A Successful Transformation

BooksBigger, better, wider-reaching and more important than ever. Drew Turney looks at the 2007 Sydney Writer’s Festival that was.

Once again centred around Sydney’s beautiful Walsh Bay wharves precinct, the 2007 Sydney Writer’s Festival ran from May 28 to June 3 and once more gathered writers and thinkers from all four corners of the globe.

The 10th in the festival series, it was branded under an iconic advertisement conveying the theme of the festival; a city transformed by words.

And as times get harder not just for the arts but free speech in general, so many of our institutions in life need transforming. It was the presence of Andrew O’Hagan (author of Be Near Me) who formally opened the festival and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (author of Infidel) who gave the closing address that set the tone for an enlightening line-up of people whose voices and opinions are more critical than ever in this day and age.

Attention was called in particular to those who couldn’t attend the festival. Organised through International PEN Centres, each event included an empty chair representing writers across the world who’d been oppressed, jailed or even murdered for their work.

But it wasn’t all political and social insight. The festival bought its share of glittering stars. Jennifer Byrne grilled a charming Richard E Grant to an almost packed Opera House, and the iconic Cremorne Orpheum cinema hosted a screening of Romulus My Father with stars Eric Bana and Marton Csokas, director Richard Roxburgh and producer Robert Connolly in attendance for a Q&A with the crowd.

The launch party was a who’s who of books and publishing, filling the floor space of the Simmer on the Bay restaurant both inside and out onto the wharf terrace. Writers, readers, publishing staff and associated professionals plus a few famous faces braved the cold to share drinks and finger food while swapping tips, gossip and business cards.

The events over the next five days covered both ends of the socio-political spectrum. Typical of one end was Clive Hamilton’s attack on the Howard government’s inaction on climate change as he discussed his book Scorcher. At the other, attendees and presenters simply shared their love of the form as Richard Flanagan, publisher Nikki Christer and designer Mary Callahan discussed the creative genesis of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish.

And during several hundred other events, crowds met writers as diverse as Matthew Reilly, Janet Turner Hospital, Charles Firth, Sophie Gee, Cassandra Wilkinson, Max Barry, Luke Davies, Kate Forsyth, Robyn Williams and Leigh Sales, international greats like Moshin Hamid, William Dalrymple, Bei Ling and Steven Hall and publishing gurus like Cate Paterson, Fiona Henderson and Jane Palfreyman.

The events were held everywhere from the sumptuous surrounds of the Opera House to suburban libraries and meeting halls, but the majority were in and around the Walsh Bay arts precinct. The Sydney Theatre, Sydney Dance Company studios and adjoining rooms, cafes and halls all took part, especially with events that had quickly filled, leaving latecomers to listen to the speeches on speakers outside.

It was all presided over by a tireless and dedicated band of volunteers advising people where things were and where to line up. Official bookselling partner Gleebooks were doing a roaring trade every time B&P peeked through the door of their main bookshop and many temporary sales posts throughout the venues, their main store also hosting author signings following events in the area.

Although the numbers seemed to inexplicably dwindle slightly on Sunday (the last day of the festival), attendances as a whole were once again up on last year. Creative director Wendy Were reports that the jump was also bigger than previous years. “85,000 people attending a writers’ festival is a wonderful thing,” Were says [65,000 attended the 2006 festival]. “This year we had better systems for crowd management which including staggered session times, overflow speakers and better queuing systems. The feedback is that it was a much better audience experience as a result.”

As the incoming director after her previous posting as the director of the Perth writer’s festival, Were had both a fresh eye to cast over proceedings and a whole new set of challenges to overcome.

“Sydney is a significantly bigger Festival than Perth,” she thinks. “It’s also a different operation, being a standalone festival as opposed to a program that operates under the umbrella of a larger multi-arts organisation. But there are similar principles I adhere to, one being that the quality of the program and the experience for the audience and writers is paramount.”

The festival’s also a unique way for writers to connect to both fans and a new audience. B&P can admit to being giddy with delight at buying several copies and lining up for our favourite writers to sign them, all the while generously listening to anecdotes, praise, conspiracy theories and thanks for their books.

Melbourne-based Max Barry was a big hit in the US with the publication of Jennifer Government, but his latest book Company (Scribe) was his hope to make a big splash in Australia. Though he wonders how many books his visit sold, he felt at home for the first time among his peers. “Personally I really enjoyed meeting people in Aussie publishing because until recently I’ve known hardly anyone in that scene,” he says. “It made me feel more like an Australian writer instead of just an author.”

With such a stellar line-up and a huge spike in attendance numbers, festival director Were and her army of staff and volunteers did something right for the 2007 festival. The 2008 line-up will undoubtedly be another crucial date for your calendar…