As the proverb says, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so last Saturday I had a play day at Hay. I, along with a group of writers’ circle friends, minibussed it down to the Welsh Border village of Hay on Wye for the 32nd Hay Literary Festival.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about some of the larger, well-known literary festivals, because, historically, authors haven’t always been recompensed properly for the work they put in when attending such events as a speaker (see this feature in The Bookseller). But thanks to pressure from organisations like the Society of Authors, this is changing.

One of the talks I went to see was Ian McEwan and Marcus du Sautoy discussing artificial intelligence and McEwan’s latest novel Machines Like Me. That particular ticket cost me £10. I’m sure many people in the audience (of which there were nearly 1700) would have assumed that some of that money was going to both author and interviewer! Thankfully, these days, that’s more likely to be the case.

But I digress.

Marcus du Sautoy chatting to Ian McEwan at the 2019 Hay Literary Festival

Attending such events is important playtime for us writers because it allows us to immerse ourselves in all things bookish (and there are plenty of places to sit and read). You can browse the festival bookshop and legitimately buy books (well, what is the point of going to a literary festival otherwise?). And you can listen to some wonderful talks. (I also went to a talk by Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics, and Katja Adler discussing the way technology now impacts upon our lives, society and our politics.) Ironically, that talk was 30 minutes late starting because of a technological glitch with the stage lighting!

But even though this was a play day, such visits are also a form of writing work too. They’re a fantastic place to people watch (some people are more loving to their new book purchases than their fellow LitFest visitors – one person was indignant at having to move his books from a spare deckchair and put them on the grass, because someone else wanted to sit down). And as for overheard conversations … “Ian McEwan was taller than I’d imagined. He’s always looked shorter on telly.”

It’s also worth watching how other authors conduct themselves in these situations. Talks as are varied as the authors. Some begin be reading a short extract from their book. Others are happy to be guided by their interviewer. How would you feel in that situation? What would you rather do?

It might seem fanciful dreaming about these sorts of things, but one day that could be you, up there, on stage. Why shouldn’t it be? 

Plenty of places to sit down and read. Heaven!

Ian McEwan took the time to explain why he’d written a book about machines, robots and artificial intelligence, but set it in the 1980s, in a different world to the one that existed (where Britain had lost the Falklands War, and so the Conservatives had lost power at the next election). One of his reasons for doing so was because he didn’t want to write a book set in the future. Doing so, he felt, might make readers think this would happen. Whereas setting it in the past offered him more creative freedom, in his opinion.

So if you were able to talk at a literary festival about your book, what would you talk about? Your ideas? Your characters, or the people you’ve written about? Or what about your writing process? Attending as a visitor/reader gives you a reader’s perspective on these events.

And if you can’t tear yourself away from writing completely, you may surprise yourself about where you can work. Half of this post was written while sat on a bench on one of the walkways between two stages, as hundreds of people were walking past (and those walkways creak and groan incessantly, under the weight of such human traffic).

So plan a play day every so often, because it’ll recharge your batteries and get those creative juices flowing again.

And my top tips for Hay, if you fancy going next year include:

Prepare to queue!
  • Get there early, for when it opens. It’s quieter for the first hour or so, giving you a relaxed atmosphere to explore the site and get your bearings.
  • Take seasickness tablets, if you plan on using the toilets. There are plenty of toilets about, but they tend to rock from side to side as people enter and leave!
  • Take plenty of bags with you. (You WILL buy books. Several.)
  • Book early for big name events, but leave space in the day to book something last minute. Last minute bookings can be fun.
  • Prepare to queue. And queue. But we’re British, so that should go without saying. Essentially, early queuers get the first choice of seats, but in my experience there aren’t any bad seats. It just depends upon how close you want to be to the front. (Although, if you’re keen to ask a question, the roving microphones tend to stay nearer to the front than climb up the raked seating at the rear.)
  • Take a water bottle. There are several water points around the venue to top up.
  • Enjoy yourself!
A Play a Hay Day

2 thoughts on “A Play a Hay Day

  • June 5, 2019 at 8:15 AM

    I’ve started doing some small scale talks about my own writing. In preperation I’ve been attending talks given by others (on a variety of subjects) and you’re right that there’s a huge variation in presentation styles.

    Personally I like answering questions from the audience, so my talks are more like a conversation than a lecture.

    • June 5, 2019 at 5:19 PM

      It is interesting to see how different these sorts of events can be, isn’t it? One day you’ll be at Hay!


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