Interviews: we talk with Janet Smyth about comics and literary festivals
Back in early August, as part of our build up to the huge Stripped series of events which saw comickers unleashed in the genteel Georgian surroundings of Charlotte Square for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I talked with one of the festival’s senior organisers, Janet Smyth, who had been one of the prime instigators in having such a large comics-themed series of events – practically a mini festival within the main festival – about why they had created such a series of events and what we could expect (see here). Now we’ve had some time to calm down from the frenzy of Edinburgh during festival season I thought it was a good time to do a follow-up and ask Janet how she thought Stripped had gone, how the enhanced visibility of these major comics events had worked with audiences (both comics and those who hadn’t dipped their toes into the medium much), what she had learned from delving into the comics medium, and where things may go from here:
FPI: Hi, Janet, I think we should start by congratulating everyone for running and surviving another Edinburgh Book Festival with minimal exploded heads along the way. We last talked to you just before the festival about the huge comics segment, Stripped, so the most obvious question to start with would be to see how you thought that part of the Festival went?
Janet: Hi Joe. No exploding heads – the occasional headache but nothing too dramatic! Stripped went really well. The events were well attended and the Mini Comic Fair was busy all weekend.
FPI: I was pleased to hear how well this year’s ticket sales were. Obviously it wasn’t all down to comics and tying Neil Gaiman to the gatepost to entice people in every day, but do you think having such a large comics roster of events helped to perhaps bring in a wider audience of readers to Charlotte Square, perhaps even readers who hadn’t ventured to the Book Festival before?
Janet: It was most definitely an aim to bring those to the Book Festival who might not otherwise think a conventional type of literary event was for them. Certainly, wandering around the site our audience for these events was, on the whole, a slightly different demographic to our usual core audience. However, it was also an aim to introduce those who might not necessarily think themselves graphic novel readers to this medium. Until our audience survey is completed then we won’t know for sure but regular Book Festival audience members and participants have commented that it felt like there was a different audience and different atmosphere on site during the Stripped weekend.
FPI: Which brings me to my follow-up question – the world of comics and graphic novels has been widening quite a bit in recent years to appeal outside of the traditional comics core readership, I was wondering if you had any idea how the Stripped programme had gone down with some of the regular festival goers? Do you know if some of them were tempted to dip their toes into the graphical waters? And conversely do you think some of the comics readers who were there are likely to find themselves realising just how many other book-lover’s events there are on offer each year?
Janet: Ah the six million dollar question? We very much hope that this has been the case. I think it did work. I know that our core audience did go to events with high profile graphic novelists such as Joe Sacco, Chris Ware and Posy Simmonds. Obviously, Neil Gaiman sits across so many genres and so his events were attended by our regular audience as well as the Neil G acolytes. But as several of our comic creators such as Dan Abnett, John Fardell, Paul Cornell are also novelists then I think there was already a bit of audience cross over. Our new strand of Reading Workshops featured two events on reading graphic novels and sold out almost on the first day of sales. We did survey these audiences and know that these events were attended by people aged from 15 to over 75 and comprised hardcore comic fans to complete novices.
FPI: Sticking for a moment with that idea of audiences crossing over, how did you find the comics events for younger readers? I remember you said before that most of the kids don’t really differentiate between a comic and a more traditional picture book, as long as it is good. And I talked to some exhausted but happy artists coming from their workshops, so I am hoping this means they went down well with our younger readers?
Janet: Yes, the kids’ events were all very well attended and were amongst some of the first events to sell out. The Phoenix comic workshop tickets became like gold dust within a few days Our Comic consequence event with Vivian French and three comic book artists was a real highlight of the programme and attracted a diverse audience from young kids to grandparents.
FPI: I know you have a special interest in books for younger readers, and comics for children is an area we also have quite an interest in. Can I ask if during this year’s festival you came across any comics works you would recommend as especially good for kids?
Janet: The Phoenix comic is just brilliant. It is clever and funny and surreal. It has the ability to appeal to both young and old readers and uses some of the finest comic book talent working today. I think it’s such a fine starting point for any young readers as it does offer an exceptional showcase for many writers and illustrators from the Etherington Brothers to Garen Ewing, Adam Murphy and Gary Northfield. It’s a great way to work out what kind of comic you really like to read – both in terms of words and pictures.
FPI: It’s certainly been a big favourite with us on the blog, a really nice, fresh approach to the traditional British kid’s anthology comic. Looking at the actual organisational side and the learning curve tackling the medium on sch a large scale, can I ask what, if anything, you’ve learned about the world of comics reading while putting Stripped together? Did you find any writers and artists who were new to you but you’ve been pleased to discover?
Janet: To be honest, Joe, everything pretty much was new to me. It’s been like learning to read again. I had to teach myself how to interpret the whole world of visual literacy and the conventions of the graphic novel. I think I upset Robbie Morrison and Jim Murphy by saying it took me a couple of readings to completely get Drowntown – they thought they had failed in their storytelling – but it was me not reading it correctly. What non-graphic novel readers fail to understand is the complexity, subtlety and art involved in this form of storytelling and it does take a slight switch in perception to read fluently. And it has been an absolute delight for me to discover so many writers and artists.
I loved reading The Fairest by Lauren Beukes and Inaki Miranda and I read it with my thirteen year old daughter who was hooked. Jon McNaught’s gentle, melancholic illustrations are beautiful, Tom Gauld’s sparse, monochromatic work is touchingly funny, Guy de Lisle’s novel Jerusalem is the closest I’ve ever come to understanding the Palestinian/Israel conflict and Chris Ware’s Building Stories takes conventional form and storytelling to a whole new level. And that’s just mentioning a very few of those that we have, as a programming team read and loved.
FPI: It’s obviously a bit early to have solid planning for next August, but I have to ask if you think comics events will remain a strong component now for future festivals? Have your own researches into the medium given you some ideas for some creators you’d like to put on the wish-list for future festivals?
Janet: Personally I really do want graphic and comic books to be a part of the programme. It certainly will be within the kids and young adult programme and I’ll be chatting with The Phoenix comic folk to find out how we can build on the success of their Stripped events. We, in the programme team, have thoughts on how we want to take forward the graphic events but as its early days for 2014 we’ve still got to think how this might be done.
FPI: That’s perfectly understandable, it’s a learning curve and there is a lot to do before next year in terms of planning and what else is going on in the festival as well of course. That said I wondered if it was likely that you’d try to include the small press mini-comics creators again if possible? I thought that was an especially nice and inclusive touch to the programme.
Janet: To be honest, the comic fair was able to appear – Brigadoon like – because of the support from the Scottish Government Expo Fund. It was a showcase opportunity and did involve a lot of additional logistical challenges from hiring a venue, to front of house staff. The Book Festival was able, for Stripped, to bring in additional programme and marketing support and we won’t have that again so realistically there’s lots we did in 2013 because of the funding that we won’t have the resources to do again. But our bookshop did stock some of the small press publications and there’s a chance these relationships will continue.
FPI: Janet Smyth, no doubt still recovering from the festival season, thank you very much for taking some time to talk to us again, we look forward to hearing more about next August’s Edinburgh International Book Festival come 2014; as always we’ll endeavour to bring you news on that when we hear it. Meantime you can enjoy a bit of the EIBF ambience through the numerous videos of interviews with authors and entire events on their YouTube channel.