INTERVIEW: Steve Grimwade, director/CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival

This will be Steve Grimwade’s final year as director of the Melbourne Writers Festival (23 August to 2 September), with Lisa Dempster recently announced as his successor. Grimwade spoke to Andrew Wrathall.

Can you explain this year’s festival theme ‘Enquire Within’? 
The theme is, centrally, a call to action. The most obvious reading of the theme is that a writers festival gives us the prime opportunity to investigate the ways in which writers make us think and feel. The theme also speaks to the very heart of the festival experience—to seek to go further into the writers mind. Finally, to ‘enquire within’ is an invitation to a great gathering—and to our hub at Fed Square. It’s a call to bring together people who are passionate about ideas, curious about our lives and the society we live in.

What do you anticipate will be the highlights of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival?
This is an unusually hard question, given that highlights are to be found where individual fancy lies. I can imagine that looking over Roz Chast’s shoulders, as she draws live in the Atrium, will send quite a few people aquiver. But fans of This American Life may rather enjoy the festival’s home-grown equivalent—The Radio Hour—sixty minutes of A-grade documentary radio created right in front of your eyes (with writers, musicians and technical sorts all on stage making it happen). Many in my own staff team are longing to meet the delightful Pico Iyer, a man whose being and writing chime with lyrical beauty. Highlights are where you find them, and they’re just as often on a small stage as they are a large one.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the biggest crowds?
An easy question! Our audiences have been unreservedly drawn to the gregarious, thoughtful and delightful Simon Callow, and they have equally, unanimously, joyously been electrified by our New Yorker writers. (Those New Yorker events that are yet to sell out are just seats away from that very eventuality.)

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
Each and every one of them. But I suspect that a more direct answer may be: John Lanchester, a writer whose suite of talents astounds me; Gillian Mears, who speaks so graciously about her work (and who is a charmed writer); and Martha Nussbaum, a major philosopher whose energy is breathtaking.

To speak of a few specific events, I’m hoping I can somehow swing across to Liner Notes as they celebrate David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust; I love the line-up for our You Animals panel (Tim Flannery, Sonya Hartnett, Anna Krien and Charlotte Wood); and I reckon we’ve got the best line-up for ABC TV’s Q&A in quite some time—Simon Callow, Joumana Haddad, Anthony Appiah, Sefi Atta and Germaine Greer. No polly waffle!

How has the festival changed over the past five years and how do you see it evolving after you leave?
My desire has been to open the festival to more readers and more writers, and to honour the ways in which writing connects us all. By continuing to broaden our focus—by not limiting ourselves to one view of ‘good writing’—we’ve drawn readers from a much broader range of backgrounds. (Some 30% of our audience are between 18-35 years of age, and I think that makes for a particularly vibrant festival.)

Significantly the festival has had to deal with two major changes over the past five years—the first, our move to Fed Square, which has been a wonderful blessing on most levels. The second is the introduction of the amazing Wheeler Centre into Melbourne’s cultural landscape. This has been tricky for most literary organisations and event organisers—and we’re only now beginning to gauge the effect of its price point and programming. I’d hope that governments in the near future understand that the festival delivers the most amazing bang for buck, and that increasing our funding levels to those received elsewhere—such as at the Sydney Writers Festival—will enable us to offer far more free events. By doing that I have no doubt that we’d then speak to a much greater audience.

How will the festival evolve?
Well, that’s a question best left to my successor, the fabulous Lisa Dempster. But the largest gap I rue not filling is having the finances to establishing a greater physical presence at Fed Square.

Will the festival be using digital programming to reach audiences online?
We have, for years, been at the forefront of discussing digital publishing’s effect on audiences—and we’ve run public conferences on Digital Publishing and the future of journalism. We continue to run the latter—the New News conference—which is even more of a highlight of this year’s program (and very necessarily so).

We have also, for years, engaged a variety of the city’s favourite literary bloggers to engage with our own guests and to report from our events. This year I believe we have over eight bloggers reporting from events and we’ll be showing a live Twitter stream at our New News events. In addition to this we’re live streaming a small number of schools events and we also record all our events, offering an array of pod and vodcasts after the physical festival is over.

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