When you’re interviewing the director of Wimbledon BookFest, the last thing you expect is the admission: “I’m not bookish.”
Fiona Razvi laughs at my surprised face. She is being playful again (more on this in a minute). What she means is that she isn’t part of the literary world. She’s not a publisher, a bookseller or a writer with an unpublished manuscript in her bottom drawer. Unlike the heads of some other book festivals, she has no industry axe to grind.
She readily admits she loves reading, but actually she loves all forms of the arts. The thing that really animates her is the exchange of ideas.
That is her vision for Wimbledon BookFest: to make it a fun, inspiring place where both sexes and all ages can feel comfortable to hear new ideas and join in a debate.
Even the choice of name – BookFest, not literary festival – is meant to signal that nothing too elitist goes on in the cluster of tents that appear on Wimbledon Common for a fortnight each October. Razvi would like us to feel that the tents contain an extension of our own living room, or perhaps an unusually stimulating party with lots of interesting people to talk to.
Razvi herself is a brilliant conversationalist. She is as nimble as a fencer and has a wealth of good stories. To chat to her for five minutes is to come away with some weapons-grade industry gossip, the promise of an introduction to someone you’d like to meet, and a firework burst of ideas and insights.
Ten years ago, one of the main reasons she helped to start BookFest was that having grown up in Wimbledon and wanting to bring up her own family here, she felt the area could do with livening up. “I love arts and culture, and in Wimbledon you could sleep a while,” she says.
Zeitgeist was with her: it was the era of the Big Society when people wanted community involvement. Primarily, though, she had just been to the Hay festival in its heyday, when Bill Clinton was speaking, and had been wowed by the experience.
After a public meeting, Wimbledon BookFest began on a wave of enthusiasm and unpaid volunteer effort. These remain crucial, but the festival has now acquired a regular home, some paid staff and a loyal following. It also has a business model (tickets, sponsorship, book sales) – Fiona says that achieving this was the biggest learning curve.
Oddly enough, even at the start, a lot of the literary publicists that Razvi approached about author appearances believed that Wimbledon had had a book festival for years. “It’s the Wimbledon brand. It’s incredibly powerful,” she says, cocking an eyebrow.
She lists her three highlights so far. One was Salman Rushdie, a literary big beast whose appearance in 2010 signalled that BookFest could be taken seriously. Rushdie is back this year – one of the festival’s highlights, and nearly sold out despite the current general difficulty in shifting tickets for fiction-writers.
A second highlight was the big tent, whose advent seven years ago gave BookFest a proper home after its peripatetic start in church halls and schools. These days audience members tell her they love the tents, because they bump into neighbours they haven’t seen in ages.
The third was a poetry night last year, when rather magically some teenaged boys shared poems they had written. “It was riveting. There were only about 20 people in the audience, which just shows the biggest events aren’t always the best. Part way through someone came to tell me that Colin Firth had arrived, and I was like ‘Couldn’t care less’,” says Razvi.
Her grip on BookFest’s programming remains absolute. “It has to be one person’s vision,” she insists. “And do you know, I believe Peter Florence still does [it all too], at Hay.”
The Hay festival has changed, however, becoming very large and corporate. Razvi does not want Wimbledon to go the same way. “I believe there is an optimum size for what we’re trying to do,” she says. “In our suggestion boxes last year, people were saying: ‘Please don’t change! Please don’t grow!’”
But there has to be something new and surprising every year, or BookFest becomes stale. Film and gig nights were begun to attract younger audiences. Politics, history and sport were injected to ensure male turnout. Razvi wants to avoid the stereotypical book festival audience “full of women of a certain age”.
She may expand the schools programme, where demand easily outstrips available places. Teachers seem to look to BookFest to help cover gaps in arts provision in schools.
This year Razvi has high hopes of the new partnership with Prospect, the current affairs magazine, which is supplying interviewers for big name authors including Jon Sopel, Chris Patten and Evan Davies.
So what about the future? Will she still be in charge when BookFest is celebrating its silver jubilee?
It’s a silly question, and Razvi gives the sensible answer: “Oh, BookFest is bigger than one person and there are people who can take it on.” But she adds: “I would love still to be involved in some capacity.”