I’ve been away, to a literary festival. Now that it’s safely over, I can confess: this wasn’t just the first time I have ever spoken at a literary festival, it was the first time I have even been to one.
There was a time when only rock stars toured the festival circuit. Writers stayed at home clutching their heads and crumpling paper, venturing out to a bookstore on special occasions. But now there’s a whole book festival world out there, a roaring express of big names and bestsellers. I knew it existed, but I was always the slightly bewildered passenger waiting on the platform for the stopping train as it rushed through.
So, many months ago, when I was asked to Festilitt, an extraordinary small Anglo-French festival in Parisot, south-west France, I jumped on board. I was so thrilled to be asked that I forgot that I’m one of those writers who is more comfortable with words on the page than speaking them in front of an audience of strangers. I was even more thrilled – though the nerves tightened - when it was announced over the summer that Helen Dunmore, Kate Mosse and the French novelist Daniel Crozes were headlining a programme that included the historian and famous whistleblower Clive Ponting; Francophile novelist Amanda Hodgkinson; two prodigious young ones: novelist Sara Taylor and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders; and a creative writing masterclass with Greg Mosse.
It’s a tribute to the lightning rod that is festival founder Gina Connolly, that a tiny village in the Tarn-et-Garonne can draw such a prestigious gathering.
Rob and I decided to drive back down to the South of France, spending a week or so beforehand in the Luberon, sorting out the house for the winter and relaxing. There had been a lot to do since we left Provence in September, including getting our daughter off to university, and the sad business of clearing and finalising the sale of my late parents’ house.
As it turned out, it was a trip full of mixed blessings. The car tyre blow-out we had on the autoroute an hour south of Calais was mitigated by the lucky chance that it happened just as we were passing a rest “aire” and we were able to limp right off the motorway. Our specialist tyres weren’t stocked by any local dealers, but the second tyre merchant we tried in Abbeville happened to have a secondhand one of the right dimensions, for which they refused to accept payment, only charging for the labour of fitting it.
We made it to Honfleur that night, then managed to get stuck – literally - in a maze of narrow medieval streets. At a doll-sized T-junction, the car ended up with a bollard embedded in its side and it took several pedestrians and me, out of the car, giving instructions centimetre by centimetre before Rob could free it and turn.
In Provence, as sometimes happens when you start to relax, I got a sore throat, then a full-blown cold. By Thursday, the coldy headache had turned to a dread migraine. Once set in, the worst of my migraines can last for two weeks. But I have had far fewer this year, so “Why now?” I was wailing.
On Friday morning, we packed up the house and set off for Parisot. I will draw a veil over the panic in an Avignon traffic jam when we realised there were two Parisots: one in the Tarn and the other in Tarn-et-Garonne. The sun blazed down. Works on the autoroute around Montpellier produced gridlock. We drove faster and faster but arrived in Parisot, Tarn-et-Garonne, too late for the opening events. (If you click on the photo here - or any of the photos on my blog - it will enlarge.)
Glued together with strong migraine pills after a sleepless night in our B & B, I arrived in what was clearly the right Parisot the next morning for my talk in the Salle des Fêtes at 10.30am. The moment I met the indomitable Gina, I knew it was going to be all right. A couple of my blog friends, Vanessa and Evelyn, had turned out for my session, and it was lovely to meet them in person.
The subject of my talk was the sense of place, especially in my books set in France. I stood up, took a deep breath and began. I noticed, to my horrified delight, that Helen Dunmore was in the audience. When I sat down to answer questions – and great questions they were, too – I was flying.
At lunch afterwards at the restaurant La Castille, I was still on a roll, and my head was holding steady. The rest of the weekend, I was on that literary festival express train. Helen Dunmore spoke movingly about the aftermath of the First World War and her exploration of that ambiguous time in her novel The Lie. Dinner was held for all the participants, French and Anglophone, in nearby Castanet. The next morning the hall was packed with both groups for Ella Frances Sanders and her charming Lost in Translation, illustrations of fascinating untranslatable words.
The montage above includes a quick drawing by French artist Peyrine to illustrate a scene from my novel The Sea Garden - the Resistance in action!
By the time I sat next to Greg Mosse at lunch on Sunday, I was getting distinctly used to the high life, in all senses. I fear prescription drugs, excitement and a few glasses of steadying rosé may have made me a bit hyper, but what the hell - I was enjoying myself.
What was so lovely about the Parisot Literary Festival was its friendliness and sense of camaraderie that encompassed us all: writers, readers and the fantastic organisers and local writing group. It was small enough to keep bumping into people and continuing conversations. So thank you Gina and Paul, Liz, Anita, Peyrine, Debra, Maggie, Michelle and everyone involved both on-stage and off. Rob and I had a fantastic time with you all – and the conversation indeed lasted all the way up through France and home on the cross-channel ferry.