Tag Archives: Littératures Européennes

Being Benevolent

What could be better than spending 4 days at Cognac’s European literature festival, surrounded by books?

OK, winning the lottery, maybe. Or creating world peace.

But within the constraints of my little bookish life, what did I find even better than just attending last week’s Littératures Européennes, as I do every year?

The answer is being a volunteer (in French, we say a bénévole). Yes, I had my first voluntary experience there, last weekend, in a team with the 40 other book-loving volunteers and it heightened my appreciation of the whole literary festival.

As you’ll know if you’ve read my 2015 and 2016 blog posts about the festival, the idea is to get to know our fellow Europeans better through reading books. Each year one country or region is selected: for this year’s edition, the theme was the Mediterranean islands.

The Littératures Européennes association chooses books set in the country of honour and translated into French. The shortlisted ones are sent to libraries and schools all over Poitou-Charentes, who vote for their favourites. All the authors are invited to the festival to meet the public, and the winners in each category receive prizes.

courtesy of Le Texte Libre

I have avoided volunteering up to now (apart from odd slots at my favourite Le Texte Libre bookshop stand) because I like to be free to explore, to listen to the talks and to meet the authors. I thought that as a volunteer I would be stuck in one place, dealing with complaints and telling people where the toilets were while exciting events sparkled all around me.

No, Harriet. Wrong again! Well, some people did ask where the toilets were – and I must admit that I made a fab list of the most bizarre things I was asked – but I certainly wasn’t stuck in one place. We were able to take part in our choice of events, since we worked in pairs. And instead of suffering complaints, we were kissed with compliments.

It was great to work alongside the other association members and get to know them while we welcomed authors and translators, prepared rooms for round table events and helped out visitors. In fact, if this blog post is rather light on photos of people, it’s because I was far too busy looking helpful to use my camera!

La Salamandre (Courtesy of the VIlle de Cognac)

I knew that the festival was free and that you could watch discussions between authors on specific European themes. These take place at La Salamandre conference centre, which has an auditorium, an onsite literary café and smaller rooms.

I’d also been to the popular panel between shortlisted authors for the Prix des Lecteurs, (readers’ prize) which is held at Cognac’s Avant Scène theatre.

Prix des Lecteurs, Avant Scène theatre

What I didn’t know about were the numerous events organised outside the boundaries of the talks, prizegiving ceremonies and bookshop stands.

Thursday was dedicated to secondary school pupils, who came for special activities led by a selection of authors. The booktubing session – where real-life booktubers Lizzie and Gwendoline filmed pupils talking about their favourite festival books – was a highlight for me. It was also useful because a high school will be booktubing on my own novel, Tree Magic, next spring.

Friday saw high school students take over the conference centre. Their sessions taught them about careers in publishing and they also filmed each other interviewing the authors. And primary schools were not forgotten, as children’s authors and illustrators drove all over the region to speak to classes.

Children were also an important focus of the festival during the public opening at the weekend. A whole room was allocated to children’s workshops, films, musical siestas and readings, which ran all day on Saturday and Sunday.

This year the variety of public events was much wider. Authors gave readings, which you could listen to on headphones while drinking a coffee or wandering round the stalls. There were photography exhibitions, performed plays, book signings, film projections and readings accompanied by music.

I loved the fun ‘tarot-card’ game with mysterious goddess Circe, who would find the text to match your mood and read it to you. In the evenings, festival partners provided entertainment, including a play at Hennessy’s theatre, ‘Les Quais, Ici ou Ailleurs’, and a film projected by Eurociné.

As the theme was the Mediterranean Islands, you could hear authors speaking in Italian, Sicilian, Greek, Corsican, Cypriot, Maltese and Croatian. There were also plenty of discussions about insularity, war, the Mafia, leprosy and the refugee situation. I did hear one British accent among the authors: Emma Jane Kirby dropped in and talked (in excellent French) about her novel The Optician of Lampedusa.

