20th Byron Writers Festival survives to delight and inspire its biggest audience
Byron Writers Festival marked its 20th year with its strongest and best received program yet, breaking box office records and presenting a festival ‘full of history making moments like Stan Grant’s Thea Astley Lecture that people will continue to talk about for years to come,’ said Festival Director Edwina Johnson.
The show must go on…
The record success of this year’s Byron Writers Festival was an achievement worth celebrating in itself but was particularly gratifying for the organisers considering the festival almost didn’t happen. On Wednesday night winds gusting up to 113kph in Byron Bay ripped through the festival site, tearing apart marquees and flooding the grounds with torrential rain. After an emergency meeting on Thursday morning, Festival Founder Chris Hanley and Director Edwina Johnson galvanized the Festival team, an army of volunteers and several local companies, who worked around the clock to rebuild the site and pump out water in order for the Festival to open the gates to sell-out crowds on Friday morning.
The show went on and in spite of less than perfect weather the Festival enjoyed its largest crowds ever with a 14% increase in box office takings and over 70,000 individual attendances throughout the entire Festival period that included workshops, fifteen off-site Feature Events and four days of programming dedicated to schools that reached more than 4000 students. Friday, Saturday and 3-day passes to the Festival sold out as did many of the feature events including a literary dinner with Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales, a concert by Paul Kelly and talks by Wendy Whiteley, Stan Grant and Michael Leunig. Over 150 celebrated international and Australian writers, thinkers and commentators featured in 123 on-site sessions at Australia’s largest regional literary Festival.
‘It took a gargantuan effort to open the 20th Byron Writers Festival and we’d like to thank the Festival team, the volunteers, our partners and everyone in the community who all went above and beyond to make it happen. Also to our wonderful patrons who remained good-humoured and enthusiastic despite the weather.’ Edwina Johnson
On Festival Friday record crowds spilled out of the Southern Cross University Marquee to hear US authors P.J. O’Rourke, William Finnegan, Jeffery Renard Allen, Angela Flournoy and Four Corners reporter Ben Knight discuss the socio-political turmoil in contemporary America that has resulted in the looming potential of a President Donald Trump.
On the same day Australian politics came under the spotlight in the Feros Marquee when Sarah Ferguson, Kerry O’Brien and Leigh Sales came together to share stories from inside the political arena and ultimately conveyed a compassionate picture of journalism.
Magda Szubanski was one of the most popular Festival guests attracting overflowing crowds to all her sessions. Indian writers Rosalyn D’Mello, Sharanya Manivannan and Salma may not have been as well known at the beginning of the Festival but gained a large following by the Festival’s end, with many patrons and authors counting the women’s sessions among their Festival highlights.
In The Saturday Paper Marquee three young memoirists Elspeth Muir, Luke Williams and Liam Pieper spoke about how addiction had impacted their creative process. It took a potent turn when Wendy Whiteley joined the conversation during the Q&A to warn against the dangers of glorifying addiction, imploring young people to avoid glamourising a world where drugs are a gateway into creativity, passionately arguing that it is the opposite.
Louise Doughty, Kathryn Heyman, Charlotte Wood and chair Hannie Rayson discussed the importance of having friends who are writers as well as the downfalls, especially when another enjoys stratospheric success with Charlotte Wood commenting, ‘In all friendships someone’s always up and someone’s always down. I do think the person who’s up bears the responsibility to not be a jerk.’
Friday afternoon concluded with an Aboriginal smoking ceremony outside The Yellow Brick Road Pavilion and Belongil Room, the warm and cosy indoor venues provided by Festival partner Elements of Byron following an emotional and enlightening encounter where local Elders shared their stories at the launch ‘Our Way Stories’ in association with Arts Northern Rivers.
On Festival Saturday Stan Grant gave a poetic and passionate speech that was anchored by his relationship with the book that changed his life: ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ by James Baldwin. The atmosphere was electric as a jam-packed crowd squeezed in together as the rain hit the Feros Marquee to hear the heartfelt words of a man who spoke about the challenges of ‘the white gaze’, and who is feeling the burden of becoming a spokesperson for his people and pressure to enter politics. Many audience members were in tears and at the conclusion there was an immediate standing ovation.
