A few years ago I set myself the goal of going to every Australian Writers Festival, and last weekend I went to the Newcastle Writers Festival for the first time as part of this quest. The Newcastle Writers Festival is three years old this year, and it seems to be going from strength to strength. I hadn't been able to attend the first two years due to work commitments but this year I was able to arrange things and go. I'm so glad I did, it was a great festival, with lots of fascinating sessions held over three days.
I have now been to Melbourne Writers Festival, Sydney Writers Festival, Mudgee Readers Festival (did you see what they did there? I really like it) and the Newcastle Writers Festival. All have been great and well worth attending, but the smaller festivals really do have a lot going for them. It's all very easy going, easy to navigate, and you have much more opportunity to talk to the writers, and other attendees will sit down next to you and chat.
Newcastle Writers Festival is held in Newcastle City Hall, i.e. all the events are in the same building, and so everything is easily accessible. It turned out that I only went to paid ticketed events at Newcastle, as they were the sessions I most wanted to go to, and there was no trouble gaining access to the sessions, and you don't have to queue like you do in Sydney. It is impossible to attend back to back sessions at Sydney Writers Festival. There you have to queue for the free sessions for at least half an hour or 45 minutes to have a chance to get in. Once last year in Sydney I queued for the requisite 45 minutes to see a free session with Fiona Macfarlane only to miss out on getting in by about 5 people. That kind of experience doesn't make for happy festival goers.
Every time I tell people I'm going to a Writers Festival many people will always ask am I writing a book, or if I plan to. I'm always surprised by this, and surprised by how many people don't understand what a writers festival is. A writers festival is really a festival of ideas. They're such a condensed format for discussing books and ideas. An important source of intellectual public discussion that seems to be too often lacking in our society. Reading is typically a solitary pursuit by it's very nature, it's so wonderful to come together with other readers and discuss books we love, or find new books to enjoy. Of course writers festivals also do often provide sessions and workshops for those interested in becoming a writer or improving their writing. I haven't been to any of those but understand that they are very popular.
Festival programmers go to a lot of effort to put on a really broad range of sessions, with well known as well as lesser known authors. The Newcastle Writers Festival this year hosted 130 authors speaking at 60 events. I got to hear a fabulous selection of authors this weekend- Helen Garner, Michael Robotham, Jessica Rudd, Garth Nix, Magdalena Ball, Bob Brown, Don Watson, Munjed Al Muderis, Favel Parrett, Brooke Davis, Courtney Collins, Erik Jensen, David Leser and David Roland. Sadly I missed out on Les Murray (although he had to withdraw), Blanche D'Alpuget, Marion Halligan, Geraldine Doogue, many, many others and all of the Kids Program.
And boy they covered some ground. Everything from mindful meditation, the nature of truth, the importance of curiosity and kindness to suicidal ideation and many sorts of mental illness, violent fantasists, global warming, Australian Detention Centres and refugee policies. Wow, no wonder I was tired after a few days of all that and needed a beautiful walk along the breakwall at Nobby's to recover.
So there really is no excuse not to get along to your local writers festival- they seem to be springing up everywhere. They are amazing community events and really worthwhile attending. I can't wait to find my next one, and hope to revisit Newcastle Writers Festival many times.