Festival Welcome

Jemma_BirrellHow to live?

‘Everything has been figured out, except how to live.’ — Jean-Paul Sartre

When we’re trying to make sense of our world, writers offer solace and inspiration. Their words create a space where we can stop and breathe and take time out from the repetition of our days to question, reflect and explore.

Where do we find a sense of purpose? And how should we best live our lives? Mohsin Hamid is a writer who beautifully captures the global landscape and the human condition. In our Opening Address he contemplates where we might find meaning in a world that’s growing more uncertain and unstable every day.

We welcome David Mitchell, who will speak about The Bone Clocks, an astounding metaphysical thriller that bends time itself. Ben Okri, winner of the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road, takes us on a search for arcadia in his new book, The Age of Magic. Two literary giants join us from London: biographer Claire Tomalin shares stories about Charles Dickens, and Michael Frayn reflects on his life in theatre and fiction. In early May there’s also a rare opportunity to meet bestselling author James Patterson and hear the secrets behind his phenomenal success.

Alan Cumming, star of film, television and stage, reveals an intensely personal side of himself when he discusses his heart-wrenching memoir Not My Father’s Son at the Opera House. Also at the Opera House, surgeon and New Yorker staff writer Dr Atul Gawande tells eye-opening stories about the experiences that have helped him understand the realities of being mortal.

Another of this year’s highlights is Australian luminary Richard Flanagan, in his first public event in Sydney after winning the Man Booker Prize. Richard sits down with Jennifer Byrne for a candid chat about Australia, writing, his body of work and, of course, the Booker.

I was rapt when Helen Garner generously agreed to give a special lecture at the Festival. Helen shares her sources of inspiration in a rare and illuminating talk on writing about darkness. Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller of Kabul, also shares a fascination with humanity’s darker side, tracing the disturbing psychological history of Norway’s most infamous mass murderer in One of Us.

After much anticipation, we celebrate the publication of a new book from Kate Grenville, based on fragments of her mother’s memoir. And Robert Dessaix offers up fragments of his life in What Days Are For, a book which reinforces his place as one of Australia’s most profound and delightful writers.

Join us for exclusive conversations with two former prime ministers. For the first event of the Festival, Julia Gillard opens up about how she managed to stay sane during times of extreme scrutiny, while John Howard shares his insights on leadership as part of our new lunchtime Business Bites series.

Journalist Nick Davies and foreign correspondent Christina Lamb put everything on the line for their stories. Nick broke the News of the World hacking scandal and Christina has spent the last 28 years in the Middle East. Christina is the co-writer of Malala Yousafzai’s memoir and her new book looks at how the West ignored Pakistan and Afghanistan when it really mattered.

One of the special things about a literary festival is the opportunity to grapple with subjects too often surrounded by silence. Matt Haig’s novel The Humans made me laugh and cry, and now Matt shares his experience of depression in Reasons to Stay Alive. Caitlin Doughty turned a morbid curiosity into her life’s work when she became a mortician – she talks frankly about death in her new memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

From the classics to popular culture, the best storytelling comes in many forms. Starlee Kine, known for her work on This American Life and now at Gimlet Media, fills us in on why podcasts are so popular. Jonathan Lethem examines America up close, from fictional portraits of New York to essays on James Brown and Philip K. Dick. And David Malouf speaks with Daniel Mendelsohn about their shared appreciation of the classics.

Writer and artist Douglas Coupland, the man who coined the term Generation X, is arguably the voice of modern pop culture. Now Google’s first Artist in Residence in Paris, Douglas shares his vision of our future and speculates about how the internet has changed our brains.

With so much of our daily lives spent in front of screens, there’s a growing need to disconnect and get back to nature. Follow the path of modern day shamans with Leigh Ann Henion, who searches the globe for the most spectacular natural phenomena, from lightning storms to butterfly migrations.

Helen Macdonald, author of the award-winning H is for Hawk, delivers the Festival’s Closing Address. Rich with anecdote and reflection, Helen’s talk explores nature’s role in teaching us how to live. Can we learn to treasure nature as something to be loved because it is resolutely inhuman, full of things that are not like us?

The Curiosity Lecture Series has grown into three days of free talks on all types of subjects, from capital punishment to non-monogamy and Elvis’s hips. There are daily sessions of Writers on Writers including John Bell and Jonathan Bate on Shakespeare, and surprising double acts in our Co-conspirators series, featuring Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales on their reading lives.

At the end of a long day, ease yourself into festival nights, with writers’ cocktails and live music in The Hemingway Bar at Pier 2/3. After dark there’s storytelling performances on the Club Stage and the Late Night Salon featuring a selection of our favourite Australian and international guests.

You can discover some of the best of the Festival at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres with crime writer extraordinaire Michael Connelly, and Hugh Mackay on The Art of Belonging. For the first time we will also stream key events to Parramatta Library and arts centres around NSW.

It’s a bumper year of events for children, teens and families. We have international superstars including British comedian and children’s book celebrity David Walliams, and award-winning authors Anthony Horowitz, Sally Gardner and Laurie Halse Anderson. Locally we have an amazing line-up, with Andy Griffiths, Garth Nix, Melina Marchetta, Jacqueline Harvey and Justine Clarke, just to name a few. To top it all off, we’ve got our biggest ever Family Day on Sunday 24 May.

I hope Sydney Writers’ Festival offers insight, respite and inspiration, with new writers to discover and conversations to expand your vision of the world.

I look forward to seeing you there.


Jemma Birrell
Artistic Director



Funders and partners of Sydney Writers' Festival 2015