Last weekend – 18 to 21 July – saw the Yorkshire town of Harrogate hosting The Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Internationally regarded, it’s the UK’s leading crime writing event with an array of live interviews with leading authors, panel discussions, workshops and much more, including dinners, a crime fiction quiz and, naturally, opportunities to drink. Crime Fiction Lover contributor and soon to be debutante crime author Eva Dolan attended and was our eyes and ears at the crime shindig of 2013. Now it’s over to Eva, aka LoiteringWithIntent, to find out what happened… (with photos by Fenris Oswin)
As a newbie author I was expecting my first Harrogate to be something of a baptism of fire – I’d heard the stories of hardcore hedonism and debauchery in the Old Swan’s beautifully landscaped grounds – but from the moment I arrived on Friday afternoon the atmosphere was one of warm bonhomie, a lot of old online friends to finally meet in the flesh, handshakes and hugs and ‘you don’t look anything like your avatar!’
Clutching my press pass and with the reputation of my publishers to consider I headed straight to the bar and ordered a mineral water. I was not going to drink. No I wasn’t. Not until I’d fulfilled my professional obligations to Crime Fiction Lover, and to my publisher Harvill Secker. Reader, I was lead astray. Before my first cigarette was rolled I’d been relocated to a table in the sunshine with Craig Robertson, whose new novel Witness the Dead kept me company on the train, and our mutual agent Stan, a man who apparently interprets ‘No, I’m not drinking’ as ‘Yeah, large one, ta.’
Some rum was drunk, some gossip was shared. More rum. Then I tottered away on a pair of, frankly, stupid shoes to be interviewed for the DeadGood website. Next it was off to the Standing on the Shoulders of Giants panel. Chaired by Martyn Waites it featured Sophie McKenzie, Louise Penny, Henry Sutton and, this year’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year winner Denise Mina.
‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ is often regarded as a lazy question to throw at writers but this panel was fascinating, ranging from the earliest influences on the authors taking part, to the affect of their contemporaries, and the music which fires them up. There was a big laugh for Louise Penny who revealed that she was such a bookish child that when she misbehaved her mother punished her by sending her out to play with the other kids.
The crowd spilled out through the bar and I ran into Luca Veste, former Crime Fiction Lover contributor. Proofs of his first DI Murphy novel, Dead Gone, were being given out to delegates over the weekend and I managed to nab one – signed and everything! It’s due out in January. This was the first chance I had to properly catch up with everyone and put faces to Twitter handles.
Friday’s party was hosted by Dead Good in a stunning papa kata tent in the gardens. The great, the good and the gatecrashers mingled behind velvet ropes and pretended to kill each other at an artfully arranged crime scene. I have a blurry memory of Stav Sherez’s Johnny Cash-esque western shirt, and of being introduced to my crime writing hero Ian Rankin. I think I contained my fangirlish enthusiasm. I hope I did anyway.
The Harvill Secker gang decamped to a restaurant in town – possibly a fiendish PR plan to soak up all the booze. Social media is great for making contact with fellow writers but it’s only on evenings like this that they can actually become friends. The conversation flowed freely over dinner and, later, crafty fags out on the street with band manager turned author Kevin Sampson.
Back at The Old Swan most of the visitors had ambled away to their hotels and by midnight the hardcore had settled in for a session – talking football with Col Bury and Nick Quantrill, gangsters with Howard Linskey and Luca Veste. Apologies to Michael Malone for giggling every time he said ‘murrrdah’ in that fabulous accent.
“They don’t like crime, they like justice…”
Saturday morning was a struggle. Woken by scaffolders outside my window at eight o’clock and with a pounding headache obviously brought on by the MSG in dinner I stupidly missed the special guest event, one I was determined to see – Ian Rankin interviewing William McIlvanney. The next event on my must-do list was being held at lunchtime so I actually managed to make that one. Over the years The New Blood panel, chaired by Val McDermid, has featured a slew of debut authors who have gone on to enjoy huge success. The room was packed when the writers took the stage – Derek B Miller, Anya Lipska, Malcolm Mackay and Colette McBeth.
I was already familiar with Anya Lipska’s debut Where The Devil Can’t Go, which is set among London’s Polish community, but the others were new to me and hearing the passion they spoke about their work with I was inspired to buy their books. What stuck with me was a comment by Derek B Miller on why crime writers are actually such nice people – “They don’t like crime, they like justice.” Over the weekend, discussing peoples work and, as it got later, their politics and beliefs, I realised just how right he was.
Lunch turned out to be a liquid one at a little pub in town with Col Bury, Nick Quantrill and Graham Smith – although there were crisps – and when we arrived the whole back room had been taken over by raucous writer types.
The afternoon panel was chaired by the luxuriantly moustachioed Paul Johnston and featured four authors from south of the equator – Helen Fitzgerald, MD Villiers, Lauren Beukes and Michael Robotham. Although the theme was meant to be the development of the genre in their native countries it actually developed into a discussion on why the authors felt a need to move away before they could write about their homelands or set their work somewhere else entirely. For Lauren Beukes the plot of her time-travelling serial killer novel The Shining Girls demanded the shift. For Helen Fitzgerald’s latest, The Cry, she needed the space and perspective which could only be attained from distance. While City of Blood author MD Villiers said she didn’t feel comfortable writing about Johannesburg until she moved to England. It was the funniest, sweariest panel I went to.
