Behind the scenes – a Q & A with the organisers of Crimefest

This is the first in a series of interviews with some of the people without whom we wouldn’t have our favourite crime fiction books or events but who don’t normally get their share of the limelight.

First up is the team who organise Crimefest each year (Adrian, Donna and Myles) and with just a few months to go I really appreciate them sparing time for this.

What makes CrimeFest stand out amongst the many UK crime fiction events?

Adrian: CrimeFest came about after we organised the one-off visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention in Bristol on 2006. As a result we still follow the American crime fiction convention model where everyone pays to attend and any commercially UK published author who registers in time is offered a minimum of one panel appearance. If I am not mistaken, we are still the only convention in Britain that is not by invitation only and as a result we are able to offer many authors the opportunity to appear at a major event when they would be unlikely to do so elsewhere. Possibly more important is the fact that we encourage delegates to attend for the duration of the convention and, because it is held in one location, everybody socialises in the tea room and bar between panels and in the evening. Everybody is equal, authors aren’t whisked away after their panel, and it is common for a readers to be chatting to their favourite authors in a very relaxed environment. The social aspect is key at CrimeFest.

Donna: Adrian’s totally right about the social aspect. Over the years, many people have commented that CrimeFest is one of the friendliest conventions and festivals they attend, and that’s why people come back year after year. For me, it’s the one weekend in the year where I get to catch up with loads of lovely people who I only see once a year, and meet new people who I then look forward to seeing the next year! Also, we give newer authors the opportunity of being on a panel with household names. There’s no hierarchy – if you sign up early enough you get a panel, and you could end up on that panel with anyone.

Do you think Bristol is important in the feel of the event?
Adrian: Originally we purposely did not incorporate Bristol into the name of CrimeFest in case we wanted to move it around the UK, and depending on the costs of hosting the convention in Bristol we may still have to consider this. However, with its international airport, two train stations and access by motorway it is relatively easy to get to Bristol. Also, the feedback on the hotel is overwhelmingly positive, as it is in the centre of the city and is close to shops and restaurants. So, all of that, together with the fact that one of us lives here – which makes things easy – means that there would have to be compelling reasons to move.

When do you start and how do you approach the planning and programming?
Adrian: In some form or other we usually are already planning the following year’s CrimeFest before the current one has begun. With regard to programming, Donna is largely responsible for that and she does an amazing job, so over to you…

Donna: I love doing the programming. It’s basically the focus of every second of spare time I have from my day job and university studies between October and February (Christmas Day is often partially spent poring over a hot spreadsheet). It’s a really daunting task at first – a long list of authors that you need to wrangle onto a set number of panels, making sure that everyone has at least one. And you have to make sure each panel has a suitable topic. The topics need to be varied and the panellists need to ‘fit’ but, to be honest, it’s the panellists and moderators that make the panels work. You could give five different panels the same topic and each one would come up with different discussions. That’s one of the absolute joys of CrimeFest – no matter how many times I’ve scheduled a particularly themed panel, the discussion always takes a new and interesting course. Hang on…I think my job has just become simpler…I’m just going to call panels ‘Panel 1’, ‘Panel 2’, ‘Panel 45’ from now on… One of the side benefits of doing the programming is that I get to find out about new to me authors. In order to try and put authors on suitable panels I check out every single author’s website and books, see what their latest book is, what sub-genres they write in, what their interests are etc. I’ve discovered several authors that way whose books I’ve immediately gone out and bought.

