The fifth annual Newcastle Writers’ Festival gathered an impressive group of great individuals, with over 140 writers from all over Australia and a record-breaking number of 9000 participants.
The three-day event kicked off on 7th of April with a panel run by Don Cohen, the president of Catchfire Press, a non-profit group which has been publishing Hunter region writers for over 20 years. The discussion, followed by the launch of the newest Catchfire anthology Home is the Hunter, clearly declared the support offered to local artists by Catchfire Press and its sister organisations.
The following sessions introduced experts in various forms of writing. Carl Caulfield quickly became the star of the From the Page to the Stage theatre panel, starting with defining a play as ‘‘an axe for the frozen sea of our souls’’ and then encouraging theatre-makers to ‘’piss in the eyeballs of the audience’’. The public of the From the Page to the Screen panel was enchanted by the lively Vanessa Alexander, known for making her features sold out quickly by buying all the tickets herself and censoring the genitals of Power Rangers.
Other topics covered on the first day of the festival included the historical relationship between Indigenous people and Europeans, writing about cancer and military research. Participants had a chance to have lunch with Marina Go and to attend a workshop run by experts in history, publishing and law. The grand finale was Newcastle Short Story Award Ceremony where Allison Kelly, a student at the University of Newcastle, was announced the 1st prize winner.
Inside Publishing, sponsored by the NSW Writers’ Centre, turned out to be the most popular session on Saturday morning. While one of the guests, Geordie Williamson, asked about his ongoing process of publishing, answered with a simple ‘’It’s a rolling disaster’’, there were glimpses of hope for the industry as well. The subject of the danger posed to the local retailers by the entrance of Amazon was raised and the commentary from Benython Oldfield, a literary agent and director of Zeitgeist Media Group, was unexpectedly confident: ‘’It’s pretty scary for independent booksellers but we have to deal with it and we will.’’
Addressing the recent boom in non-fiction popularity in Australia, promoters saved a spot for Matthew Thompson, an author of two books of international reportage set in Colombia, and Gary Ramage, the New Corp’s chief political photographer and writer. The word ‘’don’t’’ was trending during the discussion: while Thompson’s advice for students was ‘’Don’t do journalism, do anything but journalism’’, Ramage, faced with answering the statement ‘‘I want to be like you’’, said, ‘’Don’t do it.’’ They also emphasised the importance of self-defense skills.
Among many panels concerning women and targeted at women was a session with contributors to the Rebellious Daughters anthology: Caroline Baum, Susan Wyndham, Leah Kaminsky and Lee Kofman, the editor and host. The hour was filled with touching and whimsical stories about sexual contests between mothers and daughters and the ethics of borrowing vibrators from an unaware parent. Mothers present in the room reacted enthusiastically to Lee Kofman’s statement that having a writer born into a family is one of the biggest misfortunes that could happen to it.
Much heavier in mood was a talk between Caroline Baum and Steven Amsterdam, author of The Easy Way Out, an acclaimed novel about euthanasia. Actively working as a palliative care nurse, Amsterdam engaged the audience in a thoughtful debate concerning technical and moral challenges Australia may face in the near future.
Again, the afternoon came to an end with a ceremony - 2016 Microlit Award where microfiction writers, Evelyn Araluen, Tricia Dearborn and Patrick West, were interviewed by Cassandra Atherton. The guest of honour was poet Joanne Burns who launched the micro literature Landmarks anthology. The main event of the evening was cabaret-style event bringing to life Nick Earl’s novellas, with the participation of Nick and Chris Flynn, Peggy Frew, Charles Firth, Miles Merrill and a local band, Rose River.
Poetry, non-fiction writing and feminist issues were the main focus of the last day of the festival which started with live poetry performances over a coffee and a discussion about the vitality of Australian poetry. Then the spotlight was turned to the powerful female voices, starting with Clementine Ford, the author of Fight Like a Girl manifesto, and ending with Tracey Spicer, Tara Moss, Sara Mansour, Emily Maguire and Jane Caro, starring in a highly popular session titled The Importance of Women’s Voices. Other afternoon panels dealt with subjects of biography, rock music, politics and grief.
The annual growth in numbers of writers, participants, and local sponsors projects a bright future for the Newcastle Writers’ Festival. After five years the city is still eager to come together to ‘’celebrate words, ideas and the power of story’’.
‘’We couldn’t have come so far without our passionate audience.’’, said Rosemarie Milsom, the festival’s director. ‘’See you next year for the sixth festival.’’
By Alice Modzelewska