Happy 30th Birthday, Melbourne Writers Festival!

This year, the Melbourne Writers Festival turns thirty. We asked Michael Williams, Director of the Wheeler Centre, to share what the festival means to him – and Lisa Dempster, Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, to give us an insight into this year's program.

Program for first Melbourne Writers Festival, in 1986

Michael Williams, Director of the Wheeler Centre, on the Melbourne Writers Festival as a literary institution:

I don’t remember the first literary event I ever went to. Maybe craning to see Mem Fox read Koala Lou at Books Illustrated; schlepping through Dallas Brooks Hall for a Children’s Book Council event waiting for the chance to get Penny Pollard’s Diary signed by Robin Klein; queuing at Readings to buy my copy of Roald Dahl’s Matilda on publication day; or seeing my school librarian Mrs Lithgow dressed up as the grandma from My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch for school book week. We readers will go to crazy lengths to connect with other readers and to celebrate the books that we so passionately adore.

Program for 1987 Melbourne Writers Festival

As a book-obsessed adult living in Melbourne, there have been few more magical places to continue that celebration and indulge that craziness than the Melbourne Writers Festival each year. I can’t pretend to have attended all thirty years of the thing but the memories and friendships made, the authors met, the ideas discussed, the sneaky glasses of wine consumed, all add up to at least thirty years of pleasure. And I know I’m not alone.

Poster for 2009 Melbourne Writers Festival

Happy 30th Birthday to a Melbourne literary institution. The idea, the crazy unthinkable idea, that the solitary imaginative act of being a reader might be the basis for a community – for an activity that brings people together and is the source of festivities – thrills me to this day.

Poster for 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival

Our warmest congratulations to the incredibly hard-working team at Melbourne Writers Festival – staff and board alike – for once again producing an event and a tradition not just worthy of the City of Literature we live in, but integral to it. All of us here at the Wheeler Centre are very proud to work alongside our festival partners and want to apologise in advance: those impatient fans at the fronts of all the queues are our team. Festival time is coming and we’re all excited.

Lisa Dempster, Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, on this year's program:

To celebrate our milestone thirtieth anniversary, Melbourne Writers Festival has gone all out with this year’s program. We’ll be presenting the biggest, best and most exciting festival yet, with 540 participating writers, and 530 events designed for everyone who reads.

Knowing that the Melbourne Writers Festival audience look to us for intellectual stimulation, we created a program designed to challenge thinking and deepen understanding on issues such as climate change, war, women’s rights, and Australia’s political environment. To fire imaginations and creativity, we have invited inspiring authors to share their views on topics as diverse as justice, ageing, fantasy and power.

We also know that Melbourne audiences, being culturally sophisticated, are interested in experimenting and like to seek out new and different experiences. This has led us to doing all sorts of untraditional literary programming, including our Thinking & Drinking events at Grub in Fitzroy, hosting author conversations in Dumbo Feather’s Airstream caravan, running an #onboardbookclub on Melbourne’s trams, and hosting reading circles in our Festival Club, led by Melbourne Library Service librarians. 

This year, we’ve also introduced the Festival Forum, a series of events that pose a big question about an issue of world importance – our responsibility to children globally – to get Melburnians thinking and discussing. We’ve appointed journalist John van Tiggelen as our writer in residence: he’ll develop an essay that responds to the discussion generated across the festival.

We believe our approach to programming is innovative – our experimentation and playfulness goes beyond the traditional writers’ festival model. The reason we have taken this approach is because of the high standards expected of us, being a writers’ festival in a City of Literature; it’s a wonderful challenge to create events in one of the most dynamic literary environments in the world. 

Melburnians are so engaged with reading and writing, and in any given week (or day!) there are loads of wonderful events and literary opportunities available (including at the Wheeler Centre, of course), that MWF really has to offer something special in order to make an annual celebratory splash. Melbourne’s vibrant writers, literary organisations and, vitally, readers, are constantly pushing us to do better, dream bigger, and think outside the box when we imagine what a literary event can be. 

I consider myself extremely lucky to be a literary programmer in a city like Melbourne, where audiences are so active and enthusiastic. The best part of programming Melbourne Writers Festival is that the city and its people gives us so much latitude to do things differently, and to have fun doing it.

Thirty years after the first Melbourne Writers Festival, the ongoing challenge and pleasure of making it happen each year is constantly reinventing how it’s done, while never losing sight of what has always made the festival special: bringing writers and readers together to be stimulated, inspired and entertained by each other. 

Portrait of Michael Williams

Michael Williams is the Director of the Wheeler Centre.

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