Words by Stephen Powdril
The Hillingdon Literary Festival (HiLF), held at Brunel University, has been championing the voices of both established and emerging writers since 2015 and this year is looking to be the best yet. I took some time to speak to Seb Jenner, Festival Producer, events extraordinaire and keeper of the keys on all things HiLF, to glean some wisdom about this fabulous celebration before it takes place.
SP: Hello, Seb. What can guests attending HiLF for the first time expect to see and do from this year’s array of literary events?
Seb: Well, usually we offer sessions that either combine two differing authors or pair a celebrated author with an academic to focus on a particular subject. This means every session holds a treat for someone in the audience, usually. So Jonathan Coe, for example, is really famous for his comic novels – we’ve paired him with Brunel’s Sharon Lockyer to discuss whether Satire still has a place in challenging the establishment, in response to – well – those two big blonde narcissist buffoons running amok, for example.
SP: Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, I’m assuming…what a pair.
Seb: On top of these literary sessions, we also have workshops, debates, a performance of a new play, and ‘The Poetry Takeaway’. They join us every year to write personalised poems for our audience. All you do is give them the ‘ingredients’. It’s fantastic.
SP: I’ll make sure to bring a shopping bag. With the festival growing every year, are there any events you’re particularly excited about?
Seb: That’s like asking me to choose my favourite child. But okay! I’m really eager to see Tessa Hadley and Olumide Popoola in conversation, as Tessa is one of the best regarded novelists around at the moment and Olumide is an emerging talent that’s doing some really interesting stuff with identity and voice. I’m also keen to hear what Cyrus Bozorgmehr can tell us about his time with the Wu Tang Clan, and what he and Matt Thorne do to challenge traditional print media.
SP: Well, ding-dong! But something is missing in this literary puzzle…how did the Festival come about in the first place?
Seb: Well, Professor Philip Tew proposed the idea to Brunel and the local Council, because he saw a great deal of talent in the Borough and very few literary events taking place. I was brought on to organise it, as a part time PhD student here. Thankfully we’ve had terrific support from all our sponsors – especially Brunel – which means we can host the event for free and still pay all our authors. That’s the key to it really. We’re one of few literary festivals that actually pay all their guests, and so there’s been a lot of respect from the publishing industry and some big names that have given their time.
SP: I’m sure one aspect of the festival that students and residents of Hillingdon alike are eagerly awaiting, is the creative writing competition and the annual anthology. Excluding top secret details, what can you tell us about the entries you have received this year?
Seb: I read nearly 300 entries while I was supposed to be taking a holiday in Spain. Really though, every single one of them was a treat to read and didn’t even feel like work. It’s honestly phenomenal how brilliant our students, staff and local residents are. It was very hard work having to select just 35 of them to publish. I don’t envy our judge, Benjamin Zephaniah, for having to pick the winner. You’re going love the free anthology that we’re giving out.
SP: I hear that diary-writers will be in luck at this year’s festival, with an entire research initiative being dedicated to them! Could you tell us a little bit more about the Community of Hillingdon Personal Diary Project kicking off this year?
Seb: We’re asking everyone who attends the festival to consider sending us a diary entry for their weekend. Similar to Mass Observation, we’d like to create an archive in Brunel’s Library Special Collections that goes some way to representing everyday life in the area. Our literary academics can then perform a close reading of these and explore the theme of Suburban Lives within them.
SP: Are any avid diary writers still able to get involved in this?
Seb: Absolutely! Come along to the festival and keep scribbling. We’ll be in touch with all attendees to submit their entries by the 15th October. Even those who’ve never written a diary before – like me! – might find it interesting to reflect on their personal experience. Plus, there’s a lot going on at the festival weekend, you’d be mad to not want to try and record it all.
SP: Splendid! Looking forward to seeing you on the big weekend!
Hillingdon Literary Festival kicks of Friday 6th October at 5pm, launching all the wonderful talent our community has to offer! Join us for a drinks reception followed by ‘Bullshit Brexit: Truth and Lies’ – an exhilarating debate between experts of both sides, featuring opinions from Akram Khan, Justin Fisher and HeyMillennials own William Watkin, to name but three. See you there!