What’s A Book Festival Actually Like?

This article originally appeared on writing.ie, who couldn’t have recruited a more grateful set of fingers for Twitter shenanigans than mine, last weekend, at a most splendid book festival. When not live tweeting some of the events, I took some time to soak up the atmosphere. So if you’ve ever wondered what a literary festival is actually like, here’s my take on it. On another note, I have been longlisted for the Littlewoods Blog Awards Ireland 2016 in 2 categories, which makes me very happy, and not my usual surly self at all. Woo-hoo!

What's A Book Festival Actually Like?

The writing.ie team, from left: an annoying blogger, Sunday Times bestselling author Sam Blake and particularly lovely blogger Margaret Bonass Madden from the Bleach House Library


A Crime World Away From It All – Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Festival In Harrogate

Is the real world getting you down?

Did all four wheels just fall off your car and get crushed by a steamroller? Has your boss just announced a corporate restructuring of exactly one employee – and that employee is you?

Or are you simply one of the many people for whom turning on the news these past months has felt like playing Russian Roulette with your will to live?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be time you turned to crime. Fiction, that is. Crime Fiction. And without making any more glib remarks on the state of things at the moment, there is a lot to be said for literary escapism in times of trial.

A literary festival can be an even better getaway-from-it-all than a book, and crime was the genre of choice for attendees of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate on the weekend of 22nd July. Authors, reviewers and readers congregated in this renowned Victorian spa town in North Yorkshire to steep themselves in the dark underbelly of society we cope with the best: the kind that’s made up.

What's A Book Festival Actually Like?

Spot the difference ……………..Pic (and genius): Margaret Bonass Madden

 Festival highlights included one-on-one interviews and panel discussions featuring Val McDermid – described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the festival, and who kept everyone laughing from start to finish – along with Linwood Barclay, Tess Gerritsen, Martina Cole, Jeffery Deaver, Peter James, Gerald Seymour, Paula Hawkins, and Clare Mackintosh, who won the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year on opening night for her debut I Let You Go. New and established authors alike discussed their inspirations, routes to publication, and what makes people so fascinated with crime fiction in the first place.

From the ballroom of the Old Swan Hotel (where Agatha Christie famously went missing for 11 days in the 1920s) which hosted panels of internationally renowned authors, to the tents outside serving food, drink and books, to the lively conversations buzzing all over the grounds, to the readers dotted all over the sun-lit lawn, hunched over their ill-gotten gains as though any interruption might be rewarded with a death stare – it was all about the books.

Every good festival has sideshows, and Harrogate was awash with publisher parties and book signings, reader competitions, forensic investigations, and even a table quiz worthy of a criminal mastermind. In the Secret Garden (or at least it was secret until writing.ie got there) publisher Bonnier were celebrating several Sunday Times bestsellers in less than one year of operation, while Pan MacMillan, stable of blockbuster authors such as Peter James and David Baldacci, were to be found in the Library, with the candlestick. Or was that the canapés?

What's A Book Festival Actually Like?

It’s all about the reading

It’s hard to imagine anything better than hundreds of people coming together for the weekend to form a temporary yet cohesive village of crime lovers, hell-bent on discovering new talent, connecting with established authors, and hanging tough with other like-minded folk who love nothing more than stories about killing, maiming, psychological abuse, and the renegade heroes and anti-heroes who set the world to rights in weird and wonderful ways.

So why do we love crime fiction so much?

It may be because it contains a kind of universal human experience – a dark side of humanity which is apolitical, and to which everyone on the planet can relate. It’s genderless, too. Crime is a genre where people don’t seem to care about whether or not the writer or protagonist has a Y chromosome. Possession of this same chromosome doesn’t appear to have much to do with how these books are critiqued, packaged, or shelved, either. In short, there is no greater leveller than the evil guy or gal who is creeping through the dark shadows behind you. Whether they’re lurking down a dark alley, or under our own roof, we don’t seem to be able to get enough of that delicious fear we can put down whenever we want.


