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Creating awareness around arts and disability

Oct 29, 2013

Angela Bennetts and Antonia Hayes are co-directors of National Young Writers Festival, the largest festival in Australia dedicated to showcasing the work of young and emerging writers, presented annually at This is Not Art Festival  (TiNA), Newcastle. In the first of a series of interviews with each of TiNA’s sub-festivals, Eleanor Zeichner asked them some questions about their 2013 program and what’s in store for next year.

What were your festival highlights this year?

Angela: I particularly enjoyed the moments of surprise, when a strange alchemy would bubble up between disparate panel members or converging ideas. Seeing Anna Krien and Ellen van Neerven good-naturedly bait each other with challenging questions in our panel on ethics, The Right Stuff; the whole segment of accidental ‘UnTweetables’ thanks to the TV and film writers’ refreshing frankness in Scripts, Scenes & Sluglines; finding out that no one clicks on Syria or war in Linkbaiting (but that the editors have faith in humanity, anyway); and hearing about disgusting American treats in Salad Days: Tales of Memorable Meals all rate highly.

Antonia: I loved the two event series we ran over three days of the Festival: the existential Why? series questioning why we write, go to festivals and chase awards; and the series of events based around memory as seen through the eyes of three different writers: This One Time with Lorelei Vashti, Dan Ilic and Ellen van Neerven. I was blown away by every writer I heard read at our readings themed around illness and failure, Sick As and Fail Better, and the Late Night Readings showcased many an undiscovered gem. The debate about opinion writing – Feelpinons – was another highlight, and I suspect it made all the writers involved have an existential crisis about their own personal writing.

As artistic directors you drive the creative direction of the festival – how does your creative work outside NYWF inform your programming?  You run an open-call for submissions – what would you like to see more of in the 2014 program?

Angela: I am very dorkily passionate about reaching new audiences, retaining creative relevance year-round through digital channels, and demystifying writing as a pursuit (so it’s writing with a lower-case, not capital, W). I work as an editor for an immersive iPad journal of new Australian writing called Cuttings, which is, much like the Festival, very much about offering an exciting and challenging platform for green or super-green artists to experiment. And I also do marketing and digital content for various arts festivals, so I am somewhat obsessed with ensuring the work of the National Young Writers’ Festival is amplified throughout all media and social media channels as much as possible. ‘Like’ us, everyone!

Antonia: Outside the Festival, I work in merchandising and marketing for an eBook distribution company, so I’m lucky that my day job is still within the writing community. I get to collaborate with booksellers and publishers and need to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in local publishing and events, and I think that being constantly on the lookout for exciting debut authors definitely informs my approach to programming. Summer Land was such a hit at the Festival and she came on our radar thanks to a meeting I had at Hardie Grant through my job outside NYWF. I also have professional relationships with several of the young publishers who came to speak about the industry at NYWF at our Fresh and Frank roundtable event, and the audience really appreciated their taking the time to share some publishing inside knowledge and experience. This year I worked on the publicity campaign for the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards too, and it helped the programming decision making process: a couple of really strong entries in the Written Word category were also a good fit for the NYWF program.

Angela: We had a bumper crop of applications in 2013, and I’d like to see that trend continue in 2014. I’m especially interested in writers or artists that push the boundaries of what can be considered ‘writing’ today, who beat unusual paths or tell unique stories, and those who are keen to engage with Newcastle in particular as a site of inspiration and as an active community.

Antonia: In our open-call this year, we received a record number of submissions – more than double the previous years. In 2014, I’d love to see some more graphic novelists, political writers and science writers amongst our applicants. We’d thrown around some ideas about events centred around romance and self-help writing, but those fell through this year due to the lack of suitable artists. And magazine and newspaper editors! We had some great editors lined up for an interactive special event (that may or may not be loosely based on a reality TV talent show) but they started to drop from the program like flies the closer we got to the Festival. I would love to see this event happen at NYWF in 2014.

How do you support your participating artists to foster experimentation and creative risk-taking? After sixteen years of the festival, how do you remain committed to supporting emerging practice?

Angela: Unlike many of the capital city literary festivals – or indeed, many of the literary festivals worldwide – from the very beginning the National Young Writers’ Festival remit has been to offer an active alternative to the mainstream. Our prerogative is not to sell books – or even tickets! – so we have the space and the flexibility to experiment with programming. As directors, we are constantly reminded by our generous and clever Board to ‘be radical’, and we try to pass on that ethos by encouraging our artists to take risks that they might not otherwise feel comfortable with in a literary festival environment. By providing a support network and audience base, we aim to legitimise practice that often falls off the radar for being too edgy.

