Artistic directors are the visionary springboard from which our festivals are born. They know which books you want to read before you even know yourself, and can wrangle together a line-up of the most relevant writers of the day.
In honour of our 25th birthday, we caught up with former Sydney Writers' Festival Artistic Director Michaela McGuire (2017–2020) who regaled us with some of her favourite Festival moments from on-stage mispronunciations to former CEO's Chrissy Sharp's style of celebrating.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time as Artistic Director?
For the purpose of this Q&A I should probably talk about an unexpected and exhilarating moment that happened on a Festival stage in front of a sold out audience, or a particularly charming moment backstage with a writer. But in all honesty, my favourite memory would be a very ordinary afternoon in the office. Let’s make it a Friday afternoon, when the programming team would spend a couple of productive hours working through how and where we’d incorporate the newest confirmed authors into the program. If there’d been any sort of minor victory that week – and it never took much – Chrissy Sharp would suggest we get the Archie Rose gin out for a knock-off drink. Almost all my favourite memories are spending time with the incredible group of people I was lucky enough to call my colleagues, many of whom are still dear friends.
Who was the first person on your invite list when you became Artistic Director?
Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner – the hosts of Slate Culture Gabfest. I started quite late in the Festival cycle and inherited an incredible roster of authors who were invited by my predecessor, Jemma Birrell. I had about four months to round out the line-up and put together a few hundred combinations of authors, and I knew that Stephen, Dana and Julia would bring unique energy and expertise to their events. Trump was inaugurated while we were working through their individual sessions, and I asked Julia to moderate a panel with George Saunders, Mona Chalabi and Colson Whitehead called 'American Carnage.' Stephen conducted a beautiful, thoughtful interview with Bill Hayes about his memoir Insomniac City, about Bill’s relationship with Oliver Sacks and New York City. Dana gave an incredible and funny tribute to Bob Ross during a late-night tribute to bad television called 'Netflix and Chill.' And a thousand or so Gabfest superfans packed into Town Hall to see them butcher the pronunciation of Bondi ('Bondy') and dissect the new Baywatch movie.
I launched my first program by the glittering waters of Walsh Bay in 2017 and launched my fourth and final program on 13 March, 2020, the day the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Which guests had the best chemistry?
There was something incredibly special about the entire class of 2019, and it’s been amazing to see the friendships that were formed at The Old Clare Hotel and over breakfast at A1 Canteen play out in the subsequent years. So many of those authors ended up blurbing and launching each others’ subsequent books, and it’s a highlight of my career that I had a small part to play in making those introductions.
How did the Festival change during your tenure?
I launched my first program by the glittering waters of Walsh Bay in 2017 and launched my fourth and final program on 13 March, 2020, the day the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic. So, just a few small changes in between those two milestones. The move to Carriageworks in 2018 was a huge logistical feat, and my team and I made a concerted effort to program to a younger, more diverse audience, while still catering to the core crowd who come along on Thursdays and Fridays. We noticeably shifted the demographic of both the lineup and the crowd, and we were incredibly proud of that work. That program re-engaged an audience who hadn’t attended the Festival in years.
Which writer are you most excited about at the moment?
Nice try! Check out the 2022 Melbourne Writers Festival program when it launches in July.