The downside is, of course, the planning, the prodigious amount of admin and co-ordination, not to mention the potential clash of literary egos. “We’ve got to the point where we always expect there’s going to be one,” admits Rawnsley, “although we’re never quite sure who it will be. But you know I don’t blame people for that. It’s a stressful thing having to go out and talk about their work. A lot of authors that’s not what they signed up for.”
Since then she and her team, along with festival founders Peter Wells and Stephanie Johnson, have grown the event into one that continues to attract major literary names and keeps audiences returning year after year.
So far ticket sales are up slightly on last year plus, for the first time, there’s a schools programme that’s already attracted over 6,000 bookings. Rawnsley was inspired to get that off the ground after her experience last year of visiting the UK’s famed Hay Festival and being impressed by the number of families it attracted. “But I wasn’t at Hay as a lady of leisure staying in a nice B&B,” she points out. “I went there and worked as an intern.”
Visiting Hay gave Rawnsley some initial ideas for this year’s event. From there it was a matter of watching internet video footage of authors, talking to other festival directors around the world and getting a sense of who’s out there, available and likely to provide a stimulating session.
‘Writers are just a group of people like any other and there are some who love getting up and talking in front of people,” she says. “Those are the ones we’re really looking for. But there are others who clearly find it nerve-wracking. Richard E. Grant gets incredibly nervous before he goes out in front of a live audience. And then, of course, there are some people whose writing is so wonderful you don’t care what they do. They could stand on stage and read their shopping list and you’d be happy.”
Often the biggest star of a festival can turn out to be one of the complete unknowns. In 2007, for instance, Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan was the surprise crowd-pleaser. “He was a revelation,” recalls Rawnsley. “Stephanie had seen him at a Canadian festival but aside from that no one knew anything about him. He didn’t even have a book, well he did actually but he had to bring it with him in his suitcase. By the end of the weekend we had a sell-out crowd because word of mouth had got out. I think this year American performance poet Sonya Renee is going to be the same.”
She thinks it will be a positive thing for the festival to get a new director with a fresh perspective and is looking forward to trying her hand at other things.
“I’m almost ashamed to admit it but yes I would like to write,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever show anyone anything I’d written as I don’t have a lot of confidence in that area but I’d like to have the time to explore it some more.”