Esteemed literary programmer Michaela McGuire has commenced in her role as Artistic Director of Melbourne Writers Festival. She speaks with the Festival’s Associate Director, Gene Smith, about Melbourne’s literary community, her favourite moments from MWF’s past, and her vision for a Festival that will be ‘vital, timely, provocative and challenging’.
Your appointment as Artistic Director of Melbourne Writers Festival marks a homecoming. You lived in Melbourne for many years before being lured away by the job of Artistic Director at Sydney Writers’ Festival, and while your time at SWF solidified your reputation as a savvy festival programmer, the foundation for that reputation was laid during your time in Melbourne. What has this city’s reading and writing community provided you with that’s helped that journey?
Without any hyperbole whatsoever, I wouldn’t have even thought to have pursued a career in writing and literary events if it weren’t for the incredible welcome I was given by Melbourne’s literary community. I moved down from Brisbane at the start of 2008, and right before I arrived, Chloe Hooper gave me some generous and helpful feedback about an article I’d written. She introduced me to a publisher friend, and within a few weeks of moving cities, I signed a book deal with MUP. The support from Chloe, my editor and publishing house meant that I took myself seriously as a writer for the first time. I never forgot those early kindnesses, and that’s why in 2015 I went for the job as Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I felt established by that point, and like I was in a position to help provide support and opportunities for the next generation of writers. On a personal level, so many of my close friendships came about through literary events in Melbourne. I met my partner, Liam Pieper, after Anna Krien’s first book launch at Readings Carlton. For a while around that same time, I shared a writers studio in the Nicholas building with Lorelei Vashti, Ronnie Scott, Romy Ash, Michael Green, Laura Jean McKay and Luke Ryan. And of course, I helped build a community around Women of Letters, and between the Melbourne and New York teams I’ve made incredible, lifelong friendships with some of the best women I’m privileged to know.
You are taking on the role of MWF’s Artistic Director at what is—to put it mildly—an interesting time. Who knows what the international, national, and local landscape will look like next year with respect to… well… everything. That makes planning a festival hard. Regardless of what shape next year’s MWF takes, what’s the feeling you want its audience to take away from your first festival?
I’m two weeks into the job and am already planning four different festivals for next year, because yes, who knows what will be possible in Melbourne in 12 months time? It’s already been a useful exercise though because it’s really allowed me to interrogate the essential elements of the Festival I’d like to stage. Regardless of whether we’re back in theatres or are hosting another entirely digital festival next year, I want the program to provide the inspiration and framework for vital conversations that are firmly rooted in both time and space. This means staging a Festival that feels distinctly Melbourne and celebrates the heritage and future of this iconic City of Literature.
While at SWF, your programming seemed to be both agenda-setting and incredibly timely responses to the conversations of the day, from the authors invited to the books celebrated and the almost eerily prescient themes you chose. Have you always possessed the prophetic gift? Or what is it you’re paying attention to that maybe the rest of us aren’t?
Thank you, that’s very kind. The themes that I chose were always in response to the literature that was being published that year, as well as the headlines. I wouldn’t call it a gift, exactly; it’s really hard and purposeful work to dedicate half of my year to obsessively looking for the linking thread between the most important and timely national and global conversations. About four months into the process, I actually start to feel a bit crazy, looking for a link that isn’t always there, and paranoid that I might not land on the right theme in time. It can all get a bit A Beautiful Mind.
We have just wrapped MWF Digital, which we presented just before you commenced as Artistic Director. I know you got to experience some of it. What did you most enjoy?
The program was announced before I’d been appointed to the role, and I was properly jealous and annoyed that you had Elizabeth Strout and Patrick Radden Keefe on the program—they’re dream guests, who are the envy of most festival directors. The thing I enjoyed most was seeing Melbourne’s community rally around the festival and the writers—it was lovely seeing so many people I follow on Instagram and Twitter engaging with the program, posting highlights on their stories, encouraging others to book tickets. It’s so heartening to see such a tangible reminder of how important books are to so many people, especially in the midst of such a difficult time for a locked-down city.
You also attended MWF when you last lived in Melbourne, both as an audience member and a few times as an author. Can you tell us about your favourite MWF experience from that time?
My favourite TV show, ever, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer so as a single highlight, I can’t go past seeing Joss Whedon at the 2010 festival. I happened to be online right when tickets went on sale and managed to get front row, centre seats at Melbourne Town Hall. Festivals are made up of so many incredible moments, but there’s nothing quite like being in a huge, sold-out venue full of adoring fans, seeing a writer who you’ve idolised for half your life.
What do you want Melbourne Writers Festival to be under your tenure as Artistic Director?
I’m planning on placing books and literature at the heart of our programming, which I hope will encourage thoughtful, passionate engagement with literary culture. I’d like MWF to continue being a platform for new and diverse voices, and for the conversations that take place on its stages to be vital, timely, provocative and challenging.
Are you finding it easy to read at the moment? Which books have you recently read that have captured your attention?
This definitely wasn’t true of the first few months of the pandemic, but now, thankfully, I’m finding it both easy and necessary to read a lot. Some of my recent favourites have been Bryan Washington’s Memorial, Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, the new Elena Ferrante, Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena, Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.
Desert island, three books. What do you choose?
Bookmarks or dog-ears?
Ripe with old age, you’re writing your memoir and are just about to start on the chapter that describes your life in 2020. What’s the title of that chapter?
‘Chapter 4: Gene, if you’d done your homework you’d know I’ve already written a memoir’.
Which fictional world would you most like to be dropped into the middle of?
At this point, anything pre-pandemic would be pretty wonderful. I’ll say the Lombardy villa in Call Me By Your Name.
If you had to choose between selecting one book which you could read from start to end, but that’s the only book you get to read for your entire life OR to start as many books as you like but never get to read the final fifty pages of any of them, which would you choose?
Thanks, Gene, for this wonderfully cruel question. I think boredom would be more unsatisfying than uncertainty, so I’ll start as many books as I like, thank you.
Image: Adrian Cook