Vanda Symon has the time of her life at UK crime festivals
by Vanda Symon

First published in the NZ Author which is the magazine for NZSA members. The New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) Te Puni Kaituhi O Aotearoa  is the principal representative for the professional interests of writers. Reprinted with permission.

Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate

I couldn’t believe my luck when I received the invitation to be a guest at the Newcastle Noir Crime Festival. An invitation to an overseas festival! Me?! My publisher amped up the excitement levels even more by saying Crimefest was in Bristol the weekend after Newcastle Noir in May, how about we see if we can get you involved in that too, and we can do some events in London in the week between.

She didn’t have to ask twice.

For me, being invited to the festivals in Britain was a huge thing. It signalled a rebirth of my writing career which had been on hold while I completed my PhD in science communication. I found the intensity of research and writing for academia meant I had nothing left in the tank for creative writing so I had produced no new work in the five years that it took to become Dr Vanda. But I was in the incredibly fortunate position of having found a UK publisher for my Detective Sam Shephard novels, so they had gained a second life at the best possible time. Overkill was published in the UK in September last year, and The Ringmaster in April this year – in time to coincide with the festivals.

Then to top off an amazing year, via a very excited email from my publisher, Karen Sullivan, I was invited to The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate in July. As she put it, “No one gets invited to Harrogate, Vanda!” I had heard fabulous things about Harrogate over the years, and here I was, about to experience it. Well, if I could afford it.

So, let’s talk turkey. It is all well and good being invited to overseas festivals – but as anyone who has tried to organise an overseas holiday is aware – travel is expensive. There was no way I was in a financial position to be able to get to these festivals if I was completely paying my own way. The festival organisers were not in a position to pay my airfares, and my publisher, Orenda Books, was not in a position to pay my airfares either. Fortunately there is funding available. PANZ, in association with Creative New Zealand, administer the International Promotional Fund for Literature. This fund is to assist New Zealand writers to attend international literary festivals to promote their books and awareness of New Zealand Literature. I feel extremely grateful and fortunate that I applied for and received funding for both trips. Thank you!

One of the fabulous things about having three festivals in quick succession was being able to see and appreciate the different flavour each festival had.

Newcastle Noir was a lovely, intimate festival held at the City Library in Newcastle. Its programme was a single stream line-up, with a wonderful range of topics and authors. I liked being able to attend every session I wanted. The panel I was on was “Do you come from a land down under?” – the sessions were all named after song titles – and we took the very casual antipodean approach, with spot quizzes and dishing out Toffee Pops to the crowd. As well as the fabulous panel line-up, some of the side events were great fun. I got to experience my first ever silent disco. Wasn’t going to attend that, but went along for a look – then lo and behold someone slapped some headphones on my ears, and what do you know? I boogied the night away.

CrimeFest in Bristol was a different kind of a festival – a convention where there were two to three sessions running at once, so there was a lot of choice. I had the pleasure of being on a session called “A Question of Guilt: How clear-cut is crime?”, and moderating a session on “Worldwide Police Procedurals: differences and similarities”. The convention was held in The Mercure Bristol Grand Hotel, which had a multitude of rooms and ballrooms and spaces for the huge number of participants.

Antipodean Noir panellists L-R: Vanda Symon, Stella Duffy, Jane Harper,Christian White, Craig Sisterson

Harrogate was another scale up again, but incredibly managed to feel intimate and very friendly. It was held at The Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, famous for being the place Agatha Christie disappeared to in 1926. This grand old hotel was set up beautifully with the ballroom accommodating the single stream sessions. As well as spaces within the hotel, there were marquees and tents on the lawn set up as bars, bookshops and breakout venues. The session I was involved in – “Antipodean Noir” was packed out, with close to a thousand people there. As well as attending sessions with crime writers of great renown, a highlight was boogying away to the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – a band consisting of crime-writing stars Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Doug Johnston, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville and Luca Veste. (Although their catch phrase is “Murdering songs for fun”, they are damn good and were invited to play Glastonbury this year.)

The personal value I got from attending these festivals was immense. Writing is so much about output, so it was wonderful being able to wallow in the festivals and experience all of this fabulous input. The writers were inspirational, thought-provoking, entertaining and occasionally alarming! I got to meet and chat with fellow authors, publishers, readers, bloggers and reviewers. I was able to step out of my life and my day job, and be Vanda the writer. My batteries were recharged.

The festivals also came at a pivotal time in my life when I was questioning what I wanted to be. It reinforced in my mind, that yes, writing is what I wanted to do, what I needed to do.

If you get the opportunity to travel to international festivals, do so. And do remember there are funding opportunities available to support this if you have been invited. Newcastle Noir, Crimefest and Harrogate were life-changing events for me – it’s been a special year.

Details of the International Promotional Fund for Literature can be found here.