This weekend saw the inaugural Whitstable Literary Festival – or Whit Lit, as it has been affectionately called. And, wow, what a way to start a festival! It’s been a long time in the planning stages, in the capable hands of Victoria Falconer as Festival Director, Marnie Summerfield Smith and their team.
I can’t comment on the specifics of the whole festival, only the events I attended. What I can say though on a general level is that the buzz around Whit Lit has been incredible. The Horsebridge Centre on the weekend was packed with people attending events, and chatting excitedly on the stairs about what they’d been to or were on their way to. In my Psychology class this morning, before we got stuck into attachment theory, my students were all talking about the wonderful variety of events and how well attended they’d been.
I attended four public events in total. On Friday I went to How to Get Published with two literary agents, Julia Churchill and Joanna Swainson. I knew of both agents from Twitter, and was interested in meeting Joanna as I’d read that she represents various genres of writing and likes crime fiction. I went to a similar talk at the London Book Fair 2013 and so some of the information I knew already but it was an excellent, informative session. I wrote down in my notepad yet again how much of a ‘company’, multi-department decision it is now to publish a book, rather than it being about what an editor likes. I definitely think that an agent is essential in the current publishing climate with ever new forms of rights and royalties requiring negotiation. Julia covered what an agent does and Joanna talked about the submission process.
I was lucky to be invited to the launch drinks on Friday evening in the Somerset Maugham gallery. The atmosphere here was wonderful. Everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic about the event and full of appreciation and admiration for Victoria and her team for making the festival happen.
On Saturday I was at the Transformers panel, with DE Meredith, Wendy Wallace and Lloyd Shepherd, and Andrew McGuiness as chair.
All three write historical fiction, with Denise and Lloyd doing historical crime fiction. My interest was partially in the crime writing side but also in some of the characteristics and scientific developments of the Regency and Victorian eras which provide the backdrop for all their novels. Funnily enough, the one book I bought wasn’t one of the crime novels. It was Wendy Wallace’s The Painted Bridge. I’d looked up Wendy’s books before the talk and had seen that this book was set in a private asylum for women. As a psychologist this captured my imagination. When Wendy referred to the book as being about ‘woman becoming’ it clinched my purchase.
The three authors each read an excerpt from their books, and described how they perceive their work. They also talked about how they came to start writing and how they approach their novel-writing. Denise talked about the morally driven murders of The Devil’s Ribbon and, this, and its Irish setting, made me add it to my wish list. All three of them came across as really lovely people and I could have listened to them for hours. During questions, I asked the panel whether they plotted their books before writing and it was fascinating to hear how different they all were.
In the evening it was the turn of the Great British Gothic (film) with the Barry Forshaw and Christopher Fowler.
I’ve seen Barry at other events and his knowledge always comes across as encyclopaedic. This was a whistle stop tour through early gothic, with its camp sensibilities, and Hammer films, Frankenstein and the vampire movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were discussed, also Deborah Carr and Laurence Olivier. Barry mentioned how sex and violence have been linked for decades in films, and how Peter Cushing always played amoral characters. I asked whether films have mixed genres in the way that commercial fiction is increasingly doing. Barry said that genres have to cross-fertilise to survive. I also asked whether technological advances and special effects have enhanced storytelling or sidelined it, and whether storytelling is as important in film as in fiction. They both agreed that the story is key. Phew. Christopher cited Jason and the Argonauts as an example of a film with a great story and fabulous computer generated effects. What was wonderful about this event was that Barry and Christopher clearly share a passion for film, and enjoy talking to each other, as is evident in my photograph of the two of them sharing a joke. I forced myself to choose between Barry’s book on the Gothic film and his one on British Crime films. I opted for this one, as it relates to an essay I’m doing for my MA, on feminist theory and crime drama.
My final event, on Sunday evening, was John Gordon Sinclair – the actor turned crime writer – talking to Andrew McGuiness. John was very funny, and came across as candid, full of insight and passionate about his writing. He said that writing gives him control over what he creates in a way that acting doesn’t, but that when a story comes to mind he sees it as a film in his mind and often acts out scenes in his hut at home at the bottom of the garden (which has a sofa and a fridge, drool). I found it fascinating to hear John discuss some of the themes in his novels and how he likes to explore phenomena, places and experiences which are new to him. His themes include: differing reasons for violence; how our past affects who we become; love; what he calls ‘dark politics’; collusion.
From the brief conversations I’ve had with people about some of the other Whit Lit events, I gather they were a roaring success. Whitstable is definitely a suitable place for a literary festival. With its abundance of creatives and pretty seaside location, I am just surprised that one hasn’t been going here for years. Well, that has been rectified now and I have a feeling that Whit Lit will go from strength to strength. I, for one, will be happy to help out with next year’s and will be buying the full pass rather than individual tickets. As ever at these events, I met in person a number of people whom I ‘know’ from Twitter. In this case it was several fellow Whistabubblians. Aw.
Vicky Newham © 2014