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.

Travelling in literary China

Publishing assistant Andrew Wrathall attended Australian Writers’ Week in China in March. Here, he gives us a taste of three Chinese literary festivals that hosted Australian authors in 2011.

English speaking literary festivals have sprung up all around China over the past decade. Festival guests this March included many Australian authors, who flew to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong as part of Australian Writers’ Week, coordinated by the Australian Embassy.


Perth author Craig Silvey and director of UWA Publishing Terri-ann White in Beijing

‘We really draw on the resources of our community to highlight what an amazing and vibrant city Beijing is,’ said  Bookworm International Literary Festival director Kadi Hughes. The festival runs during March each year within Beijing and two smaller cities, Chengdu and Suzhou.

‘We’ve been running Bookworm International Literary Festival for five years, it’s grown enormously every year. This year we have about 160 events in Beijing,’ said Alex Pearson, managing director of the festival and owner of the Bookworm Bookshop. The festival runs out of the Bookworm, which is part bookshop and part library, with books for sale and books that can be borrowed.

‘We are bigger than we have been in the past, but really sticking to the core beliefs of the festival. So we have book talks, panel discussions, writing workshops, literary eats, performance poetry, a variety of different things, and our program really focuses on a combination of amazing writers and amazing voices from around the world and also from China,’ said Hughes.

At this year’s festival Christos Tsiolkas spoke on a panel with Irish-born author Emma Donoghue on the subject of ‘taboo’; Kate Jennings and Jessica Rudd spoke on the topic of the boy’s club in big business and politics; and Craig Silvey joined Julia Leigh to talk about the Australian outback as a gothic backdrop in their literature.

Australia is one of 19 countries represented by the festival, with authors also attending from Iceland, Hungry, Poland, Wales, Scotland, Belgium and Nigeria. Pearson said she often goes abroad to other international festivals to find an international contingent of writers. The purpose of the festival is to ‘encourage the foreign community in Beijing to enjoy Chinese literature, the foreign community outside China to enjoy Chinese literature, and Chinese community here to enjoy foreign literature,’ said Pearson.

Alex Pearson talks to the festival audience with her translator

‘We have Chinese writers who you may have read in translation, whose work has been established abroad, and hopefully after this festival, more writers who will be translated and read abroad,’ said Hughes.

‘Another important part of our festival is our social enterprise, and every year we’ve been involved in international schools in Beijing, Suzhou and Chengdu, bringing our festival authors to children to share with them our celebration of literature and ideas. And this year we’re very excited to announce we have a migrant school program where a lot of our authors are going to migrant schools where they will share folk tales of their home countries and inspire children to write their own stories,’ said Hughes.


The view from Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund

Shanghai International Literary Festival started nine years ago at Shanghai restaurant M on the Bund. Michelle Garnaut manages the restaurant and is also the festival director.

‘It started by accident,’ said Garnaut, who recounts that a friend in Shanghai said, ‘We have a friend who’s a writer called Frank Moorhouse,’ to which Garnaut replied, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do that. Why don’t we get him to fly over and do that?’ Soon after, Australian author Moorhouse held a lecture called ‘the Martini in Literature’ in the restaurant’s Glamour Bar, thereby becoming the first writer of the festival. Other writers were due to attend the festival, but were scared off by the SARS outbreak. Continue reading

MWF celebrates 25 years

A Wordsmith's Dream: David Astle, Kate Burridge, Ursula Dubosarsky, Angela Meyer

Melbourne Writers Festival celebrated its 25th birthday, in a year the organisation moved to a permanent home in the Wheeler Centre and the festival was held in Federation Square for a third time. The number of tickets sold increased by 10% this year for an audience of 50,000 people. Steve Grimwade, CEO and festival director said he thought ‘moving Federation Square was the best thing we ever did, it has opened us to a much larger audience, and gave far more people the chance to come to festival events’.

Keynote speaker Joss Whedon, writer of cult television series Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, addressed a sell-out crowd on the opening night. Chairing the session was academic Sue Turnbull, who began the session by asking, ‘How do it feel to be God?’ after which Whedon indulged in megalomaniac persona in front of an audience of adoring fans.

Stories are hung on the Hoist

‘I think we have achieved what we set out to do—engage with the written word in all possible ways.’  Grimwade said the festival ‘took some risks and extended the program—introduced more free events and opened up the programming to include music and art-based projects’.

Artist and author Shaun Tan appeared on a panel, with author Neil Gaiman—via a video feed from London—and host illustrator Andrea Innocent, presenting to an audience full of school students. The video feed failed during the start of the panel, but resumed later on. The children were restless during Tan’s interview with Innocent, but they became interested with audience participation, when Tan asked what he should draw. The event was a success, as children walked away pleased, even with the technical hiccups.

