book heaven at cheltenham lit fest

If someone had asked me, which writers would you like to see gathered all in one place? Wish hard! Well, yesterday at the Times Cheltenham Festival of Literature went a long way toward fulfilling my wish. On the train back, I was reading my newly purchased graphic novel by Audrey Niffenegger, The Night Bookmobile, which wraps itself around the joys and perils of finding a book heaven, and yup, that’s Cheltenham. And not only were there amazing books and book creators milling about, but we got to make comics!

I was dead chuffed to see the Vern and Lettuce poster I’d designed displayed prominently all over town. I’m really proud of it.

Click on the pic or here to see an enlarged version.

I led two events, one of which was a two-hour comics workshop. We went for BOLD cover designs, based on an earlier workshop I did for HyperComics in Battersea Park. We had some great results!

I didn’t manage to get many photos of it, but before the participants made their own comics, we got our stories moving with an interactive Comics Jam session. Here’s one, starring a slug, that made me laugh:

Panel 1: ‘Good evening, garçon, a glass of Chardonnay, please.’ ‘Sacré bleu! A SLUG!!’
Panel 2: ‘Can I at least get takeaway?’ ‘And don’t come back!’

Panel 3: ‘Cool’ [Slug World: NO PEOPLE] Panel 4: ‘Mmm, tasty slime juice. Better than Chardonnay.’

I was very taken with this wine-glass chandelier at the Hotel du Vin:

The best part about these festivals are the people you meet: catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. Here’s the wonderful Ben Haggarty, who works as a storyteller; despite the fact he’s used to telling stories, not writing them, he came up with the text for the most magnificent book of the year (and quite possible the best one, too), Mezolith.

‘Mezolith’, published by David Fickling Books in the DFC Library series. Storyteller Ben Haggarty with his partner Katie

YouTube link

For weeks I’d been looking forward to dinner the night before events, with people from my fab David Fickling and Scholastic team, and with Martin Brown (whom I’d met for the first time at the Edinburgh lit fest) and Damian Kelleher, who’s done a bunch of graphic design work with me. In theory, it’s an easy journey to Cheltenham Spa from Birmingham (where I’d done a signing at the British International Comics Show). But I hadn’t reckoned with the abyss of failure that is Birmingham New Street station. When I realised I was on the train to Crewe instead of Cheltenham, I felt like such a dozy cow until, on the way back, I discovered that quite a few people around me were also on the wrong train. I should have caught up on some work in the extra time, but all I could think was that I was missing out on a really nice dinner with lovely people. So I made a little comic to help me feel better.

Miraculously, I managed to throw myself into my hotel room, race over to the restaurant and still catch everyone having their main course. Hurrah! Here’s Martin and Alyx reading my sketchbook comic.

Scholastic accounts manager Alyx Price and Horrible Histories illustrator Martin Brown

Here’s the amazing Jane Churchill, who commissioned me to do the Cheltenham poster and pretty much made everything happen with her amazing team of people. Thanks so much, Jane!

Cheltenham BookIt! childrens book festival director Jane Churchill, Random House publicity director Clare Hall-Craggs, writer Damian Kelleher, writer Eleanor Updale. A rather amazing chocolate brownie sundae.

Another great surprise was coming down to breakfast in the hotel and finding illustrator Ben Cort just starting on his toast. The last time I saw Ben, we were geeking out over digital artwork formats. Ben knows loads about digital artwork but still does a lot of painting with real paint. I managed to catch the first half of his Aliens events before heading off to do my own very-different-but-still-Aliens event.

Illlustrator Ben Cort with a thumbnail sketch for ‘Aliens Love Underpants’

Ben Haggarty introduced me to Nalo Hopkinson, who was twittering away on her laptop in the Writers Room. She writes science fiction, and since I don’t know very much about science fiction, I asked her for some recommendations. Her newest book is The New Moon’s Arms, and the two books by other writers she thought I might like were Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler and Air by Geoff Ryman. Thanks for the tips, Nalo!

Cheltenham lit fest writer-in-residence, Canadian Nalo Hopkinson. Or as she calls herself on Twitter: Fantasy & science fiction writer, editor, instructor. Craftsperson. Cook. Femme with power tools.

Just before my first event, Clare’s daughter Alice helped me chill out by colouring socks on the octopus she’d drawn, in the spirit of Nick Sharratt’s book Octopus Socktopus.

Clare Hall-Craggs with her daughter, Alice, and our octopus socktopus

Other highlights included catching craftsman extraordinaire Chris Wormell just before his workshop, and brief chats with Posy Simmonds and Audrey Niffenegger, two of my best book heroes. They were both already having conversations, so I tried to keep my butting-in very brief, but I gave them copies of Vern and Lettuce with dedications and felt happy I had something I was proud of that I could give them. That’s such a good feeling. I think my four top influences on Vern and Lettuce were Satoshi Kitamura, Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson and Posy Simmonds. I still have SOO much to learn in the craft, but I’m hugely grateful to these people for pointing me in the direction I want to go.

Sketches from a talk about Highgate Cemetery. I’d heard some of the talk before (at Highgate Cemetery here) and was sad to miss Audrey’s earlier talk, but unfortunately it was right during my comics workshop.

With Audrey Niffenegger, I just like getting into her world. She loves so many of the same things I love, but she knows so much more about them (and remembers what she’s learned, a crucial point! I have a terrible memory, which is one of the main reasons I have to blog.) And I have a lot of respect for some of the things she’s said in interviews. But she also has the writer’s gift of somehow tapping into dreams, wishes and fears I’ve vaguely sensed, but never quite been able to identify, spinning them out, and making me gasp by sending them soaring off a cliff. Great stuff.

If I could have four big sisters, I’d want to be adopted by Audrey, Posy, Geraldine McCaughrean and Candy Gourlay. (Candy would keep everything fun and have us all jumping on the big trampoline in front of her writing shed.) Cheltenham lit fest is the place for dreams, so I’m squinching up my eyes and wishing hard.

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