Sandra Ruttan had a chance to speak with Natasha Cooper about her role
as the chairperson for 2007 Harrogate Crime Festival and gives a sneak
peek at what we can expect to see at this world-class conference.
You have taken on the daunting task of programming for Harrogate Crime
Festival, undoubtedly one of the best crime fiction festivals in the world.
What do you have planned for 2007?
We have a terrific line-up of speakers. As I think you know, the special
guests are (in alphabetical order) Lee Child, who will be interviewed by
Paul Blezard, Harlan Coben, whose interviewer will be Laura Lippman, Frederick
Forsyth, who will be questioned by Mark Lawson, and Val McDermid. We very
much hope Jenni Murray will be well enough to join us again and interview
Val. As you can imagine, we are all wishing Jenni the very best at this
The full programme, along with details of Creative Thursday, will be up
on the Harrogate website in early spring 2007. Here's a taster: Stephen
Booth, Ann Cleeves (winner of the 2006 Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Raven Black),
Aline Templeton and Jim Kelly will be discussing crime in the country under
the wise chairmanship of Richard Burke. You'll remember that Sherlock Holmes
believed, 'the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more
dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside'.
These fine writers show how true that is.
Mark Billingham will be leading four novelists from very different backgrounds
in a lively debate about the claim that murder belongs in the mean streets
and not the drawing room. Marcel Berlins, broadcaster, legal expert and
crime critic of The Times, will chair a panel on police procedurals. In
other discussions we will be exploring action thrillers, investigating
secrets, spies and foreign affairs with Dan Fesperman, Barry Forshaw, John
Fullerton and C. J. Sansom, and plumbing the depths of the criminal mind
with Stella Duffy, Michele Giuttari, John Lawton, Frank Tallis and Lindsay
Ashford. And so it goes on.
Following much feedback from 2006, we have invited forensic scientist and
crime scene investigator Ian and Helen Pepper to explain their professions.
And we will be celebrating Daphne du Maurier's centenary with a panel discussion
about her work, chaired by Margaret Kinsman and featuring novelists Philip
Gooden, Kate Saunders, James Twining and Laura Wilson. They are all fans
and come to du Maurier's fiction from completely different angles, which
shows what a remarkable writer she was. It is no surprise that so many
of her novels and stories have been adapted for the screen by some of the
On Sunday we have planned a rabble-rousing, roustabout discussion about
'What Really Gets Me Going', when Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Peter
Temple and I will be controlled (perhaps) by novelist and Observer crime
critic Peter Guttridge. And the festival will culminate in Laura Lippman's
interview of Harlan Coben.
Then it will all be over for another year and we shall have to retire sobbing,
consoled only by the knowledge that Simon Kernick is already planning his
programme for 2008.
Oh, and we will, of course, be having the usual evening jollities. This
year Simon Brett's
'Foul Play' sleuths will be Laura Lippman and Stuart MacBride. And the
other Simon – Kernick – and I are already bending our minds
to questions for the quiz. Billingham is said to be delighted that he'll
be able to take part for once. He should be a good rival to the all-knowing
Mr Blezard, who did so scarily well last year. If only we could auction
the two of them so that the highest bidder gets one, or both, on his or
In 2006 Mark Billingham was the program coordinator, and before that Val
McDermid handled the program. How daunting was it to take over from such
Val McDermid got Harrogate off to a wonderful start in the three years
of her leadership, and it is thanks to her that the festival became so
important so quickly. She brought in a superb selection of writers and
started the traditions that have worked so well. Mark Billingham ran brilliantly
with what she handed on to him. I was overwhelmed when he asked me to take
over and I am hoping to carry the baton creditably until I hand it on to
Simon. The amazing writers and broadcasters who have accepted our invitations
for 2007 are making my job much much easier than it might have been, as
are the programming committee. I think we're all in for a really good time.
What do you think makes your program different from theirs?
We have several Harrogate newcomers for 2007, as well as the more familiar
speakers. I'm thinking of, among others: Graham Hurley; Peter Temple, who's
coming all the way from Australia; Peter James, who's just won France's
Prix Polar Européean; Michele Giuttari, who was the head of Florence's
flying squad before he turned to writing novels; Jason Goodwin, whose superb
first historical crime novel The Janissary Tree was hugely admired on both
sides of the Atlantic; Lindsey Davis, who combines serious Classical knowledge
with the kind of humour that makes whole rooms full of people laugh; John
Lawton; the four New Blood authors, including Nick Stone and Nicola Monaghan,
who won a Betty Trask award for her novel The Killing Jar, and so on. I
was particularly pleased when Frederick Forsyth accepted our invitation
because he hardly ever appears at festivals, and his highly influential
first novel, The Day of the Jackal, remains one of my favourite political
One of the reasons I’m such a fan of Harrogate is that the authors
actually talk about the panel topics instead of reading from their books
or putting up displays of their stuff that’s for sale in front of
them. I’ve never gone to a panel in two years that’s been bad.
