On every festival you do, there is a name badge or Id on a lanyard. I keep them all, and they mostly get draped upon the hook on the back of the door of the smallest room in the house. The best badges have where and when you are meant to be logged by Magical Festival Pixies on the back, along with contact numbers if you get confused. Festival organising. Sometimes a missing person's bureau married to a travel agency.
The first literary festival I went to was as an author. My journey to scribblage was not through writery channels. I didn't grow up wanting to be an author, and never for once thought I would be - I just ended up there as an outlet for my imagination. The somewhat strange subject matter of my books didn't arrive after me becoming an author, the odd ideas were already there - what I was teaching myself was to put them on the page in a coherent manner.
Because of that, I always felt that the technical writing process was not something that interested me that much, as it was simply the method to do what I love: making up weird shit. I initially regarded writing as simply the gallery in which you house the paintings. It was only half way through learning my trade did I come to love the nuts and bolts that hold the book together.
Because of this, I never attended writer's conventions, literary events or book launches. It wasn't an active choice not to - it just never occurred to me that I should. I didn't do music concerts either; my convention experience was attending Photokina, a photographic equipment trade show.
Once I was an author, then the sometimes bizarre and often exciting and always enjoyable world of festivals opened up to me. I would say about 95% are efficiently run and conducted all for the right reasons. The outliers are the ones that carry the oddest stories, so will be overrepresented here. My detrimental stories are not of the norm - they are the exception.
The Gold Standard for me is always the Edinburgh Book Festival - efficiently run, unfailingly polite and they consistently ask me back. Plus, big plus: Always with interviewers who have read the book and have a heap of great questions. Audiences are good too - excellent questions, lively, engaged. There are smaller ones I enjoy a great deal, too. The Microcon in Exeter University was great fun to attend as I always learned something new from the mixed bag of speakers. So too with Bristolcon, where you can buy crocheted Daleks and back copies of 2000AD - and listen, once again, to a hand-picked mix of contemporary and less well known authors.
You Always Take Something Away
You bring things to festivals, but you always take something away. Whether it it is a new friend or something that another speaker said, or, more usually, a random left-field question from the audience who made me think of why I wrote something perhaps a little clearer.(believe me, a lot of the time we don't know why we write stuff. The really good writing comes out without touching the sides; an intuitive sense of where the story is going, guided only by a set of rules governed by personality, worldview and past experiences.)
No one turns up
The first festival I went to was not well attended. We've all done gigs where barely anyone turns up, but that never seems so bad in a small room - in Cardiff in 2001 my 'empty to full seat ratio' was a whopping 166:1, an impressive figure that I have yet to improve upon. It was a thousand seater and there were six, not counting me. My then publicist had overcooked the goose by convincing the organisers I was 'The Next JK Rowling'. I wasn't. The audience weren't even there to hear me talk about the books; they were there to find out how you get an agent as they were all trying to get published. I invited them all to sit around the Dais on the stage, and we had a good chat about writing - none bought a book.
On the other side of the coin a modest event can turn into a veritable feeding frenzy. I went to the LA festival of books in 2003 promoting 'Lost in Good Book' and after a reasonable but not exciting turn out at my event, something weird happened in the signing queue as the whisper had got out that Jasper was 'the next JK Rowling' (I still wasn't) but that didn't deter more people from joining the signing queue, and when the queue got bigger, more people wanted to join in case they missed out in some strange pyramid selling sort of way. I was there for several hours - and only released when they ran out of books.
No budget V. funded by the State
Festivals vary massively in funding - and none of it is commensurate with how enjoyable they are, or how well they are attended. I've been to International Events which were horribly dry and lacklustre, clinical even, yet turned up to one-horse events in places you've never heard of to a really good welcome and an extraordinary event. The inaugural and last (I think) Blaneavon Literary Festival happened about ten years ago in a small Welsh ex-mining village, where empty shops abounded, teenagers drove motorcycles at breakneck speed through the town without helmets and there was even a fire in a skip (Dumpster in the US) Not massive attendance, but quality, and afterwards we went to listen to the Cellist off ELO - which I'm assuming was either Roy Wood or Jeff Lynne.
Grid Reference and a Time
I used to work with an ex-military location manager who was known as 'The Wingco'. He always insisted that a film crew never needed a call sheet and movement order for instructions on how to find where you're going to shoot - a Grid Reference and a Time (Zulu, naturally) would be much easier, and in many ways I agreed with him.
Most festivals shepherd you around like a forlorn sheep whose sole purpose in life is getting lost and ending up in a casserole, but one festival I attended had me almost begging for a grid Reference and a time.
So I'm going to Sweden for a festival and I arrive at the airport. After not finding the usual greeter, I eventually get through to the organiser on the phone who told me to take a train and he'd meet me at the station. Which route, which train? He told me to ask at the station (there were two, as it turned out) and I eventually figured it out, but there was no-one at the station when I got there. Luckily I had the address of the hotel, but without any taxis around I consulted the map on the tourist information board. I didn't have a camera on my phone at that point, so drew myself a map. The hotel was booked for me, but no welcome pack or instructions, and without a call from the organiser at all, I used a festival leaflet in reception to figure out where I was speaking and when - I eventually met the organiser after the event and even that was by accident.
