From Dickens’ London to the New Yorker: Melbourne Writers Festival 2012

In the lead-up to this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, we spoke to new program manager Mike Shuttleworth about what this year has to offer, how the festival came together, and what he’s most looking forward to on the program.

Mike Shuttleworth

Mike Shuttleworth

This is your first year as program manager with the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. What’s been the best thing about the job so far?

Working with a fantastic and dedicated team has been amazing. We have programming committees with a lot of expertise and that helps, too. Steve Grimwade’s understanding of how to put a festival together is something to marvel at.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

Aligning guests to panels so that we can show writers to their best is obviously what it’s all about. Making use of visiting writers’ time, so that they are busy – but not beaten like a rented mule – is always a challenge, so there is a lot of negotiation that goes on well before we launch.

Getting my head around a program with 400 writers, 350 sessions and some big international programs has been pretty challenging. It has been full-on since February, when we put the schools program to bed, and will remain that way until late on Sunday 2 September when Robert Dessaix gives the closing night address. He really is an extraordinary and singular voice in Australian writing.

We know this is a bit like asking you to choose your favourite child, but … what are some of the events at this year’s festival you’re most looking forward to?

Gillian Mears

Gillian Mears

Well, definitely opening night with Simon Callow. I’m excited that we have brought together some of the best Australian fiction: Gillian Mears, Chloe Hooper, Susan Johnson, Emily Maguire and Deborah Robertson; the second weekend is especially strong on this.

The elegant English novelist, Patrick Gale, in conversation with Peter Pierce is not to be missed. Pico Iyer in conversation with Michael McGirr will be a highlight. There is a lot of politics and history, and I am pleased that we have the essayist Sylvia Lawson involved in a number of sessions: still one of the sharpest minds around.

I am excited about the illustrator Badaude, whose work adorns the walls of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, and has appeared in the Guardian and the Times. I think she will bring something unique and surprising to the festival, and complement a strong tradition of graphic-novel-making in Melbourne. Antony Beevor’s lecture and The Poet’s Voice are events I am looking forward to.

In the schools program, Linda Sue Park is not to be missed. Her book A Long Walk to Water is both a heart-breaker and filled with hope.

This year’s MWF includes a ‘mini-festival’ hosted by (and featuring) staff writers and editors from the New Yorker. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect from this – and how it came about?

This one is Steve’s parting gift as director. Steve met Rhonda Sherman, the magazine’s director of special projects, a couple of years ago and perhaps cheekily suggested that a number of New Yorker writers might like to come to our festival. With the right timing and some great support from sponsors, we are able to make it happen. I can’t tell you how excited some of the local writers and artists were when we started to put the word out: but think Tom Cruise on Oprah.

Peter Schjeldahl’s lecture on art criticism and Roz Chast’s ‘Theories of Everything’ are absolute musts. If you want to know what it really takes to write for the New Yorker, do catch David Grann in conversation with James Button. Really, we’re just honoured to be able to share these writers, and the magazine’s world view, with Melbourne audiences. Oh, Sasha Frere-Jones and Robert Forster (the Monthly’s music critic) should be pretty good, too.

Theatre great Simon Callow is giving the keynote address on ‘Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World’, to commemorate Dickens’ 200th birthday. What can we expect from that event?

Simon Callow is of course a great speaker, passionately interested in Charles Dickens. He offers a fresh perspective on the life and work of England’s great novelist. It’s a 75 minute talk that will highlight the role that theatre played in Dickens’ life and work and show why his characters remain fresh and relevant today.

We are also really pleased to be able to take Simon Callow to Ballarat for a presentation on Saturday 25 August.

You’ve worked in children’s and young adult literature for many years previous to this new role. Has this influenced the program at all – can we expect to see more young adult authors in the main program?

We have children’s programming across both weekends and two illustrators best known for their picture books drawing live in the Atrium. And we have a massive free National Reading Hour event on Saturday 25 August. I would always like to see more, and I would love to have an exhibition one day, but let’s take it one festival at a time for now.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have just finished Chloe Hooper’s novel The Engagement (which I’m still turning over in my mind) and Alison Lester’s picture book Antarctic adventure, Sophie Scott Goes South. I’m enjoying a chuckle at the political satire The Marmalade Files, and being lured back to The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. And after the festival, I look forward to reading some of Patrick Gale’s backlist.