We’re playing the ‘If you could invite anyone to speak at Hay, who would it be?’ game post-lunch in the artists restaurant at the Hay Festival. With the festival bustling outside, and plates set aside, Florence and I take a quick half-hour to discuss the role of literary festivals in the industry, what books have to offer, and what might lie ahead for Hay.
Curating a festival
“Sometimes you just want to look at somebody’s work and say, ‘You know what? I love it.’ I wouldn’t want to spend a second in George Elliot’s company, I wouldn’t want to waste her time, I’d just want to say, ‘No, please keep writing!’”
Programming a festival that was once famously described by Bill Clinton as, ‘The Woodstock of the mind’ is no mean feat. Yet Florence has been in it from the beginning, devising the festival in 1988 with his father, Norman Florence. It started as a weekend, but today runs across ten days.
“Hay got started like every other initiative starts off, with a bunch of people round a kitchen table thinking, ‘What shall we do?'” says Peter Florence. “The initial impetus was to just do something that would be interesting, on a scale that was intimate and manageable. I wouldn’t ever want to run a rock festival where you get 200,000 people in a field – I just can’t get my head around that aspect of scale. The act of reading is quite private and personal, but sharing that is something public and communal. If you come to a festival like Hay you have a whole plethora of experiences. Plurality and diversity is the aim of what we’re trying to do.”
Hay has a lot of advantages on its side; living in a country that allows freedom of speech being one of them. “We like to explore all the extraordinary resonances across the range of subjects: from genetics to language study, engineering to poetry, there are lots of similarities. So many of us are so narrowly educated – brilliantly educated but narrowly educated – yet the more you understand about disciplines you’re not familiar with, the more you realise that, as in all things, diversity is wisest, diversity is strongest, and enriching.”
As Director of the Hay Festival, Florence is tasked with designing the festival’s strategy and runs the programming. The festival, he says, is made up from three parts: the campaign for the event that runs in partnership with the book industry, from libraries to independent bookshops; giving profiles to the visiting authors and working with media partnerships; and lastly the “digital afterlife” of the event. He confesses this last is the one Hay has yet to crack properly, but that they’ve made huge inroads.
So, how is this year’s festival going? “There are thrilling sessions all over the place, lots of very inspiring speakers, lots of people meeting each other starting new ideas, new conversations… But it’s too soon to tell. The way it sinks into people’s understanding takes a long time.” Although people having a good time is vital, Florence is more concerned about how the ideas heard at Hay play out in people’s lives back home. “The seeding is going quite well, but how you deepen it we’re not yet able to tell. You get feedback throughout the year, people write to you.
“Festivals are evangelical. They are high profile, highly visible. They bang the drum and they say, ‘Language and ideas are vital and thrilling,’ but you have to have the follow-through. When people go home, they have to have access good independent bookshops, libraries, book clubs. How we coordinate all these wonderful visitors – their passion, energy, enthusiasm – into keeping that fellowship going all through the year, that’s the really interesting challenge.”
When it comes to facing this challenge, Florence is keen to highlight Hay’s work with larger organisations like the Booksellers Association and the Reading Agency. All festivals, he says, offer different things to the industry. “I would hope that what Hay offers is a combination of things. One is a very high visibility. Waterstones fed back to us a couple of years ago that sales of their Hay bookcases featuring books promoted at the festival were hugely successful. We also offer a bloody good time for writers and publishers to come and hang out and be part of the festival and the celebrations.
“Occasionally, we offer the opportunity to recognise and discover people who are not big headline stars already, and that’s in many ways the most satisfying thing. It’s fine to pull a big crowd for someone everyone’s heard of. It’s much more rewarding when the audience here discover somebody and take them to their heart. We have a huge admiration for people who work in all branches of the industry. I revere publishers who have curatorial taste and passion for books…” [READ MORE]