The quality of the interviewer is often inversely proportional to the size and stature of the festival - the best questions often come from the smaller festivals. Interviews can have a myriad of styles - the ordinary conversational which are the best of all: Question, follow up, observation, further depth if required, contextual observations to genre and previous works - the gold standard. Then there' s the 'parade of questions' approach where there is a list that the interviewer reads from, and once I've answered one, they move on to the next. Then there is the 'I have no idea who you are' interview where the only notes they possess is the back and front covers of the book itself, researched and interviewed simultaneously in real time.
'So, (unsubtly reads cover of book) Jasper Fforde. where did you get that name?'
You'd be surprised how often that happens at the larger festivals, where the interviewers are doing perhaps four a day and don't have the time or energy to do any homework. This is, of course, fine - we interviewees do not give a poor show just because of any shortcomings. We chat about what we want to, and try to give the audience an enjoyable time. Then there's the 'I know exactly where you are going with your book' interview where every questions is actually a statement on how well the interviewer has interpreted your book, and how it relates to the rest of written history - of which they are expert.
A brief note on French Festivals
Going to French festivals makes you think that somewhere in the Code Napoleon it's stated that every author panel has to have an intellectual on the panel who wears a dark suit and talks nonsense. (I had a translator who was whispering in my ear, trying to translate until eventually she gave up and said: 'No, this is just rubbish. I'll start translating again when it makes sense'.)
Panels are always amusing because there is quite often a gladiatorial aspect to them, especially if there are young writers who have something they want to prove or say. My first panel terrified me as several of them were big names, but I needn't have worried - there's always someone who likes the sound of their own voice more than I do, so it's actually quite possible to get through a panel by just nodding and looking thoughtful. One memorable panel I did had really only one person talking - I wondered at one point if she ever thought what we might be doing there, and, if I'd been braver, would have said: 'Thank you for letting us be on your panel' at the end. But I didn't.
Again, the exception. For the most part, panels are actually great fun, and it allows us writery folk to have a chat, entertain the punters and potentially pick up new readers. There are unwritten rules of course: To generally not hog the limelight or time, keep answers short and not to interrupt another panellist. For the most part it works and I've actually never been heckled from the audience, but three times by fellow panellists, all of them stand up comedians, and one who was really very well known - I heard him earlier asking his publicist 'What the fuck? Who is this? I was told I'd have a solo gig!'
Green rooms are always enjoyable, especially if you vaguely know the other authors and even if you don't, a chat is always welcome with someone who knows how the writery life has its ups and downs. Some festivals have two green rooms - one for the mid listers and another for the A-listers which seems a bit rubbish - one can only assume that some grand author 'had words' with management regarding rubbing shoulders with us lesser authors. I can't think it evolved in any other way, and I've always speculated on who would be pompous enough to demand that. A few names spring to mind.
Authors vary greatly in affability, and since I am a fantasy author, I'm not regarded that highly in the Green Room by the literary set. Those in 'The Genres' (basically the rest of us) luckily do not hold the same lofty prejudices, but can still be prickly. But the gems more than make up for it. Some are just lovely - like Sandy McCall Smith, who chatted very happily to one of my daughters at Harrogate one year. He didn't need to: he was simply courteously including her in the conversation. Ian Rankin is also unfailingly friendly and amusing and passionate about writing and writers, the ever thoughtful David Mitchell doesn't care what you've written - we're all authors together. He has an interesting trait of mulling over something you've asked and then coming up with a very good reply the following day.
Festival Friends pop up most often on foreign festivals where you might be there for a week. These authors latch on and really want you to be their new BFF. When they are a well known name, it's kind of flattering. But then you meet them later at another festival where they are feeling more secure, and they blank you - as though that great new friendship never happened. I thought initially that this was an isolated incident, but it's happened three times. It's definitely a thing.
Festivals as big business
The reasons you might be invited to a festival can be variable, too. I've been to many over my twenty years, and for the most part, they simply want Jasper Fforde to talk about Jasper Fforde's books. Simple, eh? Well, no, not really. Quite often - since every village, town, city and Megalopolis worth its salt needs a litfest with a galaxy of international stars - it's not a case of 'who is on our wish list?' but 'who is willing to come?' I've had a few now where I realised very quickly that I wasn't there because I was me - I was there because I would come. Other festivals have invited me, and after I accepted took no further action - I had to figure I'd been cancelled with a small c.
International Festivals of lesser repute work in a similar way, and there are companies now who put together packages of authors which are then marketed to these festivals, upon whom the schedule and mission statement is built around. I think the point is, there are lots of festivals, and once you're established as an author, there is less and less reason to spend all your waking hours jetting about, and as you get older, the shadow of your carbon footprint seems ever more dark and foreboding.
The newest oddity on the 'non-traditional invitation front' is they don't want you, they want your social media reach. I was invited to a very right-on festival, full of totally hip young people, and I was, like - why am I here? The reason was simple as soon after acceptance I was sent an 'assets package' with sentences I should be tweeting and pictures I should be posting on instagram. Hmm again.
Well, that's 200 words - and I've barely scratched the surface.
But again, these are the outliers. 90% of festivals and brilliant, and fully need our support.
Written for Jasperland, 26th May 2020.