Dive into our Franschhoek Literary Festival guide for beginners, with survival tips and back story from those in the know.
“Don’t book sessions back to back – you can’t absorb too much and honestly you need time to process all the information.” A surprising bit of advice from Shelagh Foster, director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, who admits it’s probably counter-productive coming from her. “Truth is,” she says, “I just want everyone’s experience to be the best.”
And whatever else it may be, Franschhoek is one full-on literary experience. Founded in 2007, it’s arguably the mother of literary festivals in South Africa, and literati, readers and writers come from far and wide, some diligently attending every year since inception. But there’s always a first time, and if it’s yours here’s what you need to know…
Chapter 1 – How did it start?
“I’ll tell you exactly how it started,” says Jenny Hobbs, member of the founding team and former director of the festival. “Writer Christopher Hope and I were at a Sunday Times Literary Awards dinner in 2006, and I’d just interviewed him. As we were walking out, he said, ‘I’m looking for a place to start an English-speaking literary festival in South Africa. Any ideas?’ I said that I lived in Franschhoek and would ask about it. I guess the rest is history.
“We timed it for the third week in May, so we could keep guest houses open and jobs going after the tourist season. I’d been in journalism and publishing all my life, so I told all my friends about it. It was a great success, and publishers wanted to get involved. I think we sold about 1 300 tickets that first year – last year it was around 13 000. We never imagined it would get so big.”
Chapter 2 – Who talks?
“It starts with publishers who send books and recommend local authors,” says Shelagh. “We work with authors with books coming out between one festival and the next. Because there’s an increasing number of so many really good South African authors, and good books being published, it’s difficult to choose. We’re almost bursting at the seams. Plus, we have to include the favourites. For instance, people want to see Deon Meyer every year.
“But it doesn’t matter if they’ve got 20 books under their belt or if they’re first-time authors, the playing field is even. Publishers also recommend the big international names they think will work here.”
Last year that included best-sellers Kate Mosse from the UK, and creator of the popular Orphan X series, Gregg Hurwitz from the US. “It’s great for the audience, and for local and international authors to meet and network.”
Chapter 3 – How does it work?
“If I have a knack at all, it’s for matching authors with authors and putting together ideas for discussion, mixing fiction with non-fiction, writing styles, etc. Then patterns start to emerge.”
And so Shelagh and her lean team of two plan a packed three-day programme of panels, poetry, lectures, storytelling and workshops around a range of themes, from crime to passion and everything in between. “For first timers, it’s best to download and study the programme as soon as possible, look for your favourite authors or topics you fancy, mark the events, and the book – the popular ones are sold out very quickly.”
Last year there were more than 120 events on the programme at regular intervals throughout the day. Luckily, Franschhoek village centre is quite contained, and all the venues – a variety of halls and rooms – are all within walking distance. The town hall, where books and tickets are sold, is the heartbeat of the festival, with coffee and chat, street maps and a master programme showing what’s already booked and what’s still available.
Chapter 4 – Where do I stay, eat and drink ?
If you have time and can afford it, staying overnight is a win and means you can enjoy everything else Franschhoek has to offer – good food, good wine, good hospitality.
“Booking accommodation is essential,” says Shelagh, “but there always seems to be enough space. Airbnb generally is more affordable and, if you’re going to one of the high-end restaurants, good idea to book there too, but you’ll usually find a table somewhere.”
There are also delis and food stores in town if you want to self-cater or picnic. “Porcupine Ridge wines is our sponsor, so you can always sit on the lawn outside the town hall, read a book and drink a free glass of wine with your
mates. Wine and books, a perfect marriage.”
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Chapter 5 – What’s the point?
For book lovers it’s a golden opportunity to find out what’s happening on the reading scene, the latest titles and trends, and what thought leaders are saying.
A bonus is finding out what’s going on in the authors’ heads – the idea factories, and how to make sense of what’s happening in the country. “Increasingly, local books reflect the state of the nation, while internationals offer a window on the global perspective,” says Shelagh.
For writers themselves, Franschhoek is fertile territory. “I really enjoy the quality of debate, the incisiveness,” says Joburg-based author Ekow Duker, who has been invited to take part four years in a row.