Similarly there wasn’t a dry eye in the Yellow Brick Road Pavilion when the Bloom family shared their unique story of recovery and the healing effect a little magpie called Penguin had on their lives. Later in the afternoon The Saturday Paper Marquee was filled with laughter as Charles Waterstreet entertained the crowd with stories of his early life growing up in a pub in Albury with a depressed mother, debauchery in Patrick White’s house and his love of women and writing autobiographies, the next of which he said wryly is going to be entirely dedicated to refuting accusations of narcissism.
Festival Sunday opened with colourful stilt walkers leading hundreds of children into Kids Big Day Out at the Greenstone Partners Marquee for a morning of fun, inspiration and entertainment with their favourite authors including a high octane performance by illustrator Tony Flowers with Nick Falk who stuffed a wet sock in his nostril much to the screaming delight of the audience. Little hands and minds were kept busy with a wonderful array of craft and garden activities provided by Kids Big Day Out partners The Farm Byron Bay.
Audiences got a glimpse into the magical world of cartoonist and artist Michael Leunig as he shared his unique views and philosophical musings with chair David Leser in the Feros Marquee. The pair talked about childhood, happiness, love, Mr Curly, and of course, ducks. When Leunig first presented a duck to his editor, the editor said. ‘I don’t understand this, but I like it.’ Many who had seen Leunig at the Feature Event in conversation with Susan Wyndham at Byron Theatre the previous night, returned to the Festival to see him again.
The ‘Getting Your Life Write’ session featuring memoirists Richard Glover, Magda Szubanski and Rosie Waterland was a raucous one full of laughter, masterfully led by Mandy Nolan who started by asking the speakers what song they’d want played at their funeral. Richard Glover’s choice was ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’; Rosie Waterland’s was ‘Is That All There Is?‘; and Magda Szubanski’s was ‘Another One Bites the Dust’.
As the final shafts of sun made their way into the marquees on Festival Sunday, hearts were warmed by the heartfelt musings of Richard Fidler, David Leser and Mick O’Regan on the powerful and unsettling love of modern fatherhood. ‘It’s the most ferocious love that there is. I think there’s so many men that feel it, but it’s restricted because we don’t have the language to express it,’ said David Leser.
Books are back!
In between sessions throughout the weekend patrons took advantage of the many different stalls on the festival site with booksellers Mary Ryan’s enjoying a roaring trade at their spectacularly decorated book store. The top selling books of the festival were ‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski, ‘Penguin Bloom’ by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, ‘Barbarian Days’ by William Finnegan, ‘Ghost Empire’ by Richard Fidler, ‘Good Muslim Boy’ by Osamah Sami, ‘Flesh Wounds’ by Richard Glover and ‘The Turner House’ by Angela Flournoy.
Our writers continue to fall in love (again)
Byron Writers Festival was not only a hit with patrons but also the authors. First time guest of the Festival Rosalyn D’Mello commented on the ‘ lovely spirit of collegiality, friendship, kindness and generosity’ that pervades Byron Writers Festival ‘you’re in a vortex of stories and it’s ecstatic’. Erik Jensen, editor of The Saturday Paper and regular festival guest praised the intimacy of the Festival where ‘Conversations between writers start in the greenroom, roll on as we walk to the stage together and back again. It happens many times over the weekend. It’s a festival where people really get to talk to each other properly.’
Thank you to our community
A strong sense of community has always underpinned Byron Writers Festival, ‘Anyone who lives in this area understands that events like these don’t happen without community.’ said Founder Chris Hanley who retires from his position as Chair this year.
‘Byron Writers Festival has been built and sustained by a passionate community – being part of it has nourished my soul for 20 years. It will continue to nourish the hearts and minds of our broad family of patrons, guests, partners and volunteers for many years to come.’ Chris Hanley
A special thanks to our Core Funders Arts NSW and Australia Council for the Arts, our major partners Feros Care, Southern Cross University, Greenstone Partners, Yellow Brick Road Wealth Management and all our partners without whose support Byron Writers Festival would not be the success it is.