Let’s talk writing: 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival

So why go to a writers’ festival when you have to cope with crowds and the inevitable queues? As a recent letter in a local paper posited: why not just stay home and read a good book?

There’s something to be said for both approaches, I guess, but one analogy might be: Why bother to go to a footy match – or a concert or a movie – if you can stay home and watch the show on television complete with grandstand view and minus the expense (and peanut-munching)? Part of the answer has to be that the experience of a live show is so totally different in substance, tone and texture – rougher perhaps, less perfect, but broader – offering up an entirely different version of entertainment.

Writing is an addictive and necessarily isolated pursuit. Part of the joy of a festival is the contrapuntal effect: the push and pull of the crowds, a random conversation with someone sharing a table or standing in line, the ability to ask questions, receive answers, the sheer and complete enjoyment of a stimulating session.

The sun sets on the 2016 Festival

The sun sets on the 2016 Festival

Walsh Bay hosts the majority of the Sydney Writers’ Festival events along the piers, wharfs and theatre venues of the magnificent harbour. Sitting in the sun sipping a cup of coffee, I was reminded of a time many years ago in a Paris café where I was stretching out the consumption of hot cup of something while people-watching. What I remember in particular from that time was the vividness of the expressions on the faces of the passers-by; whether they were alone, in couples or groups, meandering or hurrying, their faces were animated, each telling a story of anticipation, excitement, concern, worry. Check a watch, steal a kiss, debate like there’s no alternative. The actions and expressions of the festival goers were similarly rich. The wharfs hummed with anticipation.

The terrific line-up of the 2016 festival produced a thought-provoking array of talks and presentations that ran each hour of every day at what must be over a dozen venues in that area alone. Impossible to list all, but among my favourites was John Boyne (A History of Loneliness and a dozen other books, but probably best known for The Boy in Striped Pyjamas), Man Booker prize-winner Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Harrower, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a delightful insight into Nelson Mandela’s life by his private secretary Zelda La Grange, The New Yorker’s Ann Goldstein (translator of the Ferrante novels) and Jean-Christophe Rufin’s talk on walking the Camino. From the way Jean-Christophe spoke, once I get hold of his book, I think I may feel as I did reading the first story in Damon Galgut’s novella In a Strange Room – that peculiar sense of accompanying the writer on an actual pilgrimage, a kind of intimacy, a shared rhythm. Added to all this wealth of stimulation and discussion was Ayad Aktar’s excellent play Disgraced which was playing at the Sydney Theatre a couple of doors away.

A lovely bonus for us was the chance to catch up with members of the family now living Sydneyside. Altogether, although we were away for just four days, it was a gem of a ‘holiday’ – rather like opening a Christmas stocking filled with wishes-come-true.

Did anyone else fly across from Perth for this year’s SWF? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and what events were special. Or what you think of writers’ festivals in general.

Meanwhile, happy reading and writing.


  1. Ian Reid says:

    Your enthusiasm about SWF makes me wish I’d been there, Tangea. But I’m overseas for a few weeks (Yorkshire at the moment), so Sydney and Perth are very distant. Thanks for your recent message to me on Linked-in.

  2. Yorkshire. It brings forth ancient memories of an extraordinarily beautiful cathedral where the dead looked very dead — and of wide-open moors which I can see in my mind, but I’m not sure I saw in the real. I so love England. The Englishmen I’ve been married to haven’t been so enarmoured — nor was my English mother who hated the weather and who identified instead with Africa — but I have to say that I’ve loved my times there. I’m envious! Enjoy and thanks for commenting.

  3. Toni Weston says:

    I also wish I had been there. You have a great ability to transport the reader into the experience.

    • Bless you, Spreche, you would have loved the talks which were as stimulating and inspiring for readers as they were for writers. In particular you would have enjoyed the talk by Mandela’s private secretary/confidante and her insights into Mandela’s personality. Also crime writer Michael Rowbotham’s session on obsession. Rog would have loved the piece on the Camino de Santiago walk and another on the Silk Roads. Some gorgeous stuff. Roll on next May!

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