The book signing queue, just before it got ugly


As was pointed out by more than one author over the course of the festival, we are all by nature voyeurs, with an insatiable curiosity for other human beings. In real life, true stories have the power to do harm; but great fiction takes us back, as close as we can bear, to the monsters under the beds of our childhoods. We like to be frightened, but only within our control.

It’s no wonder that regardless of blockbuster trends, crime fiction is consistently one of the two most popular fiction genres on the planet (the other one being romance). Because when we need to mentally get away from it all, there’s nothing that can transport us like a made-up murder, or a fictional felony. It deserves to be celebrated, and boy, do they do it in style in Harrogate.

What's A Book Festival Actually Like?


  40 comments for “What’s A Book Festival Actually Like?

  1. July 28, 2016 at 11:00 am

    how did I not know about this literary festival! sounds like a great place to have been

    Liked by 1 person

  2. carolannwrites
    July 28, 2016 at 11:49 am

    I absolutely love literary festivals but this one seems to be a real winner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 28, 2016 at 1:53 pm

      It certainly won me over Carolann. Having everything in the one venue is just unbeatable I reckon.


  3. July 28, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Maybe next year….????

    Liked by 1 person

  4. July 28, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    Turn to crime… Now there’s a thought. Strictly speaking fiction, of course. Though… Nah, the world doesn’t need another super villain 😉
    Sounds like you had a grand time at the festival. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 28, 2016 at 4:40 pm

      You’re so kind to call it sharing. I call it spewing all over the internet and being surprised that more people aren’t annoyed 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. July 28, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    Literary festivals are a hoot and it sounds like Harrogate hosted a fun event. I love the topics that writers are interested in – psychopathology, forensics, weapons, how to treat various wounds, what it feels like to be stabbed, how long it takes for a body to decompose, etc. Ha ha. We’re a fun bunch 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 28, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Makes a lovely change from googling them and leaving an internet trail nobody would want the real life police to find, Diana. Throw in the fact that it’s done at a party, and you’ve got Nirvana.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. July 28, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    Sounds like a blast – glad you had tons of fun 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 28, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Vats of fun would probably be more apt in this instance, Jan!


  7. annerallen
    July 28, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    This book festival has always been on the top of my wish list. Partly because of its weirdly wonderful name! How fantastic that you got to meet (and drink with) all those marvelously peculiar people!

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 28, 2016 at 11:34 pm

      Could hardly believe it myself, Anne. The mixing and chat were mighty. I’d be lying if I said the drinking wasn’t marvellous. Of course if any kids are reading, it was HORRENDOUS.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. July 28, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    That’s such a good point about the irrelevance of a writer’s sex when it comes to crime fiction. It seems everyone gets treated much the same way whether or not they are found to be in possession (of a Y chromosome).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. July 28, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    I’ve always like crime fiction (typically, cozy mysteries, I admit). Now I understand why! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

      If I’d known I was this good at explaining things, Ann, I’d have taken that job with the Politics For Dummies crowd.


  10. July 29, 2016 at 2:21 am

    Congratulations on your upcoming and well earned blog awards!

    You know, I tend to wonder who people are rooting for in both crime fiction and horror. We assume that it’s the “good guy/gal”. But is it always? I suspect there is a certain amount of vicarious pleasure for some in secretly rooting for the protagonist. Maybe these books keep the actual news a little less bloody. Still, I can’t help but worry if my neighbor is a fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 29, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Well, I’ve only made the longlist at this point. I’m not counting my chickens just yet. Or eggs. Not even hens, at this point, although nobody could ever tell me which came first.

      You shouldn’t scared of crime fiction or horror fans. They’re just like you and me, only with an uncontrollable fascination with blood and gore.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. July 29, 2016 at 11:15 am

    I’m flabbergasted, watching that strangest of things – a smile on your face. And to be longlisted for the Littlewoods Blog Awards Ireland 2016 in, not one, but two categories? What’s the world coming to? A place where Tara is actually happy??

