up the atmosphere is not only invigorating (and good for celeb-spotting) but an important part of starting to breathe the air, feeling what it’s like to be a writer (taking a cue from Rebecca’s excellent piece a few days ago). Which is reason one.

The second reason is similar – depending on your viewpoint you will get to see either what the future might hold or what might be expected of you. This is especially important if you fall into the latter camp – if you see the publicity side of things as a real drawback of wanting to be a writer. Find an author you really like. Go and listen to them speak. Analyse how you feel – excited, interested, a little nervous in a good way at seeing them in the flesh (yes, quite possibly cold and wet and wondering when you can have a hot cup of Bovril but we’ll forget that for the moment). Then store that away in your memory banks, and remind yourself that when it’s you up there, that’s exactly how your audience will be feeling – it’s the first part of seeing audiences not as something intimidating but as a really exciting friend.

Third, even if they’re going on to say the same thing ten more times in ten more places, this is still plain and simple a great chance to see one of your heroes. I run Not The Oxford Literary Festival, a counterculture gathering during the Oxford literary Festival set up directly in opposition to its overpriced facelessness. But last year I still went along to see Patti Smith read from Just Kids, got her to sign the book, got goosebumps from being that close to one of my greatest idols.

Fourth, if and when you feel less overwhelmed by the surroundings and less like oh-my-golly-I’m-only-little-me (which may be after you’ve been to a few events, after a few glasses of Official Festival Whisky, or the moment you pitch up at the car park if you’re a shameless self-publicist), festivals are great places to meet people. I don’t just mean people who might give you a contract – yes, the literary world is full of tales of writers who met their agent at a festival bar, and yes about 5% of these may be true and not just the hazy recollections of heavy duty beer goggles, but there are far more tales of agents running for cover and telling their friends never to have anything to do with that pushy little oik over there. I mean people who love what you love. And, of course, in this day and age, people you know off twitter. It’s a place for starting and cementing friendships.

Fifth and finally for now, try to go to a smaller, less well-known festival. A local one is great because you can meet the bookstore owners you may very soon be asking to stock your self-published book, you can get to be part of the local literary community, you may even get asked to speak next year. The programmes can also be more diverse. You can get to find whole new seams of literature you never knew were there, see people doing things in ways you’d never thought of. They can be truly inspirational. I’m particularly looking forward to Stoke Newington this year. After our show I’m hightailing it across Church Street to see one of my student crushes, Louise Wener from Sleeper, and the whole weekend has an Edgar Alan Poe-ish feel to it, which will make for a marvellous atmosphere.

So, dust off your metaphorical wellies, start googling and browsing programmes, and make this the summer you head to your first festival. And see you all in Stokey!

Dan Holloway is the author of Oxford based thriller The Company of Fellows, the novels Songs from the Other Side of the Wall and The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, and the collection (life:) razorblades included. He is happiest behind a microphone and will be appearing at festivals and fringes across the UK this summer.

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