Man, what a whirlwind this year has been. My sense of time is all up the left – surely we can’t have had close calls with WWIII, the continent of Australia almost burned to a crisp and wiping out a billion animals and ancient forests, not to mention the floods, landslides, earthquakes – and now a global pandemic…. and only be in the third month of the year??
‘Apocalyptic’ can’t be the right word for the experience of queuing for an hour at Asda to buy a loaf of bread, all while keeping a two-meter distance from the people around you and whilst wearing gloves and a face mask that you hastily bought on eBay when word first began to trickle on to the internet about a nightmare unfolding in Wuhan, China. This reality is more than apocalyptic, precisely because it’s so real, and there isn’t the artifice of zombies or even narrative structure behind it.
But here we are.
I had already been participating in industrial action throughout much of February and March and was eager to get back to work. Striking is frustrating – it’s unpaid, it inevitably means much-loved projects and teaching gets shelved and the sense of letting my students down (supportive as they are) is pure misery. But then, I saw what was happening in China, and Italy, and I knew I wasn’t going back to work. I placed a relatively large Asda home delivery order, with extra flour and bottled water (not, as it happens, extra toilet roll), and started cancelling events, albeit reluctantly. I told my students I was going to be teaching them online – I wasn’t risking bringing a virus into my home. And then, our University followed by making all teaching happen online. Eventually – too long in the coming – the government ordered a lockdown.
On the 13th March, the Friday before I was due to return to teaching after the strikes and when I’d made the decision to move my teaching online, I posted an idea on Twitter about an online literary festival. My initial idea grew out of my feeling that literature always makes things better, precisely because it connects people. You feel less alone when you read – at least, I do, and I think many other people do, too. To me, a literary festival at such a surreal moment made sense.
I asked people to comment under the tweet if they were interested. LOTS of people commented, including some prominent authors, and I thought I’d maybe try and gather some of them together to do some things via Zoom, which is the platform I’ve been using for a couple of years to run the Distance Learning MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. And then Paper Nations dropped me a line about having a chat, and within a few days I was partnering with them to run something that I’d decided to call the Stay-At-Home! Literary Festival. I decided I’d hold it from 27th March until 11th April – a nice sweeping spread, as I already knew the virus – which wasn’t yet called a pandemic – wasn’t going anywhere. Plus, a fortnight of events would give me a chance to programme as many events as I could. Which turned out to be good thinking.
By the time I set up the festival twitter account, I had over a hundred authors signed up for events. The virus was officially recognised as a pandemic. I created a google doc that I was able to send out to interested writers, and they simply added to it. There were rumours of a lockdown, and calls for it. I had publicists from high-profile publishers contacting me, asking for a slot. The Telegraph asked for a press release. Like me, many authors had had events cancelled, and a lot of them – unlike me – had books coming out right when they needed to be out shouting about them. So the festival was, in a way, offering a means to promote new books as well as creating connectivity between readers.
The Prime Minster implemented a national lockdown on March 23rd, and told us all to ‘stay at home’ – 4 days before the Stay-At-Home! festival was due to start.
Putting together a literary festival involving 200+ authors and 130 events in just over a week means you don’t sleep very much, and you’re also running everywhere and you type very, very fast. You don’t respond to important emails or phone calls and you cram your day job into the wee hours and ignore your children, who you’ve pulled out of school days before the schools actually closed for fear of them catching the thing that is beginning to kill people around you. Also, it’s imperative that the festival cost nothing at all, because you’re worried now about money, even more than you usually worry about it, so you become exceptionally resourceful. You build a website for nothing, which you’ve never done before in your life, by which to promote the programme, mocking up a logo which someone more talented shapes into the final version. You muddle through the kind of PR strategies required to create noise about this kind of thing. You literally lose sleep over how you’re going to provide live captioning for hearing-impaired audience members, because Zoom doesn’t have it. You’re told to get a quote from a third party company, but it’s $18k. Impossible. You cry for a bit. But then someone mentions an app that provides accurate live captioning for free, and the problem is resolved. But then, when you’re at breaking point, utterly overwhelmed by admin and a website that keeps spontaneously deleting events on the programme, help arrives in the form of lovely people who come on board to do admin, fix your stupid website that has glitched you all the way to the brink of insanity, to publicise the festival, and who step forward to chair and moderate some online sessions.
We’re on day 2 of the festival. I’m writing this at 11.24pm, when my children have finally gone to bed (the 8pm bedtime of a school night has long been forgotten; my 9 year old slept in until 11am this morning, and they’re all pretty much living in their pyjamas and asking for crisps for tea). I’m exhausted, and am looking nervously at the next 13 days of the festival, as all 130 events require a moderator to be online to ensure room control and tech assistance. I’m wondering how I can do all of this while my four children are all at home, while I try to work full-time. But I am also enriched more than I can possibly say. The events have attracted hundreds of people from all over the world. Authors that I have admired for years – like Maggie O’Farrell, and CL Taylor, and Katherine May – are participating, and – even more important – the sudden profiling of the festival has enabled me to create a platform for new and emerging writers; via a showcase section on the website, open mic and showcase nights, and via seven Writing Residencies, which were initially going to be unpaid until Paper Nations stepped forward to offer a bursary for each writer. We did have some trolls enter the virtual space early on, as seems to have happened to many people responding to lockdown with their online socialising, but we quickly got some room control measures in place and that has worked well to keep them out. The feedback has been absolutely incredible. I can’t even begin to capture it here. I’ll try to, in a subsequent post, once the festival is over. Who knows what the world will look like then.
For now, check out my no-cost, self-made, friend-fixed website over at www.stayathomefest.wordpress.com, or visit the Twitter account @StayAtHomeFest. Please tell all your friends about it.
And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to Paper Nations, to Debi Alper, Gillian Stern, Gideon Leibowitz, Lizy Newswanger, Cal McBride, NB Magazine (particularly Martha and Danielle), Georgina Moore at Midas PR, Alice Lutyens, and many, many more people who I know have propelled this festival into the bright light it is fast becoming.