How do you achieve that with the festival?
I'm really glad you feel like this, Sandra. It has always been a feature
of Harrogate that speakers are invited by the Programming Committee, not
self- or publisher-selected. I certainly, and I suspect the others, have
been taking soundings from all over the place, as well as watching speakers
at other festivals and conventions and noting who is particularly good
at what. And then there is the tradition itself. Harrogate began like this
and will, I hope, continue. It is, after all, a festival of crime writing,
not a trade fair.
Another difference between Harrogate and other crime festivals is that
people, like yourself, moderate a number of panels. It seems that the moderators
for Harrogate are all exceptional and that the emphasis is on getting the
best moderators available, not just getting as many authors as possible
on panels. Is that correct, and do you think that contributes to the success
of the event?
I think you're absolutely right about the principle at work here – and
I'm personally very flattered by what you've said. Chairing a discussion
is quite different from being a panellist. There's a lot more preparation
involved (or there should be), however spontaneous the performance may
seem, and moderators have to remember that they are there to promote the
discussion, not themselves.
I love doing it because there's such a huge element of risk: you never
know how your panellists will react to your questions and how well they
will interact with each other, so you have to be ready to step in and change
the direction of a discussion, abandon a line of questioning if it turns
sterile, liven things up with a joke, tone down other things, give each
speaker a fair chunk of the time available and – if possible – bring
the discussion to some kind of conclusion instead of merely coming to a
stop. It's the risk that brings the discussion alive. If you prepare and
rehearse your panellists, the performance will be safe but dull.
You're quite right that we don't try to cram in as many writers as possible.
Numbers are deliberately limited, which, I believe, adds to the great atmosphere
we've had so far. It's been tough for me not to grab more panel chairing
this time. I already know and love most of the writers who are coming and
I am so fascinated by the others I'd have happily kept all the panels to
Now, there was a buy-out of one of the bookstore chains in the UK this
past year, if I’m not mistaken, and it’s the one that’s
normally managed the bookstore at the event. In 2006 when I walked into
the bookstore the woman recognized me from 2005, and they did such a wonderful
job of rotating the displays to feature books from authors for each session,
and as I recall they sold out of every George Pelecanos book on hand in
2006. What will happen with the bookstore this year? Is it the same staff,
just a different store name, or a new team?
Again you're absolutely right. Waterstone's took over Ottakars last year.
However, I am told that the Harrogate staff remain the same and so the
Festival bookstore should have all the customary zip, warmth and efficiency.
Harrogate has been growing steadily every year. How many people do you
expect this year?
It's a bit difficult for me to say exactly how many people we expect, but
I'm told that we're likely to be selling something like 7,000 tickets in
all. Obviously this doesn't mean 7,000 people because a huge proportion
come to most, if not all, the events.
Tell us a bit about the new venue for 2007.
The new venue is the Crown Hotel, in the heart of Harrogate, which has
recently had a change of ownership and a major refit. I haven't yet had
a chance to see it and so can't give first-hand information, but you can
take a virtual tour on the website www.crownhotelharrogate.com
Another thing about Harrogate that I love is that it’s still
small enough to feel cozy, and everyone is open and accessible. What is
you love about this festival?
I share your feelings about the size and accessibility of the festival.
I loved the way last year the whole thing turned into a kind of three-day
party, with everyone joining in and the atmosphere becoming more and more
affectionate as the weekend progressed. Everyone – whether writers
or readers – comes to enjoy the festival. They all talk to each other.
No one is stand-offish. And everyone has a great time.
And then, of course, there's the beer. I first tasted Theakston's Old Peculier
in a wonderful pub called The Star in Harome, North Yorkshire, when I was
staying with one of my cousins nearly thirty years ago. In some magical
way, it's suited to the Yorkshire climate in all its glory, i.e. both in
damp chilly winter and the hottest summer. So the marriage of Theakston's
Old Peculier and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival is ideal.
How can people register for 2007?
You can register for 2007 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or
by phoning on +44 1423 562303.
Incidentally, please don't ring the Crown Hotel directly as I've been told
all the rooms have been reserved by the Festival. To make sure there's
enough space for everyone who wants to come, several other Harrogate hotels
have also been booked for Festival-goers, so please call or email as above
for rates and reservations.
Anything else you want to tell us…
However careful the preparation, however glittering the speakers, festivals
live or die by their audience, and the Harrogate audience has always been
great. Whether the people who come are experienced Festival-goers or first-timers,
well-read in the genre or only just finding their way around it, party-lovers
or sober readers who like to get to bed early, they have always been interested
and interesting, intelligent, fun, really good to have around. I can't
wait to meet the 2007 lot!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sandra Ruttan's debut novel, Suspicious Circumstances, was released
in January 2007. Her short fiction has appeared in Out of
the Gutter, Demolition, Mouth Full
of Bullets, Crimespree Magazine, The
Cynic and Spinetingler. For more information
visit her website.
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