Our festival began in 2002 with a modest list of events as part of the Sevenoaks Summer Festival. In 2004 we decided to branch out into a two-week programme in the autumn as Sevenoaks Literary Celebration – renamed Sevenoaks Literary Festival in 2016.
The festival has always included a broad range of speakers: novelists, biographers, poets, historians, political commentators.
We have hosted a succession of leading novelists, including Hilary Mantel talking about Wolf Hall on the eve of her Booker Prize win, Kate Mosse, Sarah Waters, Patrick Gale, Jonathan Coe, Justin Cartwright, Sarah Dunant, Victoria Hislop, Penelope Lively, Lionel Shriver, Meg Rossoff, Mick Herron and Sebastian Faulks.
Biographers have included the prize-winning Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Andrew Lownie, biographer of Guy Burgess, Matthew Hollis talking about the poet Edward Thomas, Kathryn Hughes telling us all about Mrs Beeton, Kate Williams on the infamous Emma Hamilton, and Michael Smith recounting the trials and adventures Ernest Shackleton.
Historians have always been popular, including Sir Roy Strong, Ian Mortimer, Tracy Borman, Thomas Penn, Stephen Smith and most recently Tessa Dunlop showing the power of oral history in The Century Girls. Sevenoaks audiences also like a bit of politics, with recent sell-out audiences for Alan Johnson, Gina Miller and Luke Harding on Putin and Trump.
National Poetry Day usually coincides with the Festival and we have made poetry a regular feature. Past readings have included two Poets Laureate – Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, the National Poet of Wales – Gillian Clarke and the National Poet for Scotland – Liz Lochhead, as well as popular names such as Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay, Ruth Padel, Daljit Nagra and Lemn Sissay.
The Literary Teas and Literary Lunches have been excellent opportunities for audiences to get up close with authors, as well as have some excellent food. Authors have included John Julius Norwich, Virginia Nicholson, Daisy Goodwin, Sophie Hannah, Sinclair McKay, Juliet Nicolson, Helen Lederer, Vanessa Nicholson and Gloria Hunniford.
A special feature of the Festival is the school day, with talks and workshops for about 450 primary school children. Recent participants have included the illustrator William Grill, Michael Rosen and Piers Torday.
Sevenoaks Literary Festival continues to develop, and no two years are the same. Sometimes there are musical events: The Milton Consort accompanied Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Elizabethan music on period instruments, Laura Barnett discussed her novel Greatest Hits while Mercury prize nominated Kathryn Williams played the music specially written for it, poet Virginia Astley read from The English River accompanied by her daughter on a harp. Sometimes there are visual events: film director James Ivory introducing a screening of A Room With A View. The Festival is all about making books and literature as alive and relevant as possible.
The newest venture is the Young Readers Festival Day. This was launched in 2018 and is run by Sevenoaks Bookshop with support from Sevenoaks Literary Festival. It will be an annual event bringing a mixture of ticketed and free events for children of all ages.