With over 400 writers appearing across the week — from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists to extraordinary new voices working in experimental forms — there’s something at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to inspire everyone. Here, we highlight those who are at the pinnacle of their craft; those rare authors whose work seeks to articulate and define the essential truths that define us.
Working in forms as diverse as sprawling historical novels to heartbreakingly honest essays, these writers hold a mirror up to society and offer us the chance to better understand both the world around us and ourselves. Discover this year’s most essential writers to know.
Best known for: Writing sprawling, substantial, character-driven novels that allow for complete reader immersion. Meg’s books are full of families, marriages, sex, desire, the relationship between parents and children — subjects often and unfairly pigeonholed and delegitimised as the stuff of “women’s fiction,” which more accurately should be described as the stuff of life. Meg is a writer who casts her eye over modern society, then reflects it back to us: sometimes it’s with affection, sometimes in satire, but always in a way that’s compulsively readable.
Latest book: The Female Persuasion. The book opens as Greer Kadetsky, a college freshman, has a life-changing encounter with Faith Frank, a renowned second-wave feminist in her 60s who authored a feminist classic called The Female Persuasion. The novel revolves around the lives and relationships of Greer, Faith, a queer activist named Zee Eisenstat and Greer’s boyfriend Cory. These four characters are the compass points in a drama of becoming, as Greer’s journey of self-discovery dovetails with questions of feminism, power, misogyny and the ideological divide between different generations of women.
Opening line: Greer Kadetsky met Faith Frank in October of 2006 at Ryland College, where Faith had come to deliver the Edmund and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial Lecture; and though that night the chapel was full of students, some of them boiling over with loudmouthed commentary, it seemed astonishing but true that out of everyone there, Greer was the one to interest Faith.
Find Meg at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Making history instantly accessible, while not sacrificing any intellectual rigor. The University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, author of numerous award-winning books and regular columnist for the New Yorker, Simon brings a level of scope and depth to his non-fiction that is all too rare. As one Facebook fan-page puts it: “Simon Schama — great historian? or the GREATEST historian?”
Latest book: Wordy. This collection of 50 essays, out in June, is a showcase of a brilliant and intensely evocative writer with a keen ability to make sense of our collective history through the lens of individual lives. In these pages, you’ll find subjects as diverse as the music of Tom Waits, the works of Sir Quentin Blake; the history of the colour blue, to discussing what skills an actor needs to create a unique performance of Falstaff. “I was conscious of being wordy as a child. I was a terrible talker,” Simon has said. “I memorised the Latin names of flowers at five; I was shown off as a freak.” Here, his wordiness has found its fullest, richest expression.
Simon says: “Wordy is about the intoxication of writing; my sense of playful versatility; different voices for different matters: the polemical voice for political columns; the sharp-eyed descriptive take for profiles; poetic precision in grappling with the hard task of translating art into words; lyrical recall for memory pieces. And informing everything a rich sense of the human comedy and the ways it plays through historical time. It's also a reflection on writers who have been shamelessly gloried in verbal abundance; the performing tumble of language — those who have especially inspired me — Dickens and Melville; Joyce and Marquez.”
Find Simon at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Novels and short stories defined by her uncanny ability to summon fully-fledged characters with little more than a well-placed adjective. A master of the character study, Rebecca’s work is characterised by sweeping narratives that shift effortlessly between time periods and perspectives, and turning on elegantly constructed plots.
Latest book: The Great Believers, which was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2018. Set in Chicago in the 1980s, the novel tells the story of Yale Tishman, a gay man and museum development director, whose friendship group has been devastated by the AIDS crisis. His story is intercut with that of his best friend Fiona, who, in 2015, is trying to locate her estranged daughter in Paris and whose life is still affected by the loss of her friends to the disease. Both characters are connected to Nora, Fiona’s great aunt and an artist of ‘The Lost Generation’. This is a story of an epidemic that ravaged a generation and its aftermath; it's also a story of hope, survival and memory, of friendship and relationships, reconciliation and redemption, and above all, of life.
Opening line: Twenty miles from here, twenty miles north, the funeral mass was starting. Yale checked his watch as they walked up Belden. He said to Charlie, “How empty do you think that church is?” Charlie said, “Let’s not care.”
Find Rebecca at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her curious mind. Across both her books and journalism, Susan tends to gravitate towards niche topics or the footnotes of history — the history of rare flower fanatics, a dog who became a Hollywood star — and turn them into page-turning works of literature. Her writing is characterised by humour, insight and compassion, and her ability to dig into history and uncover truths that are often stranger and more compelling than fiction.
Latest book: The Library Book, a enthralling, deeply personal and vividly engaging investigation into one of humanity’s greatest inventions: the library. The book weaves together the story of the 1986 arson fire of the Los Angeles Library that destroyed 400,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000, the history of libraries generally and Susan’s own connection to these institutions, resulting in a book that’s part riveting cold case, part personal history and a heartfelt love letter to public library system.
Opening line: On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once the first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous; it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than 30 years later, the mystery remains. Did someone purposefully set fire to the library — and if so, who?
Find Susan at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Her ambitious, intellectually rigorous and perceptive novels that reflect modern culture with deadly accuracy and spare, dazzling prose. The only writer to ever be nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction for both a first and second novel, Rachel’s latest novel was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize. Her work frequently focuses on issues of feminism, contemporary art, revolutionary politics, culture, and modernism.