There were more events of course, Sarah Millican interviewing Lee Child, Kate Atkinson talking to Mark Lawson, and the James Bond themed dinner. None of which I made it to – the bar and gardens proving too much of a distraction. With most of the visitors packed into events the crush was eased slightly and I managed to catch up with some online folks I’d missed earlier. A great chat with Mark Edwards, whose psychological thriller The Magpies has dominated the charts for months, and the uber talented Susi Holliday – she of the Snoopy avatar – who’s working on her first crime novel. Judging by Susi’s short stories I sure she’s going to be a name to watch in 2014. Lovely to finally meet James Oswald too, one of self-publishing’s major success stories, and an absolute gent to boot.
Then somehow it was 10 o’clock and time for the legendary Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival quiz. Anyone who tells you it’s just a bit of fun is a liar. This was serious, reputations were on the line stuff. I was on the Harvill Secker team and we were cheating before it even started; eight people on what should have been a table of six. Scandalous, right? With a mix of editors, PR and marketing professionals, as well as three crime writers, one of who actually lectures in the subject, we couldn’t afford to do badly. Luckily what we lost in recognising crime show theme tunes from the 70s and 80s we made up for in identifying ales – take a bow Henry Sutton and Fiona Murphy. In the end we did okay. Sixth or seventh out of 30-odd teams. If we add a ninth member next year we might just win…
On the train up to Harrogate on Friday morning I was actually pretty apprehensive about what to expect from the festival, sure I knew some people from Twitter and Facebook, and sure the crime writing fraternity has a reputation for being very warm and welcoming, but it still felt like the first day at a new school. And to continue my clichéed analogy it kind of was, because I learned a lot from the authors and bloggers I talked to, people with far more experience than I have, who know what it feels like to have that release date coming up. So I don’t actually have a single Harrogate highlight, because it was just a 48 hour rush of lovely people and interesting conversations in a gorgeous setting.
However, here are the highlights of some of the people I spoke to…
Chris Ewan – “The panels, as ever, were terrific and I especially enjoyed the Lee Child and Sarah Millican event, but the best part of the weekend is always meeting new people, including writers I really admire, and this year it was lovely to chat with Louise Penny and Lauren Buekes for the first time, among many others.”
Howard Linskey – “Personal highlight this year was probably bumping into Sarah Millican after the Lee Child event.”
Stav Sherez – “Writers spend most of the year solitary, in small rooms, hunched over words and doubts, and when they all get together once or twice a year it’s not surprising that the weekend turns into the wildest, craziest chunk of fun you’re likely to have until the next one. A thousand conversations, from shopping to Schopenhauer, new friends and old, the spinning noise of the world kept at bay for a few days.”
Craig Robertson – “The highlights of my weekend included being hugged by William McIlvanney, sharing Jim Gracie’s birthday cake with Paul Johnson, Michael Malone and others, and watching people trip on the way in and out of the signing tent. And sitting in the sun chatting to fun people.”
Luca Veste – “My highlight of what was another incredibly successful festival, would be Ruth Rendell’s speech after picking up her Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award. Inspiring, touching, and hugely funny – the perfect way to start the weekend.”
Michael Malone – “Seeing and hearing the resurgent William Mcilvanney. And being reminded that he is not only a warm and witty human being but one of the most talented writers we have in any genre.”
Mel Sherratt – “Being introduced by Peter James to WHSmith team as a self-publishing star and one to watch out for…”
Kevin Sampson – “My standout speaker was Ruth Rendell – she is WISE – and I loved the bufoonery of the Dead Good party, during which I was choked by the Brixton Strangler… but the lasting memory I’ll take away from Harrogate is just the sheer warmth and wit and loveliness of ALL the people I met.”
Mari Hannah – “It was great to see fellow AM Heath authors – Lauren Beukes and Martie (MD) Villiers – on the South of the Equator panel. Equally, I was so proud to have quoted for two debut authors who appeared on this year’s New Blood panel, Anya Lipska and Colette McBeth alongside Malcolm Mackay and Derek B. Miller. I know a good book when I see one!”
Henry Sutton – “Loved the couplings: McIlvanney and Rankin, Rendell and Winterson, Child and Millican. Inspired. But just imagine switching them around.”
Tom Wood – “Maybe not a highlight in the traditional sense but the lady snoring her head off while David Mark & I discussed James Bond was hilarious.”
Nick Quantrill – “Above all else, the highlight of the festival for me is the chance to solidify online friendships and make new friends. It’s about being with people who share the same passion.”
Helen FitzGerald – “There were so many ace things about Harrogate – noticing someone in a signing queue engrossed in my book, tiny twitter faces growing to human size, being called an Australian writer (at last!) – but if I’m honest the highlight was the ham and pineapple pizza I scoffed in a park at 3am.”
MD Villiers – “Loved Louise Penny – I now want to read all her books. And Vera. Ann Cleeves is fab!”
Mark Edwards – “My highlight was meeting so many of what is an extraordinarily strong new wave of crime writers. So much talent in one place. And nearly all of them mutually supportive as well as great fun.”