Catherine Pettersson and the Stockholm Writers’ Festival

An interview with Catherine Pettersson, the driving force behind the Stockholm Writers’ Festival that will have it’s sixth iteration this coming August. (Links are in the note at the end.)

Catherine Petterson and John Nixon in conversation
Catherine Petterson and John Nixon in conversation

Catherine Pettersson and the Stockholm Writers’ Group

Catherine Pettersson is an American, married to a Swede, who has lived in Sweden, now, for 26 years. She has always written, having worked as a copywriter, but she started to write creatively about 22 years ago. The death of her father jolted her into writing an autobiographical novel.

“A terrible novel,” she says now, “but I learned from writing it.”

She found she really enjoyed the process of writing creatively. She started to look for a writing group to write with, and found the Stockholm Writers’ Group. The SWG started in 1994 and is still going strong.

“It’s rare for anything to last that long,” she says. “A marriage lasting that long is kind of amazing, let alone a completely voluntary organisation!”

Members of the SWG meet up regularly to write together, to read their writings, and give one another constructive, critical feedback. Learning to accept feedback is one of the hardest parts of becoming a writer. It’s natural to get defensive. To help overcome this, the SWG have instituted what they call ‘the green room’.

“When you are up, and you are getting critique, you need to be quiet. Keep your head down and take notes. Pretend you are not in the room.”

“My first meeting was September 14th 2001, just after the September 11th attacks. I’d just spent two days, literally, just crying.” Catherine used to work in the World Trade Center so to see it come down as dust was incredibly upsetting. And then I had my first meeting with the Stockholm Writers’ Group and it was like a breath of fresh air. No one brought up the attacks, which was really weird. But I think, just because we’d all been living through the experience, we got to the writing and it was very professional.”

Collage of 4 screen-grabs of Catherine Petterson talking

Writing groups and writing festivals

Catherine emphasises the importance of having a writing group, of writing together and getting feedback. “It did tremendous things for my writing. Just having a group, having writing partners is everything.”

With the writers’ group Catherine travelled away to writing festivals in Europe and America.

“Which was fine, but on the plane ride back we would be asking ourselves ‘Why do we have to travel for this? Why isn’t there one in Stockholm, of all places? With all its literary traditions, with its bilingualism.'”

One of the other members of the SWG, Cassie Gonzales, was a very talented teacher of creative writing. She had previously taught at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She organised an on-line creative writing event and attracted more than 1200 paying participants. Mostly from the Stockholm area.

“I said Wait, how many!? Twelve? A hundred and twenty? I didn’t believe her,” says Catherine. but but the actual number was 1220. “And I thought, if there are this many people looking for community in the Stockholm area, we can probably make a festival work.”

Another important factor was finding a place to hold the festival. Catherine had worked at Berghs School of Communication and was able to persuade them to open the school for the first festival. So, “after complaining for about a decade”, Catherine says, “once we had a place to hold the festival we knew we could do it, because I knew the writers would come. That was the tipping point.”

Although Catherine was and remains the driving force behind the Stockholm Writers’ Festival, she is the first to acknowledge the importance of the input and support she received from the Stockholm Writers’ Group, the Creative Writing faculty and students at Stockholm University, the Stockholm Writers’ network on Facebook, and her fellow board members.

Success – and then came Covid-19

The first Festival took place at Bergh’s in April 2018; the second in May 2019 at the larger Finlandshuset venue. The third was scheduled for May 2020, but Covid put paid to that.

“Probably everyone remembers how it was in March 2020,” Catherine says. “I remember talking to a board member around March 14th, ‘Do we really have to cancel? Surely not. After all we’re in May!’ Then on March 17th we cancelled. And it did knock us down a peg or five.”

Initially Catherine was very reluctant to take the Festival on line. “I remember throwing a fit and saying, this is about being alive! It’s about bringing people together! And then I thought, OK, get over yourself. We need community. So we ended up doing it on line. At a great financial loss, may I say, because we had already sunk costs in things that we couldn’t take back.”

