Berwick Literary Festival, Meet the author

Jelly babies from Helen MacKinven

As a book blogger, I attend quite a number of meet the author events. I’ve sat in the front row in a Waterstones basement, in the upper tier of a packed theatre and been squashed into a heaving festival tent to listen to the authors I love. But, I’ve never quite had the experience I did when I met Helen Mackinven earlier today.

Helen was in town to talk to the Berwick Literary Festival about her latest novel Buy, Buy Baby. The venue for her session was St Paul’s Church in Spittal, a rather small hall across the river from the bigger venues in Berwick town centre. Around eight people attended – the average for literary events, apparently – and Helen kicked off her talk with an introduction to her journey to authorship.

The way Helen began her session was wonderful.

In honour of the title of her book, Helen had a bowl filled with jelly babies which she handed out to the audience. She served the sugary infants to each and every audience member by hand while asking for their names – which she (impressively – I’m terrible with names!) flawlessly recalled in conversation throughout her session.

Buy, Buy Baby

This was such a lovely touch and really made us feel part of the event – not just as spectators but as partners in the conversation to come.

Helen took a very personal approach to her presentation, using photographs from her childhood and memories from her youth to outline how she became a writer. She shared candid recollections about very intimate elements of her life, from her relationship with her grandmother to the mistakes she made in her teenage years. All the while, asking the audience if they had embarked on similar adventures and rewarding those who did with another jelly baby.

She gave impressive readings from her first novel Talk of the Toun as well as Buy, Buy Baby and talked in detail about how she found her writing voice. Her writing style is eloquent and delicate, weaving touching stories of lost children and domestic violence with humorous attempts to write online dating profiles. I’ll certainly be adding her books to my reading pile.

Helen MacKinven
Helen reading from her books

The last meet the author event I attended was Margaret Atwood in York’s Theatre Royal. The contrast with Helen’s session was huge. At Atwood’s event, I was ushered into a crowded theatre to take my seat amongst strangers in the upper circle where I peered down on the two lonely chairs on the blank expanse of the stage. I listened to the conversation between Atwood and the interviewer but wasn’t part of it.

At Helen’s session, I was part of a ten-woman conversation in which an author facilitated a discussion between herself and her readers.

Obviously, the two events can’t be compared equally – they are two very different formats for two very different authors – but the contrast really made me think.

Seeing authors early in their careers at intimate sessions like this one are priceless. Booklovers should grab the chance to see authors up close while they can – and you should definitely take the time to meet Helen MacKinven when she’s next in town. You might get a jelly baby for your efforts.

Buy, Buy Baby is available now from Cranachan Publishing.

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