Making Hay with Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Chris Riddell!

On Monday 29th May 2017, I had the good fortune to drive to the beautiful Welsh/Herefordshire border town of Hay-on-Wye and its world famous Hay Literary Festival. The Hay Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so it felt like an extra special treat. My reason for going, apart from the fact that Hay-on-Wye is a book lovers paradise, was because I had tickets to see Neil Gaiman in conversation with Stephen Fry on the subject of ‘Mythology’, two authors and people I greatly admire and a topic I love and am a little obsessed with – a perfect day out! 😀

I’ve been to Hay and its festival many times now but it always feels like the first time, that tangible sense of excitement and child like joy just stays with me every time. I’ve been wanting to see Neil Gaiman for ages but somehow had always missed him, often because I’d bought early bird tickets to see someone else before realising that Gaiman was appearing as well. As much as I love Hay it’s just too far to go twice in a week (every route there is fiddly as hell), and too expensive and booked up to even consider staying the night. Last time, I was at the festival to see Kazuo Ishiguro and his brilliant new book The Buried Giant and had once again missed Neil Gaiman. The irony was that Ishiguro was discussing the incredible snobbery he had encountered when he decided to write The Buried Giant, his first foray into fantasy, and how he had had no idea just what genre bias, prejudice and misconceptions there was in literary circles about fantasy. In fact, Ishiguro had been so taken aback by the level of snobbery towards fantasy that he ended up, with Neil Gaiman, writing a newspaper article about it!

So when the festival programme landed on my door two weeks ago and I saw Neil Gaiman would be appearing with another favourite of mine, Stephen Fry, it was a no brainer, I booked my ticket immediately. To my delight, a couple of friends had booked up the exact same event so we were able to meet up and sit next to each other. A shout out to the lovely Roz Clarke a brilliant fellow fantasy writer from Grimbold Books (who’s not only a great writer but is an amazing editor as well as being a lovely person) and Heather Ashley, another lovely mutual friend and her fabulous fringed blue shawl which I wanted to steal and two new friends I met on Monday, Ian Halverson and Amanda Beecham who was wearing the most gorgeous dress!

I drove to Hay hoping to avoid the predicted rain as well as all the poor squashed hedgehogs along the route. My accompanying soundtrack was Soundgarden’s Superunknown album, made all the more poignant by the tragic suicide of its glorious frontman and all round poetic genius, Chris Cornell less than two weeks before. The track ‘Feels Like Suicide’, a track I had always loved now seems too loaded with meaning and full of sadness to listen to. 😦

I arrived a little late (as usual), just after 1pm. Note to all people travelling to Hay-on-Wye, don’t EVER go through Hereford, REALLY not worth it! Anyway, after a security check of bags (a sad necessity these days especially post the horrific Manchester attack the previous Monday) and the armed police that were patrolling the festival, I met up with the gang in the Food Hall. What made it more joyous, is that only Heather had been to Hay before so for Roz, Ian and Amanda this was all a gloriously new experience. We wandered past the various tents, bunting and fluttering flags like Tibetan prayers to the gods, past the smells of barbecuing foods, coffee’s of every description, acoustic music, pan pipes, fiddles and the general hubbub caused by the thousands of festival goers.

We grabbed a shuttle bus into town and started our book crawl opposite Hay-on-Wye’s impressive ruined castle…by going to Shepherd’s Ice-Cream Parlour! Yes, ice cream came before books! 😀 Shepherd’s is an amazing place straight out of the 1930’s with it’s curved glass façade, mosaic floor and café chic vibe, but it’s ice cream…oh la la! The queues were totally worth it! Made from local sheep’s milk, for me, it’s the best ice cream outside of Italy. I was a little pig and had four scoops spread over two tubs! 😀

We began exploring Hay-on-Wye’s delights by visiting the famous Richard Booth’s bookshop – THIS is the sort of bookshop you dream about, all creaking dark wooden floors and interior and several levels to get blissfully lost in. Having the will power of a gnat, I succumbed and bought my first of many purchases of the day!