Other authors present included 2012 Goncourt winner Jérôme Ferrari and the current writer-in-residence, Sicilian Davide Enia. Davide is the author of Palermo boxing novel On Earth As It Is In Heaven, and was everyone’s darling. The audiences laughed at his jokes and he spoke in a charming choreography of Italian gestures. During his six-week residency he worked hard, visiting schools, libraries and bookshops throughout the region to talk about Sicily and his work.

I had a coup de coeur for Sophie Chérer, author of L’Huile d’Olive Ne Meurt Jamais, which is based on a true story about mafia resistance. She talked to a group of secondary school pupils and made them think about what success actually means, in terms of a book. She also asked them how they felt about books being put in competition with each other to win a prize, and explained why she found this odd. Ironically, Sophie later learnt she’d won the secondary school readers’ prize.

One of my favourites from a previous year (see my 2015 blog post about the London edition of the festival) was also present. Henriette Walker, etymologist extraordinaire from the French Academy, was back to fascinate the audience with her talk about the origins of language in the Mediterranean islands.

Imagine my delight when I saw that her latest book was all about the names of trees. Needless to say, we had an interesting discussion, which ended with a simultaneous book signing.

Sunday evening’s magical, musical reading by refugee story-collector François Beaune, was followed by clearing up and then a drink and pizza for the volunteers.

We’ll be meeting again in a few weeks for a debriefing – which is, of course, an excuse to catch up with all our new friends.

Next year’s festival, held from 15-18 November 2018, will be honouring the countries around the Baltic Sea for its 30th anniversary. Why don’t you come along and discover them through their authors’ voices?

Casting Aside your Morals

When I tell the French people I meet that I’m a writer, they often ask if I write in French.

‘No way,’ I say.

‘Why not?’ they ask. ‘You’re pretty much bilingual.’

That ‘pretty much’ is what has always stopped me. How can I possibly nuance my language, weave a subtext, hook the exact word I’m fishing for from the little pond of French I possess? Come on: it’s difficult enough to do this in my native English.


Me (copyright Christine West)

I have tried. A few years ago a literary friend invited me to her French creative writing workshop. When I eventually summed up my courage and went along, I discovered that it was a surprisingly stimulating experience.

Knowing I couldn’t expect any elegance from the French corner of my mind, I felt more liberated than in English workshops. My creations were basic but the ideas, associations and images flowed easily and naturally. By letting go of my language expectations I was able to focus more fully on the narrative.

Much as I enjoyed the other participants’ poetic prose, though, I was unable to write a satisfactory piece in French.

So I was intrigued to see the title ‘Why Write in a Different Language?’ featuring as one of the discussions at the European Literature festival in Cognac last November. I hurried along to listen to the panel of authors, who all write in non-native languages.

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

There were two Slovak authors, Jana Benova (has written in Czech) and Irena Brezna (writes in German); a Czech writer, Lenka Hornakova-Civade (French); and the Russian writer Vladimir Vertlib (German). It turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking themes of the festival, and one that remains with me three months later.

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (coline-sentenac)

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (photo Coline Sentenac)

Lenka argued that your native language is one of emotion. In your mother tongue, the emotion surges out and grips you as you write. Writing in a different language, however, gives you the distance you need for the surgical precision of the job.

Jana Beňová (Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana Beňová (photo Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana agreed that when writing, you’re searching for the clearest way of communicating, and suggested that this distance can also be achieved in terms of letting time pass or writing in a different location.

Vladimir talked about dogs: when he says his native Russian word for ‘dog’, he can smell and feel the animal. But when he says the word in German, there is a space between the word and the feeling. This made me think how feeble the French swear words sound to me, compared to the strength of English ones. Now I know why.

Irena Brezna & Lenka

Irena Brezna & Lenka

There’s also a freedom in writing in a different language, according to Irena. She’s sometimes horrified when she reads her German work once it’s translated into her native Slovak: not because of bad translation, but because she’s shocked to think she could have written those things. The distance she felt when writing in German is lacking when she reads her translated words in her native language.

