There are hundreds of writers, book and literary festivals held each year around the world. I’m a huge fan of them, and visit the Sydney Writers Festival every year. If you’ve never been to one, and have even a passing interest in books, writing and ideas, in this post I outline why you should put ‘attend a writers festival’ onto your bucket list.
Long time readers of this and my previous blogs will know that I *love* writers festivals. Every year, my friend M (yes…M like in the Bond movies) and I meet up in Sydney where we spend a jam-packed weekend going from session to session at The Sydney Writers Festival’s (SWF) stunning Walsh Bay location. (In fact, I have just returned from my annual weekend at SWF, so it is particularly fresh in my mind.)
And most years, I also attend a few sessions at my hometown Melbourne Writers Festival, held in this city’s Federation Square complex. In the past, I’ve attended an event at the Perth Writers Festival (held at my alma mater of University of Western Australia), plus M and I have grand plans to one day go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
So what *is* a writers festival?
Sometimes, when I tell friends or acquaintances that I’m off for a weekend at a writers festival, they look blankly at me or ask, “What exactly do you do at a writers festival?”
A writers, literary or book festival is a regular (usually annual) gathering of writers and readers which features a program of events including talks and presentations by authors, panel discussions, book readings, workshops and other literary-themed happenings, often held over several days.
In the case of the bigger festivals, the guest list comprises a selection of local and international writers. The writers attend to promote their latest (and backlist) books, and readers attend because they love books, writing, ideas and authors, and the festival offers a chance to engage with writers and their works in a more social environment than the solitary act of reading.
Here’s my top reasons why everyone should put ‘attend a writers festival’ on their bucket list.
1. It’s like a workout for your brain
After a weekend at a writers festival, I always feel like I need to rest my brain. Each session opens my mind to interesting concepts, topics or ideas, and between sessions, my friend M and I often debate or discuss what we’ve just heard. Sometimes writers will present entirely new ways of thinking about topics I thought I had fixed in my mind, or they may highlight issues that I hadn’t previously given enough thought to. My beliefs can be challenged, my knowledge expanded and my way of thinking about these issues tweaked or totally reshaped.
Over the course of a weekend a number of ideas are warmed up, given a bit of a cardio challenge, tested with some weights, and then stretched out to cool down.
2. Your mind is broadened by exploring new topics
Pirates, cartooning, animals, food, politics, feminism, science, history, architecture, popular culture, art, fashion, photography, social justice…whatever your interest, there’s generally a session on a festival program which at least touches on it. And some of our best festival experiences have been when we’ve randomly filled a gap in our schedule with a session on a topic we knew nothing about.
In her welcome to this year’s Sydney Writers Festival, artistic director Jemma Birrell says,
Books are indeed places we can lose ourselves and at the same time find the answers to whatever we might be searching for, even if we don’t quite know what that is. A good festival, like a good book, should bring real-life benefits – joy, solace and a new understanding of the world.
3. You can meet your favourite authors and get your books signed
Do you seriously *love* a particular author and his or her work? A writers festival is the perfect place to bring along your books, then line up to speak to your idols and get your books signed. (Or you could buy the books from the festival bookshop.) While the authors sign your books, you have a chance to tell them how much you appreciate their work, or ask a question that’s been bugging you about a novel, or comment on something they said during the session.
Over the years, M and I have had many copies of books signed by a huge number of Australian and international writers. And generally I’ve found something to say to each of them. But when I had a chance to have my copy of The Lieutenant signed by Australian author, Kate Grenville in 2009, I went a bit fan-girl and it took all my effort to kick my brain/mouth into gear and mutter something not-totally-inane. I’m somewhat awestruck by Grenville’s literary talent.
4. You’re hanging out with a tribe of like-minded people
If you’re a person who likes books and ideas, turning up to a festival guarantees you’ll be in a crowd of like-minded people. If I was travelling in a foreign land, I know that if I went to a local writers festival, I’d find my tribe.
Of course, every festival has its own particular local culture and flavour, and attending one while you’re travelling is a surefire short-cut to gaining a greater understanding and insight of the concerns and issues of the local culture.
5. You discover new authors and add a heap of books to your TBR lists
I’ve sat in sessions at festivals where I had no prior knowledge of any of the writers (see comment about random sessions above) and yet, by the end of the session I’ve added several titles to my ‘to be read’ list – not only works by those guests, but also books they may mention during discussion.
One of the highlights for me of this year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a session with Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb (journalists and also hosts of the fabulous Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast) where they discussed their year of reading. During that session I wrote down 14 titles of books (both fiction and non-fiction) that I liked the sound of. They discussed many more. Aaaarrrrggggh…too many books, too little time.
6. Rub shoulders with some fascinating people
It’s not just authors of novels who present at writers festivals, the guest list includes writers from a wide-range of mediums and backgrounds – journalists, speechwriters, screenwriters, musicians, comedians, scientists, cartoonists, political commentators, politicians, poets…
And after the sessions are over for the day, in a nearby bar, you may well find yourself chatting to a Nobel-prize winner or a detective-series novelist as you order your Rose or Pinot Grigio.
7. Aspiring writers can learn the tricks of the trade
Authors don’t just read from their works, they often speak about the process of producing it – the challenges involved, the solutions they found, how they did the research… These tips are a fascinating insight into the finished product. Plus many festivals also run practical workshops or masterclasses as part of the program where you can learn from accomplished writers.
At this year’s SWF, M and I attended a session with Anna Goldstein who, among other things, translated the Elena Ferrante novels from Italian to English. I’d love to be fluent enough in a second language to have that skill. In that session she discussed many of the detailed challenges a translator faces in approaching a work of fiction and how she deals with those issues.
8. There’s usually a great bar (and food)
There’s something about readers. They also tend to be connoisseurs of good coffee, wine and food. In my experience, writers festivals ensure there is plenty of each on offer either within the venue or nearby.
The Sydney Writers Festival holds a Late Night Salon on the last three nights of the Festival. It’s basically a large bar in one of the Pier spaces, and from 9.30pm there’s a bit of music, followed by a hosted chat with a few writers, while the crowd (it was packed to capacity on Saturday) sit around tables and enjoy a few beverages. On Saturday night, M and I went to hear The Chaser’s Chris Taylor interview comedian/TV writer/memoirist Magda Szubanski, former politician and Midnight Oil front man, Peter Garrett, and Indian novelist, activist and yoga teacher, Ira Trivedi. And best of all, entry to The Late Night Salon is totally free.
So, have I convinced you to add a festival or two to ‘your list’ yet? If so, here’s a selection of some of the world’s writers festivals and their approximate timing
- Jaipur Literature Festival, India (January)
- Perth Writers Festival, Australia (February)
- PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, New York, USA (April)
- Sydney Writers Festival, Australia (May)
- Hay Festival of Literature, Wales, UK (May/June)
- Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scotland, UK(August)
- Byron Bay Writers Festival, Australia (August)
- Melbourne Writers Festival, Australia (August/September)
- Library of Congress National Book Festival, Washington USA (September)
- Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali, Indonesia (October)
- The Vancouver Readers Festival, Canada (October)
- Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Hong Kong (November)
- Miami Book Fair, USA (November)
Are you a fan of writers festivals?
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