Behind the Event: With Lit Hop Producer Vikki Woods

What’s it like to develop a big, one-off literary event, from scratch? What are the challenges and rewards of the process? And how exactly do you put on a literary pub crawl, with trams (and non-drinking elements), as part of a statewide literary festival? We talk to Vikki Woods, organiser of Lit Hop.

Lit Hop seems to be the literary equivalent of a pub crawl, with participants going from one literary experience to another, all in an afternoon and evening in the Melbourne CBD. What made you come up with the concept – and were you inspired by the idea of an old-fashioned pub crawl?

I would love to take credit for the idea, but I was inspired by Lit Crawl, a fantastic literary street party of sorts, that originated in San Francisco, and has since moved to many other US cities as well as London. I couldn’t believe that no one in Australia had put on an event like this yet, and I wanted to be the person to do it.

I loved the idea of incorporating a pub crawl with literature, and when I was looking at areas to put it on, it seemed logical to involve the tram system — which to me feels so uniquely Melbourne. My initial idea was to use the free city loop tram – and I rode that tram at least ten times, scribbling down venues and ideas as I went. The pub crawl aspect came later in the planning. Originally I wanted everything to be really left of centre … imagine an event in a bakery, or a bike shop, or a laundromat. I love the idea of literature where you least expect it … but hey, booze and books, what could possibly go wrong? (Side note, not all the events are actually pubs, there are some wonderful venues involved such as Queen Victoria Women’s Centre where you may not get booze, but you will get amazing content.)

This is the first big literary event you’ve produced. How hard was it to get the concept up and running? And what were the challenges you faced along the way?

It has not been without its challenges, that’s for sure! The concept was the easy part … anyone you mention it to immediately falls in love with the idea, and I have been so lucky in that every venue I approached was keen to be a part of such a unique event. The logistics of how the event would work was probably my biggest challenge. I toyed with so many concepts – do I get curators to program more than one event? Do I stagger start times? My dining room table disappeared under masses of butcher’s paper, covered in scribbles. I have a really diverse event management background, so just pulled on all I have learned over the years to try and put this beast together!

The idea of bringing this event to Australia has been kicking around in my head for a few years now, and really, it could work anywhere, but it was really important to me that I try it in Melbourne first: it’s my home town, the public transport system suits the concept, we have wonderful venues (and so many of them), and of course, we have the best literary organisations, many of whom I had worked with in my previous role as event manager at the Wheeler Centre.

I pitched the idea to Lisa Dempster, the director of the Melbourne Writers Festival , while we were both in Singapore. Lisa loved the idea, and we kept the conversation flowing over several months. The festival felt like a good home for Lit Hop, especially the festival under Lisa’s leadership – the interactivity and connectivity of the event sits very nicely under the current MWF model. I like to think of it as the little project that could.

You’ve managed to bring many of Melbourne’s leading literary organisations on board for Lit Hop – as well as an impressive range of writers, from Willy Vlautin to Maxine Beneba Clarke. How did you go about wrangling all these partners and participants?

Believe it or not, that was the easy bit! I started with a wish list of organisations I really wanted to work with and just went from there. I would say 90% of people I approached said yes. Of course, there were a few who couldn’t participate, and they’re on my list for next time. I would love to take credit for the amazing range of authors taking part, but it was all down to the curators. I gave them free rein when it came to what their events would look like and who their participating authors would be. They’ve more than come up with the goods.

Lit Hop includes a lot of interactive events, which the audience can get involved with, from School of Life’s session where people share the books that have shaped them to the Stella Prize spelling bee and radio karaoke with Paper Radio. How important is that interactive element to the experience? And did you approach organisations to come up with their own ideas on how to engage audiences, or did you take it to them?

The interactive element was really important. We’re asking participants to commit six hours to Lit Hop, from the moment they pick up their ticket and exchange it for a wrist band at Fed Square to the end of the day when they pull up a stool at the bar at The Toff. That’s a big commitment, so it was really important to me that Lit Hop wasn’t just a series of authors being interviewed on stage, (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but that it was something different, a little more hands on. I threw some buzz words and random sentences at the curators, none of which I am sure made any sense. I said things like ‘Russian roulette’ and ‘a great big spinning wheel where maybe someone reads a passage in the voice of Sinatra’, ‘spin dice maybe’. Thankfully the curators are a lot more imaginative and creative than myself, and have come up with so many wonderfully different events, and that was the whole point – I take care of all the logistics and the event management and the things I know how to do, and let the artists do the art.

The Wheeler Centre is involved in Lit Hop with a New Book Swap in The Moat. How does that work – and do you think it’s a way to meet people, to get new books to read, or maybe a bit of both?

It’s definitely a bit of both! I love the idea of Lit Hop participants moving around The Moat, a ‘Josie Russell’ cocktail in hand (Hemingway inspired of course), a book clutched in the other, trying to convince strangers that they really want to swap books, or persuading strangers (we should really be calling them ‘new friends’ by this stage, it is the last stop of the day after all!) that they DON’T want to swap books. There is a speed dating, without the romance, aspect to this event … but hey, if there is romance, who am I to argue? I was so pleased when The Wheeler Centre came on board as a curator. Having a long and happy employment history with them, the symmetry of my old workplace being involved with the first event I am putting on as an independent producer is pretty special.

What would be your ideal literary event, if you could bring together anyone in the world to do anything, here in Melbourne?

I’m doing it! Lit Hop is the perfect event for me, as a producer it really allows me to flex my creative muscle. I have so many ideas of more interactive style literary events – watch this space! I want to keep producing literary events that are a little bit out of the box – non-traditional. As for who? Lena Dunham would be the top of my wishlist at the moment. The series of events she is doing in America to launch her upcoming book are exactly the type of events I want to put on.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately and why?

I find this the hardest of all book questions, as I am a voracious reader, so I will just tell you what I have read recently. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was really special — there is a twist that I just didn’t see coming, and I was really sad when I finished it. I am obsessed with New York, so found My Salinger Year really satisfying. And lastly, speaking of New York, I just finished The Love Affairs of Nathanial P. by Adelle Waldman, which was the perfect book to read in the lead up to Lit Hop: not too heavy, not too light.