Thursday, August 30, 2012

Spreading the word

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

As well as organising the festival itself, MLF partners with a number of arts and cultural companies and groups to deliver activities around the year. One of these is The Reader Organisation, whose RISE (reading in secure environments) programme of events brings an exciting range of authors to readers in secure criminal justice and mental health care settings. MLF is delighted to be one of five literature festival partners in RISE, and our participating authors are Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams and Joe Dunthorne, who will visit HMP Styal, a secure ward in Prestwich Hospital and an approved hostel in Greater Manchester. Here, we chat to Maura Kennedy, Events and Publications Manager at The Reader Organisation, to find out a little more.

MLF: Could you explain a bit about The Reader Organisation's Get Into Reading project, of which RISE is a part, and how it works?
MK: This September is actually the 10th anniversary of Get Into Reading, which began when Jane Davis, the founder and director of The Reader Organisation, set up the first group in a library in Birkenhead. Jane wanted to “share literature with people who need it, like me” and felt that getting out of schools and universities was vital to making this connection. That first Get Into Reading group became the model for those that followed: challenging, high-quality fiction and poetry read aloud weekly so that all group members share reading in “real” time. It soon became clear that this reading aloud approach encouraged a real, often personal, response to the poem or prose piece being read. Crucially, it also facilitated conversation and reflection among people who might not otherwise meet – the groups are social as well as literary; there’s great literature but also great chat and cake! Another cornerstone of Get Into Reading that grew out of that first group is the connection between fiction and poetry: in each session, a poem is read as well as a short story or, in the case of long-standing groups, a section of the novel the group are currently reading. Connections between disparate poems and stories, often from different centuries, reveal themselves in the reading aloud and conversation process. Sometimes people can have very personal responses to a given piece of writing but the conversation always comes back to the text itself, the heart of the group. There are now over 300 Get Into Reading groups across the UK, from Northern Ireland to the South West, including Scotland, Merseyside, London and lots of places in between. The reading groups take place in community and specialised settings, including libraries, universities, workplaces, care homes, prisons, hospitals and schools, and one-to-one with looked-after children. Each group is led by a Reader staff member or a person who has completed The Reader Organisation’s training, which ensures that the spirit of that first group – challenge, reflection, generosity – is maintained. 
MLF: How does the RISE programme of events fit in with this? 
MK: The Reader Organisation now works in partnership via its learning and reader-in-residence programmes with a wide range of partners in education, healthcare, criminal justice, cultural and other sectors; via this network we can reach all kinds of readers in all kinds of places. Our Get Into Reading groups in criminal justice and mental health care settings are successful in bringing readers and non-readers together – the reading aloud model means that people who are not comfortable with reading for literacy or other reasons can still fully participate and contribute and, most importantly, enjoy the group. The traditional reading group model, where each member reads in private in his/her own time, can be off-putting to people who are not in the habit of reading or face other challenges such as access to books, concentration or other issues. Over the past couple of years, we have invited a variety of authors to visit our reading groups in some of the secure venues where Get Into Reading takes place – HMP Low Newton, HMP Liverpool and a number of Mersey Care NHS Trust sites. These visits have been really successful and enjoyable and we saw that there is a real appetite among readers in these environments, authors and partners to take part in this type of activity, which is a staple of the cultural calendar in the “outside” world. RISE is about imaginative and social connections: connecting readers in secure settings and the general population with each other and the work of really good, interesting contemporary authors; connections between festivals, authors and partner venues. Our groups in host Manchester and Durham venues have already begun reading Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams, Joe Dunthorne, Michael Stewart and Jean Sprackland in preparation for their visits and, so far, their work has stimulated a lot of interest and conversation.
MLF: We are one of five literature festivals participating in RISE - which are the other partners and why is it beneficial to team up with a festival? 
MK: We’re really delighted to be working with these five festivals for the first year – Manchester Literature Festival, Durham Book Festival, Words Literary Festival in Wigan, Writing on the Wall in Liverpool and the Southbank Centre in London. The benefits are clear from the response that we’ve had to the pilot year: nobody said no to taking part. Every author we invited, festival we approached, secure venue we work with, our own project workers in each location they all jumped at the chance to take part. Crucially, Arts Council England saw the benefits of pilot funding a unique network which has ambition and scope for making further connections. The connection to a literature festival in the locality and the buzz of a guest author coming in is a highlight for those who read weekly and often also to staff and the general prison/hospital population. As mentioned, we have previously brought guest authors to some of our groups in secure settings, which were very successful – the benefit of doing so as part of a festival is to broaden the festival audience to include readers in these settings and to bring the buzz of a festival into what can be very socially and culturally isolated venues. There are also very practical reasons for the RISE partnership: authors need lots of downtime to write and are more open to invitations in the festival season; costs on all sides can be reduced by joining forces; structured visits with plenty of lead-in time work best for the staff in secure environments; and jointly, we can raise the profile of RISE and the work of The Reader Organisation in general with the help of our festival partners and vice versa.

