Festival Sets the Literary Scene

Byron turned on mostly perfect winter weather for the 2014 Byron Bay Writers Festival, attended by thousands of happy festival-goers revelling in relaxed literature by the beach at many of the sell-out sessions.

Burnside and Hoang
Burnside and Hoang

Festival Director Edwina Johnson is thrilled her first Festival Program was so well received by the local and wider community. ‘The whole event ran incredibly smoothly, our volunteers once again doing Byron proud.’

According to Johnson the convivial 2014 tone was set by the gregarious Festival authors from Opening Night at the Byron Bay Surf Club. ‘Delta Kay’s welcome to country was incredibly moving – you could hear a pin drop in the room and Tim Eddy’s short film summarising our Five Writers, Five Towns in Five Days regional literary tour was a triumph. People didn’t want to leave.’

Johnson says the audience for Jeanette Winterson’s Keynote Address was so large it spilled out the back of the marquee for 10 metres. ‘Jeanette’s speech, The Stories We Tell captivated the estimated 1000 people at her session and moved many to tears. She received a rousing standing ovation and afterwards, the book signing queue stretched out and around the bookshop.’

The crowd at the Andrew Denton and Andrew Knight conversation with Geoff Lemon also spilled out of the tent. ‘Bringing the Andrews together for a session has been a long-held dream of Festival Founder Chris Hanley and it was worth the wait,’ says Johnson. ‘The tent continuously erupted in laughter as the privileged audience listened in on the conversation between these two extraordinary men.’

Collins Bookseller Gabi Calder says the quality of the program and the willingness of the audience to engage with authors and their work resulted in a roaring trade for the book store. ‘At the end of our first day Womankind Magazine was our biggest seller. Jeff in Venice by Geoff Dyer, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson and The Stellar prize-winning book The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright were also top-drawcards. In fact, all of Jeanette Winterson’s books sold incredibly well all weekend.’

‘Bob Brown was the biggest seller of any Festival book we’d ever had,’ says Calder. ‘Rabia Siddique’s memoir Equal Justice sold incredibly well. Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies was also a big hit and the engagement during his book signing was wonderful to watch. The Festival vibe was just buzzing and it is great to see patrons being inspired to buy so many books.’

Johnson says nearly all of the off-site feature events sold out. ‘We were still being inundated with requests to attend the sold out Liner Notes as we opened the doors. It was the talk of the Festival on Saturday morning – a brilliant literary cabaret led by the hugely talented Michael Nolan.’

It seems the Byron Writers Festival is not only a favourite for festivalgoers but also with authors. ‘So many authors pulled me aside over the weekend to tell me Byron was their favourite festival,’ says Johnson.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Finkel found the surroundings astonishing and humbling. ‘Come for the books, stay for the weather’, Finkel says. ‘It was nice to see how thoughtful people are here. It’s been great. I’m glad I came.’

One of Antony Loewenstein’s Festival highlights was seeing the keynote address. ‘Jeanette Winterson was eloquent, funny and witty. She’s a writer who makes listeners love literature. Set in the beautiful, mostly sunny, Byron, authors discussed everything from Palestine to Gaza, to disaster capitalism, engaging audiences who get angry and are passionate.’

Kathryn Heyman says her biggest highlight was swimming in the ocean with Claire Wright early one morning. ‘I found the whole Festival experience to be be utterly blissful. On my way to do Salvation through Story session with Alex Miller, Shady Cosgrove with Geordie Williamson, I found myself feeling uttering transported. I was in a state of bliss. The conversation with Geordie was really fabulous, it felt rich and meaty.’

Local writer Martin Chatterton enjoyed the Evening with John Safran and Father Bob Maguire held in Lennox Head. ‘It’s great to see the Festival spreading its wings and reaching new audiences. This was the best ever program.’

The Festival also welcomes many publishing executives. Beverley Cousins from Random loves the relaxed atmosphere of the Byron Festival. ‘This is my first time in Byron and I love the way you can move easily between sessions and dip into different topics. It feels very inclusive.’

Johnson says she has so many ideas for the 2015 Festival. ‘Even as I close the marquee flaps on this event, my mind is churning with all the exciting ideas for next year. I can’t wait to start inviting authors.’

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