We went on to Addyman’s Books, Mostly Maps and one of my personal favourites, Hay-On-Wye Booksellers. The magical thing about Hay-on-Wye, is that it casts a spell over you so utterly that you lose track of time even if you’ve only been in a few of its wonderful bookshops. Which is what happened to us. We didn’t even get the chance to meander around Hay’s largest bookshop, Hay Cinema Bookshop with over 200,000 titles! Suddenly it was 5pm and with our Neil Gaiman/Stephen Fry event starting at 5:30 in the main Tata Tent, we had to move our arses. With the queue for the shuttle buses impossibly long we decided to chance walking the mile and a bit from the town centre to the festival. We made it in time and joined the expansive queue – in all my years of going to Hay, I’ve never seen a queue for anybody as long as that one! We eventually got into the Tent and in my exuberance to grab five seats together I virtually trampled on this poor woman who had sat herself at the very end of a line of empty seats. Oops sorry! :O

The event started and to our amazement we had an extra treat, up on stage joining Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry was Children’s Laureate and illustrator extraordinaire, Chris Riddell (a FB friend of mine and someone I am in complete awe of). Chris was on stage throughout actually illustrating the conversation on the spot! Amazing! I have no idea how he does it!

The conversation started with Stephen Fry asking Neil about how he first got into mythology, a subject they are both passionate about (Stephen Fry loves Greek Myths which he talked about a bit, whereas Neil Gaiman prefers Norse Myths – hence his new book, Norse Mythology). For Neil Gaiman it was Norse Mythology and its roots, not the Wagnerian Cycle stuff but the older original Eddas, tales of Odin, Thor, Loki and giant wolf Fenrir, of magic and cruelty, tricks and betrayal, that he loved so much. Certainly very inspirational stuff, no wonder Tolkien often plundered such tales for his own creations! Neil spoke eloquently about Loki’s children, particularly Týr and read a section of his new book, Norse Mythology, and how Odin had made the dwarfs make an unbreakable chain, Gleipnir, and had tricked Fenrir into being bound up by it because they were jealous of his strength and power. I won’t spoil the end of the tale for those of you who are not familiar. 🙂

Stephen Fry, as always, had a lovely relaxed style of questioning that made both men at ease, even under the intense stare of some 500 audience members and all the bright lights. Chris Riddell brought there conversations alive with beautifully drawn snapshots of both sitters and the various mythological characters they discussed, as well as some cheekily flamboyant moments of drawing hilarity!

The entire experience was utterly magical. I really wish I had brought a Dictaphone or something to record it all. It lasted just over a hour with some question and answer bits from the audience, including one girl asking if as writers did Gaiman and Fry ever feel like a God themselves? Clever question. Neil Gaiman replied “Yes, twice. Once when I was asked to write a Dr. Who script and I wrote… ‘Interior Tardis’, and once 30 years before that when I had to make Batman say something!” You can see the whole talk here.

Someone also asked if Gaiman would be interested in ever doing some Welsh Myths, like the Mabinogion…he didn’t say no! 😀 For someone like me, who ADORES any kind of mythology, but particularly Norse, Celtic and ancient Sumerian tales (Epic of Gilgamesh), this whole event was simply edible! 😀

After it finished I did my usual gazelle sprint to the festival bookshop, to queue up for the book signing. Despite my stumpy legs and swift weaving through the crowds, there were still about a hundred people in front of us, including the annoying serial fidget who was sitting next to me and could keep still for ore than a few seconds, making my chair move so much I was getting nauseous! But, we still managed to secure a good place, seeing as the queue snaked behind me by at least 2 or 3 hundred people!

Despite aching legs and complaining feet we queued and queued. Due to the number of people waiting Neil could only signed two books, but frankly he was amazing and ended up book signing for 5 hours! OMG! Anyway, being the naughty shit that I am and being a fan of his writing, I couldn’t resist in doing something cheeky. When it came to him singing the books I bought, his Norse Mythology and Stardust, I blurted out that I was a fan of his writing and wanted to give him a gift to say thank you. I wasn’t as eloquent as I wanted to be and slapped my novel, White Mountain, down on his table like a wet fish, but he was very gracious and seemed to love the cover. “Wow, lovely to meet a fellow author!” then to my amazement he stretched out his hand for a handshake! Gulp! What a moment, then he went and drew a doodle in one of the books!

