For three days in April, Newcastle will be full of many of the country's writers, and an enthusiastic audience of avid readers.
The Newcastle Writers Festival will offer 90 sessions during its adult program from Friday, April 5, through Sunday, April 7. It will attract about 11,000 attendees, including the 2500 children who will attend the Schools Program on April 5.
From day one of the first Newcastle Writers Festival, in 2013, the event has been a success. It is a prime example of build it and they will come.
For Rosemarie Milsom, the founder of the festival and still the director, it's been a mission to give the people of the Hunter the culture she firmly believes they deserve.
This year's festival features an outstanding line-up of writers and creatives, many in the spotlight of the nation's popular culture.
"It’s my best program." Milsom says. "I can't quite explain why. It’s incredible calibre of writers. It's seasonal - in some years you don't have great books. It’s the way it is."
Among the talent this year:
Gillian Triggs. Former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission. She was profoundly criticised at various points during her service by the Government's ministers. She published her memoir, Speaking Up, last year.
Chloe Hooper. Award-winning author of The Tall Man:Death and Life on Palm Island, and more recently The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, the story of the arsonist who lit the Black Saturday fire in Victoria in 2009.
Clementine Ford. An author and commentator, whose most recent book, Boys Will Be Boys, about toxic masculinity and misogyny, was published in 2018.
Trent Dalton. A journalist for The Australian newspaper, he published his first book, Boy Swallows Universe, in 2018 to great acclaim. (Page 6 of Weekender carries a feature story on Dalton by Michael Byrne.)
Ben Quilty. Artist and social commentator. His artworks have won the Archibald Prize and the Moran Portrait Prize. In 2018 he curated a book Home: Drawings by Syrian Children, with the proceeds going to early childhood and basic education projects in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
Other mentionables include Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz; Emily O'Grady, author of The Yellow House, Jackie Gillies, Kate Lilley, Kerry O'Brien, Holly Throsby, Jane Caro and Michael Robotham.
The program is a constant work in progress, with Milsom already planning for writers to attend the festival in 2020 and 2021. Of course, the festival also hosts visiting writers at special events throughout the year.
Australian has more 180 writers festivals, covering much more than the capital cities. As Milsom notes, they cover from "Mudgee to Margaret River", with new ones springing up all the time.
She often exchanges ideas and contacts with other festival directors, and is particular close with Edwina Johnson, director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival.
While she is very conscious the Newcastle Writers Festival is still a newbie at seven years of age, she also knows all about the nuts and bolts, having built it from the ground up.
"I've never underestimated our audience," Milsom says. "There has been a bit of cultural cringe from bureaucrats [about Newcastle], but people are hungry for culture. My feeling is we are not putting enough into it. As Marcus Westbury [founder of Renew Newcastle said, we've had to be resilient. . . . "
Anecdotally, Milsom is chuffed that one woman told her she moved to Newcastle just because it did have a writers festival.
She recounts author and broadcaster Caroline Baum, who has been a guest at the festival, telling her, "there is a quality to the listening in Newcastle".
Milsom is an avid reader, both for her own pleasure, and to keep track of writers she may like to invite to the festival.
Interestingly, the books she reads for pure enjoyment are often from international writers - the ones she will never be able to afford to bring to the Newcastle Writers Festival.
The weekend is not a series of book launches; rather, it's a web of events, workshops for writers, forums for discussion of topics that cut across many subject areas that are particularly relevant to the authors who have come, and performances.
Not that Milsom has any time to enjoy the event as a spectator. She is tied down with a million logistical issues, from missed or delayed flights to gluten-free meals for guests. She will also host some sessions (notably the Face to Face session, Sunday, from 1.30pm at the Concert Hall in City Hall with writers Trent Dalton, Chloe Hooper and Kerry O'Brien).
I've never underestimated our audience.Rosemarie Milsom
She is an excellent interviewer, her journalistic skills honed through one-on-one sessions with stars like Julia Gillard. She projects knowledge - because she is well-prepared - and commonality, because she's not afraid to ask the questions people in the audience would really like to know, too.
Milsom has listened to the feedback, and has aimed for this year's event to have greater appeal to young people - but not at the expense of her main audience.
"I do take on board what people say," she says. "We get feedback on surveys. Something said by a couple of people, we probably need to appeal to some younger people. I know there is a cliche writers festival audience, almost said in a derogatory way, the white hair brigade. I sort of take offence. I’m nearly 50. I don't want to think when I'm of a certain age, there is nothing for me . . ."
Among the events that may reach a younger demographic:
Queerstories. Saturday, April 6, from 8.30pm at The Playhouse in the Civic Theatre. Billed as unexpected tales from a diverse line-up of LGBTQI festival guests.
The Power of Love. Sunday, April 7, from 11.30am in the Cummings Room, City Hall. Barney and Kada Miller, authors of The Essence of You and Me, in conversation with Jenny Marchant. She helped him get back on a surfboard after a horrific accident and he helped her find her voice.
Boys Will Be Boys. Saturday, April 6, from 6pm, Concert Hall, City Hall. Clementine Ford dismantles the entitlement, aggression and toxicity in relation to boys, and reveals how the patriarchy we live in is just as harmful to boys and men as it is to women and girls.
Still on the subject of youth, Milsom notes that she wouldn't know the age of a single writer at the festival.
"It all comes down to the quality of the work, always for me," she says.
"Writing is something that takes time. Very few solid writers are solid writers at 20. I think I can say that confidently. You’ve got to live. You might understand the craft . . . I don't think it means we can't have different types of voices."
The official festival program was released on Friday, so the final countdown is on. In six weeks the city will be abuzz once again with writers and readers engaging in a healthy exchange of ideas.
Check out the program online at newcastlewritersfestival.org.au
Can you lend a hand?
The festival relies on team of more than 100 volunteers to help make the event happen. If you are able to give some time, you will be welcomed with open arms. It is an ideal opportunity to be part of the behind-the-scenes effort and you'll receive a detailed induction.To register and obtain more information visit newcastlewritersfestival.org.au/volunteers/