Meeting Rachel Holmes is like being sucked into a whirlwind of enthusiasm. She has been appointed as the driving force for literature and spoken word at the restored Southbank Centre, including the annual London Literature Festival, which will run for the second time this summer, and is clearly brimming with excitement about her new role— she started part-time last autumn and full-time in January. "I came in half-time [to start with], but you try working half-time in a place like this— it is such fun, I am like a kid in a sweet shop,"she says.
Talking to Holmes, you get the impression that she tries to pack as much into each day as possible. Outside work, she finds time to write: the paperback of her latest biography, The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman (Bloomsbury), has just been released; and she is currently writing a biography of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. On top of this, she is training for this year's London Marathon and also works for the South African HIV and AIDS non-governmental organisation, the Treatment Action Campaign, the UK arm of which, Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign, she is secretary and co-founder of.
Formerly a lecturer in literature at the universities of London and Sussex, Holmes became part of the original launch team of Amazon.co.uk in 1998, where she was senior editor of books, then managing editor of all category areas and, finally, website manager for Europe. "I was part of the start-up group at Amazon when there were just nine people," she explains. "I would ring publishers who said 'no, we won't send you review copies because it [Amazon] won't catch on."
The second LLF will take place between 5th and 19th July this year. Holmes admits that it is difficult to establish a literature festival in London; the received wisdom is that Londoners are already spoilt for choice culturally. But she says that the Southbank Centre has a head start in that Londoners see it as their "local village hall". When it comes to programme highlights for this year, Holmes is reluctant to give specific author names. "I don't want the festival to be defined by any one big name at this stage," she says. The programme does promise, however, "some of the most famous names in the world of graphic novels". Along with migration, the environment, Africa, music and writing, and the "underage movement" (12-18-year-olds), graphic novels will be one of the key themes of the LLF this year. "They are a huge growth area and it is a great way to bring people together from the underage movement to seniors," she says.
The 50 events scheduled to take place during the two weeks of the festival will focus on the spoken word. "We are not just headlining fiction. Fiction is great. But this is across the board," Holmes adds. In a nod to traditional fiction, however, the winner of the "Booker of Bookers" will be announced at the festival. The night before the announcement there will be talks from authors where they will discuss what their choice would be.
With the programme for the LLF still to be finalised, Holmes is keen to invite publishers and agents to put forward authors for participation.
But even at this early stage in the proceedings, she is clear about the vision she has for future, declaring: "It will be the biggest urban literature festival in the northern hemisphere by 2012."
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