Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Walking into the crowded authors’ tent at Le livre sur les quais (The book on the quays) literary festival in Morges on Saturday, my first thought was that I had entered a cattle market of books and authors. The festival now boasts a roll call of more than 300 authors. Could this be too much of a good thing?

Le livre sur les quais is only in its seventh year but has achieved significant national and international recognition, attracting big names and 40,000 visitors. Although mainly a festival of French-language literature, the festival has an excellent English programme and star-studded guest list (Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train).

Morges is a pretty little town on Lake Geneva, a short commute from the city of Lausanne. On the five-minute walk down from the train station to the lake shore, you glimpse large courtyards to the left and right, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks. This is urban living at its best. There is an attractive old centre, and when you cross the main street, Grande rue, any of the side streets lead down to the lake shore and stunning views of the water and the French Alps to the south.  

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The authors’ tent is right on the water’s edge, an impossibly long marquee with the sides left open on the lake side in the hopes of a breeze. Continuous lines of tables run along the ‘walls’ on each side of the tent, facing several inner rectangular ‘islands’ of tables. It was a hot day on Saturday and the temperature in the tent was sweltering.

The authors sit behind these tables, each with a pile of books on display. The presence of so many authors in one place, selling their books (not that they handle money, you take the books from the table and pay at a till) creates a feeling that they are vying for attention.

Maybe I was projecting, the way I do with cows too, but some of the authors looked a little forlorn and overwhelmed. According to the programme there were 348 guests attending the festival, authors, poets, translators.

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For the visitors, the wonderful thing about the set-up was that you could walk up to an author you admire and strike up a conversation. This accessibility is one of the great attractions of the festival. I went straight to the island of English-speaking authors island. The authors come and go participating or attending various talks in venues around the town or on pleasure boats!

I was delighted to meet Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest, which I had been reading on the train journey to Morges (big disadvantage of ebooks – you can’t get them signed!). The novel is a fictionalised account of a real summer spent by Chekhov and his family in an idyllic country setting in Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. The story is told partly through the diary of a blind woman who became close to the great writer, made poignant by the knowledge that she is dying, and partly from the perspective of the present day translator of the diary.  Anderson gives a fascinating account of her research trip to Sumy here.

It was a day of discoveries and striking up connections with people. One talk I attended was a panel discussion about historical fiction with Rosie Thomas, Petina Gappah (amazing speaker from Zimbabwe), John Boyne and Anne Korkeakivi. John Boyne, best known as the author of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, talked about the nit-pickers who come to him with minor factual corrections. He also confessed he checked one-star Amazon reviews to see what people did not like about his books.

“There are no mistakes in fiction. Once you put a made-up character into a historical setting, it’s corrupted. The story you’re telling comes first.” I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, his first novel with an Irish setting.

My visit to Le Livre sur les quais was a very enriching day for me, but one where I was glad to be the observer and not the observed. But soon it will be my turn to sit at a table and talk about my book. After a career of asking questions, I’m not sure how easy it will be to have the roles reversed. This month I will be giving my first interviews about my book, and two talks at the Geneva Expo on October 2 (more info here).  

One more thing for any of you who are on Goodreads. The Naked Swiss  is now listed there and you can mark it as ‘want to read’ if you like, and/or follow my author page.

Have you attended any literary festivals this year? What do you think is the best formula? I know a huge amount of work goes into these events and I think they are fantastic for readers. I hope authors feel the same. Not only did I come away with these great books, but I was able to meet or listen to four out of the five authors. 

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15 thoughts on “Book heaven on Lake Geneva

  1. When I read the opening I thought you were going to be one of the authors sit at the table, but that’s for later, I see. It might be projection, but no harm preparing yourself mentally for when it’s your turn. What gets me, at the few opportunities I’ve had to sit behind a table as an author, is the effort of smiling – no problem when people are actually coming to talk to you (unless it’s to ask where the toilets are) but exhausting when they troop by in search of someone more interesting.

  2. Very funny! I hope you didn’t get too many toilet queries. The feeling I had at Morges was that the authors are rather lost in the crowd. Nice to hear from you, Anne.

