Choose Your Poison

By Michael Robotham

© Stefan Erhard – Literaturtest

To paraphrase a famous man from Alabama, writers’ festivals are a lot like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. This is true for audiences as well as writers. I’ve seen fist-fights, feuds, flirtations and assignations, but we writers have a code: what happens at the festival, stays at the festival.

In Australia there seems to be a new festival every weekend. There have always been the big ones like Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, but now there are new ones in Mudgee, Noosa, Bellingen, Albury and beyond. The same is happening in the UK, which has over 300 writers’ and readers’ festivals.

In the past whenever a village wanted to attract tourists it would set up a railway museum (even if the railway had never run within twenty-miles of the village). Nowadays, they organize a music or arts festival. I’m reminded of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley (BBC) where Dibley decides to hold a music festival and invites Reg Dwight, thinking they’re going to get Elton John, but instead get a guy called Reg Dwight.

The weirdest festival I’ve ever attended was Semana Negra in Gijon, Spain — an event that began almost 25 years ago as a crime-writing festival and has since grown into one of the largest cultural events in northern Spain. More than a million people attend over the 10-day festival of music, theatre, dance, funfair rides, rock concerts and the occasional literary talk thrown in. Most of the writers’ sessions don’t begin until 9 p.m. and run until after midnight, when everyone has dinner and crawls back to the hotel at about 3 a.m. I remember waking up at midday thinking I’d missed breakfast and having to wait two hours before anyone else surfaced.

The foreign language sessions are translated using interpreters and headphones. The set-up looked like something from the Nuremburg trials and attempts at humour were difficult because the punch-lines took an age to be relayed and didn’t arrive with the same panache. Norman Mailer had attended the festival several years earlier and was introduced and interviewed by two fanatical fans and students of his work. According to the story, they spoke for 45 minutes in introduction, trying to show the audience the breadth of their knowledge and appreciation of the great man’s work.

My experience was a little better. My Spanish translator introduced me and spoke for 25 minutes, giving away the complete plots of my first two crime novels.

“And then this happens…and then this…and you wouldn’t believe what happens next…”

Come question time, a member of audience demanded to know why I didn’t write about the plight of Australian aborigines. I pointed out that I wrote psychological thrillers set in the UK, but this answer didn’t satisfy her. She harangued me for so long that the rest of the audience began booing and hissing (her, not me).

I’m not expecting any similar problems in Toronto. The IFOA has proved itself to be one of the finest festivals in the world and I jumped at the chance at the chance to return. I’m already marking the schedule, working out what authors I want to see and hear. Now if I can just get out of doing my readings, I’ll have even more time for the others.


Robotham’s latest book, Say You’re Sorry, was published by Little, Brown UK, on October 2, 2012. Come see him at IFOA on October 20 and 23. For more about Robotham, visit his website


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