Jana confirmed this and quoted the results of an interesting study. Apparently, when you use your mother tongue you respect your morals, whereas you morally let go of yourself in a foreign language.

You have been warned, Ex-pats. No casting aside of your morals here, please.

The panel also explored the difference between translating into a different language and writing in that language.

At the time of the Cognac festival, Lenka was in the process of translating a French work into her native Czech. She pointed out that when translating you must respect what is written rather than interpreting the author’s intention. The result of her translation, both in terms of sonority and meaning, didn’t resemble what she would have written in Czech.

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir put himself firmly on the writer side of the fence for this very reason, admitting that he would be tempted to rewrite rather than translate.

He brought the discussion back to the freedom of a non-native language, saying that you actually re-invent a language when you adopt it: you create your own nuances that enrich your use of it.

Lenka suggested this is because you don’t have the codes you learn from growing up in a language. And Irena added that German readers have told her that her use of German is more beautiful than native German.

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

I particularly liked Jana’s reference to Samuel Beckett – an Irish writer who lived in France and wrote in French. He apparently said that he knew English too well to write in this language.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, I will know English so well that I’ll be able to write in French! Though with over a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, there’s still a way to go.

And, to be honest, I like writing in English. I like the way it keeps me in touch with my origins.

If you’d like to read more about other writers who write in non-native languages, there’s an article on the Telegraph website here

(Photos courtesy of Littératures Européennes and Lycée Jean Monnet’s photography club)

YA Booktubing

At the beginning of September I learnt about a special event happening in Cognac. When I read the programme, I immediately cancelled all my appointments. No, Mika wasn’t coming to visit. Nor the Queen. And it wasn’t another street theatre festival.

The event was called ‘Lire l’Europe with the Chippendales’.

Exciting, no?

OK, I admit it was just ‘Lire l’Europe’, or ‘Read Europe’ in English – a literary conference without a Chippendale in sight, organised by the Littératures Européennes team. What excited me was that the afternoon session, entitled ‘From Classics to Booktubing’ would be devoted to discussing Young Adult (YA) fiction.

In case you didn’t know, I have written a YA novel: Tree Magic will be published by Impress Books’ Watchword imprint in January 2017. When I wrote the original story and sent it off to a competition, the judge placed it as a runner-up and suggested I rewrite it for the YA market. Which I did.

Between then and now, I’ve read quite a lot about YA fiction in the English-speaking world. So I was fascinated to find out if the French approach is different. Off I went to Cognac’s auditorium, my notebook under my arm, to meet the European Literature festival organisers and learn about lectures ado.

Gérard Meudal

Gérard Meudal

The morning was spent with Gérard Meudal, a French literary journalist who often comes to Cognac to host author events. He also happens to be Salman Rushdie’s French translator. He has a very accessible way of talking about books, and took the audience through a description of all the novels featuring at the European Literature festival (17th-20th November in Cognac – see my blog post). I now have a very long list of books I want to read.

On stage in the afternoon were an author, a publisher and a bookseller. The author was Anne Percin, who writes both YA and adult novels, notably the bestselling series Comment (bien) rater ses Vacances / son Love Story / etc. She also teaches in a secondary school. The publisher, Sylvie Gracia, publishes the DoAdo imprint at Rouergue and also writes for adults. And the bookseller was the dynamic Pauline Fouillet from Ruffec’s ‘Livres et Vous‘. Finally, to keep the ladies in order, Gérard Meudal took the chair.

Pauline Fouillet in 'Livres et Vous' bookshop

Pauline Fouillet

What is booktubing?” was the first question addressed. Pauline explained that it’s where you use YouTube to tell your viewers about your favourite books. It’s popular with teenagers. The panel agreed that this obviously worked better as a teen marketing tool than a review in Le Monde.

What makes a book YA rather than adult?” Anne replied that the way of writing isn’t different at all: she applies the same intensity and the same attention to quality. The protagonist’s age often makes the difference. If he/she’s a teenager, the story is more suited to younger readers. It’s not always clear to her, however, as the theme also plays a role. Anne delves deeper into a theme with adults than with teenagers. With YA fiction, she just scratches the surface.

