('Small Wonder' © The Charleston Trust)
THE ROAD TO SMALL WONDER
by VICTORIA HEATH
The road to the Small Wonder Short Story Festival is unassuming, and uneven. You might not guess that an international literary festival is down this lane, but the sign at the gate confirms it. You drive on. High hedgerows and grassy banks glide by beside you, rolling fields lie ahead. There’s a track on the corner, inviting you to veer onto the farmer’s land, but it’s not the one to take. You bear right, rise up towards the barn, and there it is: Charleston House. The epitome of an English country cottage, and, oh, if those walls could speak… As you drift by, they’d tell of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant playing host to E.M. Foster, Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey. They’d talk of free love, free thought and the new art of the Bloomsbury Group. They’d shout of the times that Bell’s sister, Virginia Woolf, came to stay and to write. They still sing with the paint of Bell and Grant: doorways, furniture, china, walls, not an inch escaped their eccentric creativity, still perfectly preserved to this day. If there’s time, over the next few days, you swear to take a tour. But now, you drive on, over the sleeping policemen and behind the house and barns to find a spot to settle your car.
You begin the short walk, past the Charleston Trust Shop with its exquisite wares, past the gourmet street food vans that turn you into one of Pavlov’s studies, and you enter the great barn. Autumn may be upon us, but this setting couldn’t be a warmer sight. Milling everywhere are literary lovers of all kinds: short story enthusiasts, readers, writers, artists, students, lecturers, agents, editors, publishers. There’s a bookshop, run by the fantastic City Books of Brighton, packed full of your favourites, and hundreds of new titles you’ve not yet discovered. There’s a bar selling locally brewed beers, wines, hot drinks, cold drinks, cakes and more. There’s excitement in the air.
You wander the barn, drink in hand, making conversation, flicking through books, buying a couple because you just can’t help yourself. And then, finally, the time arrives: the event you have been waiting for is announced. One by one you make your way through the dark curtains at the end of the barn to the main stage. You seat yourself in a prime spot. You cuddle into your coat and scarf. You’re ready to enjoy the wonders that this festival has in store…
This year, the Small Wonder Festival gets underway on WEDNESDAY 28TH SEPTEMBER – grown from a long-weekend to a five-day celebration of the exquisite short story form. Following an all-day workshop of Writing for Children with Tony Bradman, the Small Wonder stage will open with Ali Smith (the highly deserved recipient of this year’s Charleston Award for a Lifetime’s Excellence in Short Fiction), in conversation with Word Factory’s Cathy Galvin. Kevin Barry and Lisa McInerney follow, talking with literary critic Arifa Akbar on the ‘States of Grace’ in their writing.
THURSDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER begins with a day-long workshop from Kate Clanchy, focussing on Creating Voices in your stories. In the evening, Carys Bray and Daisy Johnson meet critic and broadcaster Hephzibah Anderson on stage to discuss the worlds of their short stories, followed by Jacob Ross and Sharon Millar divulging what pulled them to write of the Caribbean, an event chaired by the Guardian literary editor, Claire Armitstead.
The evening of FRIDAY 30TH SEPTEMBER takes off with award-winning author Eimear McBride, in conversation with literary critic and cultural historian Lara Feigel. Then begins a raucous night of storytelling from Kirsty Logan, songs from Kings of the South Seas, and the famous Small Wonder Short Story SLAM, hosted by writer and editor Holly Dawson. The SLAM is a chance for you to take part in the Festival, by reading a pre-prepared, three-minute short story on this year’s theme: ‘Under the Sea’. Prizes will be awarded.
The afternoon of SATURDAY 1ST OCTOBER sees Patience Agbabi and Dragan Todorovic discussing Refugee Tales with the project’s co-ordinator, Anna Pincus; Kei Miller, Naomi Alderman and K.J. Orr in conversation with Di Speirs on this year’s entries for the BBC National Short Story Award; Sophie Hannah and John Simenon talk Sleuths with broadcaster and critic Alex Clark; and Donald Sturrock and actor Andrew Wincott bring us Roald Dahl for Adults, with chair Nicolette Jones. The evening closes with Adrian Todd Zuniga’s ‘Literary Death Match’, featuring Petina Gappah, Adam Baron, Lesley Thomson and David Swann, all performing their most brilliant works in an edge-of-your-seat read-off.
The final day of the Festival, SUNDAY 2ND OCTOBER, is as equally heaving with literati. The afternoon begins with Petina Gappah and Peter Hobbs in conversation with Alex Clark on Sex and Death in stories; Philip Hensher, specialist in the short form, talks on the talent of British short story writers; and Elif Shafak, Lionel Shriver and Salley Vickers re-imagine Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in short story form. The day concludes with Anthony Holden, Ben Holden and actress Juliet Stevenson discussing the moving stories behind the Poems That Make Grown Women Cry.
All round, a true celebration of the short story form in five days. But don’t despair if you can’t make it to East Sussex. We have another treat in store. Each year, Small Wonder and THRESHOLDS join forces to bring you a series of Short Story Masterclass podcasts, recorded with the crème de la crème of Festival guests. This year is no different, so watch THIS SPACE for news of the 2016 Masterclass series.
© Photography courtesy of The Charleston Trust