MLF: Is this the first time Manchester / Greater Manchester has hosted the Get Into Reading sessions, and what (and who) will they involve? 
 MK: There are weekly Get Into Reading groups in Prestwich Hospital, HMP Styal, the probation service and other venues across Manchester and Greater Manchester delivered in partnership with Greater Manchester West NHS Trust and our criminal justice partners in the area. Thanks to the Manchester Literature Festival, we’ll be offering Get Into Reading sessions as part of the Family Reading Day on  21 October in Manchester Town Hall, when we’ll be sharing the delights of our brand new anthology A Little, Aloud for Children, featuring everyone from WB Yeats to Jacqueline Wilson! We’re looking at hosting a taster session for adults also, so watch this space…

MLF: What can people do to get involved in Get Into Reading and RISE?
MK: We really want Manchester Literature Festival-goers to make the connection with our readers in HMP Styal, Prestwich Hospital and the probation service – it’s not possible to do this physically, so we’re inviting people to contribute to our RISE forum during the festival and let us know what they thought of the event they attended with Jackie Kay, Inua Ellams and Joe Dunthorne in the public festival. Get Into Reading is all about sharing responses and it would be wonderful if readers who are separated physically, and perhaps in other ways, can share their imaginative responses to these excellent authors. More generally, our website has lots on information on our publications, projects, fundraising and other activities: visit

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Man of many talents

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

We're really pleased to be teaming up again with the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The IABF, on Cambridge Street, will be the Festival Hub for a second year running. Here the centre's Deputy Director, Will Carr, tells us more about the importance of Anthony Burgess on Manchester and what's going on during the Festival to celebrate his many and varied achievements as a novelist, poet, playwright, composer, linguist, translator and critic.

MLF: Once again, IABF is the official MLF hub. What Anthony Burgess-specific events are chalked up for the 2012 Festival?
WC: We're delighted to welcome the historian Dominic Sandbrook to speak at our launch event for a special 50th anniversary edition of Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (Fifty Years Of A Clockwork Orange: Thursday 18 October, 7pm, £8/£6 concessions). Dominic is an authority on British culture of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s - his books include Never Had It So Good, White Heat and Seasons In The Sun, and he has presented a four-part series about the 1970s for BBC television. He'll be in conversation with Andrew Biswell, who is the Director of the Burgess Foundation, Burgess's biographer, and the editor of the new A Clockwork Orange.

During the Festival our special exhibition, Fifty Years Of A Clockwork Orange, will be up at the John Rylands Library on Deansgate - it's free, and open every day. The show tells the story of the book over the last fifty years and examines its impact and legacy: it includes rare books, manuscripts, photographs and film props from our own collections and those of the Stanley Kubrick Archive at the University of the Arts, London.

Anthony Burgess also features in Ed Glinert's perenially popular Boho Literary Pub Walk, which takes place on Saturday 20 October (5pm, £6).

