Interview: Chip Rolley, artistic director of Sydney Writers’ Festival

This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (14-20 May) is the third to be programmed by artistic director Chip Rolley. He spoke to Andrea Hanke.

What do you think will be the highlights of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival?
It’s always difficult to pick favourites, especially in a festival that features over 400 participants in over 300 events. Judging by the early ticket sales, Edmund de Waal and Jeffrey Eugenides are runaway bestsellers. But others are knocking on the door.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the big crowds?
There’s a lot to choose from, but I think the largest crowds will be lining up for Jeff ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Kinney, Jeanette Winterson and Jeffrey Eugenides. And then we’ve got Roddy Doyle together with Sebastian Barry and Tom Keneally. Of course Stella Rimington and Kathy Lette will pull in crowds. And there’s a lot of curiosity about Joe McGinniss and Michael Hastings.

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
I am really keen to hear Susan Swingler, whose memoir House of Fiction (Fremantle Press) lifts the lid on one of our literary legends Elizabeth Jolley. And I’m always attracted to the new voices—authors like Sjon from Iceland, Riikka Pulkkinen from Finland, Chad Harbach with The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate). And I’m keen to hear Jesmyn Ward, whose book Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury) is one of the most moving novels I have read in some time.

How did you decide on the theme for this year’s festival?
I’ll never forget when the ex-News of the World journo Paul McMullan told the UK Leveson Inquiry into the media, ‘Privacy is for paedos.’ The audacity of it: if you’re concerned about privacy, you must have something to hide. That crystallised for me the question of where we draw the line between public and private. The sense that that line is vanishing has been building for years. Not just because of UK scandal rags, or even the increased state security apparatus. But with social media we post things about ourselves that in previous times we might not have even told our loved ones. It seems to me it’s the question of our time—and it’s a question writers have been asking themselves for years. For us, it was a perfect way to give the festival itself a narrative.

Will you be doing anything different this time around? Any strategies for attracting younger crowds?
I learned a long time ago (back when I worked in magazines in New York) that the minute you start trying to attract younger crowds, you’ve lost the game. Smells like Teen Spirit. If we ensure our programming is driven by strong ideas, people of all ages—young, old and every age in between—will come to the events.

You’ve got a couple of pretty big-name authors in attendance (Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeff Kinney …). Any outrageous tour riders?
Are you referring to that rumour we have to buy a life-time supply of drawing paper and Textas in 36 colours? I’m contractually bound not to say anything about it.

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