MK Lit Fest

Over 150 events, with an audience of over 4000 people. 27 of those events have been workshops, led by practising professionals and helping people develop their skills in everything from writing a memoir to pitching to an agent, and from songwriting to queer eco-poetics. The author talks and presentations have brought words of wisdom, insight, wit and intrigue from over 200 writers – accompanied by a handful of guitar players and two very well-behaved dogs.

Winners of the Min K2023 Writing Competitionm Green S Paces in the City c Jade Williamson espey photography

Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, librarian and editor in cities across Europe. His poetry and short stories have been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction and Bath Short Story awards, and appeared in numerous UK, US and European literary journals and anthologies. Online Programme Manager for Milton Keynes Literary Festival, and one of the organisers of the Lodestone Poets and of Poets for the Planet, he lives in MK with his husband and too many CDs, books and guitars.

There have been debut authors, household names, poets, novelists, playwrights, actors, architects, historians, cartoonists, biographers, and more. They’ve talked about colonialism and heritage, the legacy of the Suffragettes, vaccine design, an untold story of gay MPs working to oppose appeasement in the run-up to WWII, the liberating impact of cycling (and especially for women), the social history of fabric, the ecological imperative, the nexus of embroidery and social history. Even Mussolini’s penis has made a (thankfully only verbal) appearance. And there’s much more yet to come…

MK Lit Fest was set up in 2017 by a Steering Group that has brought together an evolving group of arts, education and publishing professionals and enthusiasts who share a love of books, words, writing, speaking and thinking.

Lemn Sissay
Lemn Sissay © Samuel Dore

After a triumphant debut – with appearances by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Michael Rosen and much more, including a dedicated day of local writers and performers – the festival returned in 2018 with an even more ambitious programme, working with new Festival partners and venues to bring some of the finest contemporary writing to the city. Highlights included Hollie McNish, Mark Haddon, and a launch party with Lemn Sissay, the launch of a booklet of original writing to support MK Food Bank, and of the first issue of #MinK, a now regular anthology of the very best local short fiction and poetry, selected from submissions to regular creative writing competitions. #MinK has since published over 100 pieces of original writing, 34 of them by writers aged between 14 and 19. For many authors both young and old (with ages ranging from 16 years old to 83), it was their first experience of seeing their work in print (although the anthologies are, of course, available in e-book form).

In 2019, the festival moved home to MK Gallery and partnered with other local organisations and groups, to bring an enhanced programme of workshops alongside performers including Paul Mason, Attila the Stockbroker, Carrie Gracie, Dan Cruickshank and Lissa Evans, as well as a wealth of rising talent across the literary arts.

We can probably all recall what happened next. In response, drawing on the IT/web delivery project background of some of the Steering Group, the festival was one of the first UK bodies to move to online delivery. In doing so, it took advantage of the relative ease of event set-up and irrelevance of physical distance to deliver year-round programmes of online events. Presentations over the web have included Chris Bryant MP, AstraZeneca vaccine co-developer Cath Green, political journalist Ian Dunt, novelist and Small Axe scriptwriter Courttia Newland, and built environment commentators Owen Hatherley and John Grindrod talking about new towns all over the world. There have been gala evenings of poetry in collaboration with Lodestone Poets, Red Door Poets, Grist Books, and Poets for the Planet, writing workshops on eco-poetry, writing for activism, songwriting, flash fiction, and marketing yourself as a writer… and the launch of a second #MinK anthology of local writing, this time focused on the theme of City of Dreams. This online programme now continues, with regular Dreams for… events that compliment the #MinK publications with online gatherings of selected local writers offering seasonally inspired thoughts. Most recently – throughout March 2024 – is a series of events in partnership with the Open University looking at different forms of fiction (flash, short stories, novellas, and novels) in conversation with writers from across the world. The online programme has truly taken advantage of technology to bring the world to Milton Keynes, and to take Milton Keynes to a wider world in return, with audiences from several countries joining in. The ability to capture online events has also meant that the festival has established a free-to-view archive of over 27 hours (and growing) of video to replay many of these presentations and readings.

The web-browser has not been the festival’s only embrace of technology. Working with walk•listen•create and the Museum of Walking, it has also created a SoundWalk based on locations in and around Great Linford Manor Park, where geo-cached recordings of original local writing are played back through a free app as the listener navigates the area. A similar, more ambitious project based around Central Milton Keynes is now being explored.