Sylvie said that she has tried writing for teenagers, without success. She told us an anecdote about a discussion with children’s author Hélène Vignal, in which they came up with the concept of a mental age: some people keep the maturity and imagination of a child or teenager all their lives, which means they lean naturally towards children’s or YA books. This obviously made the audience chuckle.

Anne Percin ©Tina Merendon

Anne Percin ©Tina Merendon

Anne pointed out that what’s great with teenage characters is that they are going through a pivotal moment in their lives, through an existential crisis. This is attractive for an author wanting to explore character.

Do teenagers read books?” According to Pauline, 70% of teenagers read. In her experience, children start to read less in 6ème (Year 7: 11-year olds) and this only starts to pick up again in 3ème (Year 10: 14-year olds). At around 20 years old, the people who read when they were children come back to reading. This is unlikely to happen for those who didn’t read when they were young, or whose parents didn’t read to them. The panel agreed that out-loud readings are very powerful. They give the audience a taste for reading and help sell books.

At what age do teenagers pass from YA to adult fiction?” At Rouergue, many books are on the border between adult and teen. Sylvie finds that at 15 years old, teenagers will be reading both types of book. Pauline added that what is more important than age is the type of reader: either teenagers are big readers, in which case they will move towards adult books, or they’re occasional readers, and will prefer YA. For Anne, there’s a ‘doudou’ (cuddly toy) effect with YA books. She cited the example of some young men at a reading who bought her latest adult book because they had fond memories of her YA novels.

How do teenagers choose books?” Pauline told us that when parents come to her bookshop to buy a book for their kids, she advises them to come back with the kids in question. When a parent chooses a book, there is already a barrier to reading it. Pauline added that at external events she always takes a selection of YA books if it’s an adult event, and adult books for YA events. This is because adults are moved by teenage themes. Anne suggested this is also because there is more liberty in the YA themes available during a literary season – adult books tend to have similar themes for each season.

Word of mouth works best with teenagers (including booktubing). Films and TV have a ‘carrot’ effect: teenagers turn to the books afterwards, seeking the extra details that aren’t in the films. Classic advertising by adults has little effect on them. For Anne’s bestselling series, she created a Facebook page for her protagonist – which would be unthinkable for adults, but which worked well for teens. Teenagers are interested in the characters, not the writer.

What criteria do teenagers apply when looking for a book?” Aha: this was interesting. Pauline said that they often ask for something that’s not too long. Girls like true stories at the moment – vampires and werewolves are old hat. True stories enable them to learn about subjects they feel uncomfortable discussing with their entourage. However, boys buy more books. Sylvie added that thick books and series do have their place, as teenagers also like to plunge into the familiarity of a story world.

Sylvie Gracia ©Melki

Sylvie Gracia ©Melki

Are ebook sales higher for teenagers than adults?” Sylvie replied that this medium doesn’t work well with French teenagers, because you need a credit card to buy on the Internet and teenagers don’t have one. What’s more, it’s difficult to tell if an ebook is short or long, and therefore booksellers find it hard to recommend according to the type of reader.


I didn’t regret cancelling my appointments to listen to these wise words (even if there were no Chippendales). I now know I have a teenager’s mental age. That explains a lot. The next question is how many shopping trips will it cost me to persuade my kids to booktube about Tree Magic and set up a Facebook page for Rainbow?

British Authors in Cognac

You did ask nicely, didn’t you?

In that case, as promised last month, I’ll tell you everything I know about Cognac’s forthcoming literature festival (Littératures Européennes, 17th–20th November 2016). Well, some of what I know. I’ll take questions afterwards.

Littératures Européennes is all about Europe (you know, the family us British are preparing to exit) rather than all about books. The aim is to explore European culture through literature. What I didn’t understand, in previous years, is that preparation actually begins months beforehand with the selection of the contending books.

