This is obviously a little late, but I was too busy to post this ahead of the Melbourne Writers Festival.
MWF Director Lisa Dempster talks her first program, taking Australian writing global and letting your literary hair down.
If you’re interested in stalking a Melbourne literary figure, hang out in The Moat. Parked beneath the Wheeler Centre, the literati inevitably wander through the elegant restaurant. Despite the likelihood of the fare being financially off-limits, emerging and established writers congregate here, scribbling in Moleskins and clacking on Macs. Stick around long enough and you’ll probably spy a literary festival director.
Two months ago we met Sam Twyford-Moore here, the new Emerging Writers’ Festival Director and today we’re meeting his predecessor, Lisa Dempster. After steering the EWF from 2010 to 2012, Dempster has emerged, taking the reigns of the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) from Steve Grimwade.
‘It’s so different,’ she says of the two festivals. ‘It’s such a different way of working and the scope of the festival is quite different. EWF is really a festival for writers, and MWF is a festival for writers, readers and thinkers. The scope of what we do is much broader.’
The last time we spoke to Dempster we described her as effervescent. Despite the increased pressures of the job, she’s retained that quality, quick to gush over her inaugural program and even quicker to laugh.
While she’s unwilling to compare the EWF with the MWF – ‘they’re such different beasts, always have been and will be’ – there’s one glaringly obvious difference between the two festivals.
‘The thing about MWF is that it’s an international festival, so when I started this role I was able to look at everyone around the world and say, “Who are the best, most provocative and interesting writers and thinkers, artists and doers out there?”’’
Take a look at the Keynote Speakers scheduled for the opening weekend and you’ll see Dempster’s playful programming on display. She’s got the Mayor of London Boris Johnson juxtaposed with 17-year old blogger and editor Tavi Gavinson, an intriguing mixture of old world eccentricity and new world innovation, punctuated by a performance from New York City’s The Moth. Those three alone tick the writer, thinker, artist and doer boxes.
‘What I’m really interested in is people who have a different take on the world, people who have a different perspective on the issues we think about every day here in Australia,’ she explains.
One of the easiest ways to get a fresh perspective is to invite overseas guests. As an international event, the Melbourne Writers Festival is inevitably going to do that. Guests landing at the festival include French writer Laurent Binet, Israeli writer and politician Michael Bar-Zohar, Spanish-Argentinian Andrès Neuman, Americans Junot Díaz, Teju Cole, Tao Lin, Marjorie Liu and Ruth Ozeki and British writers Jay Griffiths and Sarah Dunant.
MWF will also host the last stage of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference and see a contingent of editors, writers and contributors from the London Review of Books (LRB) hit Melbourne.
Not everyone is happy about this. The Australian Book Review (ABR) took issue with the LRB events, saying they represent ‘a continuation of MWF’s focus on overseas literary/cultural magazines’, while also noting the LRB stayed afloat because of editor Mary-Kay Wilmers’ family trust and griped that there wasn’t enough focus on local literary journals.
‘For me the idea that we shouldn’t be looking at international guests doesn’t quite gel,’ Dempster tells us. ‘We’re Australia – yes – but we’re also part of the world and for us to put our writers and readers and thinkers on a global stage to have those discussions is really vital.’
Before we mention it, Dempster has already footnoted her excitement about international guests by saying ‘the majority of our artists do come from Australia’. For Dempster one of the best things about MWF is teaming Australian and international guests together. ‘That’s where the magic really happens I think, in those discussions and debates and moments of discovery.’
What’s most bizarre about the ABR’s claim is that the publication is involved in one such event at MWF, so it’s not a case of being left behind the velvet rope. ABR editor Peter Rose will join LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, Zora Sanders from Meanjin and Rebecca Starford from Kill Your Darlings in ‘Meet the Editors’.
‘We’re getting a bunch of editors from local literary journals to sit on a panel and talk about this culture of literary journals that is thriving around the world and is certainly thriving here as well,’ she explains. ‘We have a really strong culture of independent publishing and lit journals in particular.’
