A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of The Brilliant & Forever. The book hadn’t made me laugh, hadn’t made me cry, hadn’t become a real-life literary event I was desperately excited to experience.
A year from now? I’ll still have this dumb grin on my face, thinking of August 6th, 2022 on the Lews Castle Green.
I had the date on my calendar for months. Everyone in my life had to hear about it—and, as it turned out, self-proclaimed gremlin Steven McKnight decided to submit to the competition with me. We shortlisted, to our thrill, and just about shifted the axis of the planet to get him over here.
“You can’t not come,” I told him. “They’re going to have t-shirts.”
“Oh, well, in that case….”
Steven and I have been friends for four or five years, and our newest joke is pretending to be mortal enemies while wearing matching t-shirts. He’d visited Scotland three months earlier, but nothing was going to stop him from traveling to Lewis for The Brilliant & Forever.
“Get ready for Scotland 2: Alpaca Boogaloo!” I told him.
Oh, haven’t I mentioned the alpacas?
Sweet, sassy, smiling little alpacas with hairdos. Who knew alpacas had hairdos? Not me. But I’d studied their ‘guest list’ in advance, so I knew their names: Merlin, Murdo, Lachlan, Oran, and there—the star!—the one and only actual living breathing Archie the Alpaca. We stood in the presence of genius.
I had The Diary of Archie the Alpaca at the ready, but it turned out that harassing woolly celebrities for their two-toed signature wouldn’t be necessary; a custom stamp had been made for the occasion. Now, glorious joy, I have a book signed by an alpaca! And the great Kevin MacNeil, of course… but it’s hard to compete against those four-legged charmers.
“I’m witnessing the best day of your life, aren’t I?” Steven asked.
“Oh, God, yes,” I said.
We were nervous about reading in front of so many people—especially since so many of them were talented writers—but we could have been a lot more nervous. The Brilliant & Forever was a competition, but it didn’t feel competitive, even as we all stole admiring glances at the golden alpaca trophies awaiting their winners. We’d come for pure fun and fantastic stories. And, boy, did we hear fantastic stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes tense. In Gaelic, in English. From near, from far. The lineup had one thing in common, at least: utter brilliance.
The Brilliant & Forever was my first literary festival. Steven’s, as well. And we wouldn’t have chosen any other to hold that special place in our hearts.
It had bilingual alpacas, live music by Willie Campbell, riveting stories, t-shirts, Stetsons. At its most beautifully chaotic, it had a rain-drenched alpaca demanding that the microphone be brought to him, please.
That, above all, was the moment I knew I’d landed among the best people possible. The microphone was held steady at Archie’s mouth. We watched him, listening attentively to his tale of severed fingers and Standing Stones, happy to share in a mad dream together. Kevin MacNeil hiding under the judges’ table with a microphone that was actually turned on? What? Next you’ll tell us that Santa Claus isn’t real!
Later, someone asked me, “Was it everything you expected?”
It was everything I expected, more than I expected, nothing I could have possibly expected. The chance to sing along with Willie Campbell. Alpacas humming in the Hebridean rain. A shortlist of excellent writers, and the disbelief that my friend and I were included among them.
And to hear from our alpaca judge that my piece was almost good enough to have been written by an alpaca? Twenty-five’s pretty young to have received the highest literary praise available. Hope it doesn’t go to my head.
“I got Mom some Merlin-the-alpaca yarn,” I said to Steven on the ferry back, “but I kind of wish I got another one, too. It’s so soft.”
Steven shrugged. “Next time.”
We fist-bumped again. My long wait had been worth it. His long travel had been worth it, too. We’d just had one of the best weekends of our lives.
I write this wearing my Brilliant & Forever 2022 t-shirt—wondering whether my ‘archnemesis’ Steven has the same shirt on across the Pond—with a stuffed animal of Archie the Alpaca balanced on top of my new Stetson. It’s a weird lifestyle, being a writer. Sometimes the Check Sanity light flicks on. But I wouldn’t have traded this craziness for anything. It was a marvelous, hilarious, loving-community-of-readers-and-writers craziness that keeps making me smile.
The event lived up to its ‘brilliant’ promise, and certainly, it’ll stick with us forever.