Updated: Dec 22, 2022
The festivals are back and last weekend we welcomed the return of Bellingen Readers & Writers festival in the Mid North Coast of NSW. What a lineup: From Thomas Keneally to Peter Carey, David Williamson, Bryan Brown, Kevin Rudd, Dick Smith, Fran Kelly, Jane Caro, Norman Swan, Professor Doherty, Costa ... the list goes on. Amongst all the literati of Australia, Darren and I found ourselves running a midday session on our debut picture book Willow the Wonderer - We may very well have been the first picture book author and illustrator to have been on the main program of a literary festival! Here's the download.
Writers' festivals are a highlight of the cultural calendar
Writers' Festivals offer a rare access into the world of authors. They are a 'must attend' cultural event for anyone who loves books and perhaps one day dreams of publishing a few of their own.
It is a chance to hear first-hand from the authors; those we know and love, those we are curious about and especially those we haven't 'discovered' yet.
We can sit back and hear them read a small abstract from their book, learn what inspired the story, get an insight into their writing process and the choices and dilemmas they worked through. For those of us brave enough, it is possibly the only opportunity to ask that burning question on the characters and plot lines (and what's coming next). And of course, it is the chance to get our much loved hardcover copy signed by the author themselves.
Luckily for us, literary festivals are held throughout the year all over Australia, in capital cities and beautiful regional towns like Bellingen. I've outline the notable ones at the end of the post - this article though is an unapologetic ode to the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival that we recently attended and presented our debut book, Willow the Wonderer, at.
A unique literary event featuring a very special picture book
Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival is a much loved event in the Mid North Coast of NSW that "celebrates Australian writing in all its many forms".
The town of Bellingen has an interesting history, having been host to a mixing pot of cultures over the years.
The traditional owners of the land are the Gumbaynggir People who still live in the area. Loggers arrived in force during the 1840s, drawn by the majestic red cedar trees. Unfortunately these were all but decimated by 1900. The lush forests turned into dairy farms and Bellingen very much remained a farming community until the 1970s when the "hippies" moved in en masse...
The vastly different cultures clashed at times but slowly and surely the community came together over food, fashion (and certain 'cash crops') giving the town it's rather unique, if not eclectic cultural soul.
Today Bellingen attracts creatives from all over Australia who seek to steep in it's quiet magic and create something special. The cedar forests may have gone but Bellingen remains a natural wonder. The rolling hills of the Promised Land (a real place) and the creeks and swimming holes of the Never Never (also a real place) are the most spectacular I have seen anywhere in Australia.
Given it's rich cultural history and beautiful 'natural' tapestry, it was unsurprising that Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival ended up being one of the most diverse and enjoyable literary events I've had the pleasure of attending.
The organisers did a great job of covering different genres and had a good mix of not only prominent figures headlining the event, but also emerging writers and to their credit, a dedicated space and programming for local self-published authors.
This is a balance that I find 'big city' events fail to strike, and judging by the high rate if engagement across all programs, it is a missed opportunity.
Indeed if there is anything holding literary festivals back, it is that they are too literary...
Literary festivals tend to be serious affairs, built around the 'serious' genres, with authors of literary fiction headlining the event. Biographies of prominent figures in business, politics and the arts are typically the next big attraction. Popular genre such as crime also gets a look in, as do topical non-fiction books written by prominent public figures.
All others genre or categories, in spite of their popularity, often don't get featured - at least not in the main program. The omission of 'children and young adult' in particular tends to be glaring as this category accounts for almost half of the books sales in Australia - noting that picture books are estimated to account for ~21% or a fifth of all book sales.
Most festivals do organise children's programs but these tend to be delivered directly in schools. There are generally no sessions geared at 'budding bookworms' during the main days of the festival itself, which is when these festival come to life...
It's on these days that you get to meet or hangout with other like-minded people and feel the sense of community that stories, books and literature creates. This makes it the perfect opportunity for parents and grand parents, who may themselves be book lovers, to instill the love of reading and literary culture in their children and grandchildren.
Excluding the next generation of readers in an industry where growth has all but stagnated over the past two decades, hardly makes sense ...
Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival felt unique in this regard.
It would by no means disappoint the literati; all serious genres/categories were well represented but the program also made room for bright new talent in young adult literature; to my delight the focus was on 'magical realism'. And of course, Darren and I also ended up on the main program, as the illustrator and author of Willow the Wonderer, a children's picture book. Fittingly, our session was free for kids.
I remember saying to Darren that we must be the first children's picture book to be on the main program of a literary festival in Australia!
(We'll carry on with this 'claim to fame' until proven otherwise ... ;)
At any rate we were delighted, humbled and grateful to have been included amongst Australia's literati:
Leading the pack were literary and academic figures like Thomas Keneally, David Williamson, Peter Carey and Prof Peter Doherty. Thomas Keneally and Peter Doherty were an absolute hoot - it would have been hard to imagine someone who penned Schindler's List would be so gregarious or a conversation about COVID hosted by a Nobel laureate, be entertaining!
Indigenous authors, language and storytelling were a highlight - Multiple programs featured bestselling authors Anita Heiss and Mykaela Saunders and Nardi Simpson. Well-known local Gumbaynggirr figure Michael Jarret also hosted Gumbaynggir stories; it is truly wonderful to see indigenous languages going through a revival
Kevin Rudd, Dick Smith, Mark Tedeschi, Bryan Brown and Jane Caro rounded up the politics, business, crime, philanthropy and activism.
Journalists and radio/TV personalities added to the event with Fran Kelly, Dr. Norman Swan and Costa ensuring the ABC was well represented. Believe Costa was also the most 'mobbed' guest of the event - hurrah to gardening!
