'Astonishing Travellers' in St Malo

I spent the 11th to the 13th of June in a place called Saint Malo, on the northern coast of Britanny, in France. I was there to take part in a fantastic book and film festival, but used it as an excuse to get a family holiday in as well.
The festival is entitled ‘Etonnants Voyageurs’ – which loosely translates as ‘Astonishing Travellers’. It happens every year and this year boasted names such as Alexander McCall-Smith, Robin Hobb, Hugo Hamilton and Jonathan Stroud among its international guests.
It took place in a hotel and conference centre outside the historic walled part of the city (as seen in the picture above), as well as a row of marquees on the waterfront, and pretty much dominated that part of town. If you’re wondering why this huge fancy conference centre has a temporary banner up, advertising a kilo of ‘Moules + Frites’ (mussels and chips) for 11 euro, I’ll go into that later.
Saint Malo is a lovely place, an historic city with a beautiful walled town looking out off the coast. Our hotel was right in the middle of this little labyrinth of lofty high-sided buildings and narrow streets. So we could walk straight out onto the cobbles – very attractive, but a bit bumpy for buggies, and hazardous for anyone in high heels (no, it wasn’t a particular problem for me). Much of the old part of town isn’t original, as we found out, having been enthusiastically bombed during the second world war. But they did a fine job of rebuilding it.
My mother came with us, to help with the kids, seeing as I was going to be working for a lot of the time we were there. She speaks French pretty well, which was big plus, even in a tourist area like this. Maedhbh is a vegetarian, which seems to be a surprisingly unfamiliar concept to French culture, considering they do food so well. And like a lot of people over here, the staff in some French eateries think that things like fish or chicken count as vegetarian. For anyone who’s in any doubt, they don’t.
The language barrier wasn’t the only problem with ordering food while we there – between Mum and the secondary school French Maedhbh and I wielded, we were able to understand most things. St Malo was stuffed with restaurants, but most of them were either creperies or purveyors of the ubiquitous moules et frites (there were signs for them everywhere) and other seafood, with the occasional pizzeria thrown in. There was plenty for me and Mum, and we could adapt for the kids, but Maedhbh ended up having pizza three nights in a row – which she liked, but a bit of variety would have been nice.
I had dinner with the people from Mango on one night. Audrey (who had also brought her husband and wild toddler son), Sarah and Sylvaine were fine hosts throughout my few days there, and that evening, I also met fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson and his wife. He has taken on completing Robert Jordan’s massive ‘Wheel of Time’ series. A tall order indeed. Some of his books are published by Mango too, and he was over doing the festival as part of a European tour that included Amsterdam and Norway. A nice guy, though he seemed taken aback at the extraordinary lengths of time the French spend eating dinner.
Fantasy and science fiction seem to be much more mainstream in France than they would be in Ireland or the UK, and English-speaking authors are apparently considered by many to be the ‘mainstream’ market of fantasy and sci-fi. Walking around the football-field-sized book fair, a large proportion of the books were from these genres, and of course, comics and illustrated books are taken much more seriously there too.
There was a such a huge range of books that I’d naturally never seen before, and I was told that compared to some other book fairs in France, the spread in this exhibition hall would be considered quite modest. I loved the varied array of designs and illustration styles.
The French taste in fantasy even stretches to the souvenirs on offer in some of their major tourist attractions. I had half a day to spare not long after we got there, and we went to check out the world-famous Mont-Saint-Michel, a stunning fortified town rising out of the sea, less than an hour’s drive away. It’s a stunning place, and I could have wandered around, taking photos there for days (I’ll talk about it a bit more in another post), but I was struck by the fact that in a couple of the gift shops, there were weapons for sale that looked more like they hailed from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, rather than having any connection with French culture. Our ten-year-old regarded them with greedy eyes. He’s getting to that age – and I remember it well. But it’ll be a few more years yet before he’ll be allowed to buy his first butterfly knife, orc dagger, replica gun, or indeed a samurai sword . . .
As he has said on a couple of occasions, we are ‘the strictest parents in the world’.
My duties during the festival consisted of three stints doing signings at the book fair, and two panels with writers and illustrators such as Nicolas Fructus, Serge Lehman, Jeanne-A Debats and David S Khara. One of the talks was on pulling science fiction back from the far future and the other on building imaginary cities.
Both were really good experiences, not just because of the people and their ideas, but also because I had to work through a translator. It wasn’t simultaneous translation, UN-style, it was more a case of the translator summarizing to me what was being said, then me talking and then waiting as she did the same for everyone else there. It meant that I had to be very concise, and give statements, rather than really joining in a dialogue, which was a bit awkward. But despite my inability to communicate directly (although many there actually did speak English) the other guests didn’t try and crowd me out, which was gratifying.
Ian McDonald was there for the talk on building cities. I’ve met him a few times at conventions now, and he’s always got interesting things to say. He needed a translator too, so for that talk we had five speakers, two translators and a stimulating – but talkative – writer named Jean-Claude Dunyach acting as moderator. I think I got to talk four times in the hour-long panel. But I firmly believe that what I did get to say was fascinating.
Normally, if I’m going to be signing at a shop or book stall, I do one stint, sign for whoever shows up, have a chat with the staff, then sign some stock and leave. This time I was scheduled to be at the book fair for three sittings of a couple of hours each. Seeing as I’m really just starting off in France, and there were dozens of other authors around and tens of thousands of other people’s books on sale, I didn’t exactly expect the punters to be queueing out the door.
So I sat down with some paper, pencils and pens, and started drawing. And it worked pretty well. People are generally intrigued by seeing drawing done ‘live’, and it seems that this is especially true in France. I’m well used to talking while I’m drawing – I do it all the time in my sessions – and since I couldn’t talk to anyone who didn’t speak English, I was able to concentrate on the sketching a lot of the time, so I drew up all sorts of things I wouldn’t normally do in a session. Sarah, one of the editors, and Sylvaine, a designer, (standing behind me in the photo) provided translation services while I gestured and made various attempts to butcher the French language.
I met all sorts of people of all ages, including three hardcore and very chatty fantasy-sf fans, one of whom writes a blog entitled ‘Imaginelf’. Most of the people who bought my books were adults, and wanted them signed to themselves. As in Ireland, the UK and the States, it appears that ‘young adult’ can mean just about anybody.
At one point I looked up to find Jonathan Stroud standing there, grinning at me. We’d hung around together a bit at the Cheltenham Literary Festival a few years back, when I was launching ‘Small-Minded Giants’. I knew he’d be in St Malo and I had been hoping to run into him. He’s a thoroughly sound guy, and his Bartimaeus trilogy is one of the best YA series I’ve read. We went off and had lunch and I got to ask about what he’s doing now, including a comic version of the trilogy, and a prequel novel, ‘The Ring of Solomon’. That’s another one to add to my every growing ‘to read’ list, goddamit.
The family and I left St Malo on the Monday, after I’d finished my last signing session. Ahead of us, a three-hour drive to a tiny town on the west coast where we’d be based for the rest of our stay in France. I wish I could have gone to more of the events at the festival, as some of them looked brilliant, but I loved having the family there to savour St Malo and all it had to offer. It was a real pleasure to take part in the events that I did, and it was an honour to be invited. A big thanks to the festival organizers, and especially to Audrey, Sylvaine and Sarah from Mango, for making the experience such an enjoyable one. I had an absolute ball.