Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Crown of Crime - Part 2 - The Auditorium and The Bookstore

It's relatively hot in most parts of The Crown Hotel, but none more so than in the main auditorium. Huge stand alone fans were situated at each corner of the room, blowing air towards the ceiling, yet it was still hot. People complained, puffed out their cheeks, and fanned themselves with their Crime Writing Festival programmes. Yet more often than not, the place was packed.

The high level of attendance was due to the quality panels and interviews that took place in the auditorium over the three days. There was something for everyone, from cosy crime to Bloody Women to James Bond. What had the punters returning, using their Weekend Rover tickets, despite the heat, was their urge to see top quality authors from the crime genre talking about their books, the process of writing and their views on the industry. More often than not the personalities of the crime authors came shining through, leading to many humorous moments, usually involving Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.

There were a number of special events in the programme too that warrant a mention:

- The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Award presentation, with the majority of the reasonably long short list up on stage, discussing their nominated books with Natasha Cooper, was very interesting. The tension was mounting until the eventual winner was announced: Stef Penney! She was obviously not expecting the award, her second for her debut novel, "The Tenderness of Wolves". Her eyes weren't as wide as last year's winner, Allan Guthrie, when she accepted the award, but she was equally surprised and delighted.

- Foul Play this year was replaced by The Balloon Game, where six authors represented six famous authors from yesteryear, defending their place in the balloon while the audience voted one of them off at a time, the progress of which was kept on track by Mark Lawson. Some of the authors embraced the characters they were portraying (most notably Stuart MacBride with his squeaky voice and hand puppet raven, no doubt channeling Edgar Allen Poe from beyond the grave) and others dispelled with political correctness to make their point while sticking true to their character (case in point: John Rickards and his "darky" comment, expressed in a very poor approximation of Mickey Spillane). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was ultimately voted as the winner of The Balloon Game, although I suspect this was mainly due to the popularity of Mark Billingham, who was representing him, rather than the man himself.

- The annual Late Night Quiz Show took place on the Saturday night to much whooping, snickering and drinking. The questions were a lot easier this year but that didn't make it any less competitive. The ultimate winning team included Mark Lawson, Robert Crais, Kevin Wignall and Mark Billingham, some might say a team heavily weighted with ring-ins. As usual, it was a cracker of a party!

Another drawcard of the festival are the guest appearances. This year, interviews were conducted, in the same sweltering auditorium, with the likes of Peter Robinson, Robert Crais, Sam Bourne, and Andy McNab (he of the shadowed face). The place was packed to the rafters during these interviews with fans of the author and genre alike. In addition, there were two very interesting solo presentations by Jeffrey Deaver and Tess Gerritsen, offering up a fresh take on the standard interview and panel style event.

At the end of each of the guest interviews, panels and events, amidst a rousing round of applause, all of the attendees are invited to head towards the Waterstones book store (on location) for signings with all the authors involved. This is where most people head, with their dog eared copies of the author's back catalogue or with credit cards clutched in hand, ready to buy the latest release. Off they rush, back down the long corridor to a large room set up with shelves and shelves of books and a long table for signings.

Depending on the author, the queue often coils within the bookstore and out the entrance, sometimes taking up to an hour before the final person arrives at the table. It is worth it though, as you get a chance to not only have a personalised message scribbled in your book, but a chance to verbally trip over yourself when faced with an ever friendly face willing to spend a couple of minutes talking to you. All the authors are accessible over the weekend and the signing table is a prime example of that.

I spent a bit of time lining up for signatures but it was worth it: I spoke to and had my book signed by Kathryn Fox (an Aussie writer and a very pleasant lady), Chris Simms (a great bloke) and Jeffrey Deaver (another nice fella who shook my hand twice). No matter how successful I happen to get, I think I will always be in awe of established writers and will always seek them out to sign my book - the signings are a special part of the festival.

Another familiar sight in the Waterstones book store was my fellow BTZ members, Betty and Maria, more often than not found with their heads peaking over a large pile of books in their arms as they made their way to the cash register and then the signing queue. Just like me, they can not resist the feel of a new book in their hands!!

Now, it's getting late, and with the majority of people heading upstairs to bed to either get some sleep or snatch a quick read of their recently signed novel, the rest of us move to the most important room in the hotel.

The bar.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Crown of Crime - Part 1 - The Sofas, The Place and The Champagne Room

Walking into the lobby of The Crown Hotel in Harrogate is like greeting an old friend. The handshake is warm and familiar, the time since you last saw each other folds in on itself, and you can't wait to retire to the bar for a few quiet ones and a catch up.

Last Wednesday, as I entered The Crown and walked past the sofas in the middle of the lobby, heading to reception to check into my room, I was overcome with a sense of kinship with the old hotel, which, in only its second year, has become synonymous with The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

The layout of the hotel is overly familiar even though I've only been here once before. During the festival last year, I covered almost every inch of its hallowed ground in different states of euphoria, awe and sobriety. I know it like the back of my hand.

The sofas in the middle of The Crown’s lobby, reduced to two this year in order to make room for the Festival Reception area, are akin to home base. It is the location for long nights of chatting with fellow BTZ forum members, authors and the occasional party crasher. The bar is where it all happens in the early hours of the morning, but the sofas are your saving grace, where you get a chance to recharge.

Facing the hotel reception desk with the sofas on your right, there is a long corridor to the left, leading down half the length of the hotel and ending at the hotel's restaurant "The Place". This is the location for pre and post festival meals and the occasional brewskie if the other bar isn't open.

There is a side door within the restaurant leading outside to numerous chairs and tables set up along the pavement, large umbrellas shielding aspiring writers from the pouring rain. More often than not, this is where Sarah, Dean and I, amongst other authors in the making, retired to between events, if the bar area wasn't humming with fans and authors. It was freezing outside, but Sarah was beaming enough with excitement to keep us warm. Her little "baby" was in the hands of an agent and things were looking good. Dean and I listened intently; we were there alongside her, going through the ups and downs, absolutely stoked for her and her potential career launch.

Back inside, through The Place and back along the corridor, there is a large room to your right, where Creative Thursday took place. A day of discussions and workshops about honing the craft of writing, with such teachers as Greg Mosse, Val McDermid and Hilary Hale passing on their wealth of knowledge. Iain was there too, an already successful writer from the BTZ forum, who had popped in for a couple of events and Creative Thursday. He was the first in a number of cases of a catch up way too brief.

This room also held the book launch of Simon Kernick's Deadline and the celebration of Peter Robinson's 21 Years of DI Alan Banks. Holding a glass of champagne in one hand during the Deadline launch, I was pleased to speak briefly with the likes of Chris Simms (who was looking forward to participating in the upcoming Damaged Heroes panel), Stuart MacBride and the man himself, Simon Kernick, who also brilliantly chaired the festival this year.

Leaving this room, you turn right back towards the lobby, passing a small room where the Festival team were often spotted working feverishly to ensure the weekend ran smoothly in all its aspects, Erica leading them through the trenches, delivering the goods and solving problems with the customer’s satisfaction and enjoyment of the festival always in mind.

Arriving in the reception area, you are able to give another longing look towards the sofas where, more often than not, you found Jo, Stuart and Helena, hobnobbing it with fans and authors alike. Another reason why those sofas are considered home base - Jo (another aspiring writer and a blogging good one too) has exuberance that is contagious, Stuart has plenty of stories to tell, including his run in with a Sat Nav, and Helena has entertainment value, which increases as the night goes on.

Pulling yourself away from the sofas, running parallel to the bar, you'll find yourself at the beginning of a well tread corridor . . .