Even down a phone line and after a busy few weeks of meetings, negotiations and programming, you can just hear the passion in Fiona Gell’s voice when she talks about literature, its importance and how to encourage people to engage with it.
Gell is director of Big Bookend, one of the ten Leeds-based arts organsations – including The Leeds Library, Leeds Libraries, Chapel FM, the Carriageworks Theatre and Hyde Park Book Club – that last year set up a partnership to launch the first ever citywide literature festival.
The inaugural Leeds Litfest, which ran over five days in March 2019, featured around 30 events and was a huge success – it made it on to the shortlist for the Saboteur Awards National Lit Fest of the Year Award, no mean feat for a first-time festival.
"The success of it and the fact that people were so supportive and really got on board with a Litfest on their doorstep was incredibly encouraging for us,” says Gell. “The second book or album is always the most difficult one, but we thought ‘OK, we are going to do this’. The will has always been there to make it a really brilliant festival that people are going to want to have in their calendar and make time for. It has expanded massively – in fact, it has trebled in size – but that is the ambition of the partners because we can see there is a need for it after having tested the water.”
All the partners are committed to celebrating and championing literature and writing in Leeds and to inspiring people to get involved in creative activities linked to literature. And this year they have also managed to get funding from the Arts Council, Leeds Inspired and the British Council. Over the five days that it will be running, the festival will this time present over 100 events in more than 30 venues.
Headline events include an ‘in conversation’ on International Women’s Day with Morley-born writer Helen Fielding, author of the bestselling Bridget Jones’s Diary, its three sequels and co-writer of the screenplays of the three hit movies; writer, broadcaster and 6music presenter Stuart Maconie talks about his new book The Nanny State Made Me; former Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler will present his frank guide to the most momentous change in British life for decades, revealing the facts about how Brexit will affect our daily lives; A C Grayling will be talking about his latest book The Good State, which looks at the principles of democracy, the failures of Westminster and how to protect ourselves against populism; and popular comedian and novelist Jenny Éclair talks about her latest novel Inheritance.
In addition the programme includes theatre performances, literature and poetry walks, immersive art installations, music, spoken word and storytelling.
“It’s not just about bringing readers and writers together,” says Gell. “It’s about trying to engage as many people as possible, delivering a festival that has some appeal for everyone, that is fun and exciting.”
It looks as though, once again, they will succeed in that aim.
Leeds Litfest, March 4-8. Tickets leedslitfest.co.uk