The month of May means the annual Sydney Writers’ Festival is once again upon us. With literary superstars such as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple) in attendance, this celebration of the written word is already tipped to be bigger and better than ever.
The festival’s artistic director, Jemma Birrell, has had what can only be described as a literary life. She started her career in publishing before becoming the inaugural events director of the renowned Shakespeare and Companybookstore in Paris. After eight years she returned to Sydney to take up her current post with the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which she believes to be an incredibly special and imperative yearly event.
“The atmosphere down at the wharf is extraordinary. The buzz, the joy that everyone has to be down there together, going to different events, hearing about a whole world of subjects – anything and everything is discussed – and I think that it’s exciting and a pretty rare thing to have that concentrated festival feel in regards to thinking and writing.”
“There are four hundred writers gathered in one spot to really celebrate literature in different ways,” says Birrell. “And it’s feeding people’s imaginations and it’s also showing them different ways to think about life, about their world and other worlds – showing them different possibilities. It’s really opening up all of our minds. For the writers themselves, I think it’s wonderful. In addition to celebrating their work, and it being a way of promoting their work, it’s also a really good opportunity to meet other writers and to have those creative meetings between people that often spark future projects or relationships.”
Despite Birrell’s background in literature, television and film certainly won’t be ignored when it comes to the festival – and nor could they be with Breaking Bad creator Gilligan taking to the stage. In fact, his session was so popular that it sold out in only two days and a second show had to be added to the bill.
“I think that looking at television writing is an important part of looking at writing today,” says Birrell. “A lot of exciting and interesting writing is going on. There’s another panel event that we’re running called Exceptional Television with Steven McGregor from Redfern Now, Peter Duncan [Rake] and A.M. Homes from The L Word. It’s going to be really great.”
When it comes to artistically rich cities, most people’s minds wander to Paris, New York or London. But Birrell believes Sydney is definitely a contender when it comes to creativity, proven through the immense popularity of the Writers’ Festival. “I truly think that we are one of the most creative cities. It’s interesting, I think it was in Edmund White’s book, The Flaneur, where he spoke about how for artists and writers the creative centre of Europe had moved to Berlin from Paris because it’s cheaper, and it’s always about money. So obviously it’s expensive to live in Sydney, but I still think that for artists and writers there is a real kind of cultural love and epicentre here in Sydney.
“It’s such a big place as well, so there are obviously a lot of different hubs. In western Sydney there’s some amazing things going on, so we have quite a few great events out there. So yes, I do think it is a strong centre, creatively because it’s fresh. I feel like there’s something new and exciting about Australian writing. And there’s an appreciation of that overseas as well.”
The Sydney Writers’ Festival is running from Monday May 19 until Sunday May 25 at the Walsh Bay and various other venues around Sydney.