Interview – Write by the Sea Literary Festival 2021

The autumn festival season is kicking off all around Ireland, and if there is one festival that writers – both established and aspiring – don’t want to miss, it’s Write by the Sea. Based in the picturesque and intimate seaside village of Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford, Write by the Sea is a festival which delves deep into the craft of writing. 

Not only does this year’s lineup include literary heavyweights, such as US writer Douglas Kennedy and Wexford’s own Colm Tóibín, but we also see a host of other well-known names from the world of writing, including screenwriter Lauren Mackenzie (who brought us such shows as Bachelor’s Walk, Pure Mule and The Clinic), short-story writers Fiona Ennis and Billy O’Callaghan, playwright Irene Kelleher, columnist and activist Aoife Martin, poet Derek Coyle, and many more. This is a festival which aims to celebrate, and explore, writing in all its forms.

A relatively young festival – now only in its 5th year  – there is a real sense of pride of place, and community initiative, about this event. Although the festival itself is the main event, the organisers and writing community are kept busy year-round with their monthly Room to Write workshops and master-classes.

Like many other festivals, they are going online this year; a process which, if it closes some doors, only serves to open plenty of other doors. The necessary step of going online, either in part or in full, has ensured that festivals can now reach larger, and more diverse, audiences than ever.

With a week to go, I caught up with the team at Write by the Sea to find out what lies at the heart of this festival, and what we can expect from this year. 

This is Write by the Sea’s 5th year. Can you talk to us about the festival’s beginnings, and how it has developed over the years?

In 2016 a small group of writers, who met regularly in Kilmore Quay to write, decided it was time to share the inspiring beauty of our place with other writers. After much discussion, we agreed the best way to do this was to gather a group of talented people, willing to work hard to create a writing festival – Write By The Sea. We believed that this would be an effective way to develop and foster the cultural life of the community while, at the same time, extending our tourist season. This would be of benefit to not only those with an interest in good literature but also the local businesses who depend on tourism for income. So the festival tied in with the local community development plan which helped it to become embedded as a highlight of the cultural calendar for the local community.

Looking at the programme, there is a sense that the craft of writing, and creating opportunities for people to learn more about this, is key to this festival. Could you tell us more about this aspect of the festival?

The idea of the festival was conceived by a group of writers, so it was a natural development that the primary focus of the festival would be on writers and writing. We, of course, welcome readers to our festival for, what would writers be without readers? But, many of our events are designed with writers in mind. An objective of the festival is to provide rich literary experiences for aspiring and emerging writers across all genres. Our series of writers’ workshops, both during the festival and throughout the year in our Zoom Room to Write which occurs on the second Saturday of each month March to July and October to December, is a unique feature of Write By The Sea in promoting the craft of writing and providing opportunities for writers starting out to learn from more established artists. This past year we have hosted masterclasses from Colm Tóibín and Jorge Franco on aspects of writing fiction. We have presented workshops with fiction-writer Cat Hogan, memoirist Jackie Hayden, poet Paula Meehan, song-writer Eleanor McEvoy, novelist Christine Dwyer Hickey, short story writer Angela Graham, children’s author Sarah Webb, poet Mary O’Donnell and novelist Elske Rahill.

The festival looks at writing in many of its forms, including novels, short stories, playwriting, screenwriting and poetry. Was this the case the first year, or was this something that developed over the years?

There has always been a focus in Write By The Sea on presenting multiple genres to our audiences. As you can see from the earlier list of events from last year, we try to offer as much variety and opportunity as possible. In the early years, festival content included topics such as journalism, the short story, writing for business, sports writing as well as the other genres already mentioned. We are always looking out for new ideas and writers to present. The 2021 festival includes a workshop on Creative Writing and Mental Health, a panel discussion involving writers who write from the edge and conversations with writers and researchers about topics as diverse as historic Wexford-Savannah links and music, cooking and mental health. So, I think it is true to say that it was an aim of the festival from the beginning to offer multiple genres in our content but it is also fair to say that this has developed over the years.

A sense of community, always at the local level and often reaching further internationally, is crucial to most festivals. Rather than taking from this, events going online has created a new sense of community, perhaps even opening new doors for smaller festivals in particular. Can you talk to us about this sense of community in the context of your festival?

