Lyndsey Fineran, Programme and Commissions Manager for Cheltenham Literature Festival

Lyndsey speaks to The Publishing Profile about working for the world's oldest book festival.

Hi, I’m Lyndsey Fineran. I’m the Programme and Commissions Manager for Cheltenham Literature Festival, the oldest, and one of the largest, book festivals in the world. Each year we welcome close to 1,000 writers and thinkers from across the globe for a 10 day celebration of the written and spoken word, and myself and my team make that happen.

How did you get into the book world? For the Cheltenham job specifically, I went in on a paid internship and worked my way up through the roles there. I was already in my mid-twenties when I interned and had worked in theatre, events, arts journalism and a myriad of jobs in pubs, restaurants and shops prior to that.

Unless you’re London based and/or know some people working in the field, the book world can feel quite mysterious, so I definitely skirted the edges for a while. The internship was a game-changer: it showed me literary programming as a role that blended the practical skills I’d picked up from previous retail and hospitality jobs with the artsy/intellectual side I had from being a book lover and it felt like a great fit. Working on a huge literary event like Cheltenham means you’re at the intersection of so many publishers, authors, agents, editors, event producers and journalists, so it was a really helpful bird’s eye view of how the industry all fits together. That was invaluable for someone very new to it all and from a non-standard arts background so I’m really keen that access routes such as paid internships and mentoring don’t get squeezed out as the arts world weathers this tough time. They’re a vital pipeline for ensuring we get more diverse talent into this industry.

What does a typical day in your current role look like? Very varied, which is why I love it. as I mentioned above, it’s a real combination of creative/intellectual energy and very practical work of making sure that what you’re dreaming up works as an event, and within an eco-system of 500 other events! So it’s a lot of plate-spinning. A typical day might see me having a creative meeting with an author who is guest curating on the programme, emailing with publicists about various author invites, working on a pitch to sponsors, liaising with our operations team on some practical elements and then something quite random: can we fit a huge piano in X space or X performer would like to do this out of the box thing, can we make it happen? So I do feel like every neuron in my brain gets used most days. Working at the intersection of publishing and the live event world usually means my office time is supplemented with lots of reading and keeping abreast of cultural life through podcasts and attending other festivals, events, book launches and prizes. The latter of those have been of the Zoom variety of late. Better for my carbon footprint and energy, less good in the fun stakes…

Has your attitude to reading changed since working in the publishing industry? How has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read? It’s made me read faster, which isn’t necessarily always a good thing as books perhaps don’t percolate as much, but it does mean you discover lots and perhaps pick up things that you usually might not have. I love how selecting a seemingly random proof from a pile of book post can lead you into a whole different reading area, or prompt a left-field idea for a live event at the Festival that goes on to be a highlight of the programme.

Is there a book that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of? Why is that?

I’m generally involved once a book is published, or about to be. Although, you often hear of books/collaborations that are born out of writers meeting/performing together at the Festival, which is brilliant.

For me, it’s those books that remind me of special festival events. Max Porter did some amazing things around Lanny as a guest curator last year and signed me a lovely copy as a thank you.

Guy Garvey joined us for an event about Leonard Cohen when Canongate released Cohen’s final poetry collection, The Flame, so my copy of that has a folded up set-list of the evening and a note from Guy saying ‘thanks for asking me to speak about Cohen when I’m many floors beneath him in the Tower of Song’. It’s those sort of mementoes I really treasure and remind me of some magical festival moments.

Where do you buy or access your books? We’re always reading a few months ahead for programming so a lot of my work reading comes in the form of proofs from publishers. For personal reading, I particularly love Stanford’s in Bristol, who do an amazing range of travel literature and books in translation. Barter Books in Northumberland (an amazing second-hand book shop built in an old railway station) is always a treat when I’m home for Christmas.

What is your most beautiful book? Another shout out to Canongate but we followed the Leonard Cohen evening with a celebration of Joni Mitchell the next year and they sent me a beautiful copy of Morning Glory on the Vine filled with Joni’s artwork and handwritten lyrics as a thank you. It’s stunning.

What is the oldest book on your shelf? It’s probably an old collection of Winnie the Pooh that will be up North at my parents’ house. My Dad did a mean Tigger. What surprises you about your bookshelves? Is there a book that you own that you were surprised to love as much as you did? My main surprise is still that I have them! I spent my twenties lugging boxes of books between various flatshares, probably losing lots and annoying various housemates with my makeshift book forts. Everyone has their own markers of adulthood and for me getting proper bookshelves and finally having all my books in one place is part of that. In terms of bookish surprises, I was young and drunk in an airport once and wanted a copy of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ (so many cliches in that sentence, I know) but a combination of the airport beers and being late for the flight meant I mistakenly came away with The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Verrrrrrry different book, obviously, but one that I absolutely fell in love with and prompted me to write a dissertation on Southern Gothic a few years later, and is a novel I still reread regularly. This is the battered copy I reread while cycling around Iceland a couple of years back. I think it’s a masterpiece.

Which authors or genres do you look forward to reading more of in the future? More work in translation. There are some incredible presses - Fitzcarraldo, Titled Axis, Peirene, Charco doing amazing work in this area and I want to dig further. I also want to learn more about mythology and classics with a big ‘C’ so I’m working my way through excellent yet idiot-proof guides by people like Stephen Fry and Natalie Haynes. What are the best books you've read in 2020 so far? Diane Cook was a great discovery this year - her short story Man v Nature is excellent and I read an advanced copy of her first novel The New Wilderness (Oneworld) that I think it going to do great things. I’ve also loved: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang, Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, Pew by Catherine Lacey, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Snow Dog Foot by Claudio Morandini, Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson, Weather by Jenny Offill, Boy Parts by Eliza Clark and Sam Byers’ new novel, Come Join Our Disease (which I think is now coming out next year), is really something.

What are your most anticipated reads for the rest of the year? I’m just about to go away for a long weekend after hitting a big deadline so I’ve got Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld and Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett packed. I’m really looking forward to The Overstory by Richard Powers when I’ve got a longer break. I’ve heard amazing things.

Which books should everybody read? Whatever they like! The best thing about reading is following your nose and seeing where you end up. But any of the books recommended above would get you off to a great start.

Where can readers find you online? I’m on Twitter at @Lyndsey_Fineran, Instagram at @lfineran and you can sign up for Cheltenham-specific updates at cheltenhamfestivals.com

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