You could be forgiven for thinking Michaela McGuire’s office in The Rocks is one of a creative start-up, with its metres of white butchers paper covered in Post-It notes and handwritten scribbling. The new director of the Sydney Writers Festival laughs as she points out it’s easier to visualise the week-long festival’s 400 events, involving 482 writers across 30 venues, than scroll endlessly through the corresponding Google spreadsheet.
The 31-year-old former co-CEO of Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival may be new to this city but she is no stranger to the Sydney Writers Festival, having attended previous events as an author and journalist. A regular literary critic for Fairfax and columnist for The Monthly and The Age, she has also written three books, including Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law.
For her first festival as artistic director McGuire has maintained the status quo she inherited from previous director Jemma Birrell, who built an extraordinarily popular event attracting an average of 103,000 attendees over the past three years.
Like Birrell, McGuire has broadened the scope of the festival to be more inclusive, creating an event she hopes celebrates the art of storytelling in all its forms, rather than being confined to literature.
“Some of the guests I’m really excited about this year aren’t fiction writers,” she explains, highlighting newly appointed Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth and the writers behind cult podcast series Slate’s Culture Gabfest as examples.
“I’ve been a huge fan of Slate’s podcast for five or six years and it’s wonderful to have them do a live show. They’re really switched on and will bring a nice perspective to the festival,” says McGuire of guests Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner who will record their first-ever show outside North America live from Sydney Town Hall.
Veep creator Armando Iannucci will do a pre-festival event on May 2. Continuing the non-fiction vein is The Guardian US Data Editor Mona Chalabi who will give an illustrated talk on immigration using visuals to help explain the actual risks migrants pose, and their potential contributions to society. “I think that’s such an interesting way to come at immigration,” says McGuire.
Of course it wouldn’t be a writer’s festival without authors and McGuire has cast her net wide to include some of the world’s newest, youngest and most exciting. Including critically acclaimed American short-story writer George Saunders whose debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo, about the death of Lincoln’s son Willie, was highly anticipated. “He’s doing his literary rock star tour, he was on Seth Meyers the other night and I think will be extraordinary.”
Also on McGuire’s highlights list is German author and co-writer of Wim Wenders’ film Palermo Shooting, Norman Ohler. His international bestseller Blitzed, Drugs in the Third Reich lifts the lid on the rampant drug abuse in Nazi Germany. “It’s an untold story and his research methodology is quite unorthodox,” McGuire says.
Another essayist-turned-author is young American writer Brit Bennett whose debut novel The Mothers instantly became a New York Times best seller; while her Jezebel essay “I Don’t Know What to do with Good White People” attracted more than a million hits in three days. Her novel is now being adapted as a Warner Bros feature film, with Bennett penning the script.
Outside the author talks are numerous events and sessions, including American Carnage, which examines the state of play in US politics, featuring Saunders; author of the New York Times number-one best seller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, and Chalabi, headed by Slate’s Turner. “I think that will be wonderful, possibly very depressing but nice to hear people with such gravitas.”
Black Nerd Culture will host The Sapphires and Love Child actor Miranda Tapsell, Whitehead and hosted by Cleverman’s creator Ryan Griffen. There’s a celebration of queer literary heroes in Gay For Page headed by Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack. McGuire is continuing the free popular Curiosity series where writers take on an unexpected topic, from bestselling author and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss discussing the hidden realities of our universe, to The Toymaker writer Liam Pieper on Taylor Swift.
Hannah Kent, Ian Rankin, Jimmy Barnes, Liane Moriarty, and 2016 Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty are just a handful of other big names to join the list; while writers Rebecca Huntley, Peter Polites and Ellen van Neerven will guest curate.
With talks programmed from Auburn to Kogarah, Castle Hill and Woollahra in addition to live streaming, McGuire is hopeful her twin themes of inclusiveness and refuge will be met.
“There’s a real sense of camaraderie and community, where people have a conversation that unspools over a couple of days led by incredible authors from all over the world. At a time when all the quite horrible forces are compelling people to seek refuge, I think books are something everyone can relate to, and celebrate literature as a place of solace, even for a child.”
The 20th Sydney Writers’ Festival runs May 22–28 at multiple locations.