How big is the team that organises the event?
Myles (smiles): Adrian and Donna organise the convention, and I run it…

Adrian (laughs): That’s not even completely untrue! We three are the core of the team. Donna, as I mentioned, does the programming; Myles, is in charge of set up, audio-visual, the practicalities of running the convention, coordinating the front of house and technical staff, and smoothing any ruffled feathers; and I do the all the other stuff, like contacting the publishers, contact the moderators and panellists, organise the awards, etc, etc. Having said that, we have incredible support from Jen, my wife, who designs the programme book; Liz, who is the ‘face’ of CrimeFest and who, with help of friends, greets delegates at the registration desk, and also proofs the text for the programme; and Sue, our wonderful website mistress.
Did any of you ever dream that you would be involved in something on this scale?
All chuckle!
Adrian: We only ever intended to organise the one off 2006 visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention. However, following that convention we were approached by publishers, asking us to continue because they could sign up most of their crime list for what they would pay for one of their authors to appear elsewhere. Authors were eager for us to carry on because we offered them a platform they were unlikely to get elsewhere, and readers loved the fact that they could discover new authors and meet favourites and socialise with them between and after panels.

Donna: Yes, Adrian promised me it would be a one-off…

Myles: Adrian promises me every year that it will be a one-off…

Every CrimeFest I’ve attended has seemed to go smoothly, is that how it feels for you? If something has gone disastrously wrong would you mind sharing?
Adrian: Knock on wood, nothing has gone disastrously wrong so far. We’ve had one last minute cancellation of a featured guest author, but we were lucky that someone gracefully stepped in in time. And if things appear to be running smoothly, then that’s because Myles and I are running around trying to keep all the plates spinning! Donna’s pretty much done all of her work by the time the convention is in full swing, but she instantly and effortlessly finds a replacement if there is a hiccup with one of the panellists.

Donna: As Adrian’s mentioned, I’ve mostly done all my work by the Thursday lunchtime that CrimeFest starts. So, while Adrian and Myles dash around looking red, frazzled and sweaty, I get to swan around, checking authors and moderators in the Green Room are happy and hugging people.

Myles: If you see me sitting at the front desk, looking asleep, then everything’s going well.
Do you get much opportunity to attend the panels?
Adrian: I occasionally do but not often. Donna does, but that is mostly to ensure how the panels are running. We try to record the panels, so I listen to them afterwards, and we have put quite a few of them up on the site. Which reminds me that we’re running behind on doing so for the last year or two. Must work on that.

Donna: I try and pop into all of the panels to see how they’re going. Sadly, I don’t often get to stay for a full panel, because I need to check the others that are happening at the same time, or go down to the Green Room to check things there, but sometimes I get so drawn into the discussions that I have to stay until the end!

Myles: I haven’t sat through a full panel for years. I have to pop in and out to check sound levels and quality and that they are running on time. However, sometimes I get caught up with an interesting discussion and have to drag myself away.

Who (living or dead) would be on your dream panel?
Adrian: I’ll go for the obvious: Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dashiell Hammett as the Participating Moderator? Other than that, we’ve been very fortunate with our headliners and loyal regulars, and having P.D. James, and Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall (the Godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction), it doesn’t get much better than that…

Donna: I love film noir and pulp fiction, so I’m going to go for Richard S Prather (who wrote the hilarious pulpy novels about Private Investigator Shell Scott who wisecracked his way through over 30 novels in the 1950s and 60s. In each one of them Shell manages to solve crimes despite being beaten up, shot and whacked over the head and still had time to sleep with a blonde, a brunette and a redhead before dinner time); Dorothy B Hughes (who, amongst other things, wrote the brilliant novel In A Lonely Place which was made into a great film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart. The film is good, but the book is even better); Margaret Millar (who should be far better known than she is (primarily for being Ross Macdonald’s wife) and who wrote loads of great books including one of my all time favourites – Beast In View – a real heart-stopper of a psychological thriller); and William Lindsay Gresham (who wrote the 1946 stunner Nightmare Alley – another book which was made into a film noir, this time with Tyrone Power. Like In A Lonely Place, the book is far, far darker than the film). The panel would be brilliantly moderated by Eddie Muller – one of my favourite authors and the Czar of Noir. He organises Film Noir festivals and is also the author of two wonderful noir San Francisco set novels The Distance and Shadow Boxer.

(Adrian: Sadly Eddie and I are not related, but he is a good friend.)