Latest book: The Mars Room. This book tells the story of Romy Hall, who is incarcerated in a Californian women’s prison serving two life sentences for killing the man who stalked her at the Mars Room, the nightclub where she worked. Written in alternating points-of-view, each inhabiting the inner life of a different character in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, the novel builds, through a series of shimmering vignettes, a heartbreaking picture of love, friendship and the American prison system.
Opening line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays. Once a week the defining moment for sixty women takes place. For some of the sixty, that defining moment happens over and over. For them it is routine. For me it happened only once. I was woken at two a.m. and shackled and counted, Romy Leslie Hall, inmate W314159, and lined up with the others for an all-night ride up the valley.
Find Rachel at Sydney Writers' Festival
Andrew Sean Greer
Best known for: Writing the kind of books that are wry, humane and laugh-out-loud funny — that somehow passed a lot of people by until he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His books are most often concerned with the vagaries of human love and desire, showcasing relatable, idiosyncratic and flawed characters and a deep love of language. If you want a book that brings a little joy into your life, Andrew’s latest novel is for you.
Latest book: Less, the story of Arthur Less: gay, approaching 50, a novelist of modest success who finds himself mired in a world of absurdist literary events that seem designed to undermine his already fragile ego. On top of that, there’s his ex-boyfriend’s wedding to avoid, spurring Arthur to line up a circuit of literary invitations all over the globe in an attempt to outrun his anguish. Part comic novel, part round-the-world travelogue, this book is a deftly funny, compassionate and joy-inducing romantic comedy that was a worthy winner of 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Opening line: From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad. Look at him: seated primly on the hotel lobby’s plush round sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee-crossed so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel. The pose of a young man.
Find Andrew at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: The mesmerising quality of his writing, full of sentences that are sumptuous, vulnerable and bracingly honest. His work includes the celebrated historical epicQueen of the Night, a sprawling novel about a fictional 19th-century soprano who claws her way out of poverty to rise to fame in Paris, and, Edinburgh, a coming-of-age story about a Korean-American boy growing up in Maineas he navigates the aftermath of sexual abuse.
Latest book: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a diverse collection of essays that together form a deeply considered memoir. Across 16 essays, Alexander writes generously and openly about coming of age as a writer and gay Korean-American, from his childhood in Maine, to the death of his father when he was 15, to living through the AIDS crisis in the 80s, and his adult reckoning with childhood sexual trauma, as well as lighter topics like working as a tarot card reader and the near religious experience of meeting Chloë Sevigny in an elevator. Lyrical and profound, this is a book by an essayist at the height of his powers.
You are like someone left in the woods with only an axe and a clear memory of houses deciding to build a house.
You will furnish everything with that axe.
Also the woods is your life.
You are the axe.
Find Alexander at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: His emotionally affecting work that’s fluid in both form and range. His debut novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, told the story of a recently widowed father living in a flat with his two sons — and an otherworldly, giant talking crow. Just as peculiar was the book’s form: a genre-defying hybrid falling somewhere between novella, poetry collection, and a series of dramatic monologues. Fittingly, the book later became a stage play, with Cillian Murphy acting in the lead.
Latest book: Lanny, a slim, 70-page novel that is every bit as experimental — and compelling — as his debut. Resonate with myth, the book tells the story of a missing child (the titular Lanny); a traumatised village; an ancient spirit called “Dead Papa Toothwort.” Told in strange, chorus-like narration that sometimes breaks free of the page to tumble and swirl and fight for attention. Thrilling in structure and full of strange magic, this is a book that demands to be read and re-read.
Opening line: Dead Paper Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes of dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns of the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring-pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores.
Find Max at Sydney Writers' Festival
Best known for: Classically gothic tales in which lurk monstrous things. Her first book, After Me Comes the Flood, was an atmospheric tale of a man who drives out of town to find his brother, but finds himself drawn to a strange house filled with people who seem to expect him — and is then unable to leave. Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, told the story of Cora, a recent widow and science-enthusiast who travels to the town of Colchester to search for the mythic Essex Serpent. Full of rich, textured and intricate prose, the book cemented Sarah’s place as the reigning queen of gothic storytelling.
Latest book: Melmoth. A supernatural mystery, it concerns a lonely woman named Helen who becomes obsessed with a mythic figure called Melmoth the Wanderer — the woman who denied seeing Christ in the garden of the night of his resurrection who was condemned to walk the earth for eternity. Everyone who Melmoth seeks out must make a choice: to live with what they've done, or be led into the darkness. Helen’s search for Melmoth takes her into her own past, where she must confront the things she’s tried to bury for years. Resonate with atmosphere and a sense of oppressive doom, this is a book that breathes new, uncanny life into the gothic form.
Opening line: Look! It is winter in Prague: night is rising in the mother of cities and over her thousand spires. Look down at the darkness around your feet, in all the lanes and alleys, as if it were a soft black dust swept there by a broom; look at the stone apostles on the old Charles Bridge, and at all the blue-eyed jackdaws on the shoulders of St John of Nepomuk. Look! She is coming over the bridge, head bent down to the whitening cobblestones: Helen Franklin, forty-two, neither short nor tall, her hair neither dark nor fair; on her feet, boots which serve from November to March, and her mother’s steel watch on her wrist.