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 29, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      Steady on, Nick. It’s not like I’m going to make a habit of it. The extra expense on moisturiser alone, to prevent my face from cracking, is enough to put me off. I appreciate your concern, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. July 29, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    I really needed to know as I will be attending (and speaking at) my first one in November. Sadly, I doubt this will be along the same lines, but I will try to summon up the spirit you described. Good luck with the awards, you have a guaranteed fan here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 30, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      The best thing about book festivals, Hilary, is that the audiences are genuinely interested in what they’re listening to. It’s not just that we happen to be there at the same time as whichever authors. I’m sure you’ll thoroughly enjoy your stint. I appreciate your guarantee of fandom too. I had to pay well over the odds for my other ones!


  13. July 29, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Best of luck for the blogger awards.

    Book festivals can be great fun. When I last attended the one in Melrose it was to hear Chris Brookmyer who is a class act. It was more a stand up comedy performance than a book reading and had the audience in stitches.

    The Edinburgh one opens its covers soon and we have been invited to a launch of Lin Anderson’s new book. She is one of the group of Tartan Noir writers and her descriptions of post mortems and detailed forensic investigations make my knees weak and my stomach churn. She has the advantage of a father who was in the police and a friend who supplies the gory details. Apart from Lin and a few others, I must confess to knowing few of the authors at this year’s festival as the theme appears to be graphic comics – not something I’m into.

    Atmosphere is vitally important at book festivals. Gardens to relax in, a large bookshop with seats where you can rest your feet and leaf through volumes, and a good place for coffee and meals, plus a bar, are essentials. Tells you much about our reading habits when we have a book on our knees, a salad roll in one hand and a large glass of our favourite tipple in the other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 30, 2016 at 6:20 pm

      Sounds like heaven to me too, Dorothy. Add in some cake and I’m there! Looking forward to your take on the upcoming events.


  14. July 30, 2016 at 7:31 am

    I was following the festival last weekend via a FB friend who went and felt pangs of envy. It’s one of those events that I keep thinking, “I’ll get around to it one day…”, but after Sarah’s real time posts I decided I really have to go next year. Your own post only goes to reinforce that decision. So if you’re there next year… you’ll have to keep a low profile to avoid me


    • July 30, 2016 at 6:22 pm

      Oh, I’ll be there in disguise, Graeme. But if I did happen to bump into you in the bar, it would be terribly rude for us not to have some awkward ‘omigod-you’re-so-much-taller-in-real-life’ conversations. Can I pencil you in for at least one?


  15. July 30, 2016 at 9:04 am

    I remember crime fiction writers sat around on the telly talking and one of them said she knew the perfect location to leave a body where it would never be found. The thought of you coming away from a literary festival with that kind of knowledge is quite terrifying.

    Does this trip mean you are now one of hem international roving reporters? Will it be the San Diego ComicCon next? (Mind you they’re comics aren’t they… Ignore that question then.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 30, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      I do like to keep people on their toes, Chris, and stocking up on homicidal knowledge is an extremely economical way of doing that. I’m glad you recognised it.

      I dunno if I’m a roving reporter. More like a Live Tweeter. Imagine going back 10 years and telling people that’s what you’re doing. They’d have you locked up within hours and all the ornithic adjectives would be coming out to describe your state of mind.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. July 31, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Fingers crossed for the blog awards, Tara. Delira to see your post on wimmin’s fiction in the best blog category, too. Finger poised on the vote button *finger stretches*

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 31, 2016 at 11:58 pm

      And Morag’s fingers too Tenderlation, I hope. And those of all Morag’s ex-husbands and current political staff. That should see me through if I make the shortlist.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. August 4, 2016 at 10:14 am

    That’s an impressive line up Tara, yourself included of course!

    Liked by 1 person

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