Off the Shelf Literature Festival: Maria de Souza interview

Cube Magazine: 2009 interview with Maria de Souza, organiser of Off the Shelf literature festival

For 18 years the Off the Shelf Literature Festival has been bringing a buzz to Sheffield with its vast variety of writing wonders and literary delights. In the run up to its 18th birthday celebrations, festival organiser, Maria de Souze, takes some time to shoot straight to the heart of why she thinks Off the Shelf brings such a unique experience to the city…

So Off the Shelf is 18 this year. Looking back what have been some of the highlights for you over the years?

I’ve met some of my absolute favourite authors which has been fantastic. But I’ve also witnessed the festival really growing and becoming a very exciting buzzy thing that happens in the city and I’m very proud of that. We’ve 150 more events this year for example, all over the city, with some really big names.

Which authors did you really enjoy meeting?

We wrote to Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) for years and years. He’s a big Arsenal fan who shot to fame with his football book, Fever Pitch. And every year he would write back and say ‘sorry, I can’t make it’. Eventually we sent him a valentines card and we stuck these little subbuteo players in arsenal colours on the front and he wrote back and said ‘I’ll come’. His girlfriend told me ‘how could he resist that?’

Also I love contemporary women’s fiction. I absolutely love Rose Tremaine and her book The Colour. If you haven’t read it, it’s just one of the most fantastic books ever. So it was an honour to meet her. I’ve also discovered new authors and poets and new voices. I might not have known that person’s work but because I’ve been at an event and it’s been fantastic I’ve become a fan. Other people as well; chefs that I’ve met or people from politics or media. They have been very interesting too.

Where do the Off the Shelf team get their inspiration from?

We’re a small team and we’re all fanatical about reading and writing. We pick up our inspiration from a range of sources. I’m always saying to people ‘what are you reading?’, ‘what are you into at the moment?’. We talk to a lot of community groups and libraries about the kind of things they’d like to see happening. We read all the books and magazines and keep up to date with reviews to see who’s hot, and we tie in with moods, anniversaries and dates. I suppose we all have our own dream lists of people we’d love to hear and see in Sheffield.

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

We’ve got a really varied programme. I have to say I’m really looking forward to meeting Peter Hook, who was the bass guitarist in Joy Division and New Order. He has a new book out about the Hacienda and I used to go to the Hacienda clubbing myself. So it’ll be very interesting because it’s a period of time I remember quite well.

I’m looking forward to meeting the new children’s laureate, Anthony Brown. My kids have loved his books. He’s just an amazing illustrator. We’ve got some really good female authors as well, like Sarah Dunant and Hilary Mantel that I’m looking forward to seeing. And Ben Ockree, the first Booker Prize winning author that we’ve had at the festival in 18 years. So that will be a great honour.

Why should local young people get involved in the festival?

There’s always loads going on for young people. This year we’ve got everything from musicians to people like the Hairy Bikers, to novelists, to poets, to young people performing. I hope that we’ve got enough diversity and variety there that there will be something for young people, whatever they read, whether they’re writers or not, just to get inspiration. We’ve also got a lot of hands on stuff. For example, this year we’re doing a lyric writing workshop and we’re doing comic book things as well. One that’s with two guys who worked with Barrack Obama at the beginning of his presidential campaign, a blogger and a cartoonist.

Has anything unexpected ever happened at one of the festivals?

We’ve had, most famously, John Cooper Clarke forgetting to come and 450 people waiting. Fortunately the only time someone hasn’t turned up. We has a train strike when Jacqueline Wilson was doing an event and we had 400 young girls waiting to see her. I remember running from the train station with her and when we got there, they were all just sitting reading their Jacqueline Wilson books waiting, which was fantastic. And she was lovely: a very good speaker. We had a South African group of women and they did an amazing theatre performance. And then I was sharing their taxi back and they were all singing the South African national anthem and it was really moving. Just seeing people perform and read stuff when they’re passionate about what they’re doing, that rubs off on you too.

Could you share some favourite books from your youth?

The Catcher in the Rye. I absolutely loved that. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. That was one of my real favourites. I was into some classics like Hardy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I loved Romeo and Juliet. And I liked a lot of contemporary fiction at the time. Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. That was a book that blew me away. And Tony Morrison’s Beloved.

Why do you feel Off the Shelf is important to Sheffield?

It adds to the whole cultural offering of the city. And it’s promoting Sheffield as a really exciting place to be. It’s encouraging tourism but also for the people who actually live here, it’s bringing a buzz for some great things to do in October.

Can young people influence future Off the Shelf festivals?

Yeah, we really like to hear what people thing, especially young people. They are very welcome to leave comments with Facebook and Twitter or get in touch with suggestions.

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