Looking through stored photos recently, I came across some that I took in Matera in 2009, when I was there for the Women’s Fiction Festival. Matera is in the south of Italy, and if you want a writing festival that’s a little out of the ordinary, it’s definitely a candidate. The unique feature of the city of Matera is the Sassi - ancient cave dwellings. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and like nothing I have ever seen before. People still live in the caves, and there are even hotels set into them. I think they have a few more amenities these days than in the Paleolithic era.
Run under the direction of ex-pat American author Elizabeth Jennings, who herself writes romantic suspense, the fiction festival is a mix of editors, agents, writers and readers from the UK and other parts of Europe and from America. There are talks and workshops, mostly conducted in English or with translation facilities, plus social events and the chance to pitch to editors and agents. It was the chance to present work to the American market without travelling to the States that particularly attracted me. And the fact that if someone even says the magic word Italy too loudly in my hearing I’m already packing a bag.
View from Matera
What was the experience like? We had to put our own travel package together, my first taste of the delights of booking and travelling with Ryanair, and I must say it all went very well, which was a good thing as I hate to fly. There are services to organise transfers and hotels. I was a bit apprehensive about arranging all that from the UK, while not speaking Italian, but that all worked out too. It was late September, and I packed summer stuff. Big mistake, as it was very cold. Luckily I did take my leather jacket. It went everywhere with me. It also rained a little, but nothing that an umbrella couldn't take care of. Being from Wales I have experience of rain. The food was fabulous – mostly from small family restaurants. Not a lot of English spoken. On one memorable occasion the chef was brought out of the kitchen to explain what was on our plates – he was the only one with any English. Often the dishes didn’t have a name; you’d get a description of the ingredients instead. The hotel we stayed in was what I think of as very traditionally Italian, antique style furniture and lots of marble. The Sassi - an extended complex of caves, over many levels, walking shoes required - has an amazing atmosphere – a warren of narrow streets, terraces and alleys. I was immediately trying to think up a plot for a novel that would involve a chase up and down the winding slopes. Still working on that one.
The festival itself? Very enjoyable and informative. I learned a lot, on the hoof, about pitching, and got multiple requests for manuscripts. I didn’t sell as a result, but I did get some excellent feedback and the chance to try out the elevator pitch on a very exacting audience. It was good to meet a wide range of writers, particularly from Europe, and to hear speakers from both sides of the Atlantic. It’s not solely a romance writing festival, but there is plenty for the romance writer to enjoy.
A very different experience, in a unique setting.
I hope to go back one day. But next time I’ll put a few sweaters in the suitcase.