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Interview: Grace Keane, programme manager at the Durham Book Festival

Written by Arts

Visitors to the Durham Book Festival 2020 have had a very different experience to that described by George Gardner for The Courier last year. Still in the midst of COVID-19 uncertainty, Durham were amongst many book festivals (including illustrious Hay-On-Wye and Edinburgh programmes) to take the action online.

Hosting authors for Q&A, readings and discussions virtually completely changes how an organisation plans their festival. We spoke to Grace Keane, who serves as a manager for the Durham Book Festival 2020, to get her take on how everything is different this year.

Grace has played a role in organising Durham Book Festival since 2017.

Do you feel the authors speaking at your events prefer attending them online or in person? Are authors more likely to take the engagement when it’s online?

That’s an interesting question. You might think that some authors would prefer it, as it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone who is a brilliant writer would be a confident public speaker. However, the overwhelming feeling from authors this year is that they’re missing the interaction with their audiences and desperate to get back out there once it’s safe to do so. The one aspect of writing that isn’t so solitary is the events and the festival circuit, so I actually think on the whole authors are just as keen to participate in live events as with online events. Obviously sometimes it works out better, especially with writers who would otherwise not have the time to travel, but I think that taking part in an online festival is just a good way of connecting with the readers that they would be meeting in person during a usual year.

Do you think holding the festival online makes it more inclusive, do you anticipate a larger audience this year than in previous years?

An online festival is certainly more accessible and inclusive for our audiences. Accessibility is very important to us, and we’ve made sure that all of this year’s pre-recorded events, which is the majority, have been captioned to be even more inclusive. We also commissioned Lisette Auton, a North East based disabled writer and artist, to programme a Disability Arts Showcase called Writing the Missing: A River Cycle. Lisette appeared alongside three other North East disabled writers, and the film included BSL interpretation. You can watch the film here until 1 November and it will then move to our permanent archive on the DBF website:

We were overwhelmed by the response of audiences, particularly disabled audiences who are so often unable to attend events and we’re committed to continuing to work with artists like Lisette in the future, to make sure Durham Book Festival is as accessible as possible.

In Conversation with Adrian Tomine (Durham Book Festival 2020)

Can you see online events becoming incorporated into the future of book festivals, even post COVID-19?

This is one of the reasons we want to continue to incorporate digital events going forward. As well as increasing accessibility, on the whole it allows us to engage with audiences all around the world, and to create events that are a little different than the usual festival author talk. We’re so excited to hopefully be back in Durham for real next year – we’ve definitely missed the interaction and sense of community in the city – but we’re also keen to keep a blend of digital events going forward, even when we’re on the other side of the pandemic.

Is it financially easier to hold the festival online?

Unfortunately, not. This year we have made all but three of our events free to watch, and those that did cost were book and ticket deals where the audience were essentially also buying books. This has been really exciting in some respects, but it has meant that we haven’t made any box office. This has been really difficult for many of our colleagues at other book festivals across the country. Thankfully, due to the support of our commissioners Durham County Council and our funders Durham University and Arts Council England we were still able to create the festival this year. It might seem like a digital festival would be easier and therefore cheaper, but we still need to pay our authors and speakers – that’s something that was non-negotiable for us – and the captioning of all of the events was a huge job. But, although there’s been challenges and having all free events isn’t a sustainable model, we’re so grateful that we were able to produce what we’re pretty sure is the largest digital programme in the UK, outside of the big name festivals like Cheltenham, Edinburgh and Hay, and we’re incredibly proud of it.

What’s your selection process for curating a line-up of events and authors; has this changed under the new online circumstances? Have you been able to host a more diverse selection of authors, in terms of nationality, than usual?

Every year myself and our Festival Director visit publishers in London to hear about all of the new books coming and which might be good for the festival. Thankfully we got this trip in pre-Covid, so the programming wasn’t too different in that respect – although there was of course a lot of uncertainty initially about what the situation in October would be. The only negative difference was that with a smaller programme we couldn’t invite as many authors as usual and there were so many brilliant books out this year. The festival team actually recorded a podcast talking about some of our bookish highlights of 2020, outside of the DBF programme, which you can listen to here.

However, on a positive note, it did mean that we could connect with a lot more international authors than usual and this was really exciting from a programming point of view. We managed to create events with Brit Bennett, Jenny Offill, Fatima Bhutto – to name a few! I think this really added to the global feel of the festival this year, there really were no boundaries to who we could invite from a geographical perspective and that’s led to some amazing content.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B4h9UvKgRZL/
Durham Book Festival 2019

What do you think will be your highlights of the festival, what are you most excited for?

What a question – there really is so much at Durham Book Festival this year: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, comics, events for young people and schools. But a few highlights would be… The Announcement of the Gordon Burn Prize. This is a literary prize and the announcement ceremony is a flagship part of DBF each year.

We also have this year’s Big Read, which is a newly commissioned Vera short story from bestselling author Ann Cleeves. We have distributed 4,000 free copies of the book around County Durham during September and October, and Ann will be appearing in a special event with broadcaster Steph McGovern on Sunday 18 October. Read the Big Read Written in Blood here.

We were also thrilled to put together a series of non-fiction events we’re calling The Big Ideas, in collaboration with Birmingham Literature Festival. This series of events features the poet Caleb Femi on his debut collection Poor; feminist writer Laura Bates with her new book Men Who Hate Women; Alastair Campbell with Living Better, his memoir on his struggle with depression; and Layla F Saad with the ground-breaking book Me and White Supremacy.

We have also created two podcast series. Writing Durham, a five episode series looking at Durham’s literary history and featuring writers connected to Durham, including Booker Prize winning authors Pat Barker and DBC Pierre; and New Narratives for the North East, a podcast series based on 15 newly commissioned essays from Northern Writers contemplating the future of the North East and featuring writers such as David Almond, Mim Skinner and Richard Benson.

Our writer reviews will be up on The Courier website this week and in print, and you can watch all events online on the Durham Book Festival website until November 1st. A huge thanks to Grace for allowing us to interview her!

Featured image: Durham Book Festival

Last modified: 22nd October 2020

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