Facing the fear and fearing the faces

I have a confession to make. I am a writer… no, that’s not it.


I am a writer who is, or was, until very recently, a literary festival virgin. There, I’ve admitted it in public, ashamed as I am. I knew that they went on, of course, and that they involved speakers, and, by default, listeners, that money exchanged hands and canvas played some part in the festivities, but…

I also faced two big fears.

Number One was actually driving anywhere further than the edge of my village, let alone venturing to territory almost two hours outside South Bucks. Finding my way has always been a challenge, nay, more of a near-death experience at times, hence my once detour to Usk when I got off the M4 with the intention of going to Newport, but turned the wrong way… oh, and that time I was given the responsibility of holding the European map book and directed Hubby into Austria instead of Switzerland. But I digress. Lost again…

Anyway, thanks to the little yellow man I had dropped onto Google maps, and the reassuring and competent directions issued by SatNav Jane, I made it. Hoorah! Fear One was duly conquered.

It was not until I arrived at the Cheltenham Literary Festival with my writing buddy, Mike, that I realised what I had been missing. Admittedly, this was probably THE one to attend – and I flippin’ loved it!

Helen at LitFest11444084281345[1]

Imperial Square and Montpellier Gardens were where the hub of activity took place. By day, the sun shone and the pathways and grass were alive with happy, happy people. They were like busy ants disappearing into and emerging from tents, carrying books and maps, white canvas bags slung over their shoulders (freebies from the nice people at The Sunday Times who were sponsoring the event). Many were writers. (You can tell a writer by his or her very long scarf, draped multiple times and nonchalantly flung over a shoulder (tick, Helen), or by a quirky hat worn at a jaunty angle (tick, Mike), perhaps a pair of glasses which happen to have red frames. The attire was, on the whole, loose, bohemian, and often involved boots.)


By night, there were fairy lights, oversized candelabras, hanging hearts, and a double teepee called The Wilde where we went for drinks between talks.


At the beginning of my stay, I revelled in the thick wad of tickets in my bag, but as the week went on and the pile got thin, it was a bit like the feeling you get when you know you’re getting to the end of a rip-roaring book. I tried to trick myself by moving the used ones to the back of the pile, but it didn’t work; I was in on it.

The first talks I attended were poetry-based. I hadn’t anticipated what a treat Performance Poetry would be. An evening with Hollie McNish (on TV last night), Jemima Foxtrot (there’s a name I won’t forget) and Erin Fornoff was hugely entertaining. I felt as though I was at a show, albeit a show without popcorn. Mike and I were also lulled by the languid Simon Armitage who stretched out in his chair like a lazy Sunday afternoon. I could listen to him all day. He talked about doing the Pennine Walk and read a wonderful poem about the sea. Unfortunately, we had to leave five minutes early to get to the next talk – Sandi Toksvig talking about A Slice of the Moon –  just as he was about to reveal what someone had left in a sock he had passed around to pay for his board and lodgings. I guess we’ll never know…


As I also write children’s fiction, I went along to see several children’s authors. Julian Clary was on top form, talking about his new book, The Bolds. He was accompanied by his illustrator, David Roberts, who sketched the whole time. How easy did he make it look! The banter flew between them like the ball in the Chinese ping-pong championships, delighting adults and children alike. Chris Riddell was equally entertaining, drawing the whole time he was talking about his Goth Girl books, and sharing his family snaps… as one does with a captive audience. Frank Cottrell Boyce and Danny Wallace made a great double-act. Did you know that Frank turns yellow when he’s stressed? That was the inspiration for his book Broccoli Boy. Except he turns green.

Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre, the crime writers, also teamed up. It was not what we expected, even though there had been a warning:

‘Expect very strong language and an extremely disturbing story about a chicken.’

It was really a swear-off where they compared bad language in their books and shared the hilarious one-star reviews and complaint emails they had received. I daren’t tell you the chicken story. Chris was also part of another, more serious event we attended which was about crime writing. Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman made a great double-act, too, picking twitter comments out of a hat and ad-libbing with great eloquence and humour. We also heard Alexander talk about his Arctic Adventure which is going to be shown this week on TV. (Oooh, snow. I love snow)

I came across a few new writers, Rosamund Lupton, for instance, whose book The Quality of Silence I’m going to buy ( snow and thriller – I love a snowy thriller), and I heard from Mike about James Rhodes’ moving story which is documented in his book Instrumental. Another on my To Buy list. Having read The Time Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, I was very interested to attend Audrey Niffenegger’s talk. She used to be a guide a Highgate Cemetery. Paula Hawkins talked about her phenomenal success with The Girl on the Train. It seems that giving away hundreds of free copies at train stations made a big impact on its success, and her publishers were fabulous at promotion.

I was so sad to leave. I could quite happily have become a professional Festival-goer, but I did leave with renewed inspiration and greater confidence:

Earlier on, I mentioned that I had two fears.Helen at LitFest 2IMG_0509

Fear Number Two is that of speaking in public. I can speak to children. Heck, I was a teacher so I know that they stroke shoes and hang on to every word, mouths agape, but adults… eeek.

However, I did it. I blinkin’ did it! (Well, so did Mike, but he’s an actorrrr, so is used to it.)

I stood there under a spotlight with a microphone in front of me and took part in an open mike evening called ‘You heard it here first’ where I read some of my poetry. I was touched when performance poet, Andy Conner, told me that it had had an effect on him. And, apparently, they couldn’t hear the knocking of my knees.

It’s just as well really as I’ve been asked to speak about my children’s fiction at the Purbeck Festival in February… that’s if I can find my way.


Author: helenlaycock

The tiniest detail can spark off an idea. I collect them, like butterflies. They can be strange or beautiful...and, as they flutter around, I pluck them out and use them to write. Sometimes they turn into poetry, sometimes into stories, but a lot of them have grown into something much bigger - books. I have not yet decided whether I am a children's or adults' author as I write for both. So, I'll just call myself a writer.

10 thoughts on “Facing the fear and fearing the faces”

  1. Great write-up, Helen! Sounds like you had a wonderful time. And well done for taking to the mic! You’ve inspired me to go next year if I can x

    1. Absolutely, Ana. What was reassuring was that the answers writers gave in response to questions matched what I would have said. It’s nice to know when you’re on the right lines!

  2. How lovely to be able to spend so much time at the Festival. I’ve been to a couple of single sessions but travelling to and from either side of the event doesn’t allow you to soak up the atmosphere. Great that you managed to speak, too. As a former teacher myself I know there is a great difference between talking to an adult audience and one of children yet everyone seems to think that is odd.

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