Shaun Tan, Neil Gaiman, Andrea Innocent

Many of the free events were held in The Feddish Bar, with each event packing out the venue to standing room only. Some interesting sessions at Feddish included one with Chinese author Ma Jian, and another with American author Joe Bageant. The Morning Fix, hosted by Chris Flynn at 10am in the morning, was a popular place to hear from authors with newly released books, such as R J Ellory, Jon Bauer, Benjamin Law, Angela Savage, Kate Howarth and Angelo Loukakis. The crowd also enjoyed David Halliday’s launch of his book The Bloody History of the Croissant (Arcadian) at Feddish.

‘I’d say everything we did this year was an obvious and organic growth in what we’d done in the past,’ said Grimwade. ‘What we did was really an extension to what a festival normally is, and I think we’re testing boundaries in regards to what it was and what it should be. And I think boundaries should be tested.’ Continue reading

Wordstorm 2010: the festival of Australasian writing

The weather at this year’s Wordstorm writers festival (held 13 to 16 May in Darwin—officially in the ‘dry’ third of the year), was humid enough for even the locals to admit things were ‘warm’. But for those who sweated and fanned their way through sessions in the lush (unairconditioned) Darwin Botantic Gardens, there was the reward of hearing voices that don’t always carry as far south as Victoria and New South Wales—or get as much airtime when they do.

Of course some big-name guests sold out special event sessions at other venues—Wendy Harmer, Tim Flannery and Germaine Greer among them—but the shelves in the Dymocks bookshop tent in the gardens were packed with titles by authors less familiar to my non-Territorian eye, books by writers from Timor, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia—a mix which justifies Wordstorm’s recent rebranding as the ‘festival of Australasian writing’.

Ha’u Maka Lucas/I Am Lucas, which won first prize in the Timorese National Short Novel Writing Competition, for example, was stocked by the bookshop in its original Timorese edition, its author Teodosio Babtista Ximenes hoping to find Australian support for an English translation of his story, which is based on the removal of Timorese children from their families by the Indonesian army in the late 1970s. Nearby was the anthology of Indonesian work in translation, Reasons for Harmony, published by the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The bookshop shelves were also full with poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays and anthologies by Aboriginal authors from around the country, including Marie Munkara, Yvette Holt, Wesley Enoch, Lionel Fogarty, Lorraine McGee-Sippel, Philip McLaren, Marcia Langton, Melissa Lucashenko and Margaret Kemarre (M K) Turner—several of whom appeared at the Indigenous Writers and Educators conference which ran as part of the festival on 12 and 13 May at Charles Darwin University.

From this overwhelming mix, I came away with Ali Cobby Eckermann’s book of poetry little bit long time (Picaro Press), a collection that’s direct, personal, moving and beautiful; the anthology Fishtails in the Dust: Writing from the Centre (Ptilotus Press), which includes some of the poems from Eckermann’s collection among short stories and other works by a range of Central Australian writers; Terra, a bilingual English/Indonesian anthology of work by writers who have appeared at Wordstorm between 2004 and 2006, edited by festival director Sandra Thibodeaux; and M K Turner’s Iwenhe Tyerrtye: What It Means to Be an Aboriginal Person (IAD Press), which was launched at the festival. Opera soprano Deborah Cheetham read from a section of Turner’s book in a panel on ‘Home, Land, Homeland’, emphasising the importance of words to human identity: ‘Words makes things happen. Words makes us alive… That’s how I got taught these things, how I’ve learned through out my life, how I’ve always seen the world, how I understand it, and how and what in all those ways life has always been.’ Continue reading

Books, history, dress-ups: dare we say the Clunes ‘Back to Booktown’ fair has it all?

To quote our Weekly Book Newsletter (circa May 2009) at last year’s annual Clunes ‘Back to Booktown’ fair:

Rose Michael and her Arcade Publications colleague Dale Campisi (pictured) garnered local press attention by dressing up to promote the Arcade Publications title Madame Brussels: This Moral Pandemonium (L M Robinson).

‘From established antiquarian dealers like John Sainsbury to the woman in the bluestone church on the hill who didn’t even have a shop but was a passionate buyer and traipsed her collection to markets, the town was overrun with secondhand books,’ said Michael. ‘One bookseller [was] even selling by the pound!’

The annual Clunes fair is designed to attract visitors to the historic Victorian goldmining town and is celebrating its fourth year this weekend, 1 to 2 May. The 2010 event features writers Sonya Hartnett, Stefan Laszcsuk, Margaret Simons, Arnold Zable, Nigel Krauth, Malcolm Fraser, Toni Jordan and Commonwealth Prize Best First Book winner Glenda Guest.

