Programming a literary event such as the Byron Writers Festival (BWF) is a little like weaving, says the festival’s new artistic director, Jessica Alice.

“At the start, you have all these disparate threads: the artists, their books, diverse subject matters and themes. There’s so much. And as you’re going through the process, you’re weaving it all together and the picture starts to appear,” Jessica says.

“You can’t be too proscriptive about it, you’ve got to trust the process and let those themes emerge. And they do. It becomes clear very quickly.”

The theme that surfaced for 2024 is ‘From the Ground Up’, a phrase Jessica says denotes connection to country and the environment, to grassroots, community and activist movements, to politics, and the idea of building things from scratch.

“Part of that is about recovery and repair and resilience— very relevant in this area after the floods—but it is also about being forward-thinking: what legacy are we creating today?”

It also expresses the festival’s perennial responsibility to nurture writers who are just setting out, to provide a space where artists of different ages and backgrounds and places in their careers can mix and learn from each other.

An author and published poet in her own right, Jessica’s literary career began after a false start studying fashion design at RMIT. Quickly seeing it wasn’t the right fit for her, she enrolled for a diploma in professional writing and editing at TAFE.

The course was a revelation. Its vocational emphasis helped her understand that people could make a career out of writing, and that there was a plethora of poetry and literary events available to support them.

After TAFE she went back to RMIT to learn “the theory” in a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, followed by an honours degree in feminist poetry, then a Master of Fine Arts in Cultural Leadership from NIDA.

The “amazing” TAFE course doesn’t exist any more, she notes. “It’s such a shame because if you don’t have a family that can support you to find those things, it can be really hard to access culture and find careers.”

Her own upbringing, in Werribee in Melbourne’s west, was not especially literary, but it was in “a creative household”, she says. Her mother paints and draws and is a skilled textile artist. There were loads of books, and the family would sit around the table and discuss world affairs at dinner time.

Her first literary job was directing the National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle—“a really wonderful radical, experimental festival”—where she combined fun with learning how to put a festival together.

From there she went to Melbourne Writers Festival and began to specialise in literary programming. Her regional experience includes a “fantastic” job as publicity manager at Regional Arts Victoria. There followed positions as Chair of the Arts Industry Council of South Australia and most recently as CEO of Writers SA.

When she saw the BWF job advertised she was aware of the Byron festival’s “extraordinary reputation” as the place where the artists had the best time, with great programming and a stunning location.

It struck her as a perfect opportunity, and upon securing the role she moved from Adelaide to become a Bangalow resident. “It was not a difficult move to make,” she says.

“I love that I can just walk down to the Showground—and I frequently do—and visualise how we’re going to set up the stages and stalls and artworks. I love it that the Showground is so green, so leafy, and has the feeling of being a little bit away from the world. Under the shade of the trees is the perfect space for a weekend of deep thinking and reading. It’s magical.”

Last year’s festival audience felt the same: “We’ve had the most incredible response to the Showground from 2023, and universal love for the site.”

She is keen that BWF not become a “parachuted” event, where guests pop up and then are gone. She sees the festival as being “from the community and of the community, with strong local foundations.

“Which is why it’s so important for me to be here. It couldn’t be a remote job or a FIFO for me. I felt I had to be here, to be part of the community.

“It’s a real joy working in a regional space because you get real personality, which means that with programming you can give it real personality too. I love the fact that there is such a strong interest in the environment here, and in politics, and the media—things that also interest me.”

Poetry is another of her “particular passions” and her personal reading tastes include literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, but she says “festival programming has to be broad, to include all forms and genres because you really want to appeal to everyone. It’s a matter of finding authors who are doing the best work in whatever form or genre they choose”.

There are fundamental similarities between readers everywhere, she says: “Whether in cities or regions, people who read are going to be intelligent, inquisitive … and quite expert on what they read, but also open to discovering new things. That is common to all writers’ festivals.”

She hopes the 2024 festival resonates with more people than ever but that it reaches new audiences as well, and that they will be drawn back next year after experiencing a program that is “absolutely bursting with talent”.

“We have around 130 authors over about 120 sessions; some of the most exciting, high-profile, high-calibre writers alongside some incredible new voices.”

Among announced guests is Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes in an exclusive Australian appearance. Her novel, The Alternatives, is “a beautiful book, very funny” but with serious underlying themes, Jessica says.

Australian guests include the hugely successful Trent Dalton and lauded novelist Richard Flanagan, who will speak about his memoir Question 7 and his deep connection to Tasmania and concern about its environmental issues and troubled history.

A “really incredible line-up” of First Nations’ writers includes Mykaela Saunders presenting Always Will Be, a “very smart and cool” collection of short pieces of speculative fiction imagining 16 alternate futures for the Tweed region in which Indigenous sovereignty is fully asserted.

Another re-imagining of a different future for Australia is offered by Bruce Pascoe and Lyn Harwood in Black Duck. “Uncle Bruce is a special guest, someone who has been changing the way many people in Australia have been thinking about Aboriginal culture,” Jessica says.

Also a game-changer is Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, whose 2008 collection of short stories, The Boat, “altered the way the world thought about refugees”. He will discuss his recent highly-praised work, 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem.

Renowned investigative reporter turned novelist, Louise Milligan, will present her fictional deep-dive into crime, Pheasants Nest.

Other guests and ticket options are being announced this month.

Jessica says she feels like the BWF team are working to make a gift for the community, something she is thrilled to be able to deliver. “It’s something that we can all join in to celebrate, and I think it will be very special.”

Digby Hildreth

Bangalow Writers Festival
9-11 August Bangalow Showgrounds

Feature image: Byron Writers Festival director Jessica Alice Photo Lyn McCarthy

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