We told the story and the stories behind the story
Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting tale about the search for happiness.
It is the first in what will be a series of stories, steeped in adventure and exploration of the natural world, with the narrative built around a central life lesson or a 'seed of wisdom' (as we like to call it). We decided to start off the series with examining the most existential of all human quests; the pursuit of happiness - of course.
We hope that these books and stories will help our young readers navigate the inevitable vicissitudes of their future lives - at least better than we have...
These are the stories that we wish we'd grown up with and from what we hear from our readers (especially the grown up ones), it's the sort of stories we've all been yearning for.
Ours was pitched as a family-friendly session that like our book, was as much about the illustrations as it is was about the words. And so we started with a 'story time'.
Darren and I took turns reading the verses out aloud to a beautiful slide show of the illustrations.
Everyone loves a good story and it was a delight to see 'kids' of all ages settle back and soak it all in.
The little ones got immersed in the rhythm, rhyme and imagery, whilst the big ones smiled knowingly at the life lesson many of us have learnt the hard way...
A story never stands on it's own; there is a story behind every story.
The second part of our talk was very much about sharing the stories behind the Willow the Wonderer: What brought Darren and I together, inspired us to write this tale, and the life experiences that made us stop and examine our lives, and our in-ate beliefs and assumptions about finding happiness.
We had written these out as short stories as well, complete with their own quirky illustrations. Our audience were treated to not one - but three and a half stories!
An audience member asked a beautiful question at the end of the session - "Did I really wish that I had grown up knowing, what I now know about happiness?"
I too have wondered about this; is necessary to go through the ups-and-downs of life for us to gain the perspective that we do? Or can this be taught earlier? And if it is taught, will we really learn? Will it save us time, anguish and suffering?
My thoughts on this and answer was that ...
"it's hard to know how the seed of wisdom we share in the story will grow and manifest, and whether it will indeed help our young readers out in their future lives...
What I do know though, is that narratives are powerful. The ones we hear during our impressionable years of childhood, stay with us.
Given the choice between:
'once upon a time ... boy rescue girls ... and they lived happily ever after'
'...happiness lies within and it knows no bounds'
I'd go for the latter every time!"
A final word of thanks
All in all Bellingen Readers and Writers was a very well conceived, organised and run event.
It was also staged beautifully at the Bellingen showgrounds, with it's historic buildings, very well curated food trucks, a fantastic outdoor bar with live music and woodfired pizza, and thoroughly picturesque but practical fire pits that brought the community together as we sought to keep us warm on the uncharacteristically freezing nights!
It is staggering to think that the entire event is an effort of volunteers, who do this for nothing but the love of books, reading and the literary culture. To them, as writers, we express our deepest gratitude.
Stories define and preserve our culture. We create stories because we have an innate need to. Seeing our work appreciated, embraced and presented to the world, as wonderfully as the Bellingen Readers and Writers crew did, sustains us.
We end with a special thanks to Adam Norris for championing our book and Liz Morgan-Jones for her gracious hospitality on the day.
Like the sound of writers festivals? Here are some notable festivals held through the year. It is by no means a comprehensive listing so do look up to find other little gems (and let me know about it):
Adelaide Writers Festival (March) - organised amongst a number of other festivals celebrating the arts - music, art, dance - this is everyone's favourite writers festival to attend. It is also the largest literary event in Australia and continues to get better every year. A great one to plan a trip to Adelaide around.
Newcastle Writers Festival (April) - A relatively new addition to the scene but one that will no doubt grow given Newcastle's long held reputation for being a creative hotspot.
Brisbane Writers Festival (May) - This is on my 'to-attend' list next year mainly because they have started profiling (albeit online) author/illustrator series with a focus on children's book authors. A refreshing change indeed!
Sydney Writers Festival (May) - this is one I have regularly attended (since it's where I live). It attracts a lot of big names in the literary world which is great. Unfortunately there is little to no room in the program for local writers... As a new writer, I felt the lack of representation rather acutely this year and hope it is something that the program directors seek to address in future years.
Bellingen Writers Festival (Jun) - a much loved writers festival in the Mid North Coast of NSW that seeks to celebrate Australian writing in all its forms. Won't say more as this entire blog is about them!
Mildura Writers Festival (July) - Mildura is a charming country town and with a promise of four days of words, food and wine - it's sounds like a festival that is hard to resist. Adding it to our list of events to attend next year (this year we need to finish our second book!)
Canberra Writers Festival (Aug) - Another relatively new addition to the scene but one that has been embraced by the locals who are amongst the most prolific readers in Australia.
Byron Writers Festival (Aug) - Byron needs no introduction ... what started off as a surfers and hippy paradise has now turning into a playground for celebrities, influencers and city slickers. Whilst the old crowd lament the change in scene, Byron continues to attract the younger generation looking for something laid back but not completely cut off. The Writers festival is a major event in the towns calendar and adds to the cultural vibe of the town known for its celebration of the arts.
Melbourne Writers Festival (September) - Melbourne is the arts capital for Australia and unsurprisingly this is another big city event to attend.
Kimberley Writers Festival (September) - Now in it's 15th year, this promises to be a "one-of-a-kind writer’s festival is held in one of Australia’s most stunning, dramatic and remote locations, providing an opportunity to meet authors and special guests in an informal environment. It’s a completely different experience to big city writers’ festivals." And that is more than enough for it to make it to my 'to-attend' list!
Blue Mountains Writers Festival (October) - Closer to home and a fabulous excuse for a trip to the mountains :) Blue Mountain is another town that is a hippy migration success story. Host to a number of notable writers and artists, it is a great one to attend.