OIR: Karen Weatherly interviews Ann Cleeves about Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

Article published on June 4, 2015.

Author Ann Cleeves (pictured above right with Harrogate International Festivals CEO, Sharon Canavar) is the Programming Chair for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, in Harrogate. Karen Weatherly, intrepid reporter of this parish, is an event organiser of some renown herself and  wanted to know . . .

Did you volunteer or was it your turn? Do you have a festival team (of how many) working with you and which bits scare you?

I was invited to become this year’s chair by the programming committee. Traditionally we alternate male and female. I was officially asked at the festival two years ago by last year’s chair, Steve Mosby. He took me into a quiet corner and whispered the invitation. I was hugely honoured but it was scary too. Each year the festival seems to get better and I’d hate to preside over a disappointing year. There’s a small professional team who work all year with Harrogate International Festivals and they do much of the hard work. Then there’s the committee of authors, an agent and a publisher. They’re hugely experienced and have some truly amazing contacts. We all have a very honest discussion about the panels we’d like to see. The big name headliners have to be approached some time in advance. I was delighted that Sara Paretsky and Arnaldur Indridason agreed to come along. They were both first choices for me.

This festival is ranked as one of the top three literary festivals in the UK by the Guardian and featured in the Independent’s “The 50 best festivals” – what is the secret of its success do you think?

I think it’s a really good mix between a traditional literature festival and a US crime convention. It’s friendly – probably the only book festival I’ve ever attended where the Green Room is usually empty because the writers are all mixing it with the readers in the bar – but it makes a real effort to attract interesting and intelligent speakers. There’s single-track programming so there’s no danger of missing anything and everyone has a good audience. That means that panel places are limited and one of the hardest aspects of being programme chair is having to disappoint fabulous authors who’d love to take part.

This year’s programme is looking really interesting – how do you decide which authors and events to include. Is there an author/event you are particularly excited about?

All of them! The new blood panel is always well attended and I love finding out about debut authors. The forensics panel will be fascinating – professors Lorna Dawson and James Grieve are friends of mine – and because of my background in reader development I’m delighted that we’ve been able to include a panel on how readers find authors new to them. Stewart Bain who manages reader development for Orkney Libraries and who’s famous for his irreverent tweets will be with us for that. We decide on the panel subjects first and then work with publishers to find the best possible author to speak on them.

The programme says that “This year we focus on crime fiction’s ability to take us to strange lands and see familiar places in a new and unsettling way.” Can you elaborate?

Because my reading passion is translated crime fiction. I love the way popular fiction can give us an insight into another culture’s preoccupations. And I’m very interested in the way characters and plot can grow out of place.

How much of your time has been taken up with the programming – do you have time for anything else other than eating and sleeping? Are you currently working on a book as well?

Because this is very much a joint project and we have the experienced HIF team to do the legwork it hasn’t really been a chore. And as wonderful writers and celebrities agree to take part it just becomes very exciting. I’ve just finished a new Vera book – The Moth Catcher – and I’m working on a new Shetland book.

Is there a crime novel that you have read this year that you would recommend?

I came across one of the debut authors from last year. He’s called Ray Celestin and wrote The Axeman’s Jazz. It’s a fabulous first novel set in 1920s New Orleans.

One of the current general discussion points in the book world is whether authors should be paid a fee for festival appearances. As an author and now this year as a festival organiser do you find yourself seeing both sides?      

We pay a fee to our authors, but as the Festival is delivered by an arts charity, some people are kind enough to waive it, they appreciate the charitable literacy outreach the festival undertakes. Obviously we pay for their accommodation. We’re lucky to have some great sponsors too. I think it’s more of a struggle for the smaller festivals.

What advice would you give to your successor on being the Festival Programme Chair.

Take the advice of the programming committee, but do bring a distinctive flavour to the festival – it’s the change in emphasis every year that makes it so special. And do enjoy it! That was the sense I had from Steve last year. He was so calm and gracious to everyone and he had a huge smile on his face all weekend. He’ll be such a hard act to follow.

The festival runs from July 16-19 at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate. More information at harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime/ and Karen will be OUR INTREPID REPORTER on nudge giving her personal perspective in due course.

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