The 2023 Literature Festival at Sea was our biggest voyage of its type so far, with 28 authors, journalists and speakers from a myriad of genres offering guests an insight into their new book, their view on current affairs, and tips on how to get your novel started in intimate workshops. And it wasn't just books: brand new gameshow-style events, stand up comedy, and panel discussions on all manner of topics were mixed into each day at sea too!


The Literature Festival at Sea could not be made possible without our valuable partnership with The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. Going strong since 2018, this partnership created the original Literature Festival at Sea, and has taken it from strength to strength ever since.


We spoke to Nicola Tuxworth, head of programming at Cheltenham Festivals, to see what she thought of this incredible voyage. Julia Wheeler, festival chair and former BBC correspondant, and author Mark Billingham also shared their views.


Good afternoon Nicola, thank you for speaking with us today! Cheltenham Literature Festival is best known for its annual event, which is hosted on shore. What is the main difference between this and putting on a show at sea?


Whereas with the land festival in Cheltenham we have hundreds of speakers coming to Cheltenham over 10 days (and often taking part in only one, hour-long event) – on Queen Mary 2 we have a much smaller group, around 30, who embark for seven days at sea. This select group have to work together, take part in three or four events during their time on board, and we quite often ask them to take part in  panel discussions that aren’t directly linked to their own writing – for example Favorite Literary Heroines, How to Grow Old Disgracefully, or The Job That Made Me. It’s a chance for them to get to know a group of other writers and experience something really special together.


So how do you curate this program, and how do you decide who to invite?


We aim for a full program of events every day at sea, with enough variety to keep even the most avid reader happy. We cover news, history, fiction, comedy and classic authors and we put on all sorts of writing classes as well as the ever-popular Times Crossword sessions. We like to bring guests face to face with well-known best-selling authors but we also love to introduce them to new, early career writers who they might not have heard of.

We are careful to choose a group who we think will all get on with each other, have some fun together  and “join in” - no prima donnas please! We build the group gradually – inviting a group of five or six, seeing who says yes (most of them do) and then another few, this way we can keep reviewing the group and making sure we have got the balance right. A bonus for us is if a writer has a partner who is also a writer, for example Anthony Beevor, the historian, and his biographer wife, Artemis Cooper – they came on board together. With an allocation of around 25 staterooms for the crossing (which has to include Jo and I as well as our chairs and moderators) we have to be pretty canny and make sure we have a group who have plenty of strings to their bow. Then it’s a case of lots of spreadsheets and planning to create the events and make sure the authors are OK with what we are proposing.

That sounds very complicated! You were on board for the 2023 Literature Festival at Sea: what was your experience like?


It is always incredibly special, incredibly tiring and truly unforgettable. The team on board are amazing – nothing is too much trouble, from the technical team in the venues, to the wonderful stewards who look after the spotless staterooms (with the comfiest beds ever!). And all that delicious food! Getting up early for a bracing walk on deck in the dawn, gazing and gazing at the magical empty sea and then being pampered in the restaurant with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs really sets you up for the day. And cocktails in the Commodore Club on Gala Evenings, with the writers all in black tie and glamorous dresses, is so much fun.


What are your highlights over the last three Literature Festival at Sea voyages?


So many! The P.G. Wodehouse tribute event in 2019, Rachel Parris and Marcus Brigstocke’s improv session in the Carinthia Lounge in 2023, Simon Armitage talking so movingly about his father in 2022, and of course Val McDermid belting out The Proclaimers at the karaoke…

With so many people with a shared interest in literature, there could be a real sense of community on board. Did you feel that?


Oh yes. The beautiful ship, and the experience of the crossing draws everyone, guests and speakers, together – it’s not the same as a typical cruise, it’s a real journey that countless people have taken over the years. The writers certainly form a small community together – they go to each other’s events, eat together in the evening, gather for cocktails in the gorgeous Commodore Club and generally enjoy each other’s company. The audiences are so enthusiastic – we often get letters hand-delivered to particular speakers thanking them for a session or a workshop on board, and the signing queues stretch halfway round the ship as guests stock up on their must-read titles.


