Liz Bahs

26 February 2020

Dr Liz Bahs is the Festival Director. She took the helm last year and is now heading up the 2020 Festival team.  

Q: Does the festival have a theme?

A: When I took over as director, I thought it would be a great idea to introduce a theme. ‘Fact or Fiction’ came to mind this year because I think it will strike a chord with many people. Not only is it a hot topic in the media, it’s a fascinating subject for writers in our complicated world. As writers, we’re often encouraged to be promiscuous with the truth, which is the direct opposite of what we expect from our politicians. The lines between fact and fiction are becoming more and more blurred across the board, and I think, as a response to that, creative nonfiction is very much coming into its own as a genre.

With this in mind, this year’s festival will feature two travel writers, a writer of historical fiction that’s based heavily in fact, a fantastic memoir writer and others who write on or across these blurred lines.

Q: Will the festival only feature prose?

A: We are definitely not just showcasing prose: As a poet, it’s important to me that we celebrate prose AND poetry at the Surrey New Writers Festival. It’s essential that we include the poetic voices because, while poets may have a reputation for writing truthfully, we play with fictionalising narratives and perspectives too. Poetry can be just as fictional as prose and I really hope the Festival line up reflects both sides.

Q: Who is the festival for?

A: It’s for anyone interested in writing – in the product and in the process. It’s organised by Surrey University but is held at G Live, in the heart of the city and we hope it helps to strengthen the link between the University and the local community.

We are looking forward to seeing familiar faces from previous years as well as lots of new faces. Many tickets are sold in advance, but we always have people who pop in on the day because they’re passing and want to know more about what’s going on.

Most of all, I’d say the day is a fantastic experience for writers (new and established) and for anyone who has an interest in writing. It’s a chance to mingle with like-minded people, to meet University staff and to hear from existing and emerging writers.

I really hope new writers will come along, take part and discover ways to be more confident in, not just their writing, but their writing process. We want people to leave feeling buoyed up by what they’ve seen and heard.

Q: What are the masterclasses about?

A: A couple of years ago I attended Dr Beth Miller’s masterclass about Writing Sizzling Sex Scenes. I was fascinated because her class was selling out wherever it was billed. Beth uses truthful ways of writing about the body and brings realism to the work and I was delighted when she agreed to join this year’s Festival line up.

Professor Andy Brown will be giving a masterclass in Poetry and Life Writing – he’ll be talking about how to weave real life experiences into writing to blend fact and fiction. Both masterclasses will have limited numbers – so tickets for these should be booked in advance.

Our headline reader is the author of “The Frayed Atlantic Edge” Dr David Gange. He’s a History lecturer from Birmingham University who spent a year kayaking around the Atlantic coasts of Britain and Ireland. His book is about the ecology and the communities he discovered on his extraordinary seafaring adventure. He’ll be reading from his book and answering questions about his voyage.

Some of our own MA and MFA students will at the Festival too, reading their own work.

Q: What talks and workshops will be showcased at the festival?

A: We are really pleased that Jacq Molloy will be joining us. She’s a lecturer on the Open University’s Creative Nonfiction MA. She’ll be explaining how you might start writing in this genre. We’ve also have Genevieve Grant-Thompson who will be holding a workshop on how to give voice to your own work and Monica Suswin who will talk about the therapeutic power of writing.

Q: How do you create a writer’s festival?

A: Preparation for this year started as soon as last year’s festival ended. I spent the summer gathering recommendations and reading piles of books. Then I began to research the writers and look at their profiles. They could be award winning writers, teachers or first-time novelists. What really matters is the quality of the writing. And what I am most interested in is creating a line-up of diverse voices for the festival. With this in mind I read works from a huge variety of genres and from authors in communities outside my own experience. This is really important to me.

I’ve had previous experience organising events for writers, which has been really useful for festival planning.  I helped to found a literature café in East Grinstead in 2003 and a similar thing a couple of years later in Lewes, in East Sussex. We were disgruntled that the writerly focus always seemed to be on nearby Brighton, so a few fellow writers started Needlewriters reading events for local writers and held quarterly reading nights. We published two Needlewriters anthologies and the events are still going on today.

Q: Who is in the 2020 festival team?

A: The Festival’s assistant directors, Evan Cook and Nassma al Bahrani, have been organising the publicity, the social media and generally helping to pull it all together. We have lots of willing volunteers helping out on the day – most of them, but not all, are students and staff at the University of Surrey. But I have to say I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Alison Stubley, the School of Literature and Languages Administrator. She has been a constant over the last four Festivals. She’s not a writer herself, but she is a real champion of the writing community. The team simply couldn’t do it without her.

Interview conducted by Alison Cooper.