Last weekend, I attended Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival in the Cotswolds. I was there as J.F.Penn for a crime fiction panel and also to support my Dad, Arthur J.Penn, appearing as an artist-in-residence with his linocut prints. You can watch a little video below or here on YouTube.
I actually enjoyed it more than London Book Fair. Here's why.
(1) There's joy in being an amateur.
The word amateur means someone who does something for the love of it, not for their job or for income. Amateur is not a value judgement, and in fact, it is the bedrock of being an indie author.
Yes, I'm a professional author, making a living from my writing, and I still love it. But it was so refreshing for me to step away from the frenetic pace of the pro indie space and listen to people who are writing purely for the love of it. Authors who write and publish for personal, creative reasons and who are not driven by production schedules and promotional calendars.
Don't get me wrong. I LOVE what I do. Creating and writing books that readers love makes me super happy and pays the bills.
But as I listened to a group of poets perform in the tiny local chapel, the hymn numbers in a rack above their heads, I thought about some of the creative projects I have put on the back burner over the years. Those stories I have wanted to tell but the drive to reach my immediate financial goals stopped me from pursuing.
Perhaps it's time to dust those ideas off and put them out into the world …
Honorable mentions for the wonderful Dan Holloway, whose performance poetry always inspires me to write more. And to local poet Gef Lucena for the memorable line, “I stubbed my toe on a hedgehog last night.”
(2) There's more room for diverse voices.
One of the stand-out panels for me was on writing difference. The speakers ranged from a young disabled woman writing children's fiction with her Mum, to authors with bipolar and Asperger's, to those caring for autistic children and writing about disability and mental illness.
These are voices we don't tend to hear at literary festivals – perhaps because they are unpredictable by the very nature of the participants – or that they may make people feel uncomfortable.
As someone who strives for diversity with international voices, I enjoyed this take on the psychological spectrum of diversity.
Not all literary festivals welcome indie authors, but Hawkesbury Upton was fueled by them!
Debbie made it welcoming for all kinds of authors and the panels were made up of a mixture of people publishing in different ways. The point of the panels was never how people published. In fact, I didn't hear anything about publishing during the panels at all, which was refreshing!
But these events can also be life-changing for those attending who dream of having their own books in the world.
One lady came up to me after my panel and said that she had heard me speak at the Stratford-on-Avon literary festival last year. She had attended a session on traditional publishing and come away disillusioned, and then discovered a whole new world of self-publishing.
A year on, she has self-published and her definition of success was to see her book in the world. She was delighted and I almost teared up to hear her story. I love to hear these stories!
(4) It's lovely to feel part of a community.
When authors tell me that they feel alone, I invite them to join the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), because of the open, giving, supportive community that the organization fosters. The ALLi spirit of acceptance, creativity and support was on show at Hawkesbury Upton LitFest and many members attended, proudly wearing their badges.
I've attended a lot of literary festivals over the years, and the only other place I have truly felt accepted as an indie was at ThrillerFest, which is a world away from this little village in the Cotswolds.
Why is all this important?
We write because we want to be heard. We want someone to notice our passing in this short life.
We want to bring our stories alive and for even just one reader to say, “You touched me.”
We also long to be part of a community that truly understands us, where we are accepted for how we choose to write, AND how we choose to publish.
Going indie is empowering in so many ways and I am truly proud to be part of a dynamic movement that operates both at the highest levels of financial and publishing success, and at the grassroots creative level where a poet can hand-sell a chapbook for £4 in a country chapel.
Thanks again to Debbie Young for organizing Hawkesbury Upton LitFest … perhaps I'll see you there next year!
What are your experiences of local writing festivals? Do you attend? What did you learn? How can we improve this kind of event for authors and attendees? Please do join the conversation by leaving a comment below.