Thursday, October 27, 2005

'Contexts' in 'The Writers World'

On Tuesday I was contacted by a student, Angi Holden, who is studying Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University in Alsager. Apparently part of the course is called 'Contexts' and she has a presentation assignment on 'The Writer's World' and has decided to focus on Chester Litfest. She asked me a few interesting questions. Here they are with my responses.

A.H: What is the value of a festival - such as Chester Litfest - to an established writer?

C.D: First of all not sure about the 'established writer' bit, really. I've only written three novels, I don't think that's 'established' really. But for a writer like me, the main value of any Litfest (and I've performed several this year - WOW (Writing on the Wall at Liverpool), Swindon, Basingstoke, Cheltenham and now Chester) is to introduce myself to potential readers. They do tend to be potential readers rather than actual readers because apart from my friends in Chester, few people have come across my work even though it has been quite widely reviewed. And because I am relatively unknown my talks have to be on topics that I think might interest people and so they will come to find out about the subject rather than come just to 'meet the author' as they do for well-known novelists. Well-known novelists tend to talk about things like how they write, how they got started i.e. general things about their lives as writers. My talks tend to be less about me and more about the topic of my research. At the end of my talk I hope they are interested enough to want to buy my book, and then buy any subsequent books that I write. Quite often they don't, of course - my talk has given them all the information they need - and that is good as well, because part of the reason I've written my books is to tell people about characters or events which I think are interesting, important and deserve wider attention, and so just their attendance at my talk achieves this aim.

Another benefit of being in a festival is that even if people don't come to your event they read about you in the programme which is widely circulated so that is good publicity.

Sometimes local bookshops stock festival books so that can be of benefit too - because sometimes it is hard to even get your books in bookshops. So being in a festival helps to bring your book to the attention of bookshop managers - for example in Swindon the manager at Waterstones there read my book because I was coming to the festival and liked it so much she made it her recommended read and put it on display which would more or less guarantee that it would sell. However it does depend on the manager - at Basingstoke the bookshop associated with the festival didn't stock my book which was disappointing.

The big festivals have an extra benefit in that you meet other writers and journalists. In Cheltenham I met several well-known authors and a journalist from the Times asked me a few questions. They also treat their writers really well, and it is great to be invited.

All festivals are a lot of fun too, and I really enjoy them but they are exhausting because after travelling for several hours with, in my case, a computer, a bag full of books, and an overnight bag you then have to set everything up and perform then either sleep badly in a B&B or make the long journey back again. And of course I have to spend several days beforehand preparing my talk with pictures and words. I enjoy this too, but all of this takes you away from writing, and it is impossible to write before or after giving talks - even Alan Bennett says so.

A.H: How does it compare with your perceptions of a literary festival from a "punters" point of view?

C.D: From the punters point of view ... well, I've been to as many events as I can in the Chester Festival (as I do every year) to support both the festival and the people involved. There were more I would have liked to have gone to but I was away at festivals myself so I couldn't. I would have liked to have gone to Joanne Harris's and David Frost's too, and I should have liked to have gone to Chester Poets' but was away at events. I suppose, like you, I like to hear about other writers' lives and how they got started and it is always interesting to hear the writers' real voice and see how it compares to the one on the page. I also like to support local writers and writers I have never heard of before - and these often turn out to give the best events - the most interesting and informative.

A.H: What's been your highlight of the festival?

C.D: So far the best event of this year for me was the one at Chester University by a couple of lecturers there (John Cartwright and Brian Baker). They have written a book about science in literature and their lectures were fascinating. One was on how writers have mentioned science in literature through the ages and the other on science fiction.


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