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On a freezing cold February morning, I dragged myself from my warm bed, de-iced my car and drove six miles from Chester to Hawarden. My feet crunched through the snow and a frosty trickle seeped into my socks as I made my way towards the heavy wooden door at Gladstone’s library. Inside, steaming cups of tea were flowing and book-lovers were gathering around the fireplace for this year’s Hearth festival. I couldn’t wait to take my place.

Hearth is an intimate writing festival held in the cosy Gladstone common room. The concept is simple; award-winning writers share their work, then the audience has a chance to ask questions. While that may not sound unique as such, the laid-back environment and small space make it a less intimidating place to speak up than at other, larger literature festivals. Plus, during breaks the writers remain nearby, so you can easily sidle up and ask anything you didn’t want to say in the group.

‘We want to bring new readers to things they might have missed,’ says Peter Francis, the Gladstone’s library Warden, in his introduction, ‘To get people to think differently and introduce you to new things.’

With four successful female writers lined up to talk about their work, I was confident that his goal would be achieved. Events at Gladstone’s library have a habit of pushing me to consider topics and my work in more depth. This is the first year it’s been cold enough to actually light the fire too, so the storytelling setting was idyllic. I snuggled into a sofa seat with my notepad and pen poised for a day of inspiration.

And that’s precisely what I got.

I could brag about what a great day I had, but instead readers, I’m happy to tell that you can (almost) experience it for yourself. Although the 2019 event is over, you can curl up on your sofa at home and listen again thanks to the team at Gladstone’s, who have made the Hearth festival talks available online. No car window scraper required, and you don’t even have to remember a change of socks.

Here’s what to expect:

Poetry: Jacqueline Saphra – Poems After Lee Miller

A composed black and white photograph of Lee Miller sat in Hitler’s bath set an intriguing backdrop to the first session at Hearth. Poet, Jacqueline Saphra’s talk shares highlights of the artist’s story – how she went from model to wartime photographer and writer for Vogue. She then cleverly leads the audience along her own creative path, showing them how she developed her latest work.

Jacqueline says she was drawn to Lee Miller because she recognised similarities with her relationship with her own father. Her fascinating talk at Hearth culminates in a reading of a heroic crown of sonnets, which evolved as a result of this connection. Each of the 15 poems links with a photograph of or by Lee Miller and they flow beautifully, with the last line of one becoming the first of the next. As she reads aloud, the audience’s captivated silence says it all.

Hear Jacqui’s talk and be inspired to write your own sonnets.

 Character and Writing Different Voices: Ellen Wiles – The Invisible Crowd

Ellen Wiles is a musician-turned-lawyer-turned-writer. Previously, she worked as a human rights barrister in London, and her experience has contributed to her award-winning first novel, The Invisible Crowd. In her moving talk, she explains how brief encounters can have a profound impact on our lives and about the human experience of being an immigrant.

Each chapter of the book is written from a different perspective, so there are a lot of individual voices. Ellen talks about the challenge in writing these and why she used fiction, rather than non-fiction, to tell this story. The idea that her work explores the kindness of strangers first attracted me to attend this talk, and like many others in the room, I left eager to read the book.

Listen again to hear Ellen’s hints on developing distinct voices, and her thoughts on how reading fiction encourages empathy.

Flash Fiction and a Writer’s Story: Tania Hershman – A Writing Life So Far

The afternoon at Hearth festival becomes even more relaxed. Everyone is full up from lunch at the Food for Thought café, and some audience members start slipping into a comfortable afternoon nap as they await the next session. A couple of leather armchairs are then placed at the front for an author sit-in-conversation with one of the Gladstone’s library team. First up, Tania Hershman, author of six books, as well as countless short stories, poems and flash fiction.

This is essential listening for anyone who struggles with the idea of identifying as a writer. Tania tells her story, starting with hating English at school, then becoming a science journalist and ultimately writing fiction. ‘I never thought I’d be able to make things up for a living’ she says in her lively, confident tone, and explains that feeling she had permission to write was crucial to her development.

Hear Tania Hershman in conversation and give yourself permission to be a writer.

First and Second Novel Insight: Alys Conran – Dignity

Alys finished her PhD at Gladstone’s Library, but this is the first time she’s attended as an official guest. I’m hopeful it won’t be her last. Her first novel, Pigeon, explores the loss of language. It’s written in English with short passages in Welsh that curl off her tongue as she reads. Alys is soon to release her second novel – Dignity – and talks about her process for researching and writing both.

As the daughter of a writer, for a long time Alys’ didn’t feel it was her place to become one herself. She struggled to be confident that anyone could understand her words and ideas and says fear held her back. Her first novel was hidden in a drawer for several years before she completed it, and then on publication, it won Wales Book of the Year Award 2017. Again, this talk is essential brain fodder for any aspiring writer who needs some inspiration to keep them going. You’ll also find it difficult to resist buying both her books.

Discover how Alys’ family history and world history inspired a novel and why she thinks you don’t necessarily need to stick to the rules of writing.

Essential upcoming events for writers at Gladstone’s Library

New events on all sorts of topics are regularly added to the Gladstone’s Library calendar. For writers and book lovers, these are the ones to keep an eye out for:

Gladfest

Hailed as The UK’s Friendliest Literary Festival, Gladfest is two glorious days of author talks, music and activities set throughout the library and gardens. It is friendly and there are lots of fascinating events for a very reasonable price. Last year, the chocolate brownies between talks were equally memorable.

Writers in Residence

Every writer in residence at Gladstone’s library gives a series of talks and workshops related to their work. Like Hearth, these are a chance to informally encounter a professional writer and ask questions. A couple of intriguing talks that are coming up soon are Dragons and Writing Visually with Oliver Emanuel, and Writing Change: Climate, Landscapes, Planets with Suzannah Evans. The events sell out quickly, so don’t wait to book your ticket.

Hearth

This intimate festival takes place annually in February. So, if you missed it this year, keep an eye on Gladstone’s Library website for details of their 2020 event.

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Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden is Britain’s only Prime Ministerial library. To find out more about their events and Reading rooms, check out their website or follow them on Twitter.