Sydney Writers’ Festival artistic director Michael Williams talks to the Sentinel about putting on a festival during a pandemic and the transformational power of the written word. By Rita Bratovich.
When Michael Williams became artistic director of the Sydney Writer’s Festival (SWF) in early September 2020, there was still no sign of a Covid vaccine. The 2020 SWF had been cancelled and Williams himself was living in Melbourne under lockdown.
It wasn’t the ideal setting in which to start planning a festival for the following year.
“That was more or less explicitly my brief: should you put on a writers’ festival and how do you do it at a time like this?” Williams tells the Sentinel. “The idea of gathering tens of thousands of people together to celebrate books seemed a little bit unlikely at that point. But we’ve seen lots of arts organisations in Australia and around the world work out what digital offerings might look like; what different ways of operating might be. So we kind of sat down and said: ‘Right, in a perfect world what would we try and make possible next year? What are we going to try and work towards?’”
For the next few months, Williams and his team brainstormed possibilities and distilled the core purpose of a writers’ festival.
“The thing that we kept coming back to, the thing at the kind of heart of it, is the importance of the live event; of bringing people together, of having people in the same room talking about ideas bigger than themselves,” says Williams.
So, while arts festivals around the world have opted for digital/live hybrid events, the 2021 SWF will be happening in real space and time, with most events held at Carriageworks. Naturally, it will be completely NSW Health compliant. There’s extra time between sessions to allow for cleaning, and food trucks to encourage attendees to eat outside.
In terms of programming, the most notable difference will be the absence of international guests, which Williams argues is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Sydney Writers’ Festival is a wonderful international event. It showcases extraordinary international talent – that’s a real privilege and a great thing to do. But I think there’s always a danger in the arts that the pendulum swings too far that way; we fetishise scarcity, people coming from elsewhere.”
In past festivals, big name overseas guests have been used as headliners and drawcards. This year, instead, the focus will be on local talent and local stories. One of the spotlight events for 2021 is ‘Your Favourite’s Favourites’, which features popular Australian authors interviewing another author.
“We get really established names, people who are kind of long time Sydney Writers’ Festival stalwarts – you know, Michelle de Kretser or Tony Birch or Christos Tsiolkos – and we’ve asked them to identify a debut book from last year that they particularly adored, and then they’re interviewing that author,” explains Williams,
They also have two guest curators this year: crime writer Michael Robotham and young indigenous writer Nayuka Gorrie.
Robotham has curated a crime panel, a session on the art of the interview featuring Andrew Denton, and an ‘in memoriam’ to writers who have died in the last 12 months, with tributes given by Kerry O’Brien to Mungo Maccallum, Michael Robotham to John le Carré, Michelle de Kretser to Elizabeth Harrower, and Sally Warhaft to Jan Morris.
Nayuka Gorrie has curated three sessions including ‘Bearing Witness’ featuring Chelsea Watego, Amy McQuire and Veronica Heritage-Gorrie; a panel discussion called ‘Radical Black Futures’; and a panel called ‘Whose Country Is It Anyway?’
There are some international guests who will join the festival via live video link, including Hilary Mantel (interviewed by Jonathan Green), Judy Blume (interviewed by Sophie Black), and celebrated New York photographer Bill Hayes who will share a slideshow (interviewed by Anton Enus).
The theme for this year’s festival is ‘Within Reach’. Williams says it has three big ideas associated with it. The first is literal: after isolation and lockdown people are now, finally, physically within reach.
The second is about the important role of literature in our lives: “The ways in which great writing brings within reach, ideas, worlds, concepts beyond our own,” explains Williams.
The third part is a celebration of Australian authors who are within reach: “There’s a danger that the stuff within reach we might take for granted, so in our festival we are celebrating joyously, the way in which that’s not the case.”
In a world dominated by blink-length news cycles and multi-media devices, it’s refreshing to know that there is still a place for the traditional written word, as Williams reflects: “What I love about books, what I love about good writing is that thing of consideration, of slowing things down. And so, whether it’s through fiction or through journalism, or through screenwriting … what our writers are doing is giving us an understanding of the world, a relationship with the world that is slower, deeper and more complex.
“Anyone can find something that will transform their lives in a book.”
The 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from Monday, 26 April 26 to Sunday, 2 May at Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh; Sydney Town Hall, 483 George Street, Sydney; and the City Recital Hall, 2 Angel Place, Sydney. For tickets and further info, visit www.swf.org.au.
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