The festival makes much more sense if you’re aware of the books shortlisted for the prizes, even more so if you take the time to read them. One of the conditions for a book to be selected is that the author must be present at the festival. So before reading a book, you know you’ll be able to meet the person who wrote it. This is particularly interesting for us English speakers – and an oasis in the literary desert for any non-French speakers living in France.

In February, the shortlisted novels for the big ‘Jean Monnet’ prize, chosen by France’s literary intellectuals, are announced. The shortlisted novels for the ‘Prix des Lecteurs’, voted by the region’s libraries, are announced in April. And in May/June, the books shortlisted for the school prizes are announced: the ‘Prix Jean Monnet des Jeunes Européens’ for lycées and the ‘Prix ALE!’ (Adolescents, Lecteurs et Européens!) for secondary schools. Other prizes are privately funded, such as the ‘Prix Bouchon de cultures’ and the ‘Prix Club Soroptimist’.

So, how can we find out what’s been shortlisted? The website is a good start. Even better is to go to the public presentation evening at the beginning of September to hear the festival organisers’ summaries (in French) of their favourite books. Or to go to the professional ‘Lire l’Europe’ event at the end of September (more about this in my next post).

If you can’t make these dates, the next best thing is to read about them – here, for example, bearing in mind that I may be hiding things from you, or exaggerating where it pleases me, or–

OK, OK, I’ll stop waffling and get on with my rough guide to the festival.

affiche-20162Here’s the poster, with its enigmatic ‘Délier les langues’ title. To save you scrabbling through your dictionaries, this could be translated as ‘Loosening Tongues’. Of course, in French, the word ‘langue’ refers both to language and the tongue…hence the (arresting, in my opinion) photo of the young lady sticking out her tongue. Shame it’s not pierced – that would be even more arresting. It’s a great poster, isn’t it? I like the way it focuses on a person, not on books.

The poster, which was unveiled (or rather, which fell off the wall while the public were taking their seats) on 8th September, refers to the way literature can help understand other languages or cultures; how writing can untie the knots caused by political taboos or childhood secrets; and how writers, particularly eastern Europeans, manage to write in languages other than their own.

You’ll also see the reference to 5 countries on the poster. The festival usually celebrates one country in particular – or one town (last year it was London, as I reported here). This year, marked by the celebrations for Cognac’s 1000th anniversary, the organisers have chosen to honour books from the European countries in which Cognac’s twin towns are situated.

What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the contending books not only come from Germany, Scotland, Spain, France and Slovakia, but that only the young generation of writers were considered. I’m not going to list all the books selected: you can find these on the website. I’ll just mention the ones written by English speakers.

Firstly, Jenni Fagan – named by Granta as one of the best young British novelists –  has been shortlisted for the Prix des Lecteurs with her book The Panopticon (in French La Sauvage). Unfortunately Jenni can’t come to the festival.

Secondly, we have Andrew O’Hagan, shortlisted for the Prix Bouchon for his book The Illuminations, alongside Barry Gornell‘s The Healing of Luther Grove. Andrew and Barry should both be at the festival, hopefully going into schools as well as meeting the general public. Andrew O’Hagan, renowned novelist and journalist, has won many awards for his work, including being on the Booker shortlist for Our Fathers. Barry Gornell is a novelist and screenwriter living in Scotland. Click on the links to find out more about them and their work.

A final word for Jana Benova, an English-speaking, Slovakian poet and novelist, who is in residence at Cognac during October and November. Her novel Café Hyène is only available in French at the moment, although it will soon be available in English as Seeing People Off. Winner of the EU Prize for Literature, she’ll be taking part in the festival and will also be present in several Poitou-Charentes towns in October and November. First comes Cognac on 6th October 2016. See the Littératures Européennes website for details.

The full festival programme, which includes round tables, exhibitions, workshops and film projections, will be available in mid-October. In the meantime, visit your local bookshops, such as the Le Texte Libre in Cognac or Livres et Vous in Ruffec, and order your books from the friendly staff there.