Smorgasbord 2020 | Joan Michael

From 2015 – 2018 an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication and inspiration, frustration and laughter on the Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Five years on, it’s been fascinating to publish five new interviews, four of them featuring guests from 2015. My final guest for Smorgasbord 2020 is a face well kent on the Scottish – and international – literary scene. I am overjoyed to bring Joan Michael, dynamic founding member and chair of Ullapool Book Festival, to Smorgasbord 2020.

Hi Joan, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Smorgasbord 2020. You’ve been the chair of Ullapool Book Festival since its launch in 2005. How did it come into being and what were your ambitions for the festival?

Ullapool Entertainments, a voluntary arts organisation, had been founded in 1982 to bring music, theatre etc to Ullapool on a regular basis. In September 2004 the committee (Liz Beer, Jean Urquhart and me) met in The Ceilidh Place parlour bar to draw up the next year’s programme which was to include an author event. I was just back from Edinburgh Book Festival and when there the thought went through my head ‘we could do this!’ So at the meeting we talked about maybe doing a half day of author sessions instead of just one event, then it went on to ‘maybe a day’ to ‘maybe a wee festival’. And I was asked to go away and organise it. And that was the start. Liz has been there as secretary ever since and Effie Mackenzie came on as treasurer in year 2.

Our thoughts were to bring to here what people in bigger places could access more easily – and to show size really doesn’t matter. We wanted to bring to bring quality writing to Ullapool.  At that parlour bar meeting we were excitedly naming some we would want- Ali Smith, Iain Banks, Val McDermid, Janice Galloway, Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre, AL Kennedy, James Robertson. And, yes, they have all been here with us. As have been another 220 –a mixture of well-known and debut writers/poets.  We book people solely on the standard of their writing. And we pay everyone the same fee and we charge the same for the sessions. We are known as being egalitarian – and that’s good.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of running UBF?

Seeking funding to run the festival is definitely the toughest! Ticket prices alone don’t remotely cover all the associated costs.

What do you find most satisfying?

Seeing friendships develop over the weekend – whether between the writers or audience members or both; having such wonderful feedback from audiences and writers; the great camaraderie and teamwork among the committee and volunteers making the festival such a rich, fun experience. And comments like this from one writer make it all worthwhile – “So many things made it special, but most for me was that sense of everyone being enriched together – audience, writers, volunteers. The story does go on.”

What have been your favourite festival moments?

There have been so many. But probably the one that stands out for me was in 2008 when we had the late great Canadian author Alistair MacLeod as a guest writer – he spoke to Ullapool High School, did an amazing session in the hall, and did a writing masterclass. I had met him before in November 2006 when Highland Council invited over some crafts people from Nova Scotia/Cape Breton along with Alistair MacLeod and Peter Rankin who had illustrated his Cape Breton Christmas Story. I was a big fan so when I had heard he was coming I asked if we could have him here in Ullapool. So, he came and I chaired him. When he came to the festival in 2008, we were doing a BBC radio interview together and the interviewer, rather patronisingly I thought, asked him why he (the great Canadian writer) had come to Ullapool. “Because Joan Michael asked me” he replied. That was just so nice!

And your worst?

Apart from realising we were going to have to cancel this year’s festival? The three times writers fell ill and had to cancel once the programmes were out and tickets had gone on sale. In 2011 a writer had phoned me on the Friday lunchtime – he had been due to do the final Sunday session. So, a sold-out hour to fill or we’d have to refund an awful lot of people. A plan was very quickly hatched – get six people from the audience who were not on the programme to do 10 minutes each. It was easier than it sounds! I can tell you who they were. James Robertson was our honorary chairman at the time so he would do a reading and chair the hour. Margaret Bennett was here for the weekend as was George Gunn, Derick McClure, Mandy Haggith and the late Scottish poet Sandy Hutchison. Nobody wanted a refund – and everyone loved it. We even got asked if we could finish every year like that!

How did C-19 impact the festival?

