They welcome you as you approach the Festival Precinct, guide you to your next session and make sure you get your book signed by your favourite author. Our volunteers are the face of Sydney Writers’ Festival, and we are so grateful to have such passionate, literary masterminds to help you navigate Festival Week. You’ve already met many of them – now you can hear from them, in this special series of interviews with Sydney Writers’ Festival volunteers.
This edition, we speak to long-time vollie Marty Beauchamp about meeting his literary hero, what he loves about the Festival and what he’s reading.
What do you love most about the Festival?
The thing I love most about the Festival is the older couples who become energised by it and the events they come to see together. My parents are the classic New Zealand couple born around the time of the war, they love each other absolutely to bits but you wouldn't want to be silly with all those feelings and whatnot. They go to festivals and my dad can't help himself but suddenly hold mum's hand; the books and the feeling of being amongst book-lovers does that to lots of men I see every year.
Have you met a literary hero at the Festival?
My encounter with a literary hero will stay etched indelibly in my memory for all time. I was the supervisor for an event in one of the smaller theatres in Carriageworks. It was a panel discussion with three young authors. Everyone had gone in and I was outside the curtains, just in case there were any real late-comers.
A Carriageworks worker came towards me gesturing towards a man following close behind her. “This guy hasn't got a ticket,” she said. George Saunders stood there. He smiled and said, “I'm really sorry, I don't have a ticket, but I used to mentor one of the women in there, and I wanted to hear her speak."
I said, “Please, go right in, sit anywhere you like.” I swear he shrunk down as close to the floor as he could get and went past all my volunteers apologising profusely and took the last chair in the last row, right in the far corner. It was the year after Lincoln in the Bardo.
I ran over to the bookshop and bought a copy of Lincoln. When the discussion ended, he stood for a time in the aisle, waiting patiently. Finally catching the eye of the woman he had mentored, she waved him down and they spoke for a while.
As the last of the crowd filed past, he came up and shook my hand as if I had done him a great favour. He told me about the mentoring, and saw the book in my hand. “Would you like me to sign that?” We started talking about something else and he looked at his signature and said, “that's not a very good one”, and signed again. We kept talking and he kept regarding the signatures and saying “no, that's not it”. He signed the copy five times in the end. If I was to be buried with treasured items for the afterlife, I think that copy would be the first item in the casket.
"My dad can't help himself but suddenly hold mum's hand; the books and the feeling of being amongst book lovers does that to lots of men I see every year."
Do you have a favourite memory from your time spent volunteering?
My favourite memory is from last year with a man who was volunteering for the first time. In between his shifts he would photograph all the other groups of volunteers at their stations. He was so overwhelmed with the feel-good factor of being part of such a team he just made everyone feel the same. I saw lots of my first-time volunteers suddenly relax and think “yeah, this is great and I'm an equal part of it”.
"I saw lots of my first-time volunteers suddenly relax and think “yeah, this is great and I'm an equal part of it."
What are you most excited about in the lead-up to the Festival?
I am most excited about the Festival being on, full stop. As Misty [Volunteers & Internships Manager] reminded us last year, we were really the one and only. Everywhere, book-lovers and the volunteers who make these festivals tick had the disappointment of another year with no Festival. We will be very lucky again this year.
What was the last wonderful book that you read?
I read Steven Walker's Beyond because I heard him speak to Richard Fidler about it recently on Conversations. It is the story of Yuri Gagarin and the very earliest space race. I don't usually read nonfiction, but Walker is a born storyteller. He was hilarious in conversation and his writing is the same.