In the magical world of books

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
It's a literary editor's dream to run the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Catherine Lockerbie is living it. She talks to Julie Morrice about children and authors

When Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, describes it as "magical", it is true in more ways than one. This claims to be the world's largest literary festival, boasting nearly 500 events and ushering more than 400 authors and 100,000 visitors through the gates into Charlotte Square Gardens. Yet until recently there were only three permanent members of staff conjuring up this huge event every summer.

Ms Lockerbie took up her post last autumn, moving on from Scotsman Publications where her distinguished career as arts writer, reviewer and chief leader writer peaked as the Scotsman's literary editor.

She has been closely involved with the book festival as "a consumer, a parent and a journalist", and her role now seems a logical continuation of the dedication to and love of the festival which she has displayed over the years.

In the festival's office above Dundee Street, she attempts to explain the event's unique appeal.

"You have children and adults doing the same thing in a rather magical space. It is completely different from an author visiting a school. It's a festival: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It happens in a garden: there is that carnival-comes-to-town element. It is like live theatre; it has that excitement."

She is particularly enthused by the way in which the children's events have been built in as an integral part of the festival.

"The children's events are not happening in a parallel universe, and the children get a sense of being part of a grown-up world, being treated as an equal.

"It's not about being a passive reader or listener. We're trying to move away from that. It's all about safe and encouraged interaction."

Parents and teachers can be amazed by what happens to their children at the festival, she says. "They develop independence; they can go off into a tent on their own and interact on their own terms."

She describes a question-and-answer session with author Michael Morpurgo where the writer's interactive, fairly combative attitude towards his young audience elicited a matching response, with one child asking him, straight up, "Are you jealous of J K Rowling?" It is a tented village where sculpture or printing workshops rub shoulders with storytelling sessions and the chance to meet the mind behind your favourite book. "Crucially," says Ms Lockerbie, "children find out that books are living, active things with living, active people behind them.

"The festival grounds may be physically small, but it feels expansive because within that space you have every world you can imagine."

Ms Lockerbie's son, Brendan, first came to the festival at three weeks old and he has been there every year since. He is nine now.

"It is unusual and very nice for a child to know what its parent does and to be proud of it," says Ms Lockerbie. "He's really looking forward to August.

"At my most stressful moment I know I'll have a happy child," she smiles.

Talking about her job, she says: "I thought I knew the book festival well, but on the first day here I realised I didn't have a clue about the amount of work needed to make it all happen. The rhythm is so different from a daily paper, where you have something to show for your efforts every day. It's weird working year-round for something that happens for only 17 days in August."

Over the past six months, Ms Lockerbie has been working to put the festival on a securer financial footing. She has completed a business plan for the next five years and has secured significant increases in funding, although the majority of the festival's income still comes from ticket and book sales and private sponsorship. There are now six permanent staff and by midsummer there will be a marketing and development manager and an assistant to that post too.

"It is about becoming a professional organisation fitting to the public profile of the festival."

The festival still operates to a large extent on good will. Writers are paid "a pittance", and all of them, whatever their public profile, receive the same. So why do they come?

"The authors claim that the contact with their peers and the audiences is particularly open and friendly at Edinburgh," says Ms Lockerbie. "And they don't get mobbed."

An oddly restrained, almost old-fashioned atmosphere surrounds the festival. The author tent has an open door; there is no physical barrier to stop people going and plaguing them in their time off. And yet no one does.

"People respect each other's space and children behave immaculately. We don't have mayhem."

Ms Lockerbie herself seems surprised by the unstoppable success of the festival. She points out that it happens at the worst possible time for schools, beginning just before the end of the long summer holiday. You would think that teachers would look at the festival brochure in May or June, then file it away and forget about it. In fact, says Ms Lockerbie, last year 8,000 schoolchildren piled in and demand for tickets is such that they could sell out four times over. The desire to see, hear and interact with our literary heroes is growing among both children and adults.

"You can get access to the raw materials, the biographies, the interviews, in so many different ways, yet our numbers go up and up and up. It proves there is a deep craving for meaningful proximity, for engaging on a deeper and more personal level."

8 Book festival TES scotland plusJJune 22J2001 alistair Linford Books galore: director Catherine Lockerbie says the festival's success proves there is a craving in readers for engagement on a deeper and more personal level with authors

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