MLF: What are the connections between Burgess and Manchester?
WC: Anthony Burgess says in his autobiography that he is 'proud to be a Mancunian' - and he was. He was born in Harpurhey and grew up in Moss Side, and studied at Xaverian College in Rusholme and at the University of Manchester; he lived all over the world and had a varied and colourful life but did not reject his Northern, Catholic, Mancunian roots. After the 1939-45 war, he left Manchester, but often returned in later life. His novels often reference the city, especially The Pianoplayers which draws heavily on his own life and that of his father Joe, who played the piano in the music halls and silent cinemas of the 1930s. Anthony Burgess is one of Manchester's great cultural exports.

MLF: It's A Clockwork Orange's 50th anniversary this year - can you tell us a bit about what you've been up to to mark the occasion?
WC: As well as the John Rylands exhibition, this year we have also held a major international conference over three days celebrating the novel, including talks, debates and lectures plus a film season in partnership with Cornerhouse and the European premiere of Burgess's bawdy songs for his stage musical version of A Clockwork Orange. On top of this we're launching a 50th-anniversary edition of the book (pictured above) in Manchester and New York; developing an iPad app for the book with Heinemann; we've just finished a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that draws on our audio collections here at the Burgess Foundation, and we'll have more concerts of Burgess's music later in the year.

MLF: What do you think Anthony Burgess would make of being celebrated in this way?
WC: Burgess loved anniversaries and often used them as a hook for his literary projects, writing about James Joyce, Mozart, DH Lawrence, Beethoven and many more on the flimsiest of pretexts. It's not clear that he loved A Clockwork Orange so much, and he often became frustrated when people would ask him only about that book (or indeed about Stanley Kubrick's film adapation) and ignore his other books (of which there are around 60), some of which he was happier with. However, Burgess never stopped writing about A Clockwork Orange, talking about it, giving interviews about it, thinking about it: it always remained an important part of his life.

MLF: What has IABF got planned going forward, events, publications and research wise?
WC: We're continuing to grow our programme of contermporary literature and music, and have a series of booklaunches and readings with Carcanet, MMU, Unbound Books and plenty more, as well as concerts with the RNCM, Imperial War Museum North and Manchester Camerata lined up until the end of the year; on the academic side we'll also be launching a new journal, The Burgess Review, which looks at Burgess and his contemporaries; and we're planning for 2013 now... We're very open to collaboration and hope to work with more and more people in Manchester and beyond.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Awards scheme

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

Nominations are now open for the annual Blog Awards, which have expanded in their seventh year to become the Blog North Awards, organisers Openstories having joined forces with arts websites Creative Tourist and Culture Vultures. Previously the Manchester Blog Awards, the celebration of blogging and independent writing will take place during Manchester Literature Festival on Wednesday 17 October at the Deaf Institute on Grosvenor Street, starting at 7.30pm. The evening will include readings from shortlisted bloggers and the author of “truly original debut” (The Guardian) Empire State Adam Christopher, the launch by Comma Press of a new experiment in literary social networking, The Turing Text, and, of course, the glittering prize-giving ceremony itself. Tickets are available through the Manchester Literature Festival website.

This year, there are seven categories in which you can nominate your favourite blogs from the North of England: Best Arts and Culture Blog, Best City or Neighbourhood Blog, Best Food and Drink Blog, Best Personal Blog, Best Specialist Blog, Best Writing on a Blog and Young Blogger of the Year. Nominations close on 7 September, and a shortlist will be published in mid September. You can see the full criteria and vote via the Blog North Awards website.

Manchester Literature Festival has supported the Blog Awards since it started, and past winners have gone on to publish books, write national newspaper columns and start successful business endeavours based on their blogs. 

Kate Feld, Manchester Blog Awards founder and director of Openstories, says: “There’s so much wonderful blogging happening across the region, and we’re delighted to be able to share our passion for the best independent online publishing with a new audience of bloggers and readers.”

We had a chat with Kate to find out a little bit more about the new-look Blog Awards... 

