Meg Reid, Founder of Felixstowe Book Festival
14 November 2019

Tips for first-timers at a Book Festival

By Rachel Sloane

Whether they are called book festivals or literary festivals, there are quite a few events of this type that are held in Suffolk and Norfolk through the year. A selection of authors is invited to a venue such as a hall or hotel, to talk about their books, and to sometimes lead workshops. Some festivals have a mixture of genres, like the Felixstowe Book Festival (held each June) or Aldeburgh Literary Festival (March). Other festivals specialise in one genre of book or have a theme, such as the Sea Fever Festival in North Norfolk (May) or Slaughter in Southwold (June) where the festival is dedicated to crime writing.

If you have never been to a book festival, the thought of attending one for the first time may be daunting. Is everyone in the audience very knowledgeable? Will the authors expect you to have read all of their books? Will you have to buy a copy of the book? How do you choose which talk to attend from a list of maybe fifty-odd authors?

Here are some top tips for those who have never been to a book festival before, but would like to meet a favourite author, learn more about where they get their ideas from, and how they started writing.

Esther Freud, author, and patron of Felixstowe Book Festival:

“Look through the programme and just choose a few sessions to attend that particularly interest you. I’d like to say go to everything because that could also be wonderful! Attending festivals with an idea of what you already like…. there is a lot of satisfaction in that.

Peggy Hughes, Programme Director, National Centre for Writing in Norwich.

We’re delighted to be popping up at the Felixstowe Book Festival this year. We’ve watched the festival grow from strength to strength and are very pleased to be able to participate in this year’s brilliant line up. Our event will give attendees an overview of our work as the National Centre for Writing: how we started (many moons as ago as the New Writing Partnership, then Writers’ Centre Norwich, and National Centre for Writing since 2018), where we are now, and what we do. Our advice is
that first-timers at any festival should get acquainted with the programme, top to toe. Make a plan or go with the flow! The magic often happens when you encounter someone you’ve never heard of, so take risks with writers and books you don’t know yet and surprise yourself! Make time to explore the local area: festivals, as Felixstowe does, often have events on in unusual venues so get out there and have a wander. Make sure there’s enough time for snacks: picnics and ice creams are very important brain fuel and an essential part of book festival proceedings. Talk to your neighbour: book festivals are full of people who, like you, love books, so you’re never far from an interesting conversation waiting to happen. If you love an event, tell the author, tweet the festival: there’s nothing nicer for a writer to know that you’ve enjoyed their work. Take a big bag: the likelihood is, you’ll find yourself drawn to buying some new books…

Mary and John James, Aldeburgh Book Shop.

At Aldeburgh Literary Festival we try and get an author on the subject that inspires them —the best in their field. We are so privileged to hear about these writers’ work — many years of research, hard work and inspiration distilled into one hour— for us. A first-timer should try anything new and outside your comfort zone. One of our best talks ever was scientist, Professor Nick Davies talking about cuckoos. He is very well known in his field, but the book was outside most people’s reading zone. It was gripping—as was Nick’s talk.

Annie Freud, poet:

I would say it’s really helpful to stay over and make it like a small different kind of holiday, a holiday where you take the chance to take really interesting journeys into things you don’t really know about. Festivals can be tiring, listening to one speaker after another so, when you go, make yourself comfortable, find somewhere nice to stay and look after yourself.

James Runcie, author of the Granchester series of books.

I would encourage a first-timer to read the programme carefully and take a risk with new and upcoming writers and discover them, rather than see those you already know about. Also think about the questions you want to ask, as the author is only likely to be there once. Don’t be shy to ask the first question. There is always a massive pause before the first question is asked…. and then you run out of time!

Emma Healey, award winning writer of Elizabeth Is Missing, and Whistle in the Dark:

Festivals are very good for new and aspiring writers. I think listening to a writer talking about the process of writing is incredibly useful. We read a book and can analyse it, but it is a closed thing. It’s finished, varnished and sealed so it is hard to understand how it was made. To hear a writer talking about it reveals tiny things. I write in fragments, what is in my head at the time, and then join them up, expand them and make them into a book. I don’t write first one scene and then the other. Sometimes hearing an author saying something like that gives you permission to try something out. When you are starting out the more ideas of how to write that you hear, the better.

Meg Reid, Founder of Felixstowe Book Festival

My top tip is not to be intimidated, just go and enjoy it. I think some people do think you have to be “literary” and have read all the books beforehand… and you don’t. Authors are story-tellers, whether they are writing fiction or non-fiction, and they can keep you entertained for hours, either on their subject, or their writing process. You can ask questions… but you don’t have to. You go in, sit down and are told stories, just like when you were a child! It is an entertaining and gripping as watching a television drama. You get whole new perspectives on things and you can interact with someone who is live, is with you and isn’t scary in any way.

I would also say not to just go for the big names, because you can get a lifetime of pleasure from finding a new author. I happened upon Nicola Upson when I went to the Cambridge festival and she was on the same panel as an author I admired. Nicola has written seven novels and they’ve given me hours of pleasure, and I can’t wait for the next one.

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in June 2019)