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Oct 26, 2012

The three women ruling the Oz writers' festival circuit

Three women -- Lisa Dempster, Kate Eltham and Jemma Birrell -- now lead Australia's three largest events for writing and literature. Crikey profiles the trio shaking up the writers' festival circuit.

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A new chapter has begun at Australia’s biggest writers’ festivals, written by a new generation of female thinkers. In the last three weeks the trio of Lisa Dempster, Kate Eltham and Jemma Birrell have all begun their posts as the respective directors of the Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney writers’ festivals. Who are these young women, all in their 30s and bringing digital and international perspectives to shake up the book-fests?

Lisa Dempster celebrated her 33rd birthday on Monday, the same day she officially took over the reigns as director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. She comes to the gig after three months in Bali on an Asialink residency, working with the programming department at the highly-regarded (what author wouldn’t want to combine work with a tropical holiday?) Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival.

Yet Ubud was the first time Dempster has ever programmed on an international level. For the last three years she served as director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, a 10-day festival in Melbourne aimed at writers, rather than readers. The Emerging Writers’ Festival also created a digital component, an entirely online festival with videoed keynote speakers, Twitter panels and user-created content.

Her obsession with all things digital will mark her time at MWF. “What is the writers’ festival going to look like in the future? And how can we use that technology not just to connect with each other or market our festival, but how can we use digital technology to deliver programming? I think that’s a huge growth area for the arts in general in the coming years and one I want to continue to explore, obviously,” she said.

She says writers’ festivals have to examine what they can offer people that they can’t already get elsewhere (i.e. from accessing author blogs or watching videos of them online).

Plus, she’s an author: Neon Pilgrim, published in 2009, covers her journey walking the henro michi, a 1200km pilgrimage to 88 temples in Japan (not surprisingly, she names memoir and travel as her favourite genres). Which means she knows how authors — and publishers — are struggling first-hand, but don’t expect that to be a focus of next year’s MWF. “It’s important to remember that it might be pessimistic on the inside in the industry but it’s actually a fantastic time for readers,” added Dempster.

Up north the Brisbane Writers’ Festival has a tradition going back 50 years — and a strong connection with audiences not just in the book sector but also in the design community and the science and education industries, says its new director Kate Eltham. “In some ways it’s really a broader festival of writing and ideas,” she told Crikey. “I think that that makes for a really interesting conversation, that’s not so much about books and writing in the literary sense but how writing helps us engage with public policy and ideas.”

Ask 35-year-old Eltham about her favourite books and she reels off a surprising mix: science fiction, non-fiction, popular science, business books and young adult novels. But six years as CEO of the Queensland Writers’ Centre would encourage a wide range of reading. During her tenure there, she created if:book Australia, a “do and think tank” aimed at exploring how digital publishing can work.

“If we were going to be an organisation that was providing professional development and services to emerging writers, we needed to be at the forefront of knowledge and experimentation about these changes so we could pass them on to writers,” she said of the project.

“Bringing writers and readers together shouldn’t just be the province of adults. And it shouldn’t just be the province of privileged adults who can afford to buy books and tickets to festivals.”

Expect that to continue with her festival directorship. “Our traditional conception of a festival is a lot of people coming together in one physical space in one time,” said Eltham. “One of the terrific opportunities offered by digital media is that we can play around with that idea. We can deliver content and experiences to people digitally, we can also do that at different times. And the conversation can also be asynchronous.”

Diversity is her favourite buzzword, from programming to audiences and even where events are hosted. “It’s really exciting and engaging to bring everybody together, but it’s also exciting and engaging to reach outwards in to communities and deliver cultural experiences where they live,” said Eltham. She speaks of examining graphic narratives, writing for screen and stage, bloggers and podcasters, as well as the more traditional authors and novelists.

Last year Germaine Greer — a keynote speaker at the Queensland State Library-hosted festival — slammed programming choices as “worthy” rather than fun, and criticised the festival’s schools program. Eltham dismisses Greer’s criticism — particularly regarding the children’s program. “Bringing writers and readers together shouldn’t just be the province of adults,” said Eltham. “And it shouldn’t just be the province of privileged adults who can afford to buy books and tickets to festivals.”

Landing the job of Sydney Writers’ Festival director meant a dramatic life change for Jemma Birrell. She has spent the last seven years working at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookshop on the banks of the Seine in Paris, most recently as its event co-ordinator and co-director of its biannual FestivalandCo literary festival.

Birrell, 36, declined an interview, saying she felt she hadn’t been in the role long enough to speak. She began the gig just three weeks ago, after the move back to her hometown of Sydney. Before her time in Paris she was a publishing assistant at Allen & Unwin.

In an interview for the SWF’s website, Birrell recalls her highlights at FestivalandCo: “Having an event in Paris’s opulant Hotel de Ville with Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and Charlotte Rampling was pretty special, as was listening to Beth Orton performing new work in an convent from the 14th century.”

Her formidable contacts list (she has also hosted and organised events involving Martin Amis, Jennifer Egan, Alain de Botton and Robert Olen Butler, amongst others) means many are expecting a strong international flavour to the coming Sydney festivals. In a statement emailed to Crikey she said: “As artistic director I’m committed to finding a range of fascinating authors and thinkers from Australia and around the globe.”

No word yet on her digital credentials.

Amber Jamieson —

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

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