Kit de Waal
Kit de Waal © Jade Williamson

In 2023, the festival returned to offering in-person events, with Festivals in April and October, hosted by new partners at Milton Keynes Libraries and Waterstones MK. As well as appearances by established writers including Kit de Waal, Jennifer Saint, Sinclair McKay and Tony Juniper, these events took pride in giving platforms to debut and emerging writers: the now bestselling satirist and political commentator Russell Jones, Kevin Jon Davies (talking about Douglas Adams’ unpublished work), Paul David Gould, Lizzie Damilola Blackburn, and the poet-artist Gommie. The year also saw the festival give greater emphasis to events for children, working with MK Children’s Library to host fun-packed sessions with Sarah Coyle, Alex Willmore, Paula Harrison, Rhian Tracey, and Lizzie Waterworth.

The festival’s commitment to offering workshops and masterclasses to develop local writing talents continued unabated with sessions on the short story, writing satire, and experimenting with poetic technique. This work to support, encourage and grow local writers also saw the hosting of an in-person masterclass and networking event on getting published, with a panel of publishers, literary agents, editors, and authors offering advice and taking audience questions. These efforts to give a ladder to local writers are also bearing fruit: one alumnus of the Getting Published Masterclass has already signed a publishing contract and seen a first novel published, while a writer selected for #MinK was the 2022 The Literary Consultancy’s Scholarship winner.

Poet-artist Gommie and his MK word map (c) Jake Lindemere
Poet-artist Gommie and his MK word map © Jake Lindemere

2023 also saw the launch of a dedicated Community Programme, which ran a series of free workshops on the creative arts industries for 14–19-year-olds over Summer 2023, working with local songwriters, graphic novelists, festival set designers, and creative writers. Attracting a very diverse cohort of local young people, the strand culminated in a hands-on zine creation workshop at the Autumn 2023 festival.

The festival worked in the community in a more literal sense too, running a Talks Tent in collaboration with The Parks Trust for a Heritage Open Days event at Great Linford Manor Park, including a panel session with three very talented local writers of Young Adult fiction, and readings from #MinK winners and shortlisted writers from across the years.

Looking to the future, MK Lit Fest continues to build both its in-person and online presence, upholding a reputation for quality across many literary strands (including both fiction and non-fiction, poetry, scriptwriting, and memoir). It remains committed to giving platforms to rising voices, without which unheard writers will remain just that, and to offering development opportunities for emerging writers. The festival is currently planning an online writing workshop programme that will give cohorts of local writers the opportunity to give and receive feedback on work in progress, while also getting input from practising professional writers and editors.

Russ Jones performs to a sell-out crowd at Waterstone MK
Russell Jones performs to a sell-out crowd at Waterstone MK © Jade Williamson

The festival returns to CMK Library and Waterstones from 3 to 6 April 2024, with a line-up that includes Green Party peer and former Pary leader Natalie Bennett, legendary journalist Polly Toynbee talking about her fascinating memoir, the leading criminologist Professor David Wilson, a return visit from Russell Jones for another look at the political horrors of recent years, trailblazing racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, writing workshops on structuring a memoir or biography and on crafting plots that keep readers turning their pages, an interview with Milton Keynes’ homegrown award winning graphic novelist Paul Rainey, readings of new writing inspired by a needlework exhibition arising from a collaboration between Westbury Fabric and Fibre Guild and the Middle Eastern Cultural Group, and a cluster of interactive, fun-packed events for young children.

The festival is working to build ever-stronger partnerships with other organisations both local and national to co-present events and opportunities: these include walk•listen•create, Poets for the Planet, StonyWords, the Open University, the Parks Trust and Westbury Arts Centre. If you believe, as the festival team do, that books, words, writers and ideas are inherently fabulous, then the festival has something for you. Visit their website to find out more, or to sign up for their newsletter, or follow them on Facebook, X, Instagram, or Threads at @mklitfest

The 2024 lineup

Nic Hamilton photo
Michaela Dias Hayes
David Wilson Photo Credit Gavin Hopkins
Roy Nevitt
Nicolas Hamiton, Natalie Bennett, Michaela Dias Hayes, David Wilson (© Gavin Hopkins), Roy Nevitt
Leigh Russell
Kelechi Okafor
Francis Spufford copyright Antonio Olmos
Alex Falase Koya
Leigh Russell, Kelechi Okafor, Francis Spufford (© Antonio Olmos), Alex Falase-Koya, Paul Rainey
Russ Jones
Polly Toynbee
Julia Bell
Russ Jone, Polly Toynbee, Julia Bell
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