After the book signing, exhausted but blissfully happy we said our goodbyes. It was nearly 8:30 but thankfully still light, so with the sun setting I left Hay-on-Wye and this my most favourite of festivals and taking a different route I drove through the majestic landscapes of the Golden Valley homeward bound.

What a magical day! 😀

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Passing 20,000 and planting seeds of success!

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Spring has finally sprung and thank the gods that it has!

Everywhere, I see the signs of winter being discarded like a weary woollen coat that has out-stayed its welcome – too heavy, too grey and too oppressive for the youthful zest of crocus colours, the flash of dazzling daffodil yellow and the yearning of the trees to sprout new growth. Spring is here! YAY!!! 😀

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Well, with all the wonderful signs of nature being awoken and the inherent hope and optimism that brings, together with the oh-so-welcome warmth of our first sunny days, I too have begun to plant some seeds of my own, in the hope of them growing into fresh shoots of success! A few of these seeds I shall keep private for now, but others I wanted to share with you straight away.

So, as my little blog passes the heady heights of 20,000 visitors (for which I am hugely grateful and tremendously humbled), I begin another chapter in my strange little life and take somewhat of a spring leap!

890Having completed a BA (Hons) Degree in Fine Art, way back in the mists of time when my hair was blonde and I was…ahem…a little lighter on my feet, I was an artist. Yes, a takes-herself-way-to-seriously-full-of angst-entirely-black-clad-deep-and-meaningful-and-more-than-a-little-pretentious artist!

998It was the 1990’s. I was seriously into grunge music, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, even Mother Love Bone and Soul Asylum, as well as heavier rock bands like Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. I took to wearing all black, apart from the odd green or red lumberjack loose shirt, a kind of torn uniform for all us Seattle-loving-grunge-rockers. I had the usual paraphernalia in my student room – incense burner with sticks and various yellowed bottles of pungent fragrance, a load of melted candles (much of the wax embedded into the carpet fibres), LOTR posters and music posters, my ‘ghettoblaster’ and Hi-Fi with a large selection of tapes and vinyl and near the end of my student days, some new fangled CD’s, an Indian throw with other ‘very cool and multi-cultural’ objects around the room and yes…the ubiquitous bright orange flashing traffic cone! Don’t ask me why, but every student HAD to have a traffic cone! But amongst all this ‘stuff’, there was me and my ‘art’. Huge canvases, some way too large to transport in my VW Beetle, ‘Mr. Jiffy 2’, even with the roof off, and so these had to be carried right through the centre of Cheltenham up to the art college – a prized moment to show off to people, as the plastic wrappings to protect the canvas would invariably waft open, revealing snatches of the masterwork beneath…dear dear!

050 - CopyAnyway, despite the pretentiousness of all art students, and yes, we’re ALL like it, I really did just love to draw and paint. Above everything, any crap that was happening in my life, any traumas and dramas (for which there were many) …for me, I was never happier than when I was either reading a book, writing a story or holding a paintbrush. I still LOVE the smell of linseed oil, liquin medium (alkyd resin), white spirit…ahhhhh….glorious concoctions in messy jars, palettes so encrusted with paint you could hardly use them but always did, brushes stiff from hardened oils, the excitement at the sight of the massive roll of canvas…then stretching them like giant sails across the floor. A quick trip to B&Q with some tw0-by-fours, a handful of nails, a saw and a staple-gun, and suddenly you had a stretched canvas panel, ready to be primed in white wash, ready to be made into something…astonishing. A world of possibilities just there in that bobbled linen fabric! 🙂

