Madeira Mondays: Reflections on the Stay-at-Home Literary Festival

As some of you may know, I’ve been working for a literary festival this spring called the Stay-at-Home! Festival.

The festival is entirely virtual and was founded last year by CJ Cooke: a professor at Glasgow Uni (I met her during my Masters and PhD there) and an author of popular psychological thrillers and poetry as well. She founded the festival last year during the first lockdown: at a time when few people knew what Zoom was, let alone how to use it! It was really well attended in year one (145 events, 220 authors over 2 weeks) and debuted as one of the biggest literary festivals in the UK. This year, the festival received some generous funding from various sources and was able to run again for a second year and Carolyn (aka CJ Cooke!) invited me to join the core festival team.

Throughout the two-week festival, which ended last week, I kept thinking about Madeira Mondays and what aspect of it I wanted to share with you. There were writing workshops, talks on all sorts of topics (fossils, motherhood, death and grieving, monsters, the environmental crisis, happiness, the body…) with a focus on diversity in the publishing industry as our central theme this year. Since most of our events are now available to watch on our YouTube Channel, I have decided to pick out a couple of events that are inspired by and centered on history or historical fiction to share with you.

1. Ben Dorain, A Conversation with a Mountain

This was maybe my favorite event at the festival and no surprise – it’s got an 18th century connection! It was a poetry reading by author Garry MacKenzie (who, like me, is a University of St Andrews grad!) from his beautiful book Ben Dorain: A Conversation with a Mountain. The book is actually a bit hard to describe. It’s MacKenzie’s modern translation of an 18th century poem about a Highland mountain, mixed with his own new verse inspired by the mountain and its landscape, especially a herd of highland deer. It really is a ‘conversation’ in so many ways – between past and present, between Scotland’s heritage and the modern world – and, as Garry mentions in this reading, it’s really not just about Scotland but zooms out to address modern global ecological concerns as well. Not to mention – the poetry is inventive and simply gorgeous! Stay tuned for possibly more about this book in future posts…

2. Witches of Scotland

This event wasn’t one that I hosted (you’ll see me if you watch the Garry MacKenzie video, introducing Garry and the poem!) but the subject matter sounded brilliant so I wanted to share it with you. It’s a talk about the podcast Witches of Scotland, and Claire Mitchell QC and Zoe Venditozzi’s work to secure a national monument for those accused of witchcraft during the Scottish Witch Trials. Definitely worth a watch!

3. Ripples Through Time: Finding Inspiration for Historical Fiction

This was an event that I didn’t host, but was running tech for in the background. I knew as I was listening that I would have to share it with my blog readers! At this event, a really diverse set of authors talked about the inspiration behind their historical fiction. This was a super international discussion, featuring authors Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Molly Gartland, Debra Barnes, and Poppy Cooper. I really appreciated the authors’ candor in sharing the often times very personal histories that inspired their novels, including, heartbreakingly, the inspiration behind Debra Barnes’ novel The Young Survivors. Debra spoke about how this novel was inspired by her mother who was born in France and lost both her parents and her siblings (including her six year old twin sister) in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. She showed us family photographs from before the war and I really appreciated her taking the time to talk about her family’s story.

This talk would also be a good one to go to if you wonder how different authors get inspiration for historical books and to see some of the old photographs and research that inspired all of their novels.

4. The Unheard: Stories from Forgotten Voices of the Past

This was another event that sadly I wasn’t able to make it to myself, but sounded great! It was focused on forgotten voices in history and what drew these authors to writing about those in history who are least remembered. An interesting topic and one that promises lots of good advice and anecdotes about research as well!

5. Documenting the Past: Neema Shah in Conversation with Catherine Menon

I caught snatches of this event with Neema Shah and Catherine Menon and it sounded fascinating. Shah’s book Kololo Hill is set in Uganda in the 1970’s and this talk was about the personal family history that inspired the book. Definitely a more modern ‘historical’ novel, but one that sounded quite vivid and evocative of a place I know almost nothing about.

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I hope that one of those five history-inspired events sparks your interest! All these events from the festival will be up on YouTube to watch until the end of September, alongside dozens of others. (I don’t know about you, but sometimes I prefer to watch virtual events recorded rather than attend live – it gives you more flexibility on how/when you watch them and sometimes you don’t want to interact but instead to just sit back and absorb!)

And before I go, I wanted to leave you with one more video. As part of the festival, we invited various authors to talk a bit about themselves and their creative process, with the aim of demystifying the process somewhat for new writers, by giving them a peak into how different authors work! Some of us festival staff took part as well (we’re all writers ourselves!) and this was my video. In it, I talk about The Scottish Colorist painters whose work inspired my recent poetry pamphlet, my work at The Georgian House as a tour guide and historical interpreter, the importance of following through with ideas etc.

Do I wear a three-cornered hat at some point in this video? (If you’ve been following this blog for a while or you know me in real life – then you know the answer to that!)

This festival has taken up a good portion of my time these last few weeks, but it was such a pleasure to meet so many authors and help them share their work with readers all over the world.

What have you been up to recently? Do you think you’ll check out any of the Stay-at-Home festival event recordings? Do you have a favorite festival (of any sort!) that you like to attend each year?

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

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