Literary Dinners is an event that combines a love of reading with fine food. Or, in the founders’ own words, ‘Pop-up restaurants with literature as an entrée and atmosphere for dessert’. I spoke to co-founder, Charles about how he came up with the idea and how social media helped the event’s success.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, Charles..
The three of us that run Literary Dinners worked together at one time or another in publishing, which I’d say is a great industry in which to learn the entrepreneurial ropes. I’d previously worked in film before studying English at University and went on to manage a literature festival after a couple of years working in Oxford.
We all still have full time jobs in the arts or publishing, but in one way or another Literary Dinners helps fulfill that need for risk you don’t normally satiate in a full time, permanent position. It’s great to have a way of bringing together our collective professional expertise with some slightly more off the wall ideas, and to be able to immerse ourselves in the reader experience, rather than just the publisher side of things.
What inspired you to create Literary Dinners and how long has it been going?
Two main motivations, beyond a not-so-subtle passion for literature.There were a number of new literary events going on at the time and doing really well, and drawing great audiences, but tended to leave that invariably left us a little cold. The trend was to try and make literature cool, but the experience often felt like a ‘cool’ event with literature tacked on. They also all tended to be in London.
At the other end of the scale, more traditional literary events tended to involve sitting in rows of seating in a hall listening to a formal interview that had likely already been repeated on TV or radio many times over. The atmosphere and connection had gone. So, we sat down in late 2011 and tried to think about what we would actually go to, and provide a solution. We realised we wanted something that felt like a special, one-off, event, that gave us new insights into a book or author, but without being too stuffy or overformal, or having an audience so large we felt like just a bum on a seat. Et voila!
How did you get the idea off the ground and publicize it as an event?
Actually, that’s all a little hazy now. We’ve learnt so much since then that I can’t help but feel it was genuine luck that anyone turned up and we didn’t burn the place down. I suppose though, the luck was the strength of our original idea. Each of our events is unique. We curate each of them around a writer’s novel, sourcing a menu, caterers and venue to create a singular experience. Our first was a Last Supper-style banquet in a disused chapel in North London. There were candles, plenty of red wine and a genuine musty smell: what’s not to like?
The real challenge was connecting people with the concept, and with no budget the solutions was obviously Twitter, which gave us an amazing way to engage directly with the people we hoped would buy tickets, as well as a way to hear their thoughts on the concept. The rest just (about) came together – which is perhaps the only benefit of ‘the first’: pulling in every favour we could garner. There’s a lot of goodwill the first time round.
You have some great You Tube videos of featured authors reading from their novels. How successful has this been in drumming up interest for your events?
Only a small amount, to be honest, But that’s to be expected. Although not particularly obvious, each social media platform and content provider has a distinct demographic and – particularly with YouTube – popular sub-genres of material. Twitter, for example, historically had a younger, more cosmopolitan user base until recently when the company began deliberately targeting minorities and niche communities in order to create its own USP. Likewise, a glance down the list of YouTube’s most viewed channels in 2013 and the majority are music and gaming related.
The arts and literature are almost non-existent on YouTube, hence us pursuing the opportunity. With so few people providing that kind of content, there’s great potential.
How important is social media to the success of Literary Dinners?
Without social media there would very likely be no Literary Dinners. As a pop-up we have no fixed address or consistent activity to communicate with an audience meaning that more traditional marketing is less effective for us. It also suits our format – as a more intimate style of event, we really thrive on direct interaction with our past and prospective guests, as well as all sorts of interesting individuals and groups across the literary landscape. So many of our guests turn out to have exciting new arts and literature projects of their own, and it’s great to be able to share their news too. It feels like we’re a tiny part of this amazing groundswell of active interest in literature and the wider arts, and that’s really motivating for us.
We had an ad run in the London Review of Books once off the back of a favour, and the only interaction from that was other companies asking if we would buy space from them as well. Twitter allows us to engage with our audience whether or not we have news or an event on-sale, and the benefit of that can’t be underestimated. Literary Dinners has a personality on Twitter and Facebook, one which we hope carries through to our events.
Tell me more about the culinary part of Literary Dinners…who creates the food? I’ve heard it’s delicious.
That is one of the best parts: eating as well as reading for inspiration. We work with a number of caterers, each with their own take on things and experiences, and together we choose a unique menu for the event. For many who we work with, the concept itself is what interests – despite the bustling supper club movement, being challenged with such a creative brief seems to be a rarity.
We’ve had suitably South American street food for an Amazonian picnic, Kinder Surprise-style fortune cookies for a childish playfeast, and a sumptuous Japanese banquet complete with miso soup and rice wine. Quite the range. Just as it would for a private dinner party between acquaintances, the food has a central role in breaking the ice and giving people some common ground with their table neighbour, and with the author (who may well be one and the same). We’ve been so fortunate to work with incredibly creative caterers who always provide their own talking points with the food, as well as ensuring all our guests get a quality, hearty dinner.
What authors do you have lined up for your forthcoming events?
Our next event sees Literary Dinners marking the WWI centenary with a thoroughly themed dinner for Louisa Young’s moving novel My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You… A story about war, romance, love and loss, set in Britain and France.
We’ll be greeting guests with an original tipple called a ‘Trench Car’, followed by hearty rations of stew and pudding served with a twist. That’s 11th April and there are still a few tickets left. As to what the future holds, we have a robust snout to tail BBQ in the pipeline, a 19th Century French feast, and about as many ideas for menus as most people have hot dinners.
For more information about Literary Dinners you can visit one of their many social channels below: