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A Glimpse at the Sydney Writers' Festival '24

Image: A notable quote from Ann Patchett, one of the headline writers at SWF24 (Source: P. Mitchell)


"Stephen King famously described books as 'uniquely portable magic'. This captures one side of the beauty of books perfectly. They can be our companions, a secret in our pocket, a compact treasury of knowledge. But just as we can take books with us, books and stories can take us away from ourselves and from reality. They let us escape into different worlds, live other lives, and travel in time and space." Ann Mossop, Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers' Festival, beautifully summed up the sentiment of the Sydney Writers' Festival (SWF24) in her introduction.


I've only been to a few writers' festivals. My first was the York Writers' Festival in 2023 (see blog 21 March 2023, Hooray for Writers' Festivals). The York event and SWF24 were terrific, though the scale was hugely different. SWF24 has one thousand times more participants, with an estimated 90,000 people attending the SWF24's 300 events across multiple locations from 22 May – 26 May.


SWF24 featured more than three hundred writers, who, when listed alphabetically, only the slots for those with names beginning with x and z were left unfilled. Headline writers including Ann Patchett (Tom Lake), Bonnie Garmus (Lessons in Chemistry), Michael Connelly (Resurrection Walk), Paul Lynch (the 2023 Booker Prize Winner for Prophet Song), Abdulrazak Gurnah (Nobel Prize Winner and the author of After Lives) and many others provided good company for writers from closer to home. The cast of Australian writers included Tony Birch (Women and Children), Chris Hammer (The Seven), Charlotte Wood (Stone Yard Devotional), Nam Le (The Boat), Melissa Lucashenko (Edenglassie) and Christos Tsiolkas (The In-Between). Indeed, there were just too many great authors that to mention just a few seems inconsiderate. I haven't mentioned any of the non-fiction writers.


Image: A serendipitous intersection on the Sydney trip. Thanks Joan. (Source: JM via LinkedIn).


It would have been fantastic to attend more sessions. The program was awe-inspiring, but I was in town to work, so I crammed as much as possible into the after 6pm events. The official SWF24 program started at 8:30 in the morning and finished around 9pm. I was fortunate to squeeze in three events over two nights.


Image: Chris Flyn and Amy Lovat, and a notable Einstein quote (Image: P. Mitchell)


The first event was a book launch for Chris Flynn's collection of short stories, Here be Leviathans. This was in the Woolhara Library, directly across from the conference (unrelated to writing) that I was in town to chair. It couldn't have been a more convenient location or a better introduction to SWF24. Chris admitted in his conversation hosted by author and editor Amy Lovat (Mistakes and Other Lovers) that several of the stories in the book are 'too long to be short stories and too short to be a novella.' In There be Leviathans, Flynn playfully and creatively produces a collection of stories that pushes literary conventions. One story tells of an air crash told from the perspective of one of the seats on the plane and another of a grizzly bear trying to escape persecution after eating a teenager. Chris's intent is to hold 'a mirror up to humanity's vices and follies' – an intent that he achieves so well.


Image: The stellar writers around the campfire at Firetalk (Image: P. Mitchell)


The highlight of the three events that I attended was Firetalk. This free event was also presented creatively by a collection of First Nations authors gathered (with the attendees) around campfires. This event was hosted by Jazz Money (how to make a basket) and featured the brilliant and inspirational Tony Birch (Women and Children), Enoch Mailangi (All My Friends are Racist), Hannah Donnelley (Sovereign Words: Indigenous Art, Curation and Criticism by the Office of Contemporary Art Norway) and Melanie Saward (Love Unleashed). Birch presented his story in an oral, traditional fashion that had everyone in awe. This was followed by an extract from Saward's work, introduced with a warning that there would be tears. The warning was spot on, with both Saward, other panel members, and the audience being emotionally moved by Saward's story.


Image: Aussie crime all-stars (Image: P. Mitchell)


The final event for me was Aussie Crime All-Stars with Dinuka McKenzie (The Torrent), Benjamin Stevenson (Everyone on this Train is a Suspect) and Sulari Gentill (The Mystery Writer) hosted by Alex Adsett (noted literary agent). The event claimed that you would be required to 'dust off your Akubra for a thrilling chat about the outback noir genre and what makes Aussie crime fiction unique' and delivered in spades. The three authors each presented their unique take on the genre and openly described the highs and lows of their journey to success. Stephenson also amused the audience with his description of how his unique ocker humour manages to strike a chord with readers across the 27 languages his novels have been translated into. Each author also described the challenge of writing about locations in their stories that were less familiar to them. This included some of Gentill's work, set in the US. She must do it well as her previous novel, The Woman in the Library, became a USA Today Bestseller, won the Crime Fiction Lover Award for Best Novel by an Independent Publisher (UK), and was an Edgar Award nominee. There was also an amusing group discussion about how they concurred that a one-star Goodreads rating was better than a two-star rating. "At least a one-star rater has felt passionate about your work," said Stevenson. McKenzie concurred, adding that a group of five-star reviews probably indicated that the author had cajoled friends and family members. They agreed that a diversity of ratings on the work was desired, though I am sure none would knock back five-star reviews if they were devoid of nepotism.


Image: Even at 8:30pm the SWF24 book sales hall was still pumping (Source: P. Mitchell)


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