“We did a very nice production,” she says. “We didn’t want to make it look all Becky Home Ecky, as we say in America. We wanted it to look a little polished. We got a studio. And then we charged eight dollars, eighty Swedish kronor, a person. We thought, this is the right thing to do. But it was a gut punch, financially. And every other way. But I’m glad we did it. We did it the following year too.”

Collage of 4 screen-grabs of Catherine Petterson talking

Back to real life

Finally, in 2022, the fifth edition of the Festival took place in real life again. Finding a venue was easier just post the pandemic.

“We could splash out last year at Hotel Six. They were desperate for people. They gave us a huge price cut. But then when we got back to them for this year, they were like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no!'”

Which is why SWF 2023 will be back in Finlandshuset.

“We’re super happy,” say Catherine. “I love Finlandshuset. It’s a bit closer to brand for us. It’s a little jewel box, it’s a library, it’s an art gallery. It’s beautiful. It houses us very well.”

Your path to published

The Festival’s motto is Your path to published. Catherine is now herself a published author, and it was it the Stockholm Writers’ Festival that put her on the path. Though in a slightly roundabout way. Before the first Festival, she attended the long established Midwest Writers Conference in the USA to shadow the organiser Jama Bigger. While there, standing in the taco line, she got talking to someone who asked her what she was writing. She described her current work in progress, an historical novel based on family stories.

“He said, ‘You know, that sounds like something Wild Rose Press would like.’ Now there are a number of independent presses all over the world. It’s hard to stay on top of them. But you know,” says Catherine, “that’s who published my book.”

The truth is, nowadays, “when your career takes off, it’s usually because you have made some kind of a connection with other writers. … I’m sure it’s happened in history that somebody with no contacts, with nobody giving them tips about the industry, no critiquing has become a huge success, but I think it’s very, very rare.”

Attending writers’ festivals, participating in writers’ groups, whether face to face or on line, this is where writers can get those contacts, those tips, that critique. And, who knows, perhaps even an introduction to a publisher.

A Daughter of the King and after

Catherine’s first novel, A Daughter of the King tells the story of her forbear, Jeanne Denot. How she came to leave the France of Louis XIV to travel to the French colony of Quebec. Before Catherine submitted it, she decided to have a professional editor look at it.

“It was critical to get an editor to look at what I was writing,” Catherine says. “I went to Reedsy and worked with an editor named Claire Baldwin. She cut out a lot of my Shakespearean. I was using the word ‘thusly’ a lot! Clair saved me from myself.”

Catherine re-worked her manuscript after the editing and pitched the new draft to Wild Rose Press. It was accepted for publication and came out in 2021.

How successful has it been?

“Fairly, from what I understand of first authors. I sold around a thousand copies.”

So what is she working on now?

She has two manuscripts on the go. One is another historical fiction, set in Stockholm. She started writing that during the pandemic. The other is a contemporary novel she started writing twelve years ago. It has been in and out of her desk drawer ever since, but has characters Catherine finds compelling and a situation she keeps returning to.

“I hope,” she says, “by the fall I’ll be pitching both of them.”

In the meantime, the sixth edition of the Stockholm Writers’ Festival will take place this summer between 18th and 20th August, and Catherine will be there, as ever, walking around and talking to everyone and helping to make them feel included.

Catherine Pettersson and John Nixon in conversation 2
Catherine Pettersson and John Nixon in conversation 2

Notes and Links

The above is based on my conversation with Catherine Pettersson by Zoom at the end of April. Illustrations are screen grabs from the interview.

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Links:

If you liked the above, you may also like Gail Aldwin talks about This Much Huxley Knows

2 Comments

    • Thanks Gail. I’m sure you’ll remember Catherine from the SWF you attended in 2019. Always moving and cheerful. Lots of opportunities to capture expressions and action!

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