10 Top Tips for a Fantastic Festival

Jemma Birrell

Jemma Birrell, director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, shares her vision for a fabulous festival, one that is attracts bigger crowds and more spectacular events each year.

Jemma Birrell, director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, shares her vision for a fabulous festival, one that is attracts bigger crowds and more spectacular events each year.

Special Guests

This year we have some of the world’s headlining writers joining us in Sydney. I think it’s one of the best Festivals yet and I’m very much looking forward to meeting everyone and hearing them speak. Some of the best known names include Jonathan Franzen, Gloria Steinem, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd, Yanis Varoufakis and Marlon James, the last winner of the Man Booker Prize, who will be speaking about his dark and lyrical novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Australian highlights include Stan Grant, Elizabeth Harrower, Charlotte Wood, Sarah Ferguson, Kerry O’Brien, Anna Funder and George Megalogenis. Anna, George and British writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach are this year’s guest curators and they’ve brought their unique vision and creative flair to various events.

There’s too many writers to mention but I do want to highlight Ann Goldstein who’s Elena Ferrante’s translator, the shepherd from the Lake District James Rebanks, and Vivian Gornick ,who writes about her life in New York, her pleasure wandering the streets, and the writers who have impacted her life.


The heart of the Festival is Walsh Bay in the beautiful heritage wharves and theatres precinct. While the Festival begins on Monday, 16 May, the precinct really takes off and is filled with thousands of people from Thursday 19 to Sunday, 22 May. There are evening events in major city venues such as Sydney Town Hall, Roslyn Packer Theatre and City Recital Hall. We also have events in libraries and arts centres across suburban Sydney, in western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. In addition we are live-streaming events all over Australia, to regional areas as far away as Alice Springs.


The atmosphere at the wharves is unlike anything else. There are people milling around, reading in the sun, catching up with friends, having a glass of wine, chatting to strangers in queues…it’s utterly inspiring. There’s something about that beautiful location on the harbour and everyone talking about ideas and writing that really works. I’d recommend starting the day at Coffee and Papers, a free event at the theatre bar at the end of the wharf, that looks onto the harbour and combines all of those qualities in one place.

Cultural Diversity

We have writers from all areas of Australia and the world, from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. This year we have a new event called Writers Talk Politics that takes a close look at what’s going on in specific countries: China, India, America, Ireland and France. We have events with some of Australia’s most exciting Indigenous writers and performers  – see Connection and Belonging and The Empty Pram and events featuring Stan Grant and Larissa Behrendt just to name a few.


There is indeed fun to be had at all events from those focused fiction to non-fiction from science, history and philosophy. There’s a smorgasbord of evening events that will be entertaining, funny and informative. Night of the Nerds with Adam Spencer featuring David Astle, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty and YouTube star Natalie Tran will be fabulous and then there’s the entire Nights Program you can see on our site. Catch the free Late Night Salon that throws different guests together such as podcaster Starlee Kine alongside former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis and futurist Richard Watson. And if you come early, don’t miss 30 minutes of Soul with poet and American singer Jamila Woods which will be unforgettable – watch Jamila’s Outkast cover online.

Activities in the City

Too many to mention! There’s events all over central Sydney, though they are focused at our Walsh Bay hub from the Thursday 19-Sunday 22 May. Don’t miss the key Sydney Town Hall events such as SWF Gala: The Book that Saved Me with some of our headlining guests, and also Ferrante Fever if you’ve been swept away by Ferrante’s novels like so many of us. You can also see Jonathan Franzen and Gloria Steinem there, two of the writers I’m most looking forward to. At the City Recital Hall we also have major highlights from Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, Yanis Varoufakis and The Girl on the Train’s Paula Hawkins. For people who like a poetic stroll see New Shoots in the Botanic Gardens presented by The Red Room.


There are a whole range of workshops for every literary proclivity whether you’re just starting out or honing your craft. We have expert writers to lead you through whatever aspect of the craft you’re interested in. For the first time we have some masterclasses too, including a rare chance to have an intimate session on adapting novels for the screen, with British novelist, the author of Any Human Heart, William Boyd. The workshops run from Saturday 14  to Sunday, 16 May.

Free Events

Start the day with the free series Coffee and Papers at the bar at the end of the wharf, facilitated by SMH’s editor Judith Whelan with journalists and festival guests talking about the most interesting topics of the day. Then head over to The Curiosity Lecture Series which runs for four days non-stop with free talks on all range of quirky subject from Janna Levin on what’s new in cosmology, Gail Jones on spiral time, biscuit tins, butterflies and Nabakov, and Paul Muldoon on fellow poet and friend Seamus Heaney. Other subjects include propaganda in North Korea, the art of listening and whether women belong on the front line of war.

There’s many other free events, often held in Sydney Dance 1 and 2, listed in the program.


Extras at the Festival

Looking at storytelling and writing across different forms, we have Jane Austen’s heroines coming to life in Austen’s Women, a performance by Rebecca Vaughan. We are featuring one of Australia’s most loved musicians Paul Kelly, whose new album takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s sonnets ; Queen of YouTube Natalie Tran features in Night of the Nerds. In the podcasting world, in addition to Starlee Kine, we have the host of Repy All the podcast about the internet, PJ Vogt. If you’re interested in poetry, make sure you see New Australian Poetry and The Best of the Festival: Poetry and Performance featuring Sarah Kay, Nate Marshall, Paul Muldoon and more.

Childen’s Events

On Sunday 22, kids and teens take over Pier 4/5 for the first time ever, as we run four free venues, all with their own mischief and mayhem. Who could resist the land of Glowtopia, the Department of Stuff and Nonsense and our festival mascot Russ the Story Bus? There’s also the Royal Institute of All Day YA with the return of TeenCon. It’s an infectiously joyful and educational program. http://www.swf.org.au/program/childrens-family