Tall stories and true: telling it like it is

Greg Volz talks to Jemma Birrell, the artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, about storytelling, Paris and the charms of the harbour city.

The two-wheel bicycle is old, battered and blue. A Peugeot. It sits in the foyer of 10 Hickson Road in the Rocks, while its owner, Jemma Birrell, muses on the difficulty of getting parts for a Peugeot in Sydney. The bike has just arrived from Paris, preceded by Ms Birrell, who has returned home after seven years to take up the job of artistic director for the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Unobliging spare parts are one of the few downsides for Ms Birrell in what appears to be her dream job: “Even though I loved Paris, loved living there, you can’t have a more beautiful city in the world than this.”

We sit by the harbour foreshore – the Opera House is opposite, the sun is out, the water sparkles. And Ms Birrell has not been shy about using the city’s attractions to entice authors out here. Such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, the controversial Norwegian writer. “He replied immediately,” she said. “I don’t think he had been to Australia.” Mr Knausgaard’s first event sold out so quickly a second was scheduled.

Jemma Birrell, director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Picture: Thomas Pirel

Jemma Birrell, director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Picture: Thomas Pirel

If you follow Ms Birrell on Twitter you will see that her love for Sydney is genuine. There is the photograph of the winter opening at Icebergs, her local pool, although she prefers to swim in the ocean. And she has one word for her commute to work, riding from Bondi to catch the Rose Bay ferry to the city, and riding the rest of the way: “Bliss.”

So it was only natural that collaboration with the City of Sydney would play a big part in the promotion of the Festival, although it’s not all about celebrating natural beauty. Case in point: Garbage truck poetry.

The idea came about while she was drinking in a bar in Paris with South African poet Breyten Breytenbach. “He was talking about getting poetry in all different areas. I think in South Africa there was a garbage truck theme. And I thought, ‘Right, let’s get it happening in Sydney’.” So, now we have trucks rumbling around the city, decorated with extracts of poetry.

Originally from Bowral, Ms Birrell worked in publishing here, before moving to France and to the legendary bookshop Shakespeare and Company in Paris, where she developed a literary program and helped organise the popular biennial festival, FestivalandCo, held in marquee near Notre Dame. But the Sydney Writers’ Festival is a big step up, with around 80,000 people expected to attend.

What I really want to ensure is that the events feel intimate, even though they are really big,” she said. “Because always, we want to be part of an intimate conversation, no matter how big the event is.”

A key theme of this year’s event is storytelling. “I really wanted to look at the range of storytelling and the depth and breadth of possibilities,” she said. “It meant quite a lot to me. Getting back to basics was quite important and getting to the heart of storytelling, which is what draws all of us to writers’ festivals. A great story, a great idea that we are all intrigued by.”

The Festival began with Daniel Morden, the famed oral storyteller reviving an ancient tradition. At the other end of the spectrum is Eli Horowitz, examining the possibility of digital storytelling. He works with writers from around the world, whose extracts can be downloaded. And the Festival now has a writer-in-residence, Melbourne-based author and poet Josephine Rowe. She will post a series of brief dispatches over the week-long event – her musings on ideas raised in talks, panel discussions, readings and performances.

Another innovation is the chill-out breakfast: coffee and papers with the Sydney Morning Herald. “I liked the idea of making it really relaxed,” Ms Birrell said. “Come in, order your coffee, sit down with your papers or your iPad, and listen to the best stories of the day.”

The blue bike was still there when we returned later to the Festival headquarters. Ms Birrell’s blissful trip, bike-ferry-bike-home, is not far off.

This has to be one of the best festivals in the world and one of the most beautiful,” she said. “I’m just crossing my fingers for great weather.”