Best Time of Year when there is Joy in the Air

Jackie Keast

Jemma Birrell, artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival: joy in the culmination of a year’s planning

Jemma Birrell, artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival: joy in the culmination of a year’s planning

Have you wondered why the garbage trucks driving through Sydney at the moment are splashed with quotes from David Malouf, Irvine Welsh or Richard Flanagan? It’s the work of Jemma Birrell, artistic director of the Sydney Writers’Festival, who wants this year’s festival to reach all of Sydney.

“For me, getting the whole of Sydney seeing that there’s this big literary event, reaching people that it doesn’t usually reach, is important,”she says. “It’s for everyone. It’s not for certain people, it’s for all of us.”

Three hundred and fifty events will be held all over Sydney, from Bondi to Parramatta, with over 400 writers showcased. Around 80,000 people are expected to attend. The theme of this year’s festival is “It’s Thinking Season” and the focus is on literature that pushes boundaries and makes audiences think differently.

“I like the idea of ‘a season’, like a time to celebrate literature,”Ms Birrell says. “I think it’s important that anything and everything can fit within that theme because that’s what a festival is: it’s celebrating a whole range of work and authors.”

It’s Ms Birrell’s second year as the director of the festival. Previously she worked in Paris for eight years for the legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Company organising its literary program and biannual festival. But, as much as she loved Paris, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to return Australia to co-ordinate one of the world’s biggest writers’festivals.

“In a way I feel like there’s something more dynamic and fresh and exciting about what’s happening in the literary world in Australia and in Sydney. I feel like there’s a real hunger for literary events,” she says.

Getting foreign writers sold on the idea of Australia is a big part of Ms Birrell’s work, and this year she has enticed over 40 international writers here. That so many of the events are on Sydney Harbour is a big drawing card.

“Even though there’s an element of promoting their work, it’s also about enjoying the city,”she says. “They want to have a wonderful time and they also want to discover somewhere new.”

In preparation for the Festival, Ms Birrell is constantly in touch with a network of authors, publishers and writers from all over the world to determine who and what is abuzz in literary circles. She sends invitations to those who she considers the most interesting and timely.

“What I love about Sydney Writers’Festival is introducing people to new writers they might not have heard of,”she says. “For example, in New York, Gary Shteyngart is hugely well known. In Australia he’s less well known. So I’m excited about introducing his work more fully to Australia because he’s here.”

The biggest challenge with planning the Festival is the logistics of bringing over 400 writers together. One of the biggest names at this year’s festival, Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, was someone Ms Birrell invited last year as well.

“I asked him for the last festival, the timing didn’t work. Then I asked him for this festival; he really wanted to come but the timing didn’t work. It took me a few a weeks or maybe even a month or more, to suddenly click and go – why don’t I just invite him earlier!”

Having someone like Mr Gilligan at the Festival is part of Jemma Birrell’s desire to celebrate writing across different forms beyond literature, like songwriting, scriptwriting and film writing.

All these things are really valid forms and interesting forms of exciting writing today; so many people are talking about great television or films.”

Once authors are on board, the next stage of Ms Birrell’s work is collaborating with them to plan engaging and creative events.

“It’s a kind of melting pot of ideas, then you filter them through and you find connections between different writers in order to showcase their work.”

In particular, Ms Birrell wanted to further develop popular series that she began last year, like 5×15, where five different writers speak for 15 minutes on their passions or obsessions.

New this year are the Curiosity Lectures and the Literary Friendship series, where two writers who know each other, like brother and sister Benjamin and Michelle Law, have a conversation on stage while the audience listens in.

“Even if events are in big venues, it’s about having those intimate conversations, so the audience can be voyeuristically part of that. That’s what we all want and that’s what we love,”she says.

Now the planning is over, Jemma Birrell can take a step back to watch it all unfold and welcome her guests to the Festival and Sydney.

“It’s the best time of the year. There’s a kind of a joy in the air.”