The buzz of turning literature into a live event

Creating the conditions for artists to share their work is as exciting to me as making it, says author Paul McVeigh, director of London Short Story Festival and the Word Factory short story salon

I’m currently working in the live short story scene as director of London Short Story Festival and at Word Factory short story salon. I’ve always been drawn to the live experience as a writer, director, occasional actor and the awestruck audience member.

I studied Theatre at UUC where I got my first taste of transferring ideas from my head into the tangible, if ephemeral, world of the stage. I got addicted to that buzz and the sense of creative community, so when I returned to Belfast, after my degree, I co-founded a theatre company and a year later a theatre festival.

I got an offer to direct a show from an agency in London that specialised in working with comedians who were also actors. Again, creating work with others and working for the live arena was the motor. I was approached to write a short story by an editor of a short story anthology who’d seen one of my shows. I hadn’t written prose since I was at school and I was dubious. But it planted a seed. What if I wrote something to be read, not performed? Something permanent. In print. Something purely my own creation.

I was worried about having never written a creative sentence, only dialogue. So I decided to cheat. I’d write an inner monologue, a story in the voice of the main character. Still, I was worried about the 5,000 words the editor had suggested. I needn’t have. The story was to be about what happens to a little boy in his aunt’s up the lane. 5,000 words later, he hadn’t even made it to the lane.


The story was published, got well reviewed and I went on a book tour, reading in London, Brighton, Belfast and Dublin. My first taste of live literature events was at the giving end rather than receiving or producing. And then? Well, surely now that I’d written one short story and the words were tumbling out of me, it was logical I should write a novel. Cut to 15 years later and the novel is out in April with Salt Publishing. If I’d known then what I know now...

I gave up on writing for many years (another story) and when I returned to it, I decided to start again from scratch. I went to author talks, took writing courses and started a short story blog. I read everything about short stories I could find. Novels were not for me. Theatre was a distant memory.

I heard about a live literature event focusing on short stories, I was intrigued. It was the first Word Factory salon. I saw great short story writers read their work then sit round a table with the audience and talk about writing. Combining my love of prose and my old passion for live events, Word Factory shook me up before settling deep into my bones. I was hooked.

Word Factory was the idea of Cathy Galvin (also behind The Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award) and month after month she brought world-class writers to a tiny little bookshop in the backstreets of London’s Soho. There were magical nights when the room crackled like something new had just been born. I sat in awe. I didn’t even mention I was a writer for months, happy to bask in their glory and humbled in the presence of such talent. I’d gotten my creative community back too.

Watching/listening to an author read their own work seems right. Like somehow the writing has reached another kind of completion. Of course, not all writers are good readers/performers but at the other end of the scale are authors like Kevin Barry who bring their work to life in the most joyful, entertaining way.

Another reason I love listening to a short story live is that often you get the whole story read to you. Unlike a novelist reading snippets, which can sound like a movie trailer of best bits, the short story is an experience. A journey complete.

I’m now associate director of Word Factory and my passion and appreciation of short stories is entwined with my experiences there.

At the same time I began writing. Slowly. Sometimes just one sentence in one sitting. I was later to read Hemingway talk about starting with “one true sentence” and thought this had to be somehow related to my love of his work. In time, I had some work published and was commissioned to write a short story for BBC Radio 4.

My blog took off, getting 40,000 hits a month and with its success I got to interview some of the best short story writers around like George Suanders. Being a short story writer, having set up a festival before, my work at Word Factory and the success of my blog, put me in the perfect position for what happened next.

Last year, I was commissioned by London’s writer development agency Spread the Word to be a guest programmer for their summer season. Their director, Sue Lawther, and I had talked about how the time was ripe for a London Short Story Festival and we decided to use my time there to go for it. Producing a live short story event requires considerations of combination of authors, whether to theme the event or provide contrast, the mix of gender and voice, artistic and commercial concerns, the pros and cons of a venue – size and atmosphere, technical details of lighting, sound, accessibility, transport links, pricing – it goes on. Luckily, I love all of it. Creating the conditions for artists to share their work is as exciting to me as making it.

Short story events are a place to come and hear emerging and established writers alike. A place for writers to be inspired and learn from the best. A place for short story lovers to immerse themselves in the live experience and hear authors read their own work. To become part of a community. New events are popping up all over the UK and Ireland. If you’ve never been to a live short story event I’d urge you to give it a try. I bet you’ll find one not too far away.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh is published by Salt Publishing in April.