“It’s great to interact with other writers, for sharing and learning. It gives you the oomph to go back to doing what you do by yourself for the most part. Although sometimes, in the presence of so many wonderful writers, I feel the need to apply myself more to my craft.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just for intellectuals and the well-read. Shelagh explains, “Combining literacy and literature is the lifeblood of this fest. Just prior to the three-day festival, we have a FLF Book Week for Young Readers. Storytellers, writers and illustrators go out to schools in the area and inspire young children to tell their own stories.
In addition, we’ve established a School Library Project, through which we fund the training of assistant librarians, who go out to schools to run the libraries, tell stories and encourage children to read in their mother tongue – whatever that may be.” Fanning the flame of festival-goers for the future.
Chapter 6 – What Else?
It’s not just a load of old books. “Franschhoek is a town of festivals,” says Shelagh. “There’s the Bastille Festival, the Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, the Festival of Art, all sorts – so the village is geared. Although they don’t actually put out a red carpet for the Lit Fest, it feels like it.”
The handle ‘Gourmet Capital of South Africa’ speaks volumes and there’s a glut of restaurants and bars lining the main street. The Franschhoek Wine Tram is on tap to take oenophiles tasting at some of the neighbouring wine farms, and a little inter-venue rickie is available for tired-leg literates.
If you’re done eating, the evenings usually are catered for, with classical or other concerts, recitals, special dinners and movie screenings, all of which you can find on the programme.
Because it’s a town much loved by foreign tourists, there’s also more than a smattering of art galleries, gift, curio and clothes shops, inevitably in some cases with prices to match tourists’ pockets. More affordably, on the Saturday there’s the Village Market under the trees, with food, drinks, lots of fun stuff to buy and plenty of second-hand books.
Lastly, with its Huguenot heritage, Franschhoek itself is a Mecca for research, as last year’s international guest author Kate Mosse discovered. The Burning Chambers is the first in a series in which she trawls 300 years of Huguenot history.
Chapter 7 – Don’t Quote Me
For me, despite the temptation to catch every last event and pearl of wisdom to drop from literary lips, one of the biggest treats is just to sit at a pavement café and spot the authorial celebs crossing the road or making their way to the Green Room, the hallowed hub for writers and media to congregate between events. But absolute best is simply to stroll the streets – adding massively to this appeal are the ubiquitous posters with quotes from well-known pens, like ‘Reading is the only magic trick I know’ Paige Nick, ‘You have to write slowly to make it read fast’ Deon Meyer, ‘Reading is its own reward’ Victor Dlamini, ‘Stories allow us to be more than we are’ Lauren Beukes, ‘It takes a village to write a book’ Mark Winkler, and my particular favourite ‘Never sleep with a man without a book by his bed’ Darrel Bristow-Bovey.
Verse and Worse
Inevitably perhaps, the Franschhoek Lit Fest, as it’s fondly known, has been criticised for being too elite, too white, too inaccessible.
“Yes, it’s expensive to get here – there’s no public transport to Franschhoek. Ticket prices are high for some, but it’s what enables us to pay and accommodate the authors, fly them in in some cases and fund the school projects,” says Shelagh.
“But the demographic is changing. A journalist said to me that this year the energy feels brighter, younger, and the audiences are reflecting the diversity of the authors.” Like books, literary festivals are a journey.
17-19 May 2019
Looking for Books?
Since Franschhoek started in 2007, literary fairs and festivals have sprung up across the country, indicating the level of literary interest. If you can’t make it to Franschhoek in May, make a note of:
- Knysna Literary Festival, March
- Time of the Writer in Durban, March
- Stellenbosch Woordfees, 6 to 15 March 2020
- Kingsmead Book Fair in Joburg, 25 May
- Karoo Writers Festival in Cradock, 6 to 9 June
- Jozi Book Fair, 29 August to 1 September
- Open Book Festival in Cape Town 4 to 8 September
- South African Book Fair in Joburg, 6 to 8 September
- Midlands Literary Festival in Howick, 31 August to 1 September
- Prince Albert Leesfees, 1 to 3 November.
- Abantu Book Festival in Soweto, 5 to 8 December
If you know of any additional book fairs or festivals happening around the country or near you, let us know on [email protected]
Being freelance means turning your hand to anything – which is why if I’m asked, I answer to: writer, journalist, radio or print, stylist, podcaster, media trainer, women’s activist, speaker, secretary – and in a low key kind of way, author. I’m also founder of an organisation called Woman Zone. But if you think I can help with anything else, don’t hesitate to ask.