You’d think that the head of a major writers festival would’ve been inspired to undertake a career in literature after a revelatory reading of Dostoyevsky or Faulkner, but for Melbourne Writers Festival Director Steve Grimwade, it was spoken word featuring hip hop artists and punk rockers.

In his 20s, Grimwade found himself in Banff in the Canadian Rockies at a spoken word gig. On the bill for the event was Exene Cervenka from punk-band X, who ignited a newfound passion. He tells ArtsHub, “I fell in love with spoken word…I fell in love with the power of a writer performing their words right in front of me… we don’t always hear the right words [and] I think that intonation is power.” The immediacy of the performance stuck with him and from that point on his appreciation for words became inescapable.

Grimwade turned his newfound interest into a career through the independent lit scene in the mid-90s. He edited revered journal Going Down Swinging, which features a large spoken word component, and then moved through the ranks of Melbourne’s literature community, in what he says was almost a “text book case of step by step”.

After being approached to be on a management committee at Express Media, Grimwade then took on a job as an administrator before becoming Artistic Director of the organisation and eventually joining up with the Victorian Writer’s Centre. He became Festival Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2010. “It all slowly unfolded,” he recalls, “[But] it was very purposeful… I was always working in the area.” He credits the “supportive scene” in Melbourne for the success he’s had in the publishing industry, saying, “There’s a lot of people working in a lot of organisations and there you can develop… and do more than one job”.

The Melbourne scene Grimwade references “is very much alive right now”. From the abundance of literary journals to the rash of book launches that routinely infect the Bella Union bar in Carlton, almost every week there’s some kind of publishing event. This thriving scene, coupled with the highly regarded Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT, from which Grimwade and many of the names at this year’s MWF have graduated, it’s no surprise that Melbourne was recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008.

But what does that actually mean for the city? According to Grimwade, “A bit of pride in what we do. I think it’s very easy to look at somewhere like London or New York and think, ‘Oh God, they must be bigger and better’ but what we do is exceptional and pound for pound our value is greater than most cities.”

The UNESCO recognition has helped MWF by attracting both national and international attention, but it’s not the only pen in Melbourne’s pencil case. The city is also part of the Word Alliance, which includes seven of the world’s leading writers festivals (including Edinburgh), and “sort of hothouses what you do,” Grimwade says. The Wheeler Centre has also tightened the bonds in the publishing industry, centralising the diverse array of literature events in the city and making many of them free.

Yet the Melbourne Writers Festival stands apart as a unique celebration of everything concerning words, from poetry and literature to song writing, journalism and performance. “There’s nothing quite like what we do,” Grimwade explains. “Nobody can create that intensity of experience over two weeks… we create a kind of flagship store [for] the literary scene.”

The Writers Festival maintains this status through its focus on diversity, something Grimwade has believed in throughout his career. “Newspapers and magazines are the way we make decisions… if you can be a part of that game, if you can ensure that you’re doing all you can [so] that there’s a diversity of voices being heard then you’re actually helping society,” he explains.

At this year’s festival over 400 guests from here and overseas will take part in over 300 events across the city. With such a huge program, it’s no wonder that the amount of people expected to take part is around 50,000 – and the way to pull such numbers all ties in with Grimwade’s long-held belief in diversity.

“Not every festival approaches it this way, but [at my core I’m] interested in the numerous ways that writers touch our lives,” he says. “[Festivals] can never be limited to just poetry for instance, it’s got to include film, TV, speech writers and policy writers… performers and songwriters and comedians.” If you ignore any aspect that could possibly fall under the umbrella of writing then you may ignore “many of the things that people love”. Not to mention that MWF stands to celebrate all sorts of writers, as Grimwade extrapolates, “I don’t want comedians feeling like they’re less… respected [because] they write in a certain style or genre.”

Some people don’t always agree with Grimwade that there should be a departure from traditional festival stalwarts like lectures and launches, yet when people question what he’s decided to include in the festival he’s almost satisfied. “You kind of want that response,” he comments. “I think it’s another way of celebrating storytelling and celebrating stories… it goes back to that idea… of wanting to tell a great diversity of forms and styles’ of writing.“
“Something that I love.. [is that] there’s so many events to go to where you can sit down and hear people reading stories. We have this series of free readings every morning… and we have people who come every day, [with] a cup of coffee, and sit down and be read to,” he says.

At its heart, the Melbourne Writers Festival aims to celebrate storytelling. Whether through non-fiction or performance, poetry or illustration, what Grimwade hopes is that “the festival opens the door to people”, exposes them to new things and generates discussion among the community. And the way in which he hopes to achieve that is through the variety of events, and the respect paid to each form of narrative.

Grimwade makes no apologies for inviting guests from all walks of the writing life, saying that a small percentage of people, “Who have only got a love for high art… think that because we have genre writers at the festival or performers that the festival is lower. I’d want to take them on in an argument any day.”