Why do you think Cheltenham Festivals and Cunard align so well?

I would guess that we are both in the business of voyages of discovery! Cunard’s beautiful ships take people to pastures new, and we take our Festival-goers on a reading journey to discover stories, places and ideas.  It's a perfect fit.

We also managed to get some time with Julia Wheeler and Mark Billingham, both accomplished writers and previous special guests on the Literature Festival at Sea.


Welcome both! What are some of your highlights from previous Literature voyages?


Julia Wheeler: A big highlight was an event with the Captain, Chief Hotel Manager, and Exec Chef, where we got to see inside the Cunard track. The reception they received when they came on stage said it all. The audience was so appreciative of them sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their world on board. Another was the audience response to the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, sharing his feelings about loss – people were visibly moved and were talking about it for the rest of the voyage. There are so many moments like this where there’s an 'aha' moment.  Perhaps it’s to do with the time people have to let things sit and mull during the crossing, and they are more open and receptive. Lastly, Alexander McCall Smith kicking off the 2022 crossing – the perfect joyous start.  His giggling and the audience loving his stories and attitude!


Mark Billingham: Having been lucky enough to take part in this event twice already, I have a whole host of highlights! Setting aside the splendur of the ship itself, the festival is like no other I’ve taken part in. Largely this is because of the eclectic line-up of speakers. Authors, journalists, TV stars, MPs! I won’t easily forget seeing Ed Balls sing karaoke (though I wish I could) or some of the extremely lively debates I’ve taken part in. There really is something for everyone. Though I’ve always been working, it’s felt like a vacation. Actually, it’s felt like several different vacations because there’s so much to do. And did I mention the food? Oh my God, the food…


Julia, you are the current festival chair; how does Literature Festival at Sea differ to a festival on land?


Julia: It builds during the week.  There’s a camaraderie among the authors and the audiences that I can’t imagine at any other festival.  It’s born out of the audiences having the opportunity to attend so many events and for themes, ideas and stories mentioned in one conversation to be picked up in another – and that being an inclusive experience. The authors attend other authors’ events and are super supportive and generous.  There’s a light-hearted repartee between the authors that spills over in a gentle way to the audiences – and includes them, almost as part of book club ‘gang’.


Mark, how do guests respond to the events?


Mark: Judging from the feedback I’ve had, the guests have always thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They’ve always been incredibly generous audiences and joined in whole-heartedly when called upon to do so.


Final question: What keeps you coming back for more?


Julia: Every year is different – the mix of authors and audience.  Each year I can’t imagine how it will be in the weeks leading up to the voyage and then afterwards, I can’t imagine how it could have been any different.  It's always inspiring, and I always learn so much. There’s something magical about the special mix of ingredients: an enthusiastic bunch of authors, the diversity of their books’ subjects, a great list of conversation topics, an engaged and intelligent audience. All together and sharing a special space and unforgettable experience.


I love the anticipation of the conversations with such a fascinating group of people with different experiences and perspectives – on stage, dressed up in the evenings and with passengers who want to discuss what they think of a book or subject, or share an opinion, alongside the breakfast buffet or at Afternoon Tea. There’s a feeling that everyone’s opinion is valid on stage or off.


Mark: All the above. As someone who’s attended just about every book festival there is, I have to say that this is one of the very best. I would always come back in a heartbeat. Even if I wasn’t invited I’d probably stow away!

Look out for the sequel...

Cunard's Literature Festival at Sea returns to Queen Mary 2 on November 13, 2024. Find out more about the 2024 voyage, and book your stateroom online today for an unmissable Event Voyage, or discover more about our partnership with Cheltenham Literature Festival.

On board with Cunard