  3. I was at Morges this weekend and was able to speak with almost all of the authors at the English section and I have to admit, I went through a lot of emotions. First, I was a bit intimidated. I am fairly shy and never really know how to strike up conversations, often fail miserably at keeping them going. These are authors, people who are where I want to be, I have no idea who most of them are (though I was lucky enough to meet a couple of the women who live here in Switzerland at other writers events) and feel like maybe I should have researched them before I arrived so I didn’t sound foolish. Then I have a relatively high guilt factor, if I pick up someone’s book, look them in the eye and chat a minute, I will almost always buy the book. I want to support them, I want a good book to read, but I don’t have an unlimited bank account! So if I think it may not be my cup of tea, I may avoid all chit chat completely, which I feel rude about! In the end I loosened up, went back and bought all the books anyway! I have a little experience on the other side of table. At one point in my life I sold nature photography at a farmers market. People walked by, looked at things, asked me questions, I had a blast. It was so fun meeting people like that and I never felt bad if someone picked something up and put it back down. Except one time someone asked for a refund because they saw something else they wanted to buy from someone else. 😉 You will do fine. You’ve been questioned as a journalist before no doubt!

    1. I know what you mean, Tara, about whether/how to approach the authors in this situation. I ended up ignoring the ones I didn’t recognise or hadn’t already picked out to see because I felt I couldn’t start browsing their book right in front of their noses – and then walk away! But there was one author, who will remain nameless (not in the English section), whose table I visited where the roles were reversed. She was texting furiously and did not look up for the (what felt like) rather long time I stood waiting for her to notice me. In the end I left without speaking to her or buying her book. She’s probably having a stormy affair or something.
      Interesting that you were much more relaxed at the farmers market when you were sitting on the other side of the table. Where you’re meant to be 🙂

  4. Sounds like a fantastic festival. Can’t wait to read The Naked Swiss … hoping I will still be kicking around the old hometown when you pop over to launch it.

    Regarding literary festivals, I have attended four in the last couple of months: The Hay Festival in Kells, the International Literature Festival Dublin, the Dalkey Book Festival, and the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh. Each was wonderful in its own way – I don’t know what the winning formula would be, but I do know that sometimes it can be a bit hectic. There were a lot of authors in Kells and several readings were scheduled simultaneously, so that I was forced to make some hard choices about who I would go and see. On the plus side, though, the cost to attend the readings in Kells was ridiculously cheap. The same novelist I had paid 20 euro to see in Dalkey, I could now see for a fiver.
    https://ragingfluff.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/making-hay-in-kells-all-weekend/

    The Hewitt Summer School had no overlapping of events, but there were so many things go on in the week that festival fatigue set in … luckily, as a bursary student attending, I was fed tea and scones several times a day, and the atmosphere at the Hewitt is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. https://ragingfluff.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/at-the-john-hewitt-summer-school/

    1. Four festivals in a couple of months! You are living the literary dream there Niall. 🙂 Now that you mention money, the amazing thing about this festival was that most of the events were free of charge. And yet I didn’t see a sponsor’s name plastered anywhere.
      I agree that it’s a pity to have an over-packed programme. It’s terrible when you have to choose between two great events. Hope you are still around in October. Invite on the way soon.

  5. I think I’ve only ever been to one literary festival – back in Sydney when a friend was speaking… oops. This sounds cool although I’m rather allergic to these slightly awkward meet-market type situations!

    1. The other option is to go small. There seem to be interesting things on in Zurich quite regularly which I hear about but never attend because I’m not well enough organised. Not sure how much other writing you do besides poetry but check this one out:
      http://writecon.ch/

  6. I have been to the Edinburgh International Book Festival which is fantastic. This looks like a great one to attend – the setting is beautiful. Great that the authors are so accessible too. Good luck with your talks at the Geneva Expo. If you speak at a Zurich one, I’d love to come along and listen!

  7. Great post. We spent the summer in Switzerland and went past Morges a few times but never got off. Will have to look for the festival. Have started writing about our journey on the blog so have a look. Also, I’m reading the Gilded Chalet at present and loving it.

    1. What a coincidence! I am also reading The Gilded Chalet at the moment and find it excellent. It’s given me lots of ideas for Swiss or Swiss-related literature to read. You can get a sense from Rooney’s descriptions what novels might be appealing. I will have a look at your blog. Thanks for stopping by!

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