I have enjoyed the pleasure of working in the publishing industry and through it, meeting many wonderful book-loving types. Whether at a book launch, out for drinks and networking, or one of the Edinburgh festival’s many events – one face has always stood out from the crowd. That face belongs to Peggy Hughes, manager of Literary Dundee’s annual programme of projects, including the upcoming Dundee Literary Festival.
Peggy has a passion that reaches from the sole of her brogue-clad toes to the tips of her pixie-cropped hair. Just one minute in her presence has you contemplating the bigger questions in life – Why are we here? Where are all the books? How can I make everyone else care as much as I do? And where can I buy those shoes?
Her personality is as infectious as her love for all things literary.
TF: For any of our readers who don’t know – can you tell us how you came into your current role as Captain of the Dundee lit Ship?
PH: I have been in post at Literary Dundee – a University of Dundee initiative that celebrates reading and writing with a spectrum of events and projects throughout the year – since July 2013, so this is my 4th Dundee Literary Festival. Before that I worked for the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, and before that at the Scottish Poetry Library.
Simultaneous to everything I chair events at festivals and events around the country and do lots of other miscellaneous activities relating to books – I am an advisor this year on Writers Centre Norwich’s International Literature Showcase, I’m on the Board of the Craigmillar Literacy Trust, I talk to Rotary Clubs and community groups and anyone that’ll have me about books and reading. So it’s always been about the books, basically.
TF: Sounds like you’re a busy bee indeed. How are you celebrating the festival’s 10th year?
PH: With a lovely five day party! For the first time we’ve got a festival theme uniting this year’s activity, which is time machines. With the festival being ten, I wanted to find a way to tip our hat to literary legends, including The Time Machine author H.G. Wells on his 150th anniversary, but also to look to the future and celebrate new and emerging talent.
My colleague’s daughter who is 10 made me this fab poster with a quote from Carl Sagan on it: ‘A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic’ and that comes from a longer Sagan quote which also includes the jewel: ‘Books break the shackles of time.’ And that got me thinking about books and time and books as little portable time machines that carry us to distant places and times and that was the wee light-bulb moment.
And so we’re journeying backwards and forwards this year – to the 1930s and a big birthday tea dance in honour of us, and The Broons and Oor Wullie, to the future of death and literary criticism and language, and many points and places in between.
TF: It sounds perfect. What would you say you’ve brought to the role at literary Dundee? No pressure!
I don’t think I’m the right person to answer that! If, through Literary Dundee activity or charging around talking about books to whoever will lend me their ears, I have made one more person more excited by books, or encouraged someone to read more than they did, or feel more part of the literary community, here or elsewhere, then I’d be humbled and delighted.
TF: What do you love most about Dundee?
PH: In no particular order: the light, the people, the view of Dundee Law from my flat, the view of the Tay from my flat, being on the goose flightpath and hearing them chuckling and chatting as they go, Braithwaites tea emporium who keep us in loose leaf teas, Spex Pistols Optical Boutique, the parks, the walk to Broughty Ferry.
TF: If our readers haven’t yet been to your fair city I’m sure they’ll be making their way now. How is the Dundee lit scene different from Edinburgh?
PH: They are both full of committed, talented, enthusiastic, supportive people. Edinburgh’s bigger so there are slightly more people there, and more events, but The List Magazine summed it up nicely when they wrote: ‘With so many characters – fictional or otherwise – hailing from the city, Dundee’s place on the literary map of the world is significant and indisputable.’
TF: Well said. What are the benefits of being a smaller festival?
PH: A small festival is more like a short story than a big fat novel, more of a dram than a pint. It has to pack a punch in a relatively small space of time and so there’s a lot of fun and challenge to be had in programming it and simultaneously creating something that appeals to our readers and visitors. The festival also takes place mostly in our festival hub the Bonar Hall, so it’s quite site and space specific, inviting people to hang out for the most part in one location. It feels intimate and welcoming, and we as a team can get to know our visitors over the years, which I like very much.
TF: Yes I imagine that would feel deeply rewarding, it would be difficult to achieve that at Edinburgh International Book Festival! What do you think we’ll see from the festival in another ten years time? What would you like to see?
