On Saturday I made a flying one day visit to the Guardian Hay Festival. For those of you who don't know, this is an annual literature festival held in the small town of Hay-On-Wye, and is a wonderful place to visit if you are a book lover of any age. This was my first ever visit to the Festival, and I certainly hope to go again in the future, and hopefully for more than just the one day.
The Festival site is a short walk out of town, and consists of a small village of marquee style tents, including book shops, cafes, and of course the 'theatres' in which the author sessions take place. I was very excited as I had tickets to hear Andrew Lane (Young Sherlock Holmes), Garen Ewing (The Rainbow Orchid), Charlie Higson (Young Bond and The Enemy) and Steve Cole and Chris Hunter (Tripwire collaboratively, although Steve Cole has written many more books).
First up was Andrew Lane. I was fortunate to receive an early copy of Death Cloud, the first in his new Young Sherlock Holmes series, and then Andrew took part in an incredibly detailed interview for me which I posted last week. The problem with by-email interviews is that you can't delve deeper, so for me this session couldn't have been better timed. Andrew's answers covered a lot of what he had already revealed in his interview for The Book Zone, but in even more depth and so many of the questions I had were soon answered in the interview and the Question and Answer session that followed. It was wonderful to see such excitement for the series amongst the many young readers who were present at this session, and their questions proved to be rather probing at times. The other great treat of the session was Mr Lane reading a couple of passages from Death Cloud (coincidentally one of my favourite scenes from the book), the first time he has done this in public, and the young audience hung on his every word.
Again, only a brief moment to say hello to Garen before he was whisked off to sign books, and I raced over to queue up for the event I had been most excited about - the great Charlie Higson. I am sure the man needs no introduction, but just in case you have been living a hermit-like existence in a small Himalayan hut for the last decade, Mr Higson is the author of the five books in the Young Bond series, and last year delivered the superb zombie thriller The Dead. Mr Higson was interviewed in a packed-out theatre by film critic legend Mark Kermode, himself a horror fanatic, and Mr Kermode had obviously read The Dead from cover to cover as his interview questions were both relevant and probing.
Charlie started off my explaining about how he has always loved horror, and especially when he was a teenager, but when starting to write The Enemy he didn't really know how far he could push the horror and gore factors. He experimented by writing passages and then trying them out on his youngest son, who each time seemed totally unphased by the content. Until that is one night when there was a knock on the bedroom door, and there was his distressed son having woken from a terrible nightmare - "Yes! I've finally got him" was Mr Higson's ecstatic response!
If you have not yet read The Enemy, the basic premise is that a disaster has struck whereby everyone over the age of fourteen contracted a horrendous illness that either killed them or turned them into flesh-craving zombies. Mr Higson went on to explain that he feels that teenagers get a very bad press in this country these days and he wanted to write a story that highlights the fact that actually the majority of teenagers are nice, normal kids and "in the end teenagers and kids are probably more at danger from us adults than we are from them, so the enemy of the book is adults". He also had an answer to commentators who have said his book is similar in ways to William Goulding's Lord of the Flies, in that rather than degenerate into "wild beats and savages" they will actually become stronger, help each other and try to rebuild society whilst the "pesky zombie adults try to eat them".
In The Enemy one group of surviving kids has set themselves up at Buckingham Palace and appear to be trying to re-establish a monarchy, with a few remaining zombie-fied members of roylaty as figureheads. Charlie went on to say that in future books we will see other kids setting up a more militaristic society in The Tower of London, and another group trying to set up a new democracy in the Houses of Parliament. All whilst trying to battle against loads of zombies of course!
A key element of The Enemy that I found made it particularly suspenseful and scary was that you just never know who is going to get killed next. Mr Higson said this was a great departure from his Young Bond books, in that however dangerous the situation Bond finds himself in the reader always knows that he is going to survive as he obviously grows up to be this iconic fictional hero, and therefore many readers never found these scenes scary. He therefore set out right from the start of the book to create and develop a set of characters whereby he could "constantly surprise the reader in how it was going to develop in terms of 'I never expected them to get killed' or 'I didn't think they were going to be an important character by now they've come into their own'". He was also very conscious of trying to build a "believable gang of kids with a range of personalities" in order to ensure there was something there for everyone.
As with the two previous sessions I had sat through, once the Question and Answer session started the young audience responded brilliantly, asking questions about Young Bond as well as The Enemy. Mr Higson finished off his interview by announcing that he would shortly be signing books in the book store, and before he had even finished his sentence a handful of young fans were already sprinting out of the theatre to queue up for his signature.
My final session of the day was with Steve Cole and Chris Hunter. Mr Cole is the author of a huge number of books for kids and young adults, and he has recently teamed up with Major Chris Hunter, a bomb disposal expert, to write Tripwire, the first book in a new series about a teenage bomb disposal/anti-terrorism operative. This session was again different from those that I had already been to in that each author took it in turns to talk about their respective backgrounds and the part they played in the collaboration. Mr Hunter wowed the young audience with brief anecdotes about his time in the armed forces, and it is this that makes Tripwire stand apart from the many other books in this genre that have been published in recent years, as everything that happens to the main character Felix Smith is based on Chris Hunter's extensive knowledge of this incredibly dangerous profession. The authors even gave an example of a car chase scene where Steve Cole had Felix shooting at the escaping enemy and missing. In steps Chris Hunter with his first-hand experiences to explain that if Felix was making the shot then he would not miss, resulting in a rewrite of that small scene.
We were then treated to a couple of short demonstrations using a few willing volunteers from the audience, who then assisted him in defusing a mock-up explosive vest (as worn by a very nervous looking Steve Cole). These two made a great double-act and I am confident that their series of books featuring Felix Smith will be a huge success.
So, a pretty busy day for me and thoroughly enjoyable it was too. I hope to make the pilgrimage to Hay an annual event from now on, and maybe get to stay for more than the one day. I recommend this event to all book lovers - there is so much going on and it was wonderful to see so many families there, with the kids so enthusiastic about the authors they were going to see.