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Industry Insight: Q&A with Victoria Henderson (Artistic Director, Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival)

Liz Robinson

By Liz Robinson on 9th March 2020

The Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival is one of my favourite festivals, with a stunning setting it has four days of really diverse literary delights for book lovers of all ages. Victoria Henderson is the Artistic Director for the event, having previously worked in the publishing industry she came up with the idea for the festival and it has gone from strength to strength since. The detail that goes into organising a festival is fascinating, I’ve never really thought about it before as I just rock up and enjoy the end results of all that hard work! I love her Chris Riddell story and am particularly enamoured with Victoria’s fun book fact!

We are proud to support and sponsor events at the Chiddingstone Castle Literary festival and we have tickets to giveaway. Click here to find out more or head to our competitions page! 

We have a family ticket giveaway on LoveReading4Kids too!

Tell us about the Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival and how it came into being:

The Literary Festival at Chiddingstone Castle (which takes place annually in West Kent over the first May bank holiday weekend) came about as a series of happy coincidences and things falling neatly into place. I had previously worked in publicity at a number of publishing companies in London before taking a break to bring up my four children, so I was delighted when Louise Weir offered me a role at LoveReading as Literary Festivals coordinator, where I spent several years organising sponsorship and reciprocal marketing arrangements with festivals such as Hay, Cheltenham, Bath and many others including Stratford, Boswell and Wimbledon.

During this time I gained a great overview of the UK literary festival scene and then it struck me – why wasn’t there a literary festival where I lived, in beautiful rural West Kent, 40 miles from London in prime book loving territory? I put it to Mark Streatfeild, Chairman of Trustees at Chiddingstone Castle, who had recently retired as International Sales Director at Orion, and he was happy to take a punt on hosting the festival in the house and grounds. The first festival took place over 3 days in May 2016 and to my surprise and delight we managed to secure appearances from the Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, historian Antony Beevor, Juliet Nicolson, Sandy Gall, Janet Ellis and Caroline Lawrence amongst others. Since then we have hosted some fabulous speakers such as Sir Anthony Seldon, Alison Weir, Terry Waite, Artemis Cooper, Kate Mosse, Ian Rankin, Cressida Cowell, Lauren Child and many more. The festival has gone from strength to strength, growing from 3 to 4 days and this year we hosted 45 authors and 20 workshops, along with children’s theatre performances, animation workshops, life drawing and much, much more. 

Photo: Victoria Henderston with Terry Waite. 

What is your specific role?

My role as Artistic Director means I am in charge of programming for the festival; researching current and forthcoming books, planning the events, pitching to publicists, inviting authors to speak, putting them together to spark interesting conversations, writing the programme, and organising the logistics in the run-up to the festival. As we are a very small team my remit also involves seeking those all-important sponsors and donors, planning and orchestrating the marketing campaign, liaising with the Castle staff, the booking agency, the PR agency, overseeing the design of the programme, scrubbing and hoovering the marquees, setting out chairs, and on the day meeting and greeting the authors, and introducing the events.

What three words best sum up your job?

Exciting, inspiring, nerve-wracking!

When it comes to your job, what makes your heart beat faster?

It has to be confirming an appearance from an author who will bring something unique and special to the festival. I was lucky to have a personal introduction to Chris Riddell, so when I trailed him to his book launch in Brighton I popped a brave pill, dropped the name of our mutual friend and asked him if he’d appear at our inaugural event. The lovely man said yes on the spot – I nearly hugged him! Just before his appearance at the festival, I explained he would follow the reading of the children’s Short Story competition winners, at which point he offered to illustrate the winning entries whilst they were being read – you can imagine how thrilled those children were to go home with their illustrated stories! 

How do you choose the authors who appear at the festival?

I do a lot of research into new and upcoming books and speakers; following up announcements in the trade press and on twitter, trawling through publishers’ catalogues and acting on recommendations from contacts in publicity departments. I find some authors by word of mouth, some I hear speaking at other festivals, and some are just on a hunch. It’s a competitive market though, so I probably only secure about a third of those I approach.

