Thursday, 2 May 2013

Budapest part 2: First Novel Fest

Amidst the wonders of sumptuous cake, dazzling shop windows, and general jaunting about Budapest, I also took part in the European First Novel Festival. The Budapest International Book Festival has been in existence for some twenty years, but the First Novel Fest is somewhat newer (fittingly). This year writers from Bulgaria, Hungary, Holland, France, Italy, Scotland, Slovenia, Switzerland, Slovakia, Finland, Norway, Cyprus, Poland, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Israel, and England (me!) took part. And what a brilliantly eclectic group we were; different ages, backgrounds, concerns, but the shared experience of having recently released our first novels... 

The setting for our meets and panels was Millenáris, a cultural centre and green space in the heart of Buda. The site was once home to an electrical factory, and something of this industrial spirit remains, with converted hangars and distinctly urban architecture (and rusted hunks of metal that could have been relics of a bygone era, or the modernest of art, who knows...). Anyway, it was cool. It felt a bit Berlin-y. And over the Festival weekend it was full of book-loving types sitting in the sunshine, beering and coffee-ing, and eating hot coils of sugared bread (Transylvanian 'Chimney Cake'). I also had a glimpse of it by night, after an evening reception for the Festival, where refreshments came in the form of award winning vintages from Hungary's foremost winegrower, and a dazzling buffet that included, amongst many other favourite dishes, a celestially-good Paprika Chicken. By night, the whole park rang with the croaking of frogs, an insanely vociferous chorus. A sound that was only drowned out, momentarily, by a man leaving our party and howling at the moon - the walking embodiment of the tortured artist. Lovely stuff.

Inside two of the main halls, the Book Festival was in full swing, with exhibitors from all over Hungary and Europe, as well as a full programme of events. My publisher Park's stand became our meeting point for the weekend. It was fab to see the stacks of Nyarak Könyve, and I only regret not trying to nab one of the beautiful posters made for the occasion, using one of the Polaroid-style images from the UK hardback. My sunday launch was advertised on the stand, with bunches of gorgeous summer flowers. I was feeling a lot of Park love.

My first event was a panel on the subject of 'family', with writers from Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, Scotland, and Holland, and hosted by writer and critic Zsofia Ban. While our books were wildly different - from magic realism in a Serbian village to a tale of 'waiting' in a Dutch fishing town - we'd all written of family, in some form; fractured family, harmonious family, murderous family, loving family. It made for spirited discussion - luckily for me, the official language of the festival was English - and I couldn't help being humbled by the language skills of the other writers. 

On the second day of the Festival I took part in a panel whose only theme was along the lines of 'you're all first time novelists... GO!' It worked brilliantly. The host was charismatic writer András Forgách, and he succeeded in spinning the conversation between all eight of us, ensuring everyone got the time to talk about their experiences, from quitting a job in a Czech McDonalds, to love in the time of French recession, to being a Danish soldier in Afghanistan. We compared stories of sudden inspiration striking (I was playing tennis and heard a seagull - true story), and debated the pros and cons of writing while listening to music (I voted yes - especially if it's the obsessive repeat playing of one album, teenage-style). Being invited to take part in the Festival was a real privilege, and this particular panel was one of the most enjoyable events I've ever done.       

Gurning, between far more composed writers Cathrine Riebnitzsky and Jessica Gregson.

In a pause between interviews and events, Éva and Vera asked if I'd like a peek inside the Park offices, as they were located just a short walk from the Festival site. Steps from Millenáris Park, we found ourselves on a peaceful residential street, and stopped at a beautiful turn-of-the-century apartment block, complete with garden path and wooden balconies. I thought we were catching our breath - it was HOT - but no, tucked inside this glorious old building was the Park office, once the former workspace and home of celebrated architect Marcel Komor. Of the many aesthetically lovely things about my publisher's HQ - from the mezzanine galleries, to the shaded balconies, to the parquet floor - the intricately painted wooden ceiling is perhaps the most remarkable.

In every sense, The Book of Summers has found a very nice Hungarian home indeed.

A post-event stroll across the Margit Bridge, in Budapest's evening sun, Danube truly blue.