Arcade Publishing’s Dale Campisi has promised Fancy Goods he will be donning a fake moustache when he attends again this year and encourages others to break out their most dashing gold rush attire and come along too. ‘Bustles, bonnets, crinolines, leg o’ mutton sleeves, top hats, tails, cross-bow ties, mutton chops, sovereign purses and penny farthings encouraged,’ he says.

You can find out more about the event here:

Emerging Writers Festival: program launched

The program for the 7th Emerging Writers Festival (21 to 30 May, 2010) was launched at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last night. New director Lisa Dempster said it would be a ‘bold, innovative and exciting’ festival, and the program, available to guests in compact little booklets (you could choose the colour scheme you liked best, nice touch), looks promising.

As a festival unashamedly for writers, the EWF centres around a lot of the vocational and workshop events that are only really offered on the fringes of the bigger writers’ festivals. From the Express Media Skills Share ‘how to write’ workshops (‘…reviews’ with The Big Issue’s Jo Case, ‘…television’ with Paul Kooperman, ‘…computer games’ with Paul Callaghan and ‘how to edit your work for publication’ with Davina Bell and Julia Carlomagno), to the great Living Library concept in which you can ‘borrow’ industry people for a brain-pick (getting fifteen minutes with, for example, Arcade’s Dale Campisi or literary agent Donica Bettanin of Jenny Darling & Associates), the events on offer are aimed squarely at those looking to be published—or published more often.

Prices for sessions are pretty reasonable—the Express Media workshops are $10, you can borrow Mr Campisi et al for a bargain $5, and even a full weekend pass will set you back only $45 ($30 concession). Of course some events are free too, including the great-sounding ‘Stuck in a Lift With …’, in which an emerging writer gets to quiz a literary hero on writing and the books they love.

Scattered through the festival booklet are various Twitter addresses for authors, and tweeters can join the EWF’s TwitterFEST at #ewfchat; Twitter addresses and hashtags aren’t something you see a lot of at the big festivals either (though of course, one of the best things about any festival is the chance to be there in the flesh with a lot of other excited and inspiring people, and the EWF has made a name for itself providing just that).

The festival booklet is worth tracking down, not just for the program itself, but for its participant bios: this year panellists were asked to describe how they write and the result is a whole lot of bite-sized writing advice to get attendees thinking.

Check out the EWF program at

Literary lunching in Mildura

As we noted in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, writers festivals are a big deal not only in the big cities but also in regional centres. Mildura, in north-western Victoria, has been running its writers festival since 1994, and it keeps growing year-on-year.

The 2010 Mildura Writers Festival will run from 15-18 July, and last weekend I went up there for a well-attended preview lunch , hosted by long-time festival supporter restaurateur Stefano di Pieri at his Gallery 25 café (the full dinner experience at his world-renowned restaurant will have to wait until next time!).

The guest of honour for the lunch was Dr Jack Hibberd, best-known as the author of the seminal Australian play Dimboola. Over 40 years after its first performance at Melbourne’s La Mama in 1969, Dimboola is arguably Australia’s most-performed play, with 15-20 new productions every year, often in regional and remote communities. But as Stefano said in his introduction, the 70-year-old Hibberd is a ‘jack of all trades: trained as a doctor [he still works two days a week as an allergy specialist], Jack Hibberd is a playwright, poet, translator, wine writer …’ Hibberd was also on the Australia Council’s Literature Board until recently.

playwright, poet and doctor Jack Hibberd on his 70th birthday

After an excellent Stefano’s lunch featuring local produce and Stefano’s own wines, Hibberd spoke about his life and work and the enduring legacy of Dimboola, then read from some of his recent poems, before handing over to his wife, actor and comedian Evelyn Krape, to complete the reading.

Asked to comment on the current state of writing for theatre in Australia (especially considering that the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards this year decided that no play was worthy of shortlisting and instead directed the $30,000 prizemoney to developing new works), Hibberd was up-front: ‘I think it’s in a bit of a rut, there’s no philosophy and no history among the current crop of writers: it’s all either realism or farce, and neither done in ways that are particularly interesting, radical or thoughtful.’

A small and intimate festival

The line-up for the 2010 Mildura Writers Festival festival is impressive, with over a dozen guests including Don Watson, Kate Jennings, Les Murray and Peter Goldsworthy. ‘One of the key aspects of Mildura’s writers festival is that we keep it small and intimate,’ said director Helen Healy. Part of the deal for the writers is that they have to agree to stay for all four days – they can’t fly in, do their session and fly out again. ‘Everyone is here for four days and get to know each other so it’s not only readers listening to writers but readers and writers talking and writers talking and listening to each other.’

 See for more details.