What has been the most contentious panel discussion you can recall?
Adrian: The only contentious panel that immediately springs to mind is one where the moderator cheerfully announced at the start at the panel that, despite having three months to prepare, she only did so one or two days before the convention with material her child had managed to find on the internet. Needless to say we… I think someone just kicked me in order to shut me up! We try to celebrate crime fiction at CrimeFest rather than create contention. Instead we try to encourage panellists and (participating) moderators to meet socially before a panel so that they are comfortable enough for the panel to become a conversation where they (politely) interrupt and/or disagree.
2016 will be the ninth year – how has the event changed since you started?
Adrian: Well, it’s become more popular and the attendance has grown – which is great. I don’t think it has become easier to organise. I’m sure Donna will confirm that with regard to the programming. Also, as much as we love the hotel and working with the regulars, they have increased their prices which makes things harder. This is another area where support from friends of CrimeFest comes in, especially Edwin Buckhalter from Severn House who has negotiated the hotel contracts and kept things relatively affordable. He and David Headley from Goldsboro Books have provided invaluable advice and support. I don’t think we would still be hosting CrimeFest if it hadn’t been for their input. I can’t immediately think of anything else other than that the main constant has been to celebrate crime fiction in a very social atmosphere…

Myles: A lot of the day-to-day event management has become easier and smoother both through our gained experience and the long-term cooperation of Marriott hotels in knowing what our requirements are and just being in the right place at the right time. From having no idea what we were doing, or letting ourselves in for, we have progressed to surrounding ourselves with a great team ranging from young sound engineers through dedicated volunteer receptionists to the coffee lady (who – despite being promoted – has it written into her Marriott contract that she will work at CrimeFest no matter what).

What has been your highlight?
Adrian: Getting to personally know more authors, and people like Edwin and David; the headliners for our 5th anniversary – Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, Frederick Forsyth, Sue Grafton, P.D.James and more – wasn’t something to sneeze at; having the BBC’s Sherlock team was a treat; and again: Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall…

Donna: Each year, CrimeFest gets bigger and better. My own highlights are just getting to spend time with people I love to bits, talk about and celebrate crime fiction, discover new to me authors, have fun and buy books.

Myles: To me, the highlights are the very human aspects, from Jeffery Deaver explaining how his dog set off the fire alarm to Jasper Fforde giving an impromptu comedy turn for the entertainment of those on reception.
What are you reading at the moment?
Adrian: I’m reading James Laws’ Tenacity. James has been a CrimeFest regular, attended Crime Writing Day, and Pitch-an-Agent as well. Following the latter I know that various agents were interested in representing him and that multiple publishers made offers for the book. Reading the book seemed like a minor way in reciprocating his support, and so far it has been a compelling read…

Donna: Apart from an academic text about the plight of women in mid-nineteenth-century Victorian factories I have two great books on the go – David Young’s Stasi Child (one of the new-to-me authors discovered while I was programming) and Mignon Eberhart’s Never Look Back (part of my pulp fiction kick). Both highly recommended.

Myles: Because I’m a judge, all my spare time is being taken up by reading the 150-plus books submitted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year, the longlist of which is announced at CrimeFest in May.

What would you say to someone thinking of attending for the first time?
Adrian: CrimeFest is a party, come and join the fun. Read the Frequently Asked Questions on the website, and, if you still have queries, we’re here to answer them.

Donna: If there’s an author you’d love to speak to – do it. Everyone is really friendly and, in my experience, just loves to talk! And please come up and say hello. I’ll be the organiser who looks calm and unruffled!

Myles: This is an event organised by people who are not part of the publishing industry. We are primarily readers and fans (although multi-talented Donna has gone and become an author in the meantime). I agree with both Adrian and Donna: this is a very social event where all the back-stabbing is done on the page. Do come and say hello, don’t be nervous I only shout at Adrian!

If that’s whetted your appetite you can check out all the details and the full event programme on the Crimefest website or catch them on Twitter or Facebook.