We cancelled May’s festival. We took the decision just before all the programmes and posters went out (and just after we had packed all the envelopes!) and a week before the tickets went on sale. Other events on at the same time as us were holding out so we were rather nervous when we did it. No one knew then how devastating the virus was going to turn out to be. As we had already received some of our funding from Creative Scotland, we paid the fees to all our cancelled guests. We later decided, at very short notice, to put on a 2-hour taster showcase out on Facebook and YouTube on the Saturday of what would have been our festival weekend. We had three of the sessions we would have had as well as three poems written during lockdown by poets who had been previous guests. And instead of our coffee and cake breaks which we always have between sessions at the festival we had music breaks from an album by the fabulous Joseph Peach and Charlie Grey. I’m still trying to decide if that counts as our 16th festival and that 2021 will be our 17th!

How would you describe yourself?

That is a rather impossible question. Quoting Burns, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” But to try – friendly, political, community-minded – but I have stood down from everything apart from UBF. I’ve put in  45-year shift and feel I have paid my dues to society!

Who inspires you?

My late friend Bette Poor. She was a remarkable woman. She had a fine brain and was such a good person – we had wonderful conversations. I still ask myself “what would Bette say?” when deciding on what is right and what is wrong.

What were you like at school?

I’ll ignore my last 18 months of school – my father’s job had moved him to Edinburgh and I was absolutely miserable there.  But before that I was very happy in Inverness Royal Academy. I enjoyed school and did well academically, especially after I dropped science (!); I had good friends; played various sports; was well behaved and quite shy.

What advice would you give to the young Joan Michael?

 Listen to your mother!

How was your lockdown experience?

It has been OK. Loved the first 3 or 4 weeks as I felt had time to myself to do all the things I wanted to do – all the unread books etc. But that faded over time and I lost enthusiasm. My concentration diminished so there are still a lot of unread/partly read books on the shelves. Sorting the bookshelves was another planned occupation that never happened; in fact, they got even more chaotic as I realised today when I went looking for specific books.  But I have read, or reread, lots of short stories. Watched TV aimlessly – channel hopping to find something I fancied but seldom found much that inspired me. I am really missing live music gigs – it is usually such a part of my life.

A few short questions to finish:

Recently read and enjoyed?

Natasha by David Bezmozgis (short story collection of course!)

Recently watched and enjoyed?

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival on Facebook. Again, they were short.  I re-watched The Thick of It which has really stood the passage of 15 years. I also enjoyed the film The Post about the Pentagon Papers on Channel 4 the other night. It was the longest thing I have watched in the months.

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

Pasta in various guises, probably.  At the start I was eating lots of oranges, though that went down to normal after a few weeks– probably because I got fed up peeling them.

What’s on your current playlist?

Phil Ochs, Warren Zevon, The Traveling Wilburys (especially love the lyrics of their The End of the LineWell it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey. Well, it’s all right, you’ve still got something to say. I play that track at quite high volume! Plus music of all the wonderful young musicians I had booked for The Ceilidh Place’s 50th birthday this year – and all who have been cancelled.  

A massive thanks to Joan for taking part in Smorgasbord 2020. I’m going to stick in a last word from a personal perspective. Joan said that UBF is known for being egalitarian; I can vouch that this is the case behind the scenes as well as on the stage. It can be quite a tricky thing to join a group of people who have been working closely together for a long time and so I was a bit nervous when I joined the team of volunteers at Ullapool Book Festival in 2019 but it soon became clear that I had nothing to worry about. What I experienced was a well-oiled machine fuelled by laughter, mischief, and a get stuck in attitude. I was immediately welcomed into the team and was struck by everyone’s willingness to get on with whatever needed to be done at that moment. Nobody thought themselves too grand or too important to do the unglamorous background tasks that make the UBF weekend happen – all the humping and dumping and fetching and cleaning and running of errands – and all of it done with energy and humour. It was a fantastic experience and although our 2020 virtual festival was a success, I know I’m not the only one hoping that we’ll be back to the real thing in 2021.

Find out more about Ullapool Book Festival here: website, Twitter, Facebook.

Books by LG Thomson are available online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

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