Mark Rubbo on the Early Days of the Melbourne Writers Festival

This year, the Melbourne Writers Festival is celebrating its 30th birthday. To mark the occasion, the Wheeler Centre dropped by the festival's 2015 program launch to hear from Mark Rubbo. Mark is the managing director of Readings Books and Music and the founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival. He spoke about the festival's early days – after it was founded in 1986 as a sister festival to Melbourne's Spoleto Festival (now simply Melbourne Festival).

Mark Rubbo on the Early Days of the Melbourne Writers Festival

Archival image of Di Gribble and Hilary McPhee

I don’t know if we had a great vision [for the Melbourne Writers Festival]. Melbourne in [the early '80s] was very exciting – all the Australia Council money that had gone to writers five or six years earlier was starting to produce books. We had some wonderful Australian publishers – Di Gribble and Hilary McFee, Brian Johns at Penguin and many others – so it was a very exciting period, with a very small community.

1970 Adelaide Writers' Week programme

At that time, the only writers festival was [Writers’ Week at] the Adelaide Festival, and that was only every second year – there was nothing else, so it did seem that something should happen. It happened organically and accidentally – I’d been involved with the Australian Booksellers’ Association, and we had one of our conferences in about 1983 in Brisbane. Brisbane, at that time was governed by Joh Bjelke Petersen, so it wasn’t known as the home of culture, but they did have a very good university press – the University of Queensland Press, which published, amongst others, John Updike and Peter Carey and Kate Grenville – and I was speaking to one of the guys from the University of Queensland Press and he was telling me that they used to have readings by authors at the university and they would get a couple hundred people, and I thought ‘Well, if that can happen in Brisbane then surely it could happen in Melbourne’.

Archival image of Mark Rubbo and Ross Reading, founder of Readings

So I came back, and started doing things with Readings. There was a woman called Mietta O'Donnell, who had an institution called Mietta’s, up the top of Collins Street, down a little lane. It was [in the building that was formerly] the old Prussian Embassy, and she was looking for things to happen in her institution – so she approached me and asked whether I’d like to put on author readings at Mietta's, which seemed to me a very easy thing to do because the would provide the venue and everything. Mietta said she'd look after the authors very well... and Peter Rose was just telling me that after one of his readings, Mietta would take him upstairs to a very high-class restaurant upstairs (the chef was Jacques Reymond!) and the author would be given a wonderful dinner after their reading, so it was a great gig for any author.

Melbourne Writers Festival 1989 programme

Melbourne Writers Festival 1997 programme

So all this was bubbling around, and then the Spoleto [Arts Festival] thing happened, and a friend of mine - the late John Pinder - was doing some work for the Melbourne City Council and said, ‘You writers and publishing people should do something – it’s not right that there’s no publishing component [to the Spoleto Festival]. I’ve got a friend who has some work at the Melbourne City Council and he needs to extend his contract – he could help you.’ His name was Colin Talbot and he was a writer… so it sort of came out of that, and we cobbled [the first Melbourne Writers Festival] together very quickly. We used the National Book Council as our auspicing body, run, at the time, by a wonderful woman called Mary Lord.

Melbourne Writers Festival 1988 programme

We got together a committee – there was Michael Heyward and Peter Craven and Helen Garner, amongst others – and in a matter of months we raised the money and got the festival going. I had these grand plans that it would beat Adelaide and I would keep on suggesting these great authors like Margaret Atwood, but none of them would accept, and Peter Craven – who was editor of Scripsi magazine at the time, and was very into obscure poets – kept on saying, ‘there’s this wonderful poet called August Kleinzahler’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, no’, but eventually the only people that accepted were August Kleinzahler and Christopher Logue. But I should hasten to mention that our next year [in 1987], not only did we have Benson & Hedges [as sponsors], we had A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Vikram Seth, and... Margaret Atwood – so that was pretty good.

Melbourne Writers Festival 1998 programme

Melbourne is a city where there’s a hunger for talking about ideas. Jason Steger asked me the other day, ‘Did you ever think [the Melbourne Writers Festival] would grow this big?’, and I thought about it for a second and said, ‘Yeah, I probably did’.

Portrait of Mark Rubbo

Mark Rubbo OAM is Managing Director of Readings. He is a past president of the Australian Booksellers Association and was founding chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival. In 2006 he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia, 'for service to the community through fostering an awareness of Australian literature as a bookseller, literary critic, and promoter and supporter of Australian writers.'

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