For two decades now, Byron Bay has hosted one of Australia’s largest regional literary festivals. In 2016 it’s bigger than ever, August seeing the arrival on the northern New South Wales coast of 150 writers, thinkers and commentators, gathering for a weekend of talks and readings.
The program of more than 100 sessions features both international names and well-known local talent. Among the international guests are American satirist and political commentator PJ O’Rourke, Cheryl Strayed (Wild), best-selling UK novelist Louise Doughty (Black Water, Apple Tree Yard), and The New Yorker staff writer William Finnegan, whose memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life won a Pulitzer Prize in April. Australian writers include Helen Garner, Tom Keneally, and Drusilla Modjeska.
“We put a lot of thought into trying to curate the program as broadly as possible,” says festival director Edwina Johnson. "[It's] for both readers and people who are interested in the big issues and important ideas of the day.”
The festival’s new tagline “Where stories take you” applies as much to fiction as it does to discussion of topical issues. Novelists such as Anna Funder and Charlotte Wood share the program with sessions dedicated to the environment, refugees and post-election politics. Speakers range from scientist and Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty to David Manne, an immigration lawyer and human rights activist. Journalist Stan Grant will talk race and reconciliation in giving the annual Thea Astley Festival Address.
Even non-readers will find something of interest in the festival line-up. As well as writers and commentators, in attendance are musicians (Paul Kelly), artists (Archibald Prize-winning Nigel Milsom and cartoonist Michael Leunig), photographers (including Tim Page, Gary Ramage and Rio Helmi) and more. For families, a children’s program runs all Sunday.
The festival has come a long way since its inception 20 years ago, when founder Chris Hanley brought together a small group of writers on the quietest weekend of the Byron calendar. The festival grows each year, says Johnson, and the picturesque surrounds form part of the appeal. “It’s not hard to entice writers to come to Byron,” she says.
The sentiment rings true for Leigh Sales, journalist, political commentator and one half of the much-loved Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast (co-host Annabel Crabb is also speaking at the festival). “There’s nothing more pleasurable than talking about books with other people who love reading,” Sales says. However, she adds, “I’m mostly looking forward to hanging out in northern New South Wales, which is one of my favourite parts of the world.”
Byron Writers Festival will be held at the Elements of Byron resort, with outdoor marquees, a sculpture exhibition and catering by local restaurants. Tickets come in one- or three-day passes, allowing you to wander freely between sessions across the festival.
To cool off from the heady intellectual discussion, an ocean swim is just a stone’s throw away. Beach access, says Johnson, is open to the public throughout the festival: “You can walk out of the festival site over the sand dunes to Belongil Beach.”
Byron Writers Festival runs from August 5 to 7. See the festival website for tickets and a full program.