Tag Archives: Andrew Lownie

Joining the Dots

(A wrap-up of the 2017 Charroux Literary Festival):

Have you ever been to a series of unrelated performances and found that a common theme emerges?

This is exactly what happened at this year’s Charroux Literary Festival, and I wasn’t the only one to notice an intangible thread weaving through the author talks. See if you can spot it from my summary below.

So, for this second edition of the Charroux festival I was a speaking author, which meant I was invited to the pre-festival dinner (ah, the joys of fame!).

I was so excited about meeting everyone that I arrived a few hours early and had plenty of time to walk around the medieval village. This included discovering the fascinating abbey ruins where I dawdled among the spirits of times past.

I also came across the house where French writer Robert Charroux lived, and learnt that he was a pioneer in Ancient Astronaut theories: the pseudoscientific theories that suggest aliens visited Earth in antiquity and prehistoric times.

I knew I wouldn’t have a spare minute for contemplation once the festival began – and I was right. Even without the festival, Charroux is a superb destination for a day’s exploration (and I’m not just referring to the pub that has Guinness on tap).

During the 3 days, I went to 4 talks involving historical authors Barbara Erskine, Tracey Warr, Alison Morton (Roma Nova) and James Vance (World War II). I’ve never been tempted to write historical fiction because I know nothing about history and would be afraid of getting everything wrong. But the discussions I heard helped me understand why writing historical fiction can be so alluring.

For Tracey and Barbara, who write about the medieval period, there is very little documentation. We know what the historical figures did but we don’t know why they did it and how they felt about it.

This means that joining the dots to create a picture of events leaves plenty of room for imagination – which is exactly what novelists like to explore: in other words, the ‘unknowability’ of the past, as Tracey quoted.

Even the facts themselves can be dubious: there isn’t just one story about what happened, there are many stories – and bards and pilgrims played a role in this as they passed on news orally. The difference between Welsh and English records for the same events are a good example of this.

All four authors talked about being conscious of the past when they visit historical places, as well as the importance of imagining their characters going about their daily life in those places. Barbara added that it’s as if the past is trying to get through to the present, an idea she explores fully in the ghostly elements of her fiction.

Nick Inman, author of Mystical France, talked about the idea of science being able to explain how mystical symbols and sculptures were created, but not being able to explain why it was done. He suggested using your intuition when you visit ancient places to try to find your own answers.

He has done this over the last five years, and he captivated his audience with the slideshow of mystical symbols and sculptures he has collected during his travels around France. No wonder so many people surged forward to buy his book after his talk.

Not quite so many people rushed to buy Tree Magic after my session about the road to publication, even though a major theme is how science can’t explain certain spiritual aspects of life. I guess I have some lessons to learn from Nick Inman there. But I did sign plenty of copies and get some great feedback – and nobody actually fell asleep.

The talk that created the most discussion was Mike Welham’s presentation about mixing fact and fiction. His novels are based on events that have never been satisfactorily explained; for his chosen themes, he has researched and summed up all the mysterious inconsistencies to suggest huge cover-up operations, which he has published as fiction.

He presented his conspiracy theories about frogman Buster Crabb, The World Trade Center Building 7 and David Kelly’s death. We were lucky to have Andrew Lownie, an author who has spent decades researching Guy Burgess, in the audience, as well as TV and Foreign Office specialist Jane Lythell. Their points of view as experienced researchers added to the charged atmosphere during the session.

The common thread (have you spotted it yet?) didn’t reach all the creaky-floored rooms of the Maison Charlois during the festival, as the sessions on the craft of writing had nothing mystical about them (although you could argue that the whole writing process is rather mysterious).

photo by Jacqui from French Village Diaries

This category of talks included a useful analysis of humour with Chuck Grieve; a detailed session on playwriting with Gordon & Jocelyn Simms; an exploration of character and an insight into psychological thrillers with Jane Lythell (what a lovely lady); and workshops with Vanessa Couchman.

I talked about writing for Young Adults and persuaded my audience to wield their pens – which produced some promising beginnings.

There was also a New Writers Workshop, chaired by Susie Kelly and including Jane Lythell, myself, Alison Morton and Blackbird publisher and author Stephanie Zia. This was an interactive event in which we all gave our advice for new writers and then circulated among groups to answer questions.

The author talks are, of course, central to the festival and I wish I’d been able to find a Harry Potter time turner so I could attend them all – both French and English. But they were far from being the only element to the three magical days in Charroux. The other elements came from the festival supporters.

There’s nothing like having a drink or a meal with other festival-goers; or having a laugh with the lovely ladies of the Hope Association tea tent, who delivered a constant supply of drinks, English food and good humour. Cheerful volunteers were everywhere, from the helpful people at the reception desk, in the bookshop and at the Enfants de la Rue charity stand, to the behind-the-scenes drivers and hosts. It was great to see so many familiar faces and make new friends.

But my biggest thanks have to go to Kate and Chris, the festival organisers, who made this all possible. Did they create the mystical thread on purpose, or is it just in my head?

photo by Tracey Warr

Charroux 2019 seems a long way away. Luckily, we have the 2017 edition of another intimate literary festival full of interesting people in October: Parisot. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Did you say Paradise?

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.

Lac de Parisot

Lac de Parisot

However, it was difficult breaking the news to my bike and tent that the village campsite was closed and that, unlike the Charroux and St.Clémentin lit fests, I would have to leave them behind.

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.

ParisotSunny 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.

Lektor Studio readings

Lektor Studio readings

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.

Manu Causse & Emmanuelle Urien

Manu Causse & Emmanuelle Urien

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.

Carys Bray

Carys Bray

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.

Susan Elderkin signing

Susan Elderkin signing ‘The Novel Cure’

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