013 (3)Yes, I loved it, every single moment of it. In fact, back then, without the life experience I have now, the only thing I didn’t like about art college, was the selling part – having to ‘talk the talk’, sell yourself as ‘creator extraordinaire’ and your work, as the next big undiscovered super-talent. I simply couldn’t do it back then. I didn’t have the confidence or the inclination. I saw other ‘artists’ who couldn’t draw a damn, had no idea about composition, had lousy technique and really just couldn’t paint to save themselves, excel far above those of us who did have the talent and skills. Why? Because they understood the dynamics of it better than we did. Art to them was a business not a vocation, not a way of soulful expression, but a way of getting ahead, getting to where they wanted to be. They could ‘talk the talk’, spout poetic jargon phrases that made no sense to those of us that knew, yet elicited the cooing responses of the ‘art world crowd’. They made contacts, and used them effectively, they succeeded where the rest of us failed.

Am I bitter? Certainly not. For me, my art was never about being ‘in fashion’, and I was never about being the focus of attention. I wanted the work to speak for itself, rather than me spout some pretentious twaddle about what a certain brush stroke meant! So no, I had several very successful exhibitions, beat off those art schmoozers and over 10,000 other students across the country to get second place in a very prestigious national photography competition with my work exhibited in London, and sold a few paintings to very happy customers along the way. The point is, I never fell out of love with art, because I never viewed it as a business. I was and am simply small-time me, not showy, not shouting, not glaringly anything. Just little old me, now wearing other colours rather than just black, still listening to my music at ear-splittingly loud levels, still lighting candles and standing in my garden staring at the stars at 2am, still forgetting to wash my brushes properly and sniffing linseed oil like it was Chanel No.5. Just me! 😛

So…why all this elaborate walk down memories past?

Because, finally I get it! Chapter Twenty-One - Into The Light (4)

Much like life itself, things are never really just black or white, we all live in shades of grey…er…no, not that crappy book, lol, I mean…life is beautiful and complex and full of hard edges and soft fuzzy bits…it’s a messed up fruit salad of emotions and happenings and all we can really do, despite our yearnings for control out of chaos, is simply to dip our spoon into the bowl and see what fruit lands on our plate!

In other words…all these years later, I still LOVE to draw and paint, it’s still a huge part of who I am and how I function, but I don’t need to get so damned pernickety about it. Art and business CAN live together, without one diluting the other. I finally got what those students were dong all those years ago, using their heads as well as their hearts.

Sophie E Tallis Watermark - CopyAnd so, with head and heart in tow, I have decided to combine what I love to do with how to make a living. I have started a business, Sophie E Tallis Illustrations!!! Yes, a business, albeit in tiny baby steps, but a business of illustrating books and producing original commissioned artwork for other authors…and I absolutely LOVE IT!!!!

I’ve only done a few commissions so far, one of which involved creating 7 pen & ink illustrations for a children’s book, Snort and Wobbles http://www.willmacmillanjones.com/snort–wobbles.html, by multi-talented author, Will Macmillan Jones http://www.willmacmillanjones.com/, but I adored every second of it. Already, with just a few illustrations on LinkedIn and some other places, I have a small publishing house in Kingston-Upon-Thames who is interested in having me on their books as an illustrator, have several authors asking me to do some illustrations and book covers for them and I have just set up a sparkly new website http://sophieetallisillustrations.weebly.com/ (and Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SophieETallisIllustrations) and loaded some of my illustrations and paintings on there! Already the response has been tremendous and utterly overwhelming! Why oh why didn’t I do this years ago???!!!! 😀

Finished Chapter 1 S&W

So, my little Spring seeds…it is never too late to change direction and change your life, to shake things up and remember what it was that you loved all those years ago. For me, it was remembering my loving and wanting to do something creative for a living, and now it is finally happening. What better way to make a living than to combine the two things I cherish most in the world – books and art!!!

Lol, Spring is definitely in the air, as I plant my little art seeds and see them take root and grow…who knows what tomorrow will bring! Check out my new website guys! http://sophieetallisillustrations.weebly.com/ 😀 xxxxxxx

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A HUGE thank you to all my family and friends and my lovely fellow bloggers, all 20,000 of you, who got me through my illness and the last difficult year and who have helped me to stay positive and to see all the marvellous possibilities of life…!

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! 😀 xxxxxxxx