I wrote this back in 2010 to publicise and inform readers of what exactly the event Wordfest was and still is. For the record, it does not parallel a gaming convention whereby the gamers are wannabe Countdown contestants playing Fridge Poetry.
Wordfest Revealed: An Interview with Helen Taylor
Wordfest has now reached its 7th year. I went to find out exactly what Wordfest is all about and why you should attend. Helen Taylor is Cambridgeshire County Council’s Literature Development Officer and is also part of the Advisory Group for Wordfest which includes programming, funding and planning which writers to bring together for the festival. Sitting in a canteen at Shire Hall I get the chance to talk with Helen Taylor.
What exactly is Wordfest?
It is a new breed of festival. Bringing together different types of people and writers in a variety of venues: The Fitzwilliam museum, ADC Theatre and local libraries get involved in this celebration of literature. It’s a festival of ideas and inspiration.
What have you enjoyed most about Wordfest?
The amazing things I have learnt. For instance, the illustrator Andy English, gained inspiration from the armoury room at the Fitzwilliam, specifically from the knight situated on a horse. You can see here [she points to page 34 of the programme- oh yes I can definitely see the resemblance] and it’s knowing things like this that you can’t get elsewhere which make it such an interesting festival. (English is appearing at this year’s Wordfest with Phillip Pullman, author of Northern Lights.)
What have you learned from your involvement?
People like the ownership of Wordfest. Many who have attended immediately want to know when the next one is, it seems to become an important part of their calendar. Also, the concept of subterranean book: the sell out of Chinese writer Xinran’s event revealed an underground movement of books, which must have been spread by word of mouth. One of the hardest things is writers cancelling at the last moment. Rageh Omaar, BBC foreign correspondent, cancelled the day before his planned event. So giving apologies to large groups of people and finding replacement writers at short notice was a major learning curve.
Who usually attends Wordfest?
With our diverse programme we are trying to attract a wide audience. I think that often people are under the impression that festival audiences are full of clever people, they are mistaken. Wordfest is a celebration of literature and so is for everyone.
How do you find people to fill up the programme?
We have programming meetings with the steering group, advisory group and discuss the balance of the programme: genre, different groups to represent, unusual combinations of writers, response to requests for writers. We emphasise to publishers, agents and writers that Wordfest is in a beautiful location with appreciative audiences and opportunities to meet other writers and be well looked after.
So, are the contributors usually well known or is Wordfest more of an opportunity for people with debut works?
Both! We have local, debut and popular authors, and even comedians. For instance we had Lord Giddens speaking about climate change from his book The Politics of Climate Change. And this year we have Hilary Mantel, which sold out within the first day, with her prize winning Wolf Hall and the comedian Jeremy Hardy.
Who is the most famous speaker you have had at Wordfest?
It’s hard to say who’s famous and who isn’t. It depends on what area of literature you’re looking at, as different readers are familiar with different writers. Philippa Pearce, Michael Morpurgo, PD James, Jacqueline Wilson and Carol Ann Duffy would all be contenders for this.
Is there any chance of signings?
Yes, after every event. This has proven to be one of the main pulls to the festival. Jacqueline Wilson, for instance, usually takes about 4 hours to do her signings! She talks to everyone who approaches her and she is a very warm-hearted woman.
I hear Wordfest is looking for volunteers, what are the benefits from being a volunteer?
Oh, loads! You get to see everyone and all for free! It involves attending lots of events and undertaking a variety of tasks: from greeting people and taking tickets to running around the corner to buy biscuits for the green room. It is an exciting and exhilarating experience and a good taste of what it takes to run a festival.
What do you think of the Oxford Literary Festival?
It’s a fantastic event and huge. I can’t say anything against the festival, my sister is friends with one of the organisers. Although, Oxford have a safety net for their funding, The Sunday Times sponsorship, something we do not have, however I feel this can make such a festival lose its personal touch.
Would you say it is suitable for students?
Yes. Wordfest is a manageable event because it all happens over a single weekend. Also it gives a definite taste of what’s going on in the world of literature and politics. There’s a panel of party leaders from Cambridge, everyone is welcome to come and ask questions, this year the focus is specifically on carbon emissions.
Are there any anecdotes you can tell us about previous Wordfests?
Oh let me think. When Michael Moore and Philippa Pearce spoke at Wordfest it was fantastic to see every nook and cranny filled. Also, Richard E. Grants’ performance was the funniest event I have seen at Wordfest, which I was surprised at, because on television he seems really serious but in person he was completely different. This taught me that seeing writers in person gives you a wonderful insight to their character and thoughts.
To view the programme, sign up for volunteering or just find out more visit the website