Turning leading lights of the literary world into festival disciples

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Given that interest in the Island’s literary festival has grown beyond measure since the inaugural event was held four years ago, it should be no surprise that one of the driving forces behind its extraordinary success is a woman who once dabbled in wizardry – of the literary variety.

Pippa Le Quesne, who became the Jersey Festival of Words’ programme director in December 2014, was working as an editor of children’s books at Bloomsbury Publishing in 1997 when a manuscript about a little boy with spectacles and a penchant for magic held her office spellbound.

Once Bloomsbury decided to print and produce Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first novel by author JK Rowling, Pippa proofread the book before it was published.

‘I did proofreading on the first and second Harry Potter books,’ says Pippa, who was sent a signed first edition copy of the Philosopher’s Stone by a grateful Rowling.

‘She wrote: “Dear Pippa, thanks for your help with all my commas, love Jo” – but sadly because publishing was not well paid and living in London was so expensive, I had to sell that to pay our electricity bill. I sold it for £1,500 but I expect it’s worth about £50,000 now.’

Pippa later worked for Puffin, the publishing house that owns the rights to the Richard Adams classic, Watership Down.

‘That’s one of my favourite books,’ says the 46-year-old mother of three, who later worked as a freelance editor in London for some years.

By the time she moved over here with husband Sam and their first-born, George (now 14), Pippa had built up a formidable publishing industry contacts book, which she later put to good use to help with the launch of Jersey’s literary festival.

‘[Festival co-founder] Chris Bright and chairman Jennifer Bridge had heard I had worked in publishing and knew I would understand the publishing world,’ says Pippa. ‘I met with them and we were able to put ideas together.

‘There came a point in May of 2015 when we had to decide whether we were definitely going to do it because we had no funding at that point. Jennifer booked the Opera House across four days and we were like, “Right, it’s happening now, we’ve got to do it”.’

Pippa got the bibliophilic ball rolling with an email to none other than Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed Britain’s poet laureate in 2009.

‘I had once edited a children’s book by Carol Ann Duffy. I had her email address, although I hadn’t used it for ten years, and at this point we didn’t have a festival website or logo – it was literally me writing an email from my Yahoo account asking “Would you come to the festival?”

‘Three days later I got an email saying she’d love to come and we just thought, if the poet laureate says she will come that’s good enough for us.

‘We have about 60 events now but even in the first year, we weren’t that far off that number – we were ambitious from the start.’

Pippa is quick to praise the festival’s ‘fantastic committee’ for making sure the first edition of the festival was a success.

The list of literary luminaries who have appeared in subsequent years includes Louis de Bernières – author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Louise Doughty, Jeremy Paxman, Clare Balding and Warhorse author Michael Morpurgo.

‘Michael talked to a room full of people ranging from five-years-old to about 70 and you could hear a pin drop because he was so engaging.’

Many of these leading lights of the literary world returned to the mainland as festival disciples and spread the word about the event’s warmth.

‘We send a committee member or volunteer to pick our authors up from the airport – we have a wonderful team of about 20 volunteer ambassadors who we can call upon during the event to help out. They ask the authors if they would like to go the scenic route and if there’s anywhere they would like to see in Jersey.

‘A lot of people have remarked on how warm and friendly not only Jersey is, but the festival itself. The authors go back home and tell their friends and followers about it.’

Four years in, Pippa admits it is still ‘blood, sweat and tears’ as they prepare for the fourth literary festival ‘because 60 events is quite a lot’.

That is an understatement. This year it runs from Wednesday through Sunday and in that time, some of Britain’s bestselling writers, poets and performers will be appearing at one of the event’s three main venues – Jersey Library, the Opera House and the Arts Centre.

Those literary luminaries include bestselling crime-thriller writer Peter James – now resident in the Island – and Joanna Trollope, author of 20 highly acclaimed novels including Marrying the Mistress.

The festival has made a name for itself as an event that is unafraid to tackle taboo subjects such as addiction and mental ill health, and this year will be no exception.

Laura Freeman will be appearing on Sunday 30 September at the Arts Centre to discuss her book The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, which chronicles her battle with anorexia and how a remedy awaited her in the vivid descriptions of food to be found in literature.

And Telegraph writer Bryony Gordon, who has chronicled her own mental problems, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and addiction, will attend the Jersey Opera House on Friday to discuss her new book, Eat, Drink, Run.

As usual, the festival provides a platform for local talent to blossom – ‘there’s a rich seam of talented people in Jersey so it’s been really good to support them’, observes Pippa – and Andrew Cope, writer of the popular Spy Dog series, and Laura Ellen Anderson, author of the celebrated Amelia Fang stories, are just two of the eye-catching names who have been secured for the festival’s Santander International Schools Programme.

‘And we have a Harry Potter event next Saturday at the Opera House – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It is a proper show with an actress. When we pick our school event authors they are picked because they are very good performers and we know they will entertain the kids.’

The festival will also benefit from the talents of one of Britain’s most captivating performance poets, Lemn Sissay, who was the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics and the 2015 FA Cup. He is presenting the prizes in the first Jersey Festival of Words Poetry Competition on Thursday at the Opera House, where he will deliver his own performance.

And there will be the first ever scratch showing of Jackie the Baboon from Brunskill and Grimes theatre company next Saturday at the Arts Centre. The company has partnered with ArtHouse Jersey and the creators of Jackie previously helped direct the West End production of War Horse.

‘It is set during the First World War and is based on a true story about a South African regiment who had a baboon as their mascot, which they dressed in a uniform. It’s the same kind of puppetry as the horse in War Horse.’

Pippa, who has a degree in English Literature from the University of Cardiff and an MA in creative writing from Bath, originally wanted to be a writer, but plumped for a career in publishing after listening to a talk given by the editor of a publishing house – ‘I thought, “Her job sounds rather interesting”.’

She still found time to pen numerous novels, among them a collection of children’s books based on the Flower Fairies poems by Cicely Mary Barker, and she has written a number of novelisations, including an adaptation of the 2007 St Trinian’s film, as well as a series of pony stories about twin girls.

Ironically, the arrival of Sam and Pippa’s twins – Audrey and Freya (now 9) – once they had moved to Jersey with George, meant Pippa did not have time to write all of the books.

She fell in love with the Island’s relaxed lifestyle, but found that being a freelancer in the Island meant ‘working in isolation – because all my contact with authors was via email or on the phone’.

That all changed when Pippa took on her full-time role working for the Jersey Literary Festival Association.

‘One of the things I love about working for the literary association is looking after the authors when they are here for the festival,’ says Pippa, whose husband became a published novelist in his own right when his debut novel, What I Tell You In the Dark, was printed in the UK and US in 2015.

‘There are over 300 literary festivals but Jersey is so beautiful and sometimes we get the authors we do because they want to visit Jersey – Richard Dawkins stayed for a week last year,’ adds Pippa, who cherishes the five days of the annual festival.

‘In the main venues we have events every two hours and people stay around for the book signings and to have a coffee. It becomes a community of festival-goers with a really positive vibe.’

*For more information, visit jerseyfestivalofwords.org

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