Why start up an Irish literary festival when there were already so many in existence?
Tanya Farrelly on setting up Bray Literary Festival to give a push to writers with less pull
Tanya Farrelly at the launch of When Your Eyes Close
In 2017, I decided to start my own literary festival in Bray. I’d been running Staccato literary salon successfully for a year and thought why not embark on something bigger? I’m impetuous by nature, and so straightaway made a call to my husband, fellow writer David Butler, and said “Guess what? We’re going to organise a literary festival!” My enthusiastic proposal and the use of that pronoun “we” was met by silence – but he still got roped onto (and is an invaluable member of) the committee!
So why start up a literary festival when there were already so many in existence? The truth is I’d become somewhat disheartened seeing the same handful of Irish writers appearing at the majority of festivals. Each festival seemed to follow the others’ lead in inviting the few writers who had received a lot of recent media publicity – while other, arguably better writers, continued to fly below the radar.
Don’t get me wrong: I love writing festivals. Before I’d ever had a book published, I was a keen festival goer. I honed my skills over many years attending workshops with wonderful facilitators such as Gerard Donovan, Declan Hughes and Eílis Ní Dhuibhne at Listowel Writers Week – still one of my favourite annual events.
The thing is that this country has an almost frightening number of talented writers and sadly, only a number of these are household names. I wanted to do something to try to change that.
While writing isn’t easy, it’s getting your work known beyond your circle of family and friends that is the real challenge. Those with contacts – ex-journalists or TV /radio personalities – have far better more reach than the majority of writers. They also tend to be taken on by publishers who can provide PR. The best work, however, often comes about through small presses who are willing to take chances on lesser known writers.
These presses tend to be run by editors with great integrity who care first and foremost about the quality of the work. Two examples of such are Arlen House and Doire Press. Sadly, most indie presses don’t have an adequate budget (if they have a budget at all!) for publicity. Authors work hard to get their work out there, but without PR the chances of getting reviewed by national papers are slim. And without those reviews, radio, TV and festival appearances are even slimmer.
Festivals can play a major part in promoting writers. As a writer, I wish that more festivals would have an open applications process. It’s a chance for us to make a pitch and let the people making the decisions know who we are. What chance is there of getting an invitation from an artistic director or a committee who has never heard of you or your work because it not featured on a bestsellers list? There are festivals such as Dublin Book Festival and Red Line which also invite applications – but if only there were more, and that we didn’t have to rely on knowing and being known by those making the decisions.
From the outset, I decided that our committee should be made up of authors and poets, people who have an awareness of the work of their peers and are unlikely to focus only on books over-hyped on social media. Naturally festivals need big names in their line-up to attract audience, but couldn’t we strike a balance and attempt to publicise those who deserve, but fail, to garner recognition?
With this in mind, I went about organising Bray Literary Festival, blissfully unaware, I must admit, of all that it would entail. My initial thought was “This will be easy, all I need are writers, venues and money to pay them with.” If it weren’t for my initial naivety, I may never have undertaken such a task.
The fun part for me is sitting down with the committee go through the submissions and select writers. This isn’t straightforward. We have to try to match writers up to create particular events. We receive roughly 100 author applications to fill 40 slots, which makes for really hard decision-making. This has been an eye-opening experience for me too, making me aware of the importance of creating an application strong enough to catch the eye of festival organisers.
For me the tedious work is applying for funding and sending begging emails to try to secure sponsorship. Then there’s the paperwork, account-keeping, cashflow projections, annual reports. There are the venues to be booked, the writers to be paid, the programme to be designed, posters, banners, the constant need to promote through social media, the insurance to sort out, workshops to organise, and competitions to judge. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m mad, other days I sit back and think of what we’ve achieved so far, and the fact that I am now a festival director as well as a writer. And that maybe I’m doing some good for fellow writers.
On the weekend of September 27th-29th, we will host 40 writers over 14 events and eight writing workshops. This year’s programme includes writers such as John Boyne, Jess Kidd, Mary Costello, Nuala O’Connor, Declan Burke, Thomas Kilroy and Geraldine Mills, along with debut writers such as Wendy Erskine, Adrian Duncan and Rebecca O’ Connor. We have a plethora of poets, including John O’ Donnell, Jean O’ Brien and Katie Donovan to name but a few. Also appearing are Dublin musicians Mark Flynn and Ailie Blunnie, as well as Keith Burke and his band The Little Black Book, who will close the festival with a gig in Bray’s glorious Harbour Bar.
I invite you to look at our programme and why not go to an event where the names, though perhaps established, are new to you as a reader? Likewise, as I write, I would urge reviewers when they approach what surely must be a mountain of books to review to pick out something random, possibly by an indie publisher, rather than something lauded by the media, and give it a go! You may stumble upon something truly fantastic.
Check out our full programme of events at brayliteraryfestival.com
Bray Literary Festival committee is made up of Tanya Farrelly, David Butler, Nessa O’ Mahony, Edward O’Dwyer, Brian Kirk, Breda Wall Ryan and Phil Lynch. Tanya Farrelly is the author of three books: a short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House), which was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and named winner of the Kate O’Brien Award 2017, and two psychological thrillers: The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close (Harper Collins), both Amazon bestsellers. She holds a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin. She is the founder and director of Staccato Literary Salon and Bray Literary Festival. Her second short story collection is forthcoming from Arlen House in 2020.