Caroline Sanderson, writer, event chair and ALCS News editor, reports on what literature festivals have to offer authors who live locally to them.

Picture above: A Locally Sourced event at Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017, featuring Jane Bailey, Susanna Beard and Nicolette Jones (chair). Photograph © Jane Bailey

While Hilary Clinton’s sell-out event at the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival this year may have generated the biggest headlines, one of my own favourite events went off a little more quietly. It was a reading given by 84-year-old Cheltenham resident Tony Whelpton, at an event to promote his sixth self-published novel, A Change of Mind.

I spend a lot of my time each autumn chairing events at literature festivals: by the end of November I’ll have taken in Marlborough Literature Festival and Stroud Book Festival, as well as Cheltenham. It’s a job that I love, but I sometimes hear authors complaining that literature festivals – especially the big ones like Cheltenham and the Edinburgh Book Festival – are only interested in celebrities and famous name authors these days. Tony’s event prompted me to investigate this complaint.

…the sheer extent of literature festivals like Cheltenham and Edinburgh, which take place over 10 days or more provides greater scope for the inclusion of local authors.

Among the 500+ events at Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017, there were indeed plenty of starry names, from Harry Enfield, Sarah Millican and Robert Webb to Andrew Marr, Nadiya Hussain, Judy Murray and Nigella Lawson. However, the Festival also once again included a Locally Sourced programme of events featuring such Gloucestershire writers as Andrew Bate, Jane Bailey and Amanda Reynolds, as well as members of Cheltenham Poetry Society, and a Young Writers Showcase which showed off the writing talent of local school students through the Festival’s year-round outreach programme. I myself have chaired some of these Locally Sourced events, and while it’s always a thrill to be on stage with big names like Lucy Worsley and Derren Brown, chairing such events is genuinely one of my favourite parts of the Festival. “The Locally Sourced strand is a way of celebrating talent on our doorstep,” says Literature Festival co-ordinator, Becca di Francesco, who looked after 2017’s local author events. “We’d be doing Gloucestershire a huge disservice if we didn’t.” Cheltenham Literature Festival does accept submissions from local authors throughout the year, but encourages writers to pitch their work in April, when it calls in submissions on its social media platforms, and from local writers’ groups. It’s a competitive process, but opportunities are increasing: Tony Whelpton’s gig this year was part of a new series of free events entitled ‘Cheltenham Writes!’ which took place every teatime during the Festival.

According to its website, Edinburgh International Book Festival “offers over 800 events featuring the greatest writers and thinkers in the world”. This year’s programme, as its name suggests, featured the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Orhan Pamuk and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. However, its Director, Nick Barley, refutes any suggestion that the Festival fails to provide enough opportunities for local writers. “We create an international platform for literature in Scotland; and at the same time we put Scottish literature on the international stage. So it’s a key part of our mission to work with local writers and nurture their development,” he tells me. “We keep a close eye on the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writing Awards: these have produced outstanding talent from Scotland over the past decade, including Man Booker-shortlisted Graeme Macrae Burnet, as well as the likes of Kirsty Logan, Malachy Tallack and the poet Claire Askew. All of these writers attended the Book Festival with their debut publications.” The Festival also works with Edinburgh City of Literature on a scheme called StoryShop in which unpublished local writers can apply to take part and get to read their work on stage at the Festival. Several of the authors featured in this way have since been signed up by major publishers. Whilst Barley adds that there simply isn’t room to include every author who’d like to take part – “and that goes for famous names as well” – the Festival does accept unsolicited submissions and manuscripts. It is extremely helpful, he says, if such submissions come with a recommendation, perhaps from another writer, an agent or a publisher. Any debut novelist who appears at the Festival is also entered for its First Book Award, for which readers vote for their favourite title out of around 50 debuts. “That way, we get readers involved in identifying exciting new talent,” says Barley.

…there’s never been a better time for authors to get actively involved, whether in the organisation, or by pitching to be included in the programme.

If anything, the sheer extent of literature festivals like Cheltenham and Edinburgh, which take place over ten days or more, provides greater scope for the inclusion of local authors. Contrary to what you might think, the question of how many local authors to include in a literature festival programme can actually be a more difficult issue for the smaller festivals which have been springing up in towns around the UK in recent years. As a steering committee member for Stroud Book Festival, which takes place in early November, I’m a strong advocate for the provision of opportunities in the programme for the many resident writers with which the Stroud area is blessed to showcase their work. In fact, last year’s inaugural Stroud Book Festival programme majored on authors who live locally. These happened to include such famous names as Jilly Cooper, Ian McEwan and Katie Fforde, but also Stroud poets like Adam Horovitz and Dennis Gould, alongside locally resident novelists, Nikki Owen and Jackie Kabler. But feature too many “home” authors, and a smaller festival – which may typically feature a more modest 30 events over a 4 or 5 day period – could be deemed parochial; or worse, as failing to reflect the diversity of books and authors working in the UK today. This year’s Festival will bring the likes of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Hugh Warwick and Polly Toynbee to Stroud, alongside a host of events featuring local authors. As our Festival develops (and we attract more funding), we hope to spread the net yet wider.

Now eight years old, Marlborough Literature Festival, which takes place over four days at the end of September, has always striven to strike a balance between a broad and diverse ‘non parochial’ programme, and one which also encompasses the work of local authors, its chair, Jan Williamson, tells me. This year’s impressive cast of authors included Kayo Chingonyi, Will Self, Xiaolu Guo, Francesca Simon, John O’Farrell and Kamila Shamsie alongside such locally resident authors as Vanessa Lafaye and JS Monroe. Poetry in the Pub is another annual fixture of the programme: an open-mic session for local poets of all ages. This year, poets were invited to perform work on the theme of Freedom. “We’ve always held events with local authors, but are also reviewing how we do this for next year,” says Williamson.

With the number of literature festivals held up and down the country booming, there’s never been a better time for authors to get actively involved, whether in the organisation, or by pitching to be included in the programme. And I can confidently say that this goes for festivals of all shapes and sizes.

Caroline Sanderson is an author, freelance books journalist and editor of ALCS News. She also chairs events at book festivals and in bookshops throughout the year.

Picture © David O’Driscoll