With Independent Bookshop Week upon us and in person events very much on the agenda of authors and their readers, It feels the perfect time to reflect on one of my greatest pleasures: in conversation events. It seems extraordinary that it was eight years ago, in early summer 2015, whilst drinking coffee in my beloved Booka Bookshop, that Carrie casually asked if I would like to do an author interview for an upcoming event. Carrie and I had already worked together on a variety of author visits and book related projects at Moreton Hall, where I teach English, but she also knew about my previous career as a Radio and TV broadcaster so, although it came as an out of the blue suggestion, I could see where the idea had come from and in truth, I didn’t hesitate to say ‘yes, please’!

In the 1980s, as an ambitious media girl, I had progressed from researching guests for BBC Local Radio and Radio 2 programmes, to a stint as a Producer on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ where literary giants including A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie and Iris Murdoch were amongst the programme’s guests. From BBC Radio 4, I moved onto BFBS, the British Forces Broadcasting Service, where my encounters ranged from gathering TV and Radio stories from troops on the ground in Bosnia and Northern Ireland at the end of the Troubles, to my own TV programme, ‘Caroline and Company’, with forces related celebrities including Sir Denis Healey, Kate Adie, Andy McNabb and Martin Bell. An eclectic mix? Yes, but what they all had in common was interviewees with a willingness to talk and whether it was in front of a radio mic or a TV camera, they all gave me licence to ask questions and were wonderfully frank in sharing their stories. So in truth, when Carrie proffered that first invitation, it was as if I had been offered a wonderful gift: the opportunity to sit opposite a fascinating guest, to exercise my curiosity and, through conversation about their books, encourage them to share their stories.

As my first Booka author ‘in conversation’, Cathy Renzenbrink was quite simply wonderful talking about ‘The Last Act of Love’, her beautiful but devastating memoir about the horrific accident involving her younger brother Matty and its heartbreaking aftermath for Cathy and her family.  As the catalyst to Cathy sharing her story that evening, I remember feeling truly privileged to be there and I hoped there would be more events to come.

Happily dear reader, there have been!  In fact eight years on, and despite the interruptions of lockdowns, I have just updated the list in my Faber Literary Diary and allowed myself a moment of pride at the realisation that the most recent three authors, all in conversation in front of a full auditorium in the Holroyd Community Theatre, have taken my tally to 53.  With Anton Du Beke and the Reverend Richard Coles, the latest additions, I am still smiling at the memory of evenings spent in the very best company.

It is probably stating the obvious at this point but I have always loved to read and Booka’s events allow me to do just that.  In the media, especially in the whirlwind world of local radio and daily programmes, author interviews are often rooted in a press release and a dust jacket blurb. Booka’s ‘in conversations’ are different, and one has time to really immerse in the reading experience before greeting the author backstage. Take the Reverend Richard Coles’s visit this week: a proof copy of his latest Canon Daniel Clement’s murder mystery ‘A Death in the Parish’ was obviously an important part of my preparations, but a week of morning walks listening to the previous novel ‘Murder Before Evensong’, and a long car journey listening to Richard read his fascinating and frank memoir ‘Fathomless Riches’, allowed me to really immerse myself, and added a whole new dimension to my personal enjoyment of what felt a warm, hilarious, and memorable event for us all.

53 events in (and some with more than one author!) friends always ask ‘who’s your favourite?’ It’s an impossible question! Booka’s guests, like their shelves, are eclectic and richly diverse and each event brings unique moments and memories. From Tara Westover, one of Barack Obama’s authors of 2018, to the indefatigable and inspiring Jaqueline Wilson; from Jon Sopel, full of a correspondent’s insight and indeed gossip about Trump’s Washington, to Lucy Easthope with her extraordinary stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster; from David Nott, the ‘War Doctor’, an occasion when I felt humbled to be in the presence of a truly great man, to the wonderful Markus Zusak, who wowed us with his words on stage and on the page; from Jodie Piccoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s exploration through fiction of the experiences of transgender men and women, to Jon McGregor with his stunning novel, ‘Lean Fall Stand giving voice, through fiction to a voice lost to a stroke. For me, each and every one of them has been memorable, unmissable, and transformative.

To be part of the fabulous Booka team is a true privilege and to spend time with such a carnival parade of best selling authors from Rick Stein, Prue Leith and Susannah Constantine to JoJo Moyes, Bonnie Gamus and Raynor Winn is a joy. As Independent Bookshop Week beckons, how fitting that my next Booka event will be with two local heroes reflecting on their own bookshop journey, the people who make all of this happen: Carrie and Tim Morris – in conversation!  See you there!

  • Caroline Lang