Saturday, October 20, 2007


The Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera has been running now for four years and offers a combination of every delight. Wonderful weather, great food and wine, and good company. Small wonder that it attracts a growing numbers of writers, publishers and agents from the US and Europe.

Matera is in the south, a few miles from the coast in Italy’s “instep”. Once one of the poorest and most deprived areas in the country, as described in Carlo Levi’s book, “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, it is now protected by UNESCO as a place of “collective memories … layers of history”.

Here the people once lived in caves in the Sassi, which means, literally, “rock”. The Sassi, one of the oldest inhabited places in the world and clinging to the side of a hill overlooking a deep gorge, has barely changed in centuries and has been used as the site of several movies including, most recently, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ”. The caves themselves, once each the home for families of up to twelve people and livestock – even the horse -- have now been turned into first class hotels and desirable homes, but the rock churches with their thirteenth century frescoes are still there and the Sassi now brings in visitors from all over the world.

Our hotel, the Sant’Angelo, had been put together from a group of converted cave dwellings which was certainly different, but very comfortable with a modern en suite bathroom. We arrived too late for the Festival welcome reception and so walked (make a note of that word walk) to a nearby restaurant and, having eaten a hearty meal, we collapsed into bed. We were going to need the rest.

After breakfast the following morning the receptionist directed us to Le Monocelle, beside the duomo, where the Festival workshops were taking place. I’ll draw a veil over the next half an hour, which consisted mainly of walking up steps. And more steps. And yet more steps. The good news is that you can eat all that wonderful Italian food because every morning and evening you’re going to get a cardiac workout whether you want one or not. To be fair, this was not the easiest route and we discovered that the hotel had a car available (no charge) to drive us up there whenever we wanted. Walking down was no trouble – although comfortable walking shoes are a must – as even the narrowest steps are well lit at night. There are also hotels situated much nearer the centre of things.

The first morning session consisted of a welcome from Amy Bliss, the American Consul in Naples, and then a fascinating talk on the subject of “Love in the Time of Tarantell” by Dorothy Zinn, an American cultural anthropologist who lives in Matera and whose thesis on the area was a best-seller in Italy. She told us of a passionate 15th century female poet who lived in the area, and about Philomena, a local beauty who, in the 19th century, murdered her jealous husband by stabbing him in the throat before running off to the join the brigands who lived in the caves. Lots of great stuff for the historical writers. She also told us touching stories recently collected from grandparents by local schoolchildren about their courting days – arranged marriages were still taking place here as recently as the middle of the twentieth century.

After that, Phil Doran, a Hollywood scriptwriter and author of “The Reluctant Italian”, had us in stitches as he read from his book and talked about how his life had changed following the phone call from his wife which began, “I’ve bought a house…”

The coffee breaks deserve a mention if only for the cakes – I refer you to the cardiac workout I mentioned earlier – and the espresso. And the opportunity to talk with agents, publishers and other writers, both published and unpublished, on a terrace high above the town in glorious sunshine. Here Barbara Samuel, Cat Cobain from Headline, Kayla Perrin and Karin Stoecker, Editorial Director of Harlequin Mills & Boon are comparing "cake" notes. Barbara gave a stellar workshop on Using the Five Senses in your writing. Layering in the lusciousness -- and I can't wait to read her wip, which has a working title of Cooking for the Dead. Her notes can be downloaded from her website.

The Festival programme was packed with workshops, including talks on the international drug trade and spyware by special agents from NCIS, and crime and cybercrime from experts in the field . There were also agent and publisher panels and some great author workshops. “Getting to Know Your Characters” from Ann Roth; “Writing for a Small Press” – the pros and cons -- with Rosemary Laurey; “Writing With the Five Senses” and “Writing Erotic Novels” with Rachelle Chase, Madeline Oh and Kayla Perrin.

Each evening opened with a “happy hour” in a piazza in the centre of town, followed by events – open to the public – as varied as a workshop on Writing Erotic Novels, Books Into Films and author signings. Here I'm getting acquainted with Stephano and Alessandra Bazardi from the Harlequin Mondadori office.

One of the most impressive, and valuable, features of the Festival was the opportunity for appointments with high powered agents – Carole Blake, UK; Kylee Doust, Italy; Katherine Sands and Christine Witthohn, US -- and publishers such as Karin Stoecker from Harlequin Mills & Boon, Catherine Cobain from Headline and Raelene Gorlinksy from Ellora’s Cave. These were not five minute affairs with the chance to do little more than use your “elevator pitch” but in-depth meetings that gave authors the chance to talk through their publishing experience with excellent advice on progressing their careers. Conference goer Margaret Moore reported having spent three-quarters of an hour with Karin Stoecker and thought her conference fee well spent.

The climax of the Festival was the award of the Baccante Prize to author, Federico Moccia before, finally, the reason for my invitation to the Festival which was the presentation of a translation contract by Harlequin Mondadori to Christina who won the annual translation competition for which my short story, “The Cinderella Valentine”, had been used as the set text.

The Matera Fiction Festival has everything. Great speakers and workshops, a fabulous setting, and dawn to dusk sunshine and I look forward to returning very soon.

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