MLF: You've just launched the seventh annual Blog Awards, and for the first time they cover more ground and extend beyond Manchester. What spurred this on?
KF: I’ve felt for a long time that it was slightly unfair that Manchester bloggers should have this great platform for recognition while their counterparts in Liverpool or Newcastle didn’t. Our partnership with the new Blog North network seemed like a natural next step.

MLF: Have there been any other changes this year we should look out for? 
KF: Apart from the name and area change, we’ve added a few new categories: a young bloggers' category, as we want to specifically highlight the great work young people are doing in blogging. A food and drink category didn’t make sense for Manchester, but it works for the whole of the North. And a specialist blog category seemed like a good way to recognise the passion and devotion so many knowledgeable people pour into subject-oriented blogs.

MLF: Could you explain the connection with Manchester Literature Festival and how literature and blogging fit together?
KF: Blogging is simply writing; albeit writing that is published on a blogging platform. It is a form of literature, one with real breadth and substance, so it makes sense to celebrate it as part of a literature festival. I’ve occasionally encountered snobbery about blogging in the writing world, but I think this is on the wane. There are lots of badly written blogs, but by the same token there are also lots of badly written books, essays and articles. Fortunately there is plenty of good writing to get excited about. Blogging is where a lot of independent new writing is happening, and that is what MLF has really understood from the beginning.

MLF: Obviously we have a Festival blog so we still think blogging is the new black, but why do you think it's remained so popular?
KF: I don’t really think we can rightly say it’s popular any more, for that word implies that it’s some kind of ephemeral craze, like scoubidou or the Charleston. Blogging just is, now. It’s part of the mainstream, it has slotted in alongside newspapers and magazines (and more recently, online communities and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter), and it isn’t going anywhere. 

It’s not hard to understand why blogging stuck around. It’s a self-powered publishing tool, a free personal printing press that comes with free, infinite distribution built in. And the fact that the blog format has been co-opted by established news organisations shows that its appeal is about more than the publishing platform. It’s an exciting time; there is a lot of cross-pollination happening right now in the media (blogazines, anyone?) and people are using blogs in increasingly novel and imaginative ways.

MLF: Is the North a particular hotspot for blogging? Could you describe the region's scene and how people can get involved?
KF: I think the North is a great place for blogging, with an incredible variety of writing, and a number of different scenes in different areas. But it’s a big place and, thinking about it as a region, in terms of blogging, is a new thing. I’d definitely say the Blog North network is a great starting point (see Facebook and follow @blognorth on Twitter for more). It organises events several times a year at cultural venues, with workshops and sessions tailored for bloggers. I know there are blogmeets happening in several cities (the next one in Manchester is later this month: click here for more) and that’s a more informal way to chat with other bloggers. I’ve been along to blogging events around the world and have always found the blogging community incredibly friendly and welcoming, so people shouldn’t be shy about getting involved. It’s great fun!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Corresponding authors

Interview by Sarah-Clare Conlon. Photograph by Tim Power

Here in the Festival office, we're really excited about Manchester Letters, one of our new commissions for 2012. We officially launched this literary penpal project three weeks ago and, since then, three missives have been published on the Manchester Letters website, with a further nine to follow in coming months. We'll be announcing when new letters appear via Twitter and Facebook, so be sure to follow us, and feel free to contribute your own observations using the comment facility on the website.

The project sees two authors - the UK's Jenn Ashworth and Turkey's Nermin Yildirim - writing to each other and discussing their working processes and work in progress. The pair will then get together, first at the Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival on 1 October and then at Manchester Literature Festival on 20 October, and read some of their latest fiction and chat about how their different backgrounds and locations might determine their creative output. Jenn’s novels, A Kind Of Intimacy, Cold Light and the upcoming The Friday Gospels, are all set in Lancashire, while Nermin’s debut, The Forget-Me-Not Building, delves into Turkish history.

Here are some extracts from the first two letters, followed by an interview with Jenn Ashworth.