Which fictional character would you love to read a book by (why is that) and what type of book do you think it would be?

I’d love to read a book by Jane Austen’s inimitable Emma Woodhouse. I think she’d write a guide to dating. I love that as she attempts to orchestrate the romantic lives of those around her, she remains comically unaware of her own emotional journey. I love her self-deception and her ironic convictions about her match-making skills.

Who are your book world inspirations?

Back in the days when I was a Press Officer in the Publicity Departments at Michael Joseph and Century Hutchinson I worked for some strong, feisty and rather scary women, but I found my spiritual home as Publicity Manager at John Murray Ltd when they were still an independent, family owned publishing house. I shared an office with the 7th John Murray who was always great company, full of anecdotes, good humour and warmth. I was lucky enough to work there with John’s father Jock Murray who was in his 80s and had edited such literary luminaries as Freya Stark, Paddy Leigh-Fermor, Dervla Murphy and countless others. The launch parties held there in the gold wallpapered drawing room were always a wonderful mix of the great, the good and the titled, and John would revel in showing visitors the lock of Byron’s pubic hair kept in a glass locket!

My current source of bookish inspiration is Fleur Sinclair, owner of Sevenoaks Bookshop and infinite source of information, publishing contacts and gossip.

Describe your favourite place to read:

Early morning between 6am and 7am, in my bed with a cup of Early Grey tea. As a mother of 4 I’ve spent so many years getting children up and doing the school run, now that my youngest has just left school I am relishing this time to myself.

What’s your favourite book from childhood, how did it make you feel?

I loved The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It made me long to be Maria Merryweather. I still remember the scenes I envisaged in my head of the house and landscape of Moonacre, the gloriously vivid descriptions of the characters, and the wonderful sense of place. 

Hbk, pbk, ebook, discuss: 

Because of what I do I’m lucky enough to receive a number of advance proofs and hardback review copies from publishers for new titles which is a joy, but if it’s left to me it’s paperbacks all the way. I have a kindle and despite it’s convenience I just don’t feel I absorb or retain the content of the book in the same way as when I have a physical book in my hands. There’s such a pleasure in rereading the front and back covers, checking the reviews, the dedication and the author bio whilst in the midst of reading a book, something I find hard to do with an ebook. And then there’s the ownership! I love my crammed bookshelves and being able to recall just where I was and when I read a particular book.

Any strange book habits?

I love a book dedication! It’s always the first thing I look at when I start a new book, followed closely by the epigraph (if there is one). Often they make no sense to me at the beginning, but I love to look back further on or at the end of the book and then there’s often a lovely dawning of understanding and relevance.

Fun book fact:

According to a study published in Social Science & Medicine, reading books for at least 30 minutes a day can increase one’s lifespan.  Researchers found that those who read books for half an hour or more a day had a 23 month survival advantage (live almost two years longer on average). Good news for me!

You can follow the Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival on social media: 

Twitter: @chiddlitfest

Facebook:@chiddingstonecastleliteraryfestival

Website: http://www.chiddingstonecastle.org.uk/literary-festival-2019/

You can listen to their Podcasts here

If you enjoyed this article why not check out our other Industry Insight Features?

With great sadness, we announce that this year’s Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival (7th – 10th May 2020) is cancelled. Victoria Henderson, commented: ‘It is with deep regret that, given the continued concern and uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus, we have no choice but to cancel this year’s festival. Our primary concern is for the health of our visitors, authors, sponsors, schoolchildren, festival staff and volunteers. This follows the government’s advice “in line with the social distancing guidance it is advised that large gatherings should not take place”’.

Rather than waste this tremendous line-up of authors and books, can we suggest you use the programme as a recommended reading list?  If you are self-isolating please place any orders for books with Sevenoaks Bookshop by email: enquiries@sevenoaksbookshop.co.uk or call 01732 452055. They will shortly be launching their online bookshop with a dedicated page for our literary festival authors’ books. Watch out on social media for the link to share. They are delivering free to those in the Sevenoaks Town area and by post to all others.

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