PH: I am obsessed with the future of book festivals and how we engage with live author experiences, and where we all might go next. When you think about it, book festivals and the expectations we have on authors as public figures have changed and grown hugely in the past ten years – the Edinburgh International Book Festival is 32 years old, and given that’s the same age as me it feels pretty young… So I hope Dundee Literary Festival will be nimble and take risks and continue to listen to the readers for whom we throw the party, and use the platforms and technologies that will develop to the best and full advantage.
I hope it will retain its local and University flavour, and continue to build relationships with the community and students and academic personnel and writers and publishers who support it, and that it will always be a welcoming port of call for everyone, writers and readers all. I think we all hope our projects continue to be enticing and continue to evolve and experiment and surprise people.
TF: There’s a prominence of comic book themes and events in the programme – is that personal choice or a reflection of the times?
PH: Dundee is the home of The Broons and Oor Wullie, Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace, so as well as the world-renown Comics Studies at the University of Dundee, so we’ve always had a strong focus on comics at the festival. This year we have workshops and talks, master-classes and a launch, and we’re inviting people to help us build a giant collaborative comic. I love comics and graphic storytelling; it’s such a powerful and democratic medium. I’m particularly excited about our event with Maria Stoian and Neil Slorance.
TF: What is your personal number one event?
PH: When you start a job as a festival programmer, you sign a contract that says you will never have favourites: like a Hippocratic oath for doctors in which you swear to uphold specific ethical standards. If pushed though, I’d point people in the direction of The Glass Shore. Edited by writer and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson, The Glass Shore gathers Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland and it’s a timely and important book that places some fantastic but overlooked writers back in the limelight.
I’d also mention Chitra Ramaswamy and Susana Moreira Marques because these are two books I relished and two talkers I much admire. But then – I admire everyone in the programme and would urge people to dive in and take a chance, even if they haven’t read the book.
TF: What should any new visitors to the festival be looking out for?
PH: Help us make our giant comic! Pay a visit to word-o-mat and take home a beautiful wee tiny zine! Have a cuppa in our café, browse our festival library and enjoy visits to our partner venues Frigate Unicorn and Verdant Works and Café W at Waterstones. Climb the Law – it’s a beautiful walk and your reward is an awesome panoramic view of Dundee. Dance at our tea dance and be peaceful with a book at our Silent Reading Party. Have a dander by the waterfront. Stay out late with us and get a post-pub pie at Clark’s 24 hour bakery…
TF: Sounds almost too good to be true Peggy – and very tempting indeed! So I have to ask, what’s the best thing about your job?
PH: I get to read books, meet authors and readers, and work with wonderful people, all the while connecting people with magical stories. Unbelievable.
TF: Sounds idyllic! What are your top Dundee hangouts?
PH: The Phoenix Pub! My sofa, with a view of the Tay on a bright October morning.
TF: I like it. What’s your most compelling read this year and why?
PH: See above re our Hippocratic oath but I will give special mention to The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; Douglas Dunn says a poem should kick you in the heart and the head, and these three books did both for me. The main thing they have in common is that they disappeared me, they disappeared time, they removed me almost physically from the material reality I was in and took me somewhere else.
I also want to mention a story by Lucy Caldwell called ‘Here We Are’ which is in her astounding collection Multitudes; the story is about two schoolgirls who fall in love in Belfast during the Troubles and it’s so powerful, moving and perfect it plucked my heart from my chest and threw it to the other side of the room.
TF: Brutal! Any books you wish you hadn’t read? Why?
PH: My regrets with books tend more towards wishing I had more time to read more!
TF: Talking of time to read more, we’re (sort of) looking to the festive season – where are your favourite shopping spots?
PH: Braithwaites again and Foyles in London. The wee pottery shop in Crail and Athenaeum Boekhandel in Amsterdam. If I won the lottery I’d buy all my nearest and dearest three-piece tweed suits from Walker Slater in Edinburgh.
TF: What’s your most random bookie happening or favourite anecdote?
PH: The late, wonderful Seamus Heaney told me to tell my mother that I sounded as Antrim as the day I left. Nothing tops that. Take that, mammy!
TF: And, finally, your favourite thing about books?
PH: Carl Sagan said “What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years.’ If that isn’t magic I don’t know what is.
We hope you enjoyed this interview and make the journey to fair Dundee for what promises to be a thoroughly entertaining festival. You can find out more info about Dundee Literary Festival, running 19th-23rd October at Dundee Literary Festival 2016 or on Twitter at @literarydundee.