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Me? Curate a literary festival? What was I thinking?

I’m petrified about the Waterford Writers Weekend, but I’m looking forward to it too

Rick O’Shea: curating this year’s Waterford Writers Weekend. “You start with a completely blank sheet in terms of almost everything.” Photograph: Eric Luke

Throughout my professional career I have a long history of saying yes to things I’ve been asked to do, no matter how poorly qualified I am for the task. I’m fairly sure it’s because I have a violently underdeveloped sense of fear. In recent years, I’ve told my family’s inner-city Dublin history on the stage of the Abbey, moderated public interviews with Pulitzer prize winners and conducted the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. I’ve even done improv comedy despite being, to myself at least, a very unfunny person.

Up until now that thing I said about my sense of fear was true. I’m sure I don’t have one, apart from the usual creeping variety you get with ageing (presuming every tiny niggle you have might be the first sign of something terminal) and having children (wondering if they’re safe every 20 minutes of every day, particularly now that my eldest is in college).

But, as I write this, I’m genuinely petrified professionally probably for the first time in almost 20 years as I’m a few days away from the launch night of the first literary festival I’ve ever been asked to curate. Yes, I’m one of those people who appears at festivals all the time. I’m on panels, moderating stuff, interviewing authors, but, apart from a couple of small things I’ve put together, I’ve never been the one with the conductor’s baton (apart, obviously, from that time I was the one with the conductor’s baton).

I was approached back in May to see if I was interested in taking on the three days of this year’s Waterford Writers Weekend. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a festival with a long pedigree (it started out in the 1990s as the Seán Dunne Writers Festival) and this year it’s becoming an offshoot of Waterford’s much larger Imagine Arts Festival. No pressure.

No qualifications

I can already hear you saying, what I was thinking at the time? “Rick, did you not point out to them that you had absolutely no qualifications or experience to take on a job that big?” Reader, I did. Even after I met them and told them what I’d plan if it were me, they still seemed thrilled to have me doing the job – so who was I to argue?

Just in case you’ve ever wondered what the job of a curator is like, it’s the old duck analogy: above the waterline you’re serenely sailing along the water, moving events from venue to venue and e-mailing publishers; underneath you’re furiously paddling just to stay afloat.

You start with a completely blank sheet in terms of almost everything apart from number of days and total budget, and then start playing fantasy football. Some authors are available and wonderful, many are booked or not doing anything as they’re heading for a deadline. For me this year at least only one event fell through, which as far as I can tell is a decent strike rate.

Author Sally Rooney will be at Waterford Writers Weekend. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

So now that the first part of the work is done and the programme has gone to the printer I have a few weeks for the voices to pick away at me. Will readers like the events? Will they turn up and buy tickets? Will I have fulfilled the brief I was given: provide Waterford with a broad, diverse literary festival at a time when Ireland seems to have one every single week from now until Christmas?

Turns out that the whole festival is (without design, I hasten to add) pretty much gender balanced 50/50

I can only skim the 23 events here, but in case you’re free October 20th to 22nd we have nationally known names like Alan Shatter, Stefanie Preissner, Paul Howard, Francis Brennan and Liz Nugent alongside debut authors Sally Rooney, Ciaran McMenamin and Eithne Shortall and emerald noir stars Alex Barclay, Sam Blake, Jane Casey and Sinead Crowley. Poetry has two big events: one devoted to politics and social change with, amongst others, Elaine Feeney, Karl Parkinson and Dave Lordan, the other a Secular Sunday Service with readings from Sarah Clancy, Rob Doyle, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Sinéad Gleeson and more.

Waterford Whispers

There’ll be stuff for kids with Judi Curtin, Dave Rudden and Irelandopedia, workshops on poetry, pitching to publishers and self-publishing. For me anyway, a festival I was curating in Waterford wouldn’t have been complete without Waterford Whispers News doing a live event in a pub. Thus, it will be so.

Turns out that the whole festival is (without design, I hasten to add as I’m only realising it now) pretty much gender balanced 50/50 too. I wonder what the trouble is other festivals seems to have in that department . . .

By the time you read this, the programme will already have been launched and I’ll either have been carried shoulder high from the launch in Waterford as if I’d brought the Liam McCarthy Cup home or run out of town on a rail. The little voice inside me says the odds are roughly 50/50.

The Waterford Writers Weekend 2017 is part of the Imagine Arts Festival, which runs from October 19th-29th. See imagineartsfestival.com.

Rick O’Shea is an RTÉ broadcaster and runs Ireland’s largest book club.