By Marwa Najah
2016’s YA Shot, an annual not-for-profit Young Adult and Middle Grade festival, was once again a huge success, with members of the public attending events spread across the Civic Centre, Waterstones Uxbridge and Uxbridge Library. Authors, poets, book-vloggers and bloggers from all around the country, all came together as part of YA Shot’s mission to inspire a love of reading and encourage a passion for creative writing, supported by Arts Council England.
A staggering 72 authors, including the winner of the 2014 Waterstones Children’s Prize Holly Smale (Geek Girl), best-selling fantasy author Samantha Shannon (The Bone Season) and Holly Bourne (How Hard Can Love Be?), were involved in various workshops, panels and book-signing sessions. From panels on friendship, feminism, and the impact of digital media on the publishing industry, to workshops on intersectional feminism and editing your first novel, YA Shot’s director Alexia Casale transformed Uxbridge into a cultural hub. We caught up with her to discuss YA Shot’s progress:
How was your experience at YA Shot this year?
It was brilliant! Festivals are a long-term business, but we've already come so far. The number of amazing authors who agreed to come this year was astounding and we had such an amazing Internship Team to run all the individual events. It is amazing to see an organisation started only 18 months ago already achieving so much and going so rapidly from strength to strength!
What does YA Shot mean to you?
I am so proud to come together with other authors, and the rest of the UKYA and UKMG community, to support libraries at a time when they're under such threat. It is not possible to claim our society is equal or that everyone has opportunities if we don't give everyone access to learning and knowledge - libraries always will be absolutely at the heart of that, no matter how they change and develop. To imagine that the web does the same job is to be ignorant of what a library offers to individuals and communities. Libraries are a lifeline for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society. Without them, we cannot claim to stand for equality. I'm proud to be standing with so many other people to do our part in ensuring their future.
What was the process of starting a not-for-profit literary festival?
The fast answer is 'a steep learning curve'! I've worked in the charity sector since I was 13 so I have a strong understanding of the basics, but different fields, geographical locations and time-periods have unique challenges. Above all, the process is an on-going one. The key thing is that we're already doing a lot to pursue our goals in line with an ethos we're proud of. We've got further to go and more to learn, but we've already delivered two successful festivals and are into our second Libraries-Schools Programme, this year working with two library systems in very different bits of the country, so it's been an amazing start!
Do you have any tips for students who want to use their creative interests to contribute to wider society?
Do it! Sometimes this means giving aid to an existing organisation. Sometimes it means setting up something new. It may be that the way forwards for you is doing more than one thing. Just have a go and see where you can really help and where you feel fulfilled. Be brave. If you don't feel confident, that's fine - it doesn't matter how you feel inside. What matters is whether you're doing something to help others and contribute to the world: focus on the product, on the doing, and confidence will follow if it needs to. But always be honest: don't take something on if you don't mean to deliver. Yes, life happens but the biggest challenge charities face is people who mean well but who drop their responsibilities the minute the going gets tough. Pick something where you know you'll do what you said you would, no matter what. And if that means doing less to begin with and building from there, then trust me that the charities and people you're working with will appreciate that much more than having someone with good intentions who ends up letting them down.
Do you have any memorable experiences attending literary events and have they influenced you as a writer?
So many! Being invited to Hay as my first festival was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. It's an achievement I'll always cherish. My second festival was Edinburgh: it was such an honour to be invited - to speak alongside the absolutely wonderful Tim Bowler no less! What a revelation of how kind and generous amazing authors so often are, even to complete newbies. Tim remains a friend and I'm so grateful to him for welcoming me to Bookland - and coming to YA Shot's inaugural year! That Edinburgh another amazing thing happened: author Cat Clarke came up to me in the Yurt, while I was sitting in a daze of terror, and picked up a conversation we'd been having on Twitter. I've always been the person in the corner at parties. That was the first time I knew I was in the right place and was truly welcome. It gave me such a lasting boost of confidence. I've told her how grateful I am, but I doubt she'll ever know exactly *how* grateful.
What are YA Shot's plans for 2017?
Up in the air, is the honest answer! Until they're long, long established, festivals work on a year-by-year basis and no decisions are taken until after the post-festival 'mop up' operations are complete and everyone's able to sit down and take stock. We're looking at various options, including whether to move the festival to the spring, in which case we may be back in April 2018 instead of October 2017 - but we're very much hoping to be announcing our next date before too long. In the meantime, we've got the 2016/2017 Libraries-Schools Programmes in both Haringey and Sunderland to keep us busy, as well as developments as we pursue sponsorship and registered charity status so even if the next YA Shot is 18 months off instead of 12, it's going to be all go. We look forward to keeping everyone up to date with all our new developments on our website and Twitter hashtags.