How to run a literary festival

Jan Carson celebrates the John Hewitt Summer School and other book festivals that get it right

Last summer I was a mess. My father had been desperately ill throughout the spring. Though I didn’t yet know it, by the end of the summer, he’d be gone. In between socially-distanced hospital visits I was also navigating the lonely world of promoting a short story collection online and completing final edits on my forthcoming novel. I was running on empty: frazzled, anxious and desperate for real life community. Most writers were feeling similar. Everyone had endured their own particular version of lockdown hell.

At the end of July, I reluctantly removed my slippers for the first time in years and headed to Armagh for the John Hewitt Summer School. In the North this was one of the first arts events to go live after lockdown. When the lights went up on a fullish — albeit masked and distanced — Marketplace Theatre I felt all the feelings simultaneously. It was such a relief to finally encounter an audience who wouldn’t pixelate, mute or disappear behind clambering children or precocious cats. It was also terrifying to be on stage again. And exciting. And exhausting. And sad to contemplate all the precious people and things we’d lost in the interim.

Mostly, I just felt desperately reassured. After months of not knowing how to be, it was a tonic to return to such a familiar space, to be with people I love, to do the thing I was made to do.

I’ve been attending the John Hewitt Summer School for 10 years now; first as a reader, then a fledgling writer and lately in a role that most closely resembles furniture. It’s a space that feels like home. As a writer who travels excessively, the summer school is an annual opportunity to reconnect with my community, reminding myself that I’m rooted to these people and this place. Some of my first stumbling attempts to read my work found a gracious audience in Armagh. Over the years the Hewitt Society has allowed me to meet and interview many of my contemporaries and bookish heroes. I’m a better writer for each of these chats.

As with all good book festivals, the magic isn’t confined to the stage. I’ve had umpteen inspiring conversations over the pool table in the infamous “talking parrot” bar and on the steps of the Marketplace whilst eating a fish supper off my knees. It’s not just me who’s benefited. The Hewitt Society has made this vital taster of literary community available to hundreds of emerging writers with dozens of free bursary places available each year. I often meet writers who point to this experience as incredibly formative.

Last year’s John Hewitt Summer School was my first attempt to return to normalcy. It allowed me space to remember how to be a public writer: presenting my work, interviewing, and engaging with readers in a safe and familiar environment. At times it felt like trying to dredge up a foreign language I hadn’t spoken since secondary school. I was knackered by the end of the week, my voice shot to pieces from too much talking and too many late nights. However, it also left me full of hope. Covid hadn’t undone the literary community. We could, and would, have good times together again. It might take us a while to return to normal — and this would be a new kind of normal, more aware of access and inclusion, more tolerant of each other’s needs — but I left, certain that eventually we would heal.

Understandably, most festivals were reluctant to programme in-person events last year. However, this summer’s line-up looks very much like a return to pre-pandemic service with the welcome inclusion of online options for audience members unable to attend in situ. Over the next few months, hundreds of writers, both seasoned regulars and debutants, will swap their slippers for public shoes, running the gauntlet of roving mics, wobbly lecterns and weirdly intrusive questions from the floor. Like me, these writers will be feeling all the feelings. Some will be buzzing with sheer relief. Some will be dealing with all manner of legitimate anxieties. Some will be grieving. Some will have forgotten how to speak in front of people they’re not related to. Now, more than ever, writers are relying on the people who make festivals happen to provide safe and nurturing spaces both on and offstage.

Even before the pandemic, many festivals had come to understand that the social circus required to promote a book is a far remove from the solitude required to write one. The festival experience can be downright dizzying. While I’ve had quite a few horror shows, I’ve mostly had brilliant festival experiences: events, workshops and panels which provided a temporary safe haven, leaving me well-rested and reinvigorated. It’s not easy to run a good book festival. Organisers must balance the needs of the audience and the writers, the expectations of funders and ever-decreasing budgets. I’m sympathetic. I’ve programmed a fair few festivals myself. So, this is both a note of heartfelt thanks to those who offer writers a home from home, an encouragement to keep going and a few examples of the sort of great practice which should be the norm.

