What have a tiny French village and the UK’s most successful literary agent got in common?
No, not a brand of wine. Not a signed author either. The answer is Festilitt, the Parisot bilingual literary festival, in the Tarn-et-Garonne. And, in case you’re wondering, the agent is Andrew Lownie.
The annual Festilitt’s 4th edition, from 21-23 October 2016, was the first for me. I’d heard whispers of ‘Parisot’ among British writers in France for a couple of years, always accompanied by nostalgic sighs, as if the word were ‘Paradise’. So when I had to decide between spending a weekend doing housework, or meeting readers and writers, it wasn’t difficult to choose.
Instead, I opted for a mobile home with a view, and a run around the lake in the misty mornings. Not bad, eh? I almost bypassed the festival in favour of writing on my terrace. After the cows and donkeys in Charroux and the Red Indian in St.Clémentin, the only scary noises were the plopping of acorns onto the roof in the dead of night.
Sunny Parisot was full of people – I think all 500 of them were out in the streets – I mean, street – when I climbed out of my car on Friday afternoon. This buzz of activity convinced me that I must have chosen the right Parisot (there’s another Parisot further south). Strangely, everyone was dressed in dark colours, and I wondered whether I’d missed a dress code page on the Festilitt website. It wasn’t until my exploration took me to the hilltop church that I realised a funeral was taking place. Once everyone was inside, the streets were deserted.
It’s not always easy to arrive, alone, in an unknown place. The friendly welcome I received from the French and British organisers set the tone for the whole event. And the good news was that although I was only on the waiting list for the talk by Andrew Lownie on Finding an Agent, I was encouraged to come in and make myself at home.
His talk was enlightening: given that his agency receives 100 novel submissions a day and only takes on 12 new clients a year, I understood why agent rejections proliferate. Best of all, Andrew, like all the speakers, was present all weekend. His easy smile and generous interest in people’s projects meant that he was easily accessible, giving everyone ample time to ask him their own questions. What a lovely man. What a shame he doesn’t represent YA fiction authors.
The official opening was on Friday evening, at aperitif time, of course. I was amazed to see a packed village hall, and even more surprised to see French and British, old and young, mingling and chatting.
Yes, there were official speeches. But there were also copious quantities of buffet food and drink – all prepared by village volunteers and completely free. Members of the Parisot writing group invited me to join them, and I spent a wonderful evening meeting people and forgetting names. Some, like the fascinating Bob Fell – here in the photo listening to a private reading from Lektor Studio – were unforgettable.
There was also entertainment from talented French authors and translators Emmanuelle Urien and Manu Causse. Their humorous mix of French and English musical poetry – including improvised translations of Beatles hits – ended with a touching song in Occitan. The whole village sang along (at least, all those who speak Occitan).
I understood that the event wasn’t just a literary festival. It was a village celebration. What makes Festilitt so special is the way the French villagers have integrated the British into their lives, and how both nationalities work side by side to bring pleasure to the festival participants.
This intimacy was also obvious the following day, when the audience raised hands to ask questions after each talk, and were acknowledged by their first names. I felt privileged to be part of the group.
The organisation was simple: there was one English and one French session each morning and two of each in the afternoon. Between the afternoon sessions, tea and cakes were provided, and you could eat at the village restaurant at lunchtimes. Although the events and refreshments are free at Festilitt, donations are welcomed through the ‘Friends of Parisot’ scheme.
On the British side was Jim Powell, author of The Breaking of Eggs and Trading Futures. He talked about his work, including the BBC Radio adaptation, and I learnt that after receiving 80 rejections for his first novel and 30 for Eggs, he was considered as one of the 12 best new novelists in 2011. There is hope yet!
A captivating talk about Guy Burgess followed, given by Andrew Lownie (who is the author of Stalin’s Englishman). What a knowledgeable man – have I said that already? Fiona Barton, author of The Widow, talked about the relationship between journalism and fiction. Her insights about crime reporters meeting people at moments of crisis in their lives, and how they must sympathise without showing too much emotion, was thought-provoking.
The lovely Carys Bray, with her natural smile and eyes full of joy, talked about grief and her life as a Mormon, which were both key to writing her prizewinning novel A Song for Issy Bradley. Her excellent readings brought the already excellent novel to life. She was followed by Laura Barnett, who explained her approach to the complexities in writing a novel which tells three versions of a couple’s life: The Versions of Us.
Meanwhile, French authors Hugues de Jubécourt, Luc Corlouër, Frédérique Martin, Georges-Patrick Gleize and Pascal Dessaint gave presentations in the library.
One session was truly bilingual: Susan Elderkin gave a slideshow presentation about her compendium of literary remedies, The Novel Cure, co-written by Ella Berthoud. Susan advocates reading a book to help overcome personal ailments – a therapy known as bibliotherapy. I loved the way the authors present at the festival were asked to seek remedies from Susan in the form of questions about their own literary ailments. When Jim Powell requested a remedy to soothe post-Brexit Britain, along to laughs from the audience, Susan prescribed Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses to raise political awareness among the young.
As Susan’s French translator couldn’t come, one of the festival’s organising team, Liz Stanley, translated everything into French. I can’t continue without telling you what a remarkable job of organisation, translation and interviewing Liz did during the weekend. Yet she was always accessible to calmly answer any queries. She told me the whole French/British team made this possible, with Kath Humphries and Debra Okitikpi on the British side. And no festival would exist without the founder, Gina Connolly, who has just stepped down from the association.
Because village families hosted the speakers, they were accessible all weekend. So it was as easy to have a cup of tea and chat with international literary figures as it was to talk with villagers and other festival-goers. Equally, the Saturday evening meal, in which 80 people participated, was an ideal occasion to discuss literature, to listen and learn. A speaker or two were placed on each table, and you could choose to sit with a particular one.
If you’ve managed to read right down to here, congratulations! The post is long, because it was such a fantastic event. I could go on for pages in my enthusiasm… But I should get on with the housework I didn’t do last weekend.
Many thanks to the Festilitt organisers, to the speakers, to the fellow writers I managed to catch up with, and to all the extraordinary people I met, ate with, had coffee with, and who bought me much-needed beer (thanks Rob). I look forward to seeing you all next year.
Photos courtesy of Festilitt and Paul Bray