The night before social media in Melbourne lit up with the name TAVI – after the young blogger was announced as an official Festival guest – director Lisa Dempster wrote on facebook: “When I was interviewed for my current role I was asked who my dream festival guests would be. I talked about people like Tina Fey, Margaret Attwood, David Byrne and… the guest I’m about to announce tomorrow. Still can’t believe I’m doing this gig!” This is Lisa’s first year as Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival after being at the helm of the Emerging Writers’ Festival for three years.
Lisa is known for innovative programming, supporting emerging writers and an emphasis on digital spaces, and this year’s MWF program is an exciting and eclectic mix.
Lisa has brought out writers and editors from literary bible London Review of Books, (which will run as a mini festival-within-a-festival as with last year’s New Yorker), the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, as well as New York’s The Moth Mainstage. What made reading the program particularly interesting was the inclusion of disparate and sometimes divisive writers such as Tavi, Tao Lin, and the choice of a keynote by London mayor Boris Johnson.
“The response has been fantastic.” Lisa tells me. “One of the joys for me when the program comes out is seeing what people do latch onto. Suddenly a whole bunch of people are like ‘I love Tao Lin!’ or ‘Oh I’m so into the London Review of Books’, or ‘Why is there a kid in the festival?” she laughs. “It’s quite fascinating to watch that happening and it also makes me feel very proud when people say I love that author, I’m so excited you’re bringing them out.”
The ‘kid’ in the festival is Tavi Gevinson, a 17 year old American blogger who founded Rookie mag, now a cultural institution, written for, by and about teenage girls. Lisa tells me she has been reading Tavi’s work ever since Style Rookie, Gevinson’s early fashion blog exploded. “I started hearing about this young girl, as many people did, who was going to the fashion shows and I looked at her blog and I thought it would be a gimmick, I thought it’s one of those cute things that people have latched onto – a little girl writing about fashion. And I was blown away by how smart and insightful and unique her voice was.”
“When she founded Rookie mag, that was the moment when I knew she was going to be mega – because the writing in Rookie mag is so important and smart and interesting even to me as a 34 year old woman, let alone to the teenage girls who she’s actually writing for. She’s a real icon of the digial era because she recognises the power and value of connecting with people online and having those conversations in the digital space is just as important as anywhere else. I think she’s an inspiration.”
From a teenage fashion blogger to a conservative politician, the selection of Boris Johnson to deliver the keynote was a potentially provocative choice, but Lisa notes that while you can engage with him as a politician and whether you love or hate his policies, he’s also a writer, and has a passion for words. “He’s got a lifelong commitment to writing, he’s been a classics scholar, he’s been a journalist of note, he edited the Spectator for years before he went into politics, he has a lot of non-fiction books and he’s also written fiction.”
“One of the reasons why I thought he would be fantastic for the opening night is that he’s an amazing narrator, the speeches that he gives are astounding. He’s one of the best speechmakers in the world I think, and to have that experience of hearing from someone who really can give an amazing, provocative and inspiring speech is just incredible.”
Tao Lin is another such loved / reviled figure, first coming to prominence when Gawker named him “perhaps the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with” and “someone that you’ve never heard of but who we absolutely despise” after a series of pranks he played on the site. “I have been following Tao Lin’s career for years,” Lisa tells me. “I think he is incredibly interesting, I love that he’s so experimental and the way he integrates digital elements into his writing and doesn’t stick to traditional narratives. His work isn’t always linear it’s often fragmented, a sort of bloggy style. But he’s quite divisive, people don’t really know what to make of him because he is so young, so prolific, such an unusual voice, writing in such experimental ways.”
Lisa was interested to include Lin this year due to the potential change in reception due to his new novel coming out with international publisher Random House, “it seemed as though he was about to jump into the main stream and I wondered what that novel would be like compared to the other novels and how the mainstream would take him when he has such a huge cult following on the internet. I think he is going to be one of the interesting and provocative writers of the festival”
Throughout our discussion, Lisa emphasised that one of her goals was to make MWF an even more international festival, “One of the things I really wanted to do with the festival was make sure that Melbourne and Victoria are taking part in global discussions about literature and writing, so when I was putting the program together that was at the forefront of my mind.”
Bringing to Melbourne the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference — a series of events with world renowned authors which began in Edinburgh in August 2012 and has since travelled to 15 countries — as well as the London Review of Books mini-festival is part of the global focus of the program this year. “The London Review of Books is one of the biggest and most respected literary journals in the world – LRB really sets the cultural agenda. The writing that they publish is so smart, so provocative, and so insightful it has these amazing ripple effects throughout public discourse, and to be able to bring a conversation of that caliber to the MWF will really help us to cement our position as an international writers festival of note, and to help our audiences take part in these global conversations.”
But Lisa also highlighted her emphasis on the celebratory aspects of a literary festival, “the direction I want to take it in is more celebration – we’re the annual celebration for the city of literature and I really see the ‘festival’ element, so something festive and celebratory and fun as being very important and an area that we’re really growing into.”
This was something she drew from her time spent at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival where she completed an Asialink fellowship last year: “what I really drew from being in Bali was wanting to recreate that kind of magic in Melbourne – that special feeling of, yes it is a celebration and it is a party and we should be having a good time at the festival in addition to taking part in serious discussions.”
Lisa tells me this is emphasised through many more music and performance events this year, with a new venue at Bella Union, as well as a reimagined Festival Hub – a dedicated space just for MWF upstairs at Beer Deluxe which will host free events from the morning read to late night events.
“One of the magic things about a festival is that we live in this digital age and we can access so much online, we can conntect directly with our fabourite authors and watch videos and read interviews with what they’ve done, but nothing online can recreate the magic of actually sitting in an audience and having a live experience of connection with the person who’s talking and even though I’m a massive fan of the online space, that just can’t be recreated. That’s why I think we’re seeing a rise in popularity of festivals and literary events.”
Check out the Melbourne Writer’s Festival program here
This interview first appeared at Women’s Agenda sister publication Crikey.