A writer on the road has pretty simple needs: space to rest, decent food, clear and concise travel plans. This summer I’ve particularly appreciated festivals like Belfast Book Festival who got these points right. Staff and volunteers were ever-present and happy to help with everything from sourcing pizza to booking taxis. There was a designated quiet space for writers to be by themselves and an over-riding feeling of warmth and inclusion which felt like the festival equivalent of a gentle hug.

Ullapool Book Festival in Scotland also created space for writers and their family members to spend the whole weekend together, leaving room in the schedule to relax, eat together and enjoy the stunning local landscape. I came home better rested than before, with a rake of wonderful new writer friends and a belly full of delicious locally sourced organic meals. This model was echoed at Cuírt. After a seven-hour journey from Belfast to Galway it was a relief to be offered accommodation for several days. I was able to catch up with sleep, attend events and spend significant time with the other writers. Many of us spend the period between Easter and autumn circling round book festivals, trying to juggle book promotion and never-ending admin, whilst chipping away at the next book. Any chance to rest, eat something vaguely nutritious and fit in a little work is enormously appreciated.

It isn’t particularly sexy, but I’d like to commend those festivals who manage admin really well. When you have a dozen or more festivals per month, a clearly set-out itinerary with schedule, contract and emergency contacts is a beautiful thing to behold. I’m equally appreciative of festivals which pay well and promptly, taking into consideration the increasing costs now associated with travelling. For many writers, income is particularly tight this year. Prompt and fair payment with a minimum of admin can alleviate so much anxiety. It’s also wonderful to see more festivals exploring accessible ticket pricing. This kind of foresight ensures our events — and ultimately our books — reach a wider audience. Special mention to Belfast Book Festival, whose entire programme was ticketed as “pay what you can”, and to all those festivals which partner with community and arts organisations, ensuring everyone can afford and feel comfortable at events.

Community engagement has played a huge part in the book festivals I’ve found most meaningful. I recently returned from Littérature Live Festival in Lyon where my mainstage reading was book-ended by interviews, discussions and readings in several local high schools. More than 300 young people had a chance to respond to the featured writers’ work. It was both humbling and desperately heartening.

Similarly, festivals such as Listowel, Dalkey and West Cork, where the entire village gets behind the festival‚ provide a vital opportunity for writers to feel part of the wider community. The local economy is bolstered, writers meet their readers and the post-event rendezvous in the pub can run all night if the chat’s good. I always leave these festivals buzzing, feeling freshly connected to my readers.

As a writer and programmer, I’ve seen both sides of the festival experience. I understand that writers have to entertain and sell books. Ultimately, we’re getting paid to perform. However, in a season where everyone’s feeling vulnerable, the festivals that go the extra mile, providing community, space, a restful experience and, ideally, lots of cake, are much more likely to get writers at their best.

The John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh returns on July 25th-30th with a programme of literary talks, performances, workshops and events. Highlights in the festival’s 35th year include Ardal O’Hanlon, Martin Collins (co-director of Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre), Jan Carson, David Park, Audrey Magee, Louise Kennedy and Una Mannion. Bernie McGill, Wendy Erskine, Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Suad Aldarra, Kevin Doherty, Stuart Neville, Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Prof Katy Hayward, QUB, speaking on the impact of Brexit on North/South and Ireland/UK relationships. Gordon Adair, Deric Henderson, Ivan Little, Eric Villers, and David Lynas will be part of a panel discussing their work on Reporting the Troubles 2, plus performances from The West Ocean String Quartet, Before, a one man play by Pat Kinevane, The Mary Anne McCracken show with Jane Cassidy and Maurice Leyden, and brand new Joycean musical, Misses Liffey. johnhewittsociety.org

Jan Carson’s latest novel is The Raptures