imageIt was a weekend of wonders.  One very much worth the 6:15 am start last Saturday as I boarded the train in deepest, darkest Lanarkshire, trussed up in full winter regalia (coat, hat, scarves, gloves) to arrive in London 6 hours later, said regalia bundled up and stuffed into suitcase.  Just what was that yellow object in the sky?

A quick dash down Euston Road to the digs to dump all extraneous items (including coat, hat, scarves and gloves – hip, hip hooray!) and then an even quicker dash back up Euston Road and I arrived in the courtyard of the British Library.  I hadn’t even reached the door of the conference centre when I heard a voice  behind me “Well, you’re a long way from home”.  It was not the Cheshire Cat but a voice I only normally hear in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.   Lovely. Not even 5 minutes in and I was among friends, home from literary home.

Other friends from the square had saved a plush seat for me in the air-conditioned conference centre.  As I settled in, notepad and pen at the ready, the panel for the 2nd event arrived and the real business of the weekend could begin.

From the start, it was obvious that the Folio Society had planned this festival with all the care and attention that is channelled into the creation of their gorgeous books.  They wanted it to be different – a conversation about literature and the creative art that brings great literature to the page.  Each event had a) a panel of 4 comprising a judge and a shortlistee of the inaugural Folio Prize plus two members of the Folio Academy, one of whom acted as chair and b) a specific aspect of literature to discuss: place, genre, context, etc.  This differentiated the discussions, which were always erudite and sometimes surprisingly wide-ranging and witty!  It also prevented them from becoming marketing exercises for the latest publications of those on stage, nor was any precious time lost listening to 20 minutes of a book I can read for myself! There were readings elsewhere over the weekend but I chose not to attend any of them.  As a result, I enjoyed an in-depth look at the art of creating literature from some of the best in the business.

Rather than transcribe my notebook, I’ve decided to let my scribblings inform upcoming reviews of titles from the Folio Prize shortlist and some from the pens of the judges themselves! I had plenty of time to read on the trains to and from London.  For now though a miscellany of pleasurable memories.

folio Festival5) Mark Haddon explaining the differences and pleasures of writing plays and novels.  With plays you get realtime feedback from the audience.  With novels you get a chance to delve into the details.  Currently researching a space novel, inspired by someone who has bought a one-way ticket to Mars, he is currently wondering what you do with two years worth of human faeces.  “I don’t know”, quipped Michael Chabon.  “But you have your title right there!”

4) Sergio De La Pava discussing how there are always more options than those that make the final script.  “If you think that’s  bad, you should read the stuff that didn’t make the final cut!”

3) A.S Byatt.  On form, on fire.   Wrote down more quotes of hers than anyone else.   “I have no wish to teach creative writing. I don’t want to read the unfinished creative writing of others and I certainly don’t wish anyone to read mine!”   “I hate show not tell.  Those are scenes in which everybody talks but no-one does any thinking”.

Lizzy Reads the Boat2) Sarah Hall on the craft of the short story.  The importance of entry/exit strategies in a short story and how a single sentence can derail it. Of course, given the outcome and Monday night’s announcement, it might be easy to have seen this as some coded message.  But I don’t think so, the judges didn’t decide the winner until Monday afternoon.  However, it became clear that there were some strong supporters of the short story in the judging panel: Nam Le, whose collection, The Boat, won nearly every Australian literary prize a few year’s ago; Michael Chabon, an accomplished essayist; Sarah Hall, whose story, Mrs Fox won the 2013 BBC National Short Story Award.  For those who suggested that this was a compromise decision, let me just say, I don’t think so!

1). The award-ceremony itself in the magnificent setting of the St. Pancreas Renaissance Hotel.  I’d been marvelling at this architectural wonder (which is right next door to the British Library) all weekend and I continued to marvel as I went inside to the ceremony.   The food was good, the wine was excellent and the company (@kimbofo and @utterbiblio) magnificent.

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All that remains is for George Saunders to enjoy his success and for me to wait impatiently for the Folio Society edition of Tenth of December.