Article by: Janette Dalgliesh
The folks at Byron Bay really know how to throw a writers’ festival—relaxed, sunny, laid-back and all about connecting. This was my first time, and I think I’ll become a regular.
The Festival comprises a core three-day weekend, preceded by more extras than you could poke a stick at: a week full of amazing workshops, a day-long program for local high schools, a film premiere with Q & A, literary food events and a youth day. There is even a sculpture competition, with some fabulous pieces—my favourite was this gorgeous frock made entirely of book pages. Crinkly to wear, but you’d never be bored!
You can see the program for yourself, and you’d have to agree it’s pretty darned impressive for a town with a population of only 9,000. Attendees drive down from Brisbane and up from Sydney; and those of us from further afield fly in from all over the country and all over the world.
My Festival experience lasted a week, and I loved every minute!
I manage three fabulous workshops in the week before the Festival: Kim Falconer’s Bad Boys: Writing Dark Heroes to Die For; Jane Meredith’s The Last Taboo: Writing from the Sacred Realms; and the extraordinary Fiction Masterclass with MJ Hyland.
And then the fun really began on Friday.
The core Festival takes place in a huge area of open ground next door to the Arts and Industrial estate. Marquees of various size are dotted between the usual supply of food tents and discreetly placed portaloo bays. In addition to the various venues, there is a tiny artists’ market with about eight superb stalls, and I believe this may expand in future years.
Attendees can buy one-day passes or cough up for the whole three days—and that gives you access to absolutely everything on site. There are panel discussions, “in conversation” sessions, debates and interviews; and after each session the writers involved make themselves available at the special book-signing tent.
Some attendees plan their day to the second, poring over their program with highlighter at the ready, making a beeline to each session with furrowed brow and determined stride. I belong more to the “I wonder what’s on now?” camp, meandering all over the paddock looking for the next juicy titbits to gobble up.
With so much on offer, it’s inevitable that I missed far more than I experienced. Happily, the wonderful team at the Festival blog provided reports on many of the sessions I missed, including some wonderful encounters with crime writers Liz Porter and Michael Robotham. And ABC North Coast radio was on-site, recording many sessions which can be heard on their website.
My favourite highlights gave me a grab-bag of fabulous memories:
- Producer Nelson Woss and Koko the kelpie, star of the movie Red Dog, invited to join author Louis de Bernières mid-interview—and even Koko has his say
- Listening to Kim Falconer and Traci Harding talking fantasy, astrology, quantum physics and ancient British history—while Fiona McIntosh lightened the mood with her winter boots and word counts
- Learning about the skill of pitching, by watching six authors practice their powers of persuasion in front of a panel of publishers—local writer and broadcaster Annette Malfording’s technique was masterful!
- Falling in love with Stephanie Dowrick’s eloquence on the subject of creativity, her own writing journey and the Divine feminine
- Watching Melbourne activist writer Benjamin Solah give it his all, with a fiery recitation of his spoken word piece Rhyme for Refugees at a poetry tent open reading
But in amongst this cornucopia of word-related abundance, what I’ll remember best is the sense of connection. This Festival is more than simply a collection of brilliant panels and sessions and workshops; it’s a community. A fairground full of people who love words—whether those words are used in ferocious political debate, to make us laugh, to explore strange universes, to sing, or to inspire our love of sensuous food—we came together to celebrate in a giant outdoor weeklong party.
I met up with writer, editor and publisher friends whom I know mainly online—that was to be expected, and was an unregretted reason for missing some fabulous sessions.
But here’s why I really love Festivals like Byron. I don’t suppose for a moment that the big urban Festivals like Melbourne and Sydney—great as they are—would afford me the opportunity to chat animation with Tim Ferguson, the benefits of shea butter with Traci Harding or a cure for jetlag with MJ Hyland.
In the end, it’s all about the people. That’s why it’s MY kind of Festival.