I was immediately struck by how easy and accessible the Bendigo Writers Festival is. The magnificent Capital Theatre is in the centre of Bendigo, right beside the Art Gallery. It seems a ready-made venue with the Capital Theatre, Fire Station and the La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre across the road. There’s no mad dash to get across town to venues and the hub area in the foyer has a free-for-all feel with launches, interviews and general author catch-ups.
It’s a great showpiece for Bendigo – celebrating the rich history but abuzz with the excitement of local writers mingling with the headliners.
What I really loved was the old-school charm and friendliness that comes with country towns. The locals were clearly thrilled to have us in town. As the coffee shops overflowed with patrons getting their caffeine fix between sessions no-one was cross or impatient. Instead, tables were shared among strangers and several times I sat and compared notes on writing styles, poetry and crime fiction with some locals and also a lovely lady who had caught the bus down from Mildura to hear the authors speak and do some shopping in the side. She later confided she was so excited by the sessions the shopping would have to wait for another day!
There was some feedback at the time, and I agree, that some of the moderators lacked the experience to keep authors on topic and give everyone a chance to speak. On reflection, however, I love that the moderators were local lecturers, young writers and local identities and experts. I think it gave a sense of that country warmth and congeniality and everyone having a go.
I’ll be going next year, and you should think about it too. In the meantime, I had some follow-up questions for Rosemary Sorensen, Artistic Director, about why Bendigo Writers Festival matters and what it means to be a regional festival.
Rosemary, you have said to me you think the regional writers festivals are becoming more important for readers and authors alike. Why?
Many reasons. Practically, so long as a city has venues to cope, a regional festival can provide a congenial atmosphere that promotes the very thing we believe writing is good for – communication. Byron Bay led the way in this, creating a party atmosphere that is also a bit like a holiday, but it’s taken a little longer for us to realise the attraction of places such as Bendigo for a weekend away. Our advantage is that it isn’t a huge hike out of Melbourne but far enough away to feel that you are, indeed, away for a little break.
There is also, at last, an understanding that we regional people aren’t any less cultured than capital city dwellers. Indeed – and I think this is an important part of why Bendigo has taken off so fast as a festival – there are probably per capita far more readers as well as writers and artists of all kinds living regionally these days. And we do feel part of a community, so you get a great deal of goodwill coming to the festival. It’s heartening – and heaven knows, being heartened is increasingly critical for our individual and social health.
I noticed a lot of students in the sessions, taking notes and asking questions. How has the link to La Trobe University shaped this festival?
It’s good to hear you say you noticed that, because, of course, writers festivals are traditionally attended by older people, or at least that’s the perception. La Trobe University’s presence in Bendigo is not always very visible, partly because the campus was built a bit out of the centre. But gradually, they are spreading throughout the city, and there is absolutely no doubt that younger people bring vitality with them, keeping us all more alert and energized. Schools day on Friday is important to the relationship with La Trobe, but this year they set up a specific course, run by Sue Gillett, which was embedded in the festival. It was very popular, with students enrolling from all over the state. We also had Robert Manne’s Ideas & Society forums as part of the festival, which was a powerful intellectual addition to the program. Two innovations that worked very well indeed.
Why should readers put Bendigo Writers Festival on the calendar next year?
Oh, because we’d love to see them here and to share what we will be doing, and because without them, all our writers would not be nearly as wonderful and happy.
And because we are also blessed, in this very early stage of our history, to have the challenge of a brand new and very beautiful theatre that we will be part of showing off to the world. People keep saying, can you sustain this? Can you grow? Well, yes, we can, although growth is not as important to us as responding to what we believe makes a good festival, by watching and listening to our audiences and our writers, but also innovating and trying to keep charming and satisfying that lovely need for this kind of event.
The National Non-fiction Festival is on in Geelong next weekend and Melbourne Writer’s Festival kicks off in a fortnight. Readers are awash with festival choices, how hard is it to make Bendigo stand out?
We are so different from Melbourne, there’s no need to try to stand out, and when we started, there was already a quiver of festivals happening in our region. Frankly, right now, we are all clearly responding to a need, so we have this situation where we can all support each other and thrive.
Can you give readers a bit of background about yourself and how you came to be Artistic Director?
I started in books almost 30 years ago, as editor of Australian Book Review, went on to be an arts journalist and edited the books and arts pages of the Courier-Mail in Brisbane for a decade or so, then moved to the Australian newspaper to write arts journalism there. I was on the board of the Melbourne Writers Festival way back when it was quite new, and then on the Brisbane one when it was establishing itself. I’ve also been fortunate enough to report on many festivals, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Byron Bay, Ubud for example, so you get a good background that way. When my partner and I tree-changed I went to work at the Bendigo Weekly which was a very good way to get to know the city we now live near, and visiting the Capital as part of my job, I was astonished that there was no writers festival in this city that was so well suited to it. I started telling people that, and the rest is history.
What are the challenges in your current role?
It’s a truism on publishing that if you are too successful too soon you can find yourself floundering. After the first year we said, can we do it again? And we did. Then we thought, so how do we better that? And we did. As I mentioned before, Ulumburra Theatre is a big challenge, but it’s an exciting one.
What were your personal highlights of the 2014 festival?
It was the whole shebang really, but moments that few people would notice I do cherish, such as when I can see a local writer find their feet amongst seriously experienced writers, and also when a session I hoped would work has people lining up to get into.
What can we expect to see more of next year?
Early days, but it would be good to keep that diversity and energy in the program. We do vary the “streams” each year, for various reasons, and there will definitely be a couple of those thematic streams in next year’s program, alongside the sessions which are festival favourites, the thinking person’s guide to life is how you could describe them. The session format works, so we won’t be abandoning that, but there are always ways to improve, so both writers and readers can feel the festival has been really thoroughly curated, without losing the surprise factor that is sometimes the best moment.
What would you like to see more of published in Australia?
Books such as Robert Kenny’s Gardens of Fire, and Neil Chenoweth’s Packer’s Lunch, and Anne Manne’s The Life of I. Because of our smallish population, publishers can’t afford to take the risk on these kinds of books which are so expensive, in terms of the time and expertise they require of a writer. While fiction prizes are excellent, I think it’s the biography and history prizes that are crucial for the fostering of such publishing.