Behind the scenes with Jemma Birrell at the Sydney Writers Festival

Jemma Birrell

“Everything that I’ve done has prepared me for this.” – Jemma Birrell

Greta Stonehouse

When Jemma Birrell completed her communication degree at University of Technology, Sydney, she worked for a number of bookshops before joining publisher Allen and Unwin. An urge to see a new landscape took her to Paris, where she worked for seven years at the prestigious Shakespeare and Company. During her time there, Jemma was in charge of programing book-related events. While co-directing three different editions of Festival & Co, Shakespeare and Company’s literary festival, Jemma got her first taste of showcasing writers from around the world in line with a chosen theme.

This year, Jemma believes the Sydney Writers Festival has the strongest theme to date – “Everything has been figured out, except how to live”, a Jean Paul Satre quote. “I think this is the crux of a lot of books. It always has been a timeless topic, but it is particularly apt now. Readers also seem to have a particular hunger for books that are exploring this idea.” According to Jemma, a good theme is an open one, inviting everyone in.

While the Festival comes together each year as one clear entity, the process of putting it together is continual and fluid. Jemma says that at any given time, she is planning the next one. She says her relationships with writers are important, and have flourished over many years. It can take years of negotiation to secure particular writers for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The biggest obstacle is always timing. “One year, an international writer was booked simultaneously at about three or four festivals,” she says.

The only way Jemma has learned to deal with last minute cancellations and changes to the program is on the chin, staying cool, calm and collected.

When Starlee Kine, a former producer of the podcast This American Life, booked for this year’s Festival, her new show was scheduled to begin in April. However, when her new show was pushed back to the same week of the Sydney Writers Festival, Starlee was forced to pull out.

Jemma says the first year in the job is “utter chaos” but there are always systems in place. Taking over the Festival from Chip Roley in September 2012, she was thankful of the procedures put in place over the 17 years prior to her direction.

“Chip’s program was fantastic, and I’ve got a lot of admiration for it but, of course, we’re different people so it’s going to be a different program.”

Jemma believes a good program will cater for both the audience and the writers. On one hand, she hopes to inspire and entice audience members but, on the other, she hopes to curate the Festival to best showcase the range and scope of the writers’ works. It’s no easy feat considering there are almost 500 participants at this year’s Festival.

While she acknowledges it is a challenge to keep reinventing the Festival each year, she says the audience has a big impact on what elements of the program she chooses to continue. “The audience likes having Coffee and Papers every year. When it’s a special thing, you develop and perpetuate it. If there are things that don’t work, you change them. And you also try things out and see what works and what doesn’t, and that keeps invigorating and enlivening the Festival.”

While Jemma adores obsessive book readers, describing them as “the heartland of the festival”, she continues to emphasise the Festival is for everyone.“Just as in the way Ted X can appeal to anyone, the Festival is full of endless discussions and fascinating topics. For me, it’s trying to entice all types of readers who like all different types of books, from James Patterson’s books to Helen Macdonald’s prize-winning novel, to David Walliams writing for kids, to Andy Griffiths.

“Even if you’re not reading a book a day, come to the Festival and have your mind opened by what people are talking about.”

Given last year’s Festival broke the record for the highest amount of book sales, tickets sold, and geographic reach, it is clear Jemma Birrell is doing something right.