It’s absolutely undeniable that our literary scene is thriving, and that health is assured via a diet of journals. There’s not enough space to list them all here, or their associated launches, trivia nights, debates and public discussions. We’re world leaders in literary culture and to Dempster, the MWF is an annual celebration and addition to our local events, ‘something really different and magical and spectacular’.
Increasing our global literary footprint is something at the heart of Dempster’s vision, which she outlined upon joining MWF. The direction of the festival in the coming years is ‘committed to putting Australia on a global stage’.
Aside from events like the LRB and bringing international writers here, the inclusion of the Edinburgh World Writers Conference in the program reveals MWF’s inclusion in the Word Alliance, a partnership between the world’s best eight lit fests. ‘We’re also pushing our program to the rest of the Word Alliances, so we have funding from the Australia Council that enables us to give funding to international festivals to take Australian writers to participate in their festival.’
Of course, you don’t actually need to cross borders and continents to engage with the world in the digital age. As a long-time advocate of harnessing online culture, Dempster realises this and is looking to increase digital opportunities for writers.
‘Australians are digital leaders, the way we use social media is really advanced,’ she explains. ‘One of the things we’re doing this year is increasing our digital engagement.’
This is being done primarily through the Digital Futures events, which cover a breadth of topics as broad as the web itself, from Teju Cole’s event exploring the future of storytelling in the Twittersphere and the Digital Drive sessions aimed at developing digital writing skills to journalism events like Is New Media Making Us Stupid?
It’s not just about Facebook and Twitter, though Dempsters sees the use of these platforms as essential to creating a critical culture. When I tell her that I stalk Twitter to find what she and other literary Melbournians are talking about to find stories she throws back her head and laughs, saying most of the organisations in the Wheeler Centre are often tweeting each other under organisational accounts.
‘It feels like a lot of the discussion happening in literary Melbourne is between people that are ten metres from each other. I think one of the signs of a strong artistic culture is people discussing and debating and talking about it. That discussion is as critical as the events and the art itself.’
Of course, Dempster hopes that discussion extends beyond social media and finds its way beyond the festival into national debate. ‘One of our streams is Big Ideas and in the past there’s often been an uptake in editorial following those orations,’ she says, referencing last year’s talk by Marcia Langton on Indigenous Exceptionalism. ‘The following day there were a lot of people writing about it in the media, so the program itself is a provocation for people to talk about bigger issues.’
Of course, the biggest issue on Australian minds right around festival time will be the federal election. Dempster approach to politics is refreshing. Aware the media would be battering us over the head with politics, she’s programming a stream in the festival ‘not about who our leaders are and who is going to win’.
‘We’re calling it Future Australia and it’s really going to be thinking about who we are, where do we want to go and how are we going to get there, ‘ she explains of the program that features Mark Latham, Bob Browne, Bernard Salt and Fatima Measham among many others.
One interesting event will be with Jeremy Harding’s Alan Missen Oration on how far can governments patrol migration. ‘He’s an expert in human migration and how people move throughout the world to find human safety and homes,’ says Dempster. ‘He’s going to be talking about refugee and immigrant culture, which is such an enormous issue and so hard to deal with in the sound-bite media world we live.’
While much of MWF is a cerebral exercise, there’s plenty of opportunity to have fun, nowhere more so than the dedicated festival hub at Beer Deluxe. ‘I’m interested in making the festival more festive. The festival is an opportunity to have fun and blow off steam.’
As part of the Festival Hub, The Lifted Brow will be onsite making a magazine from scratch, there will be morning readings, events at night, ‘all sorts of crazy things happening’, as well as the MWF social media team being based there. ‘Community and celebration are words I say constantly, but that’s what it’s all about really,’ Dempster grins. ‘We want people to come and hang out.’
Perhaps borrowing a bit form her past experience with EWF, which is big on networking, Dempster wants readers, writers, thinkers, listeners and everyone in between to come together at MWF.
‘If you’re someone who comes along to MWF and you’re sitting in the audience, you instantly have a connection to all the other people in the audience in that moment, you’ve got a shared interest area and I want to create an opportunity for those people to talk to each other.’
That opportunity, among many more, awaits at MWF. With over 350 events all around the city, you don’t need to fork out the book-advance for a meal at the Moat. Or linger like a creep.