JENN: "I don’t get, I think, as much time as I would like to write. Is it like that for you, too? I do a lot of thinking as I drive up the motorway up and down the M6 from Preston where I live, to Lancaster, where I work. It’s often raining and the windscreen wipers are going like the clappers and planning out the next bit of writing I am going to do stops me from falling asleep!"
NERMIN: "Just like you writing in the car, I tried my luck in every little spot I could find where I was able to find refuge and be alone. Being someone who is easily disturbed by any kind of noise, I preferred quiet places whenever possible. For example, I have never been someone who is able to write in a café or something."

MLF: Could you describe how the Manchester Letters project works?
JA: Nermin and I are writing to each other over the summer - six times each, in advance of meeting up during the project's culmination in October. My letters are translated into Turkish, and Nermin's are translated into English, and then they're posted on the Manchester Letters website in the form of a blog. The first three letters are already there - the next one will be posted shortly, I think. I kicked it off, she replied, and then I replied. I'm waiting for her third letter to be translated now.

MLF: Why did you decide to get involved, and how did you hook up with Nermin?
JA: I was introduced to Nermin before the project started, and part of the reason I wanted to get involved was because I was interested in her - we seemed, on paper, very similar - both had written since we were children, both at a similar stage in our careers, both novelists - and even some of the themes we tackle in our work - silences, nostalgia, etc - are similar. And I guess I really wanted to explore how we might be different from each other too, and what part of that difference would be down to language, and culture. Or not. We're only two letters in and I feel like I've found a friend already. I can't lie, either - the chance to go and explore Istanbul and Hatay with the ITEF-Istanbul Tanpinar Literature Festival was a great temptation! I haven't travelled much, most of my work is very place-based, and the place has always been Lancashire. It's roasting hot in Turkey - how could I resist?

MLF: How are you finding the process of writing letters? Do you adopt a different approach to writing your novels, short stories and, previously, blog?
JA: I went first - and that was very hard. At that point I knew a little bit about Nermin and her work, and the brief for the project, but writing that first letter was tricky. I send emails to people I don't know all the time, but the fact that I knew this letter was going to be translated, and published on a website, gave me a little bit of stage fright. It was a tenative hand-reach out to a potential friend, and a piece of performance all at once. Of course you need to think about that when you write fiction too - the privacy and intimacy of what goes on between you and your characters, you and your reader - and the performance - the drama - of publication. In some ways it is similar in a way I didn't really expect it to be. Like blogging for an audience of one.

MLF: This year's Festival programme includes quite a lot of work translated from various other languages, but how are you finding communicating with someone in Turkey - does anything get lost in translation, and, if so, does this matter?
JA: As I've said - we're early on in the project right now and perhaps you can ask me again once we've sent a few more letters. But right now, I am feeling a pressure to get rid of 'Northernisms' and anything non-standard about my language that might make me difficult to translate, or difficult to understand for someone who's learned English as a second language. And when I wrote that version and read it over, it sounded terrible. Not like me at all. So I decided just to go for it, and use expressions like 'going like the clappers' and 'full head of steam' if they seemed natural to me. I'd love to hear what a translator made of that. Sadly, as I don't have any Turkish, I don't suppose I'll ever know.

MLF: Did you have a penpal when you were younger? How are you finding having a penpal as an adult?
JA: I never had a penpal when I was younger, but, of course, like most people my age, I use Twitter and Facebook and email to keep in touch with friends. I have friends now that I have never met - ones I communicate with only by email, or on Twitter, or on writing forums. And I have many 'real life' friends who started out as Twitter friends. It doesn't seem so much of a strange thing for me any more - but it's only when I look back to how small my circle of friends was when I was much younger that I realise how odd it can be to feel close to friends you've never met. And there's a flipside to that too. There's a difference between a chat in a pub, and a string of emails. I think I'm much more careful about what I write rather than what I say - because you've never really just got an audience of one - those things can escape, and I can never quite let myself forget that.