In a career first, Jane Macleod interviews a man and an alpaca to learn exactly what this upcoming ‘Brilliant & Forever 2022’ event is all about. Among those sharing stories at the unique event at Lews Castle Green on Saturday 6th August will be writers from the Hebrides, America, and continental Europe. And not forgetting several alpacas.
I travelled to Stirling and met Kevin MacNeil and Murdo the Alpaca by the campus of Stirling University where Kevin is a Lecturer in Creative Writing. At Murdo the Alpaca’s request, the three of us sauntered up a hill called Dumyat. ‘It’s Stirling’s Cliseam, which is Harris’s Mount Fuji, so really, you’d better be having some kind of spiritual experience,’ Murdo commented as we ascended.
We were a strange sight as we hiked – a woman, a man, and an alpaca in deep conversation – and walkers and hill runners alike gave us strange looks. ‘They think we alpacas don’t notice,’ said Murdo, ‘but we do.’
At the top of Dumyat, we sat down beside a cairn and the interview began, with Kevin offering measured, thoughtful responses, and Murdo the Alpaca interrupting excitedly.
Jane: To begin with, can you tell us what The Brilliant & Forever 2022 event actually is?
Kevin: So, first of all, you absolutely don’t need to know about or have read the book The Brilliant & Forever. This isn’t about me or my writing; it’s about encouraging other writers and having an enjoyable, entertaining time listening to people share stories. It’s a good-natured, encouraging, fun event where shortlisted writers will read a brief excerpt from a piece of prose they submitted, and then we will –
Murdo the Alpaca: There’s going to be T-shirts! And music! And grassuccinos! And books! It’s actually going to be a blast. Best of all, a whole bunch of my alpaca friends are coming along.
Kevin: It’s true. There will indeed be alpacas, and all those other cool things. Our special guest judges are two of the most esteemed literary figures in Scotland.
Jane: And they are..?
Kevin: Jenny Niven and Vikki Reilly. Jenny Niven is former Head of Literature at Creative Scotland, plus she achieved all kinds of successes with book festivals and literary projects in China and Australia and she was an interim Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Jenny is now Executive Producer at Dandelion, where she brings big environmental and artistic ideas to vivid life. Vikki Reilly is another literary phenomenon. She has been involved in publishing in many ways – selling books, marketing them, really, truly understanding them – and now she is Business Development Manager at Publishing Scotland. She’s also an expert on a promising band called the Beatles and wrote a book about them! Both Jenny and Vikki are incredibly smart, very lovely, and hugely experienced. It’s particularly important to me that the judges are decent folk, not Simon Cowell types.
Murdo the Alpaca: I’m a judge, too. But I’m far cooler than Simon Cowell. Think he can do this? [Murdo the Alpaca launches into a kind of freeform tap-dancing, ill-coordinated hooves kicking and clicking and stomping as a few Chinese tourists stare, open-mouthed, before grabbing their phones to take photos and footage.]
Jane: It’s a storytelling event, then, with other elements included, with everything aimed at being positive and fun?
Kevin: Exactly. Everyone has fascinating stories to tell. On a deeper level, narrative is how we make sense of the world, it is how we construct a sense of identity, and it is how we share our most lasting ideas, emotions, and lessons.
Murdo the Alpaca: I like it when stories are unpredictable, like –
Jane: – like a talking alpaca?
Murdo the Alpaca: Eh? No, that’s the point. Talking alpacas are 100% normal.
Jane: Right…Kevin, what’s the connection with The Brilliant & Forever book?
Kevin: As I say, it’s not that central, this is about hearing the stories others have to tell. But I confess I do love bringing bold ideas into the tangible world, especially if they are offbeat, thought-provoking, and useful to others. There is a writing/performance competition in the book, plus of course talking alpacas feature. The book demonstrates that we all need narrative. I mean that literally.
Jane: What is the process, then? Surely everyone who submitted work can’t read it onstage, or we’d be there all day?
Kevin: True. What we did was read and re-read the entries we received and finesse them down into a shortlist of about twelve or thirteen. Believe me when I say that was hard.
Murdo the Alpaca: What MacNeil means is that often when you run a writing competition, there’s going to be gold and there’s going to be dross.
Kevin: That’s not what I said at all –
Murdo the Alpaca: Only this time, there was no dross, only gold.
Kevin: That part is true. I was genuinely blown away by the quality of the writing. I mean, the calibre of writing is astounding. Come along and you will see what I mean. Making a shortlist meant having to lose some terrific stories.
Murdo the Alpaca: Which in any other competition could have been contenders or winners!
Kevin: What we are left with is a dozen writers who have stories that are by turns witty, poignant, raw, thrilling. I mean, wow! I passionately believe some of these stories are publishable. They’re the work of first-rate writers. And that really is something to share and celebrate.
Jane: So, people provided stories that were quite diverse?
Kevin: Very. They wrote about love, island culture, the passing of time, the sea, supernatural creatures, relationships, gender issues…Humanity itself, I suppose.
Murdo the Alpaca: Uh, and alpaca-anity, thank you.
Jane: Let me see if I’ve got this right. Members of the public were invited to submit stories?
Jane: From which the judges created a shortlist. And those writers will perform their own work onstage. The event begins and ends with music.
Kevin: From my old mate Willie Campbell.
Jane: Excellent! And the judges will choose the best piece of writing, and the author gets a prize?
Murdo the Alpaca: Not a very valuable one, haha!
Kevin: A unique prize. Also, the event will be compered by an eccentric character called Dalston Moomintroll.
Murdo the Alpaca: He’s one of the Garrabost Moomintrolls!
Jane: Is it really true that –
Murdo the Alpaca: Don’t you dare ask is it really true that there will be talking alpacas.
Jane: I didn’t! I was going to ask if it’s true that there will be participants from other countries?
Kevin: I’m delighted to say that this is true. We’ll have a great mix of local, national, and international accents. It’s an international competition.
Jane: Is there anything I haven’t covered?
Kevin: No –
Murdo the Alpaca [smacking a hoof off Kevin’s head]: No, he says! You’ve only neglected to mention the most important thing. We alpacas continue to strive for equality. You saw the looks those people gave me when we were coming up here. All because they can’t stand talking alpacas! It’s not right, and we’re doing something about it. At the event we will be displaying placards supporting alpaca rights. There is a workshop at An Lanntair on 30th July all about this and about protest placards in general and I ask humans to go along and support their alpaca friends by making banners to show solidarity with alpaca rights. https://lanntair.com/events/event/alpaca-rights-protest-banners/
Jane: He gets a bit dramatic sometimes, doesn’t he?
Kevin: Tell me about it.
Jane: I think everything’s clear about the event.
Kevin: It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Murdo the Alpaca: In summary, if you want two hours of unique entertainment, come along and you will meet alpacas, hear stories, drink grassuccinos, support alpacas, hear some more stories, and marvel at the cool t-shirts and notebooks. A memorable way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
– Jane Macleod
** Tickets for The Brilliant & Forever 2022 Festival are on sale (£10/ £8) – click here to snap yours up now!