Interview by Sandra Ruttan

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 difficult time.

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 greatest directors.

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 her table...

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 successful organizers?

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 thrillers.

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 myself.

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

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 it that 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 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!


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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