Some examples of this from the 2013 program include our blackout poetry session (creating bizarre snatches of genius from Gina Rinehart’s biography); the post-internet writing presentation; a panel on how to avoid being a douche when balancing creative/commercial concerns; a series of writers reading out their best internet trolls; a sleepover; and a 24-hour writing challenge.

In addition to readings and performances, you also run workshops and roundtables on the writing process. Why is it important to have these platforms for discussion within the context of the festival?

Antonia: Workshops and roundtables create an open dialogue between artist and audience and that dialogue is one of the strengths of NYWF: the discussions can be so forthright and fervent that the line between who’s on the stage and who’s in the audience is often blurred. It’s important for young and emerging writers to examine and question the writing process and professional industries within which we move, and at roundtables we want to give writers a forum to explore and push these boundaries relating to their craft.

The creation of new work and learning new writing skills and insights from workshops are crucial elements of NYWF. We don’t only want to showcase great writing and talented young writers at the Festival, we also want our audience to get their hands dirty, experiment with genre and style, and further develop their own writing. This year we ran a workshop stream of 10 different workshops, covering writing related skills like collaboration, animation, comedy writing, short stories, plays, pitching and storytelling, as well as a workshop focused on how to stay sane and professional as a creative type. Our most popular workshop this year was led by Triple J’s Tom Tilley on the art of a good interview. Not only are the NYWF workshops and roundtables great professional development opportunities for the participants, they’re also important for the NYWF artists who facilitate them to develop their own leadership and presentation skills.

You also emphasise the significance of mentoring and providing opportunities for young writers to engage with those in the industry, especially through your Younger Young Writers Program – why is it important for these networking connections to take place?

Angela: Mentoring and networking – as uncomfortable as it may make some people – is so, so important. Particularly for writers who frequently work in ‘silos’, with little formalised collegiality, peer-review, or professional support. We implemented a mentoring program in the 2013 program called Wind Beneath My Wings, offering tailored pair-ups with leading literary professionals – from Melbourne Writers’ Festival director and CEO Lisa Dempster to writer and NYWF legend Benjamin Law. It was so rewarding as a director to witness the pairs in action – exploring terrain they might not have in an informal situation, and learning from each other really. I wanted in on the program!

The Younger Young Writers’ Program is also a great example of this leg-up culture. Run exclusively for the littler literary legends out there – writers aged from 13-17 – it’s an excellent opportunity for the next generation to engage with other writers, learn from pros on the NYWF program, and have a totally fun time to boot. This year’s program under the leadership of coordinator Geoff Orton truly out-did itself, implementing a digital lifespan outside the Festival weekend, including participants from across Australia (via Google hangouts), and taking the participants on walking tours and excursions to panels throughout the program.

You ran a panel during the festival called Why Awards? What excites you more, Eleanor Catton being named the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker Prize, or Alice Munro being recognised with a Nobel Prize for Literature for her four decade of writing? Why do awards matter?

Antonia: Why Awards? was one of my favourite events on the NYWF program, and it was a response to Helen Garner’s speech at the inaugural Stella Prize ceremony where she spoke about “the losing game of writing books to win”. While I do think that there’s a dark side to literary awards culture, it’s vital to the writing and publishing community. Prizes can breathe new life into an overlooked book, can guarantee sales and a reprint, and can help an Australian author break into the difficult-to-crack international market. Awards are also of particular importance to unpublished authors and can catapult their manuscripts into the arms of agents and publishers. Some great recent examples are Graeme Simsion, who won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award for The Rosie Project, and Hannah Kent, who won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award for Burial Rites. Both these debut novels attracted global bidding wars, with rights sold in numerous territories, and have gone on to be international bestsellers thanks – in part – to winning awards.

Although I love Alice Munro and she very much deserved the Nobel Prize, I’m much more excited about Eleanor Catton winning the Man Booker. Not only because she’s the youngest author to win, but also because The Luminaries is an extraordinarily written, assertively clever, and self-assured novel that wasn’t published because she was a brand, or because the novel was a guaranteed cash cow. Nicholas Lezard from The Guardian recently wrote we should “pity poor Eleanor Catton, winning the Man Booker prize so young” because she will have that major achievement behind her, but I think winning one of the biggest literary awards has bought her what most young writers probably won’t achieve in their youth: the absolute freedom to write and be read. This isn’t just a monetary advantage, but rather a license to have more creative freedom with publishers: for now Catton won’t have to worry about how taking imaginative risks might translate into sales figures or careerist preoccupations like “building your brand” – she has a guaranteed audience. Being awarded the Man Booker Prize means that 823-page-long The Luminaries will be widely sold and read, which is probably the best thing that can happen to an ambitious literary novel written by a 28-year-old woman from New Zealand.

National Young Writers Festival is supported by the Literature section of the Australia Council.