A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
And if you pop over to Strictly Writing, you can read a slightly tweaked version of the talk she gave.
There you are. Spotlit on a stage. Some reverent interviewer raptly attending to your every word. Someone in the audience coughs and is booed into silence by your fanatical followers.
“Well, Jenny, “you hear yourself say, self-deprecatingly. “I never even thought I would write a modern cult comedy classic, but – you know – if people want to call it that – well – who am I to stop them?”
Afterwards, you sit in front of a snaking queue of people, unable to scrawl across the books quickly enough, fending off comments like, “ Your book changed my life. I learnt to love again,” or “I laughed so hard it cured my acne”.
Some people fantasise about being on Top of the Pops or – by the look of our stats this week – getting stuck in a lift with Richard Armitage…But some of us are rather sadder than that. My fantasy was to publish my novel and be on Newsnight Review before the age of forty.
The Borders Book Festival is my Newsnight Review.
You wake up on the morning of the event and the realise – “I am going to have to talk for EIGHT MINUTES. Unaided. How on earth is that going to happen?”
This is the time you turn to the support of your nearest and dearest. What a mistake. It is one thing to imagine oneself pontificating fluently to a cheering crowd…it is another to stammer your way over the breakfast table in front of your non-writerly parents and virtually-illiterate boyfriend. The three of them sit stony-faced and you feel the terror rising. Then, the icing on the cake, you are just about to set off to your FIRST EVER FESTIVAL as an published author, you turn your car keys in the ignition and…nothing. The battery is completely dead.
What should you do?
Rush around in a blind panic yelling at anyone related enough to you or who cares about you enough to put up with it of course!
Fling your speech across the room in temper. Shout at anyone in range about how unsupportive they are. Throw your car-keys on the floor, and yourself, after them, to roll around kicking and screaming in a tantrum…
Then, borrow your parents car.
We made it with 15 minutes to spare.
Not that I had much time to spare before we were due to appear in our event. I met up with fellow debut authors Andrea McNicoll who had just won the impressively titled 2009 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award for First Book for her debut novel, Moonshine in the Morning, only the night before and Anna Richards, author of the audacious Little Gods. Along with calm Chair, literary agent Jenny Brown, we headed for our tent.
Tension, I find, has to go somewhere. Usually it’s my hands shaking like a pneumatic drill but this time it was my feet twitching away. I looked down and noticed mine weren’t the only feet twitching as the three debut authors tap-danced their way through the event. Each of us described our experience of getting published – Anna amusingly talking about the double-edged sword of redundancy to a writer and Andrea describing how her work was picked out of an anthology by an agent and I…well, you can read my talk on The Life of an Unpublished Writer (or something quite like it) over on Strictly Writing today.
As is the case with events, It all seemed to pass in a blur. Thankfully, the audience were rather more receptive to my speech than my stony-faced relatives at the breakfast table, which helped me forget my nerves.
Afterwards we emerged into the light like moles from under ground, and went off to sign books. It is strange being on the other side of the signing table. I remember how in the past I’ve been shy of approaching writers at signings – usually slinking off to buy a book sneakily behind their back in case they think I’m trying to suck up to them or something. How laughable that seems now. As a writer you are dying for people to come up to you, talk to you, say any old stupid thing as you sit there on display next to your magnum opus. “Please talk to me,” you feel like crying. “Please please please, be my friend. I’m harmless. Really. I’ll love you forever.”
Then, suddenly, it was over.
I found myself let loose, in the grounds of Harmony House with an author’s pass on a beautiful sunny day surrounded by nice people and interesting events. How much better does it get than that? I decided to go exploring.
THE BORDERS BOOK FESTIVAL
The Borders Book Festival – nothing to do with the bookshop I hasten to add – is located in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders in the most idyllic surroundings you can imagine. There’s a romantic ruined Abbey on one side; a leafy river walk the other and the festival itself takes place in the beautiful grounds of Harmony House – an elegant Georgian National Trust property swooning with flowers, yawning lawns and all that is sleepy and summer.
The difference with smaller festivals – both a punter and a writer -is that it really isn’t that difficult to feel like you’re part of things. Audience members came up to me later in the afternoon to talk about the event and one can literally bump straight into the likes of Ian Rankin and Hardeep Singh Kohli (in a magnificent lime green turban) although if you are stupid and tongue-tied like me, you suddenly get totally engrossed in your Borders Book Festival programme or find yourself riveted to some non-thing happening in the other direction rather than dare say hello.
Julia Donaldson and her husband Malcolm entertained children who had come for the day. Some very brave soul donned the Gruffalo outfit in the heatwave and went about making little kids cry (Ok, this wasn’t the intention, but one little girl just refused to see the funny side of the cuddly monster, with its impressive array of tusks and spikes, waving at her and saying hello).
As a writer, it is a great opportunity to meet other writers. And it is all so relaxed and friendly that this happens totally naturally. Most of the writes were staying at the house, making it very social and an opportunity for interesting conversations over dinner and drinks.
The other advantage of smaller festivals for the audience-member is more unexpected. In a funny way the smaller range of events means you end up discovering stuff you otherwise might not have tried. Rather than swooping in for one or two famous writers – picking and choosing only the things already familiar to you, there is the potential to discover real gems. I ended up buying more books from The Borders Book Festival than other festivals I’ve attended as an audience member – the fruits of which I hope will appear on Vulpes at some point in the future.
Not that the festival lacked for big names: Michael Palin, Joan Bakewell, Rory Bremner, Vince Cable and John Fortune were all there this year.
But the big discovery of the festival for me was Diana Athill. Now in her nineties, Diana was one of the most respected editors of her generation – working with a dizzying array of big name writers including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys. Funny, wise and incredibly inspiring, her event was less a straight book event as a moving celebration of old age. Maybe celebration is the wrong word – it sounds too cutesy. An inspiring yet clearsighted assessment of old age then. Diana Athill makes you almost yearn to be in your nineties – to find the world and its changes as fascinating as she does, to be so gracious and thoughtful facing up to the end of your life. Plus she’s very funny about sex. And talks about death with honesty and without fear. Which is rare and incredibly powerful.
Needless to say I rushed off instantly and bought her book.
The events continue well into the night – including story telling in the romantic ruins of Melrose Abbey, but my festival experience was rounded off by a saunter along the nearby river Tweed with my boyfriend and (very enthusiastic) dog.
A beautiful little festival in a beautiful place. What more could you ask for?
I’ll definitely be going back next year.
RosyB is a member of Vulpes Libris and author of comedy novel, Sadomasochism for Accountants.