The local community is very involved in the production of the festival. The festival is organised by a locally-based voluntary committee and members of local community groups help out with all kinds of tasks by volunteering over the festival weekend, sponsoring events, creating community involvement fringe events, decorating the village and the community centre and much more. The festival aims to enrich the cultural life of the local community by providing good literary experiences, raising awareness of writing, reading and the creative arts in general, stirring up a bit of excitement in what is a waning time of the year and extending the tourist season which benefits the local businesses and accommodation providers. The hallmark of Write By TheSea is a warm Kilmore Quay community welcome to visitors as they enjoy the food, culture and beauty of our village. There is a palpable buzz in the area as festival weekend approaches and it reaches new heights over the course of the weekend when much fun is had by visitors and locals alike. This year since we made the decision to go online as a result of ongoing Covid restrictions. We are sad that we cannot welcome our audience to our beautiful village in person but we are still determined to bring the warmth of the Kilmore Quay welcome alive on the screen, even if you are in your own living room. The potential of the virtual festival to expand our reach as a small, niche festival to places and people far beyond our region and shores has been revealed as we learned through the pandemic to organise and present live events online. New communities have emerged, whether they are groups of writers interested in similar experiences or writers and readers interested in new and exciting literary experiences, and these come from very diverse geographical locations, all over Ireland and Northern Ireland, Britain, France, Canada, Australia and Newfoundland. The potential for cultural exchange is enormously enriching and exciting. Write By The Sea is essentially a community festival that allows us to offer something special to our audiences – a literary experience combined with fresh seafood, beautiful scenes and a warm welcome. Why wouldn’t you want to come back for more?

Creative writing and mental health is the chosen theme for one of the workshops. We have seen much online, this past year in particular, about the benefits of reading and writing for well-being. Could you talk to us about this, in context of this event but also the festival in general?

I think that now more than ever, mental health is paramount. We kept our Zoom Room to Write workshops running throughout the lockdown and the feedback from participants was that it was a lifeline for them to connect with people during a period of such isolation. There is a well-documented link between the pen and the mind and there is no doubt that writing can be a cathartic experience. We have seen this many times at play in our workshops where writing can touch a chord with someone and it can be a great release. The Creative Writing and Mental Health workshop will explore the health benefits of writing and our facilitators Paula Lowney and Niall O Muiri are experienced professionals in the field of Mental Health and the Arts and it will be a beneficial, guided experience for all involved.

‘In conversation’ events are always a great way of generating new perspectives on themes, in particular when pairing or grouping people who might have a common thread but also differences in style/approach/professional backgrounds. Can you talk to us a bit about the ‘in conversation’ aspect of the festival?

You never know what the in conversation events will bring to light. I think it is a fantastic way to gain a true insight into how writers actually work and into all that is involved in getting a book from the idea stage to distribution. We often think that writers are rare creatures who are somehow totally different and do not experience the same frustrations and highs and lows as ordinary mortals. I think the in conversation events spotlight writers’ talents in a different way and they open a window through which we can gain a fresher understanding of their work. This year we have chosen very dynamic pairings for our ‘in conversation’ events. There is something magical that happens when two writers from different backgrounds get together to discuss common themes. These conversations can range from being moving and inspirational to being outrageously funny and entertaining.

The line up this year is fully online. Do you have any advice or tips for people to maximise enjoyment of, and engagement with, online events?

Bring a notebook to the workshops and enter fully into all of the exercises. For the in conversation events, sit back, relax and just enjoy what happens. Oh and join our Write By The Sea mailing list so that you will always know about the events that are coming up.

And lastly, a few parting words from Write by the Sea…

Our vision is to make Write By The Sea a sustainable, accessible, niche  festival  that  continues to attract top Irish and international writers, storytellers and visual artists. We aim to be recognised as a festival that offers value to our audience, fair fees to our facilitators and a warm Kilmore Quay community welcome to visitors as they enjoy the food, culture and beauty of our village.  

In the future we will continue to foster a love of literature by staging our annual literary festival, our monthly Room to Write events and our annual Writing Competitions in Fiction-short story, Memoir and Poetry. We want to steadily grow our online and in-person attendance and to attract a greater diversity of national and international writers and facilitators – all the while appealing to a more diverse audience too. And as a niche festival we want to retain that special Kilmore Quay atmosphere as well. This festival is all about the community working together to share a love of literature and to generate tourism for the area. We get our enjoyment from ensuring that our attendees get the best possible literary experience and make new friends and connections when they come here. We are extremely grateful for the grant aid that we receive from bodies such as the Arts Council, Wexford Co Council and RTE supporting the Arts – and this year in particular those supports have helped to open Write by the Sea up to the digital media world. We look forward to welcoming our audiences and workshop participants to what will be a memorable online festival.

***

A very big thank you to Anne for sharing these great insights on what Write by Sea is all about, and I wish them all the best for a successful and enjoyable online festival this year.

This year’s festival runs from September 22nd to 26th. 

For more information about the festival programme, registering for events, and details on year-round activities, visit writebythesea.ie.

Images courtesy of Write by the Sea.

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