“I’ve got a first edition of The Waste Land, which I adore. I’ve got this old edition, published by Olympia Press by Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer… I love Under Milk Wood. I love Nancy Mitford. I love Couplesby John Updike.”
Jemma Birrell is the most active bookworm you’ve ever met. She swooned over limited editions when working for a Parisian publishing house. She managed to entice Will Self and Alain de Botton to a writer’s festival next to Westminster Abbey. This year she’s writing Molly Ringwald, President Obama’s chief digital strategist and The New Yorker into her next chapter as the Artistic Director for Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). And as you’d imagine, reading the program for this year’s festival takes a good couple of Earl Greys, so we thought we’d let Birrell herself take us through some of the must-sees.
After a lifetime of reading and discovering narratives, it’s no surprise that Birrell has picked storytelling as the central theme running along the spine of SWF this year. “When I was a little girl, from my parents telling me stories, from reading me books and making up stories, it’s always been part of my life,” she says. “In Sydney I worked at Ariel Bookshop, which I had a real love for and I also worked at Allen & Unwin publishing house, where I used to love reading the manuscripts.” SWF is the next chapter for Birrell, who trekked back to Australia after becoming the first Event Director at London’s Shakespeare and Co., also working in the French publishing industry for seven years. With Sydney Writer’s Festival suddenly in her palm, she shipped her books and her bicycle to Oz and hit the ground programming.
With past guests including Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Franzen and Louis de Bernieres, SWF has a knack for brining all the best wordsmiths to the yard. From opening line to closing statement, this year’s speakers examine and celebrate the simple act of telling a tale, kicking off with world-renowned yarn-spinner Daniel Morden. One of Europe’s greatest live storytellers, Morden will open the festival with his address The Ghost At My Shoulder at Sydney Theatre, the perfect opening paragraph for SWF. “Storytelling is that central theme and he represents that in such a pure unadorned form. So he’s bringing all these classic traditional stories that he’s hunted around the world for 23 years, collecting them,” she says.
The antithesis to Morden’s love of the oral tradition lies in the age of solitary Kindles and Tablets. Eli Horowitz, former Managing Editor and Publisher of McSweeney’s, has stuck it to the haters and embraced digital storytelling, releasing a serialised novel for iPad and iPhone called The Silent History. Horowitz will chat to his novel contributors on a highly-anticipated SWF panel and yes, Birrell admits he was brought on board as a direct contrast to Morden’s grassroots ethos. “Well, I love what Eli said: it’s about time the creatives took control of the technology. A platform is only interesting if the story itself is interesting and Eli’s project shows that. It shows where we can take technology in an interesting way, in terms of storytelling… it’s nice to be at the other end of the spectrum.”
For the vast majority of us who don’t craft such innovative iTales but hungrily consume their kind, there’s one mighty reader who can recommend your next delicious page-turner/screen-swiper. James Wood, the chief literary critic for The New Yorker, will feature at several SWF events that focus on the powerful players of the publishing world: the critics. Wood is one of those must-sees at this year’s festival. “He’s utterly erudite and aware of every book you can imagine,” says Birrell. “He’s kind of a writer’s writer, most writers I know are really excited that he’s coming. He was the person who coined ‘hysterical realism’, so Zadie Smith’s White Teeth for example.”
One of the biggest talking points in the SWF lineup has had Sixteen Candlesfans a Twitterin’, with ’80s Brat Pack icon Molly Ringwald bringing those Breakfast Club moves to Sydney. The auburn-haired cult film star has released her debut novel of short stories When It Happens To You, proving she’s much more than a detention-bound princess. “Isn’t she impressive?” says Birrell. “That’s something I really admire, when people aren’t stuck, they don’t feel bound to stay in the same form necessarily.”
Ringwald leads a huge focus on the laydeez, a huge focus in the SWF program this year celebrating the strength and creativity of women by launching London’s Southbank Centre’s WOW – Women of the World – festival in Australia. This year’s SWF lineup focuses on the work of some of the world’s bravest, funniest, most downright awesome ladies. Not just a girl’s club, these events are fit for all chromosomes; featuring Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar), Ruby Wax, Naomi Wolf andeven Australia’s favourite ball-buster Leigh Sales (ABC’s 7:30) will be onstage to talk political storytelling with Obama’s chief digital strategist Joe Rospars.
Birrell was inspired by the WOW Festival, forming a collaboration with Artistic Director Jude Kelly when Kelly was visiting Australia with the Duchess of Cornwall (as you do). “I feel there was a hunger for it in Australia as well, you know, looking at what’s been happening in our world and the whole ‘Destroying The Joint’ thing and what Julia Gillard’s been doing and saying. In a festival in Sydney, in Australia, it’s an important thing to talk about, in terms of women’s issues.”
Focusing on many, many more authors, readers and budding storytellers, Birrell’s quest to celebrate the art of a tale well-told doesn’t stop with these few above names. While we’ve just touched on some snippets in store for SWF here, the full program is a stimulating page-turner of events solid enough to rival any writer’s block.
BY SHANNON CONNELLAN
Sydney Writers’ Festival runs until May 26 at various participating venues. Visit swf.org.au for the full progam.