Recently I was a guest at the seventh Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival, hosted by the City of Geraldton. Geraldton is a country centre situated about four hours’ drive north of Perth, Western Australia. This small city built around a deep water harbour is home to a substantial fishing industry and serves as a regional hub for the surrounding farming area. Not the obvious place for a writers’ festival, you might think.
But Big Sky is no run-of-the-mill writers’ festival. Thanks to the energy of the local community, spearheaded by certain key figures, notably Susan Smith, the city librarian, Big Sky attracts high profile guests – this year the opening address was by the wonderful Ita Buttrose, founding editor of Cleo magazine -and enjoys excellent attendances. As a bonus for participating writers, the relatively intimate scale of the festival allows organisers to provide some unusual extras. An overnight stay on an uninhabited island, anyone?
Yes, we were indeed offered the opportunity to arrive a couple of days early and be taken by small plane to the Abrolhos Islands, 80 kilometres out in the Indian Ocean, for an overnight stay. Not all the guests took up the offer, but about twelve of us went out (a few at a time, as they were very small planes) with a handful of festival staff to act as minders, cooks and guides.
The Abrolhos is a chain of 122 low-lying islands and associated coral reefs, which provide a breeding ground for many varieties of birds. The surrounding waters are rich in marine life. The terrain is mostly flat, and is swept by fierce winds. The Abrolhos holds the remains of numerous ill-fated vessels, including the Dutch ship Batavia, wrecked there in 1629. A hideous sequence of events unfolded after that shipwreck, when one unscrupulous crewman seized control over the shell-shocked survivors. Read about it here.
Nobody lives on the Abrolhos Islands permanently – they are of high conservation value. For a few months of the year, during the rock lobster fishing season, fishermen and their families stay there. Each family has a hut and a jetty, and these fringe the shores. During the season teachers run an island school for the resident children. We were there off season, staying in Department of Fisheries accommodation. The eerie sound of the wind whipping past the deserted cottages was with us everywhere we went.
To be thrown into such close proximity with strangers for twenty-four hours was interesting, to say the least – a bit like a taste of boarding school. We ranged from fantasy writers to professional musicians to literary novelists to political journalists. Our personalities were as varied as our genres. Few of us had met before.
I’d have liked to spend most of the time alone, walking around the island soaking up the atmosphere. But this special trip was partly to let the guests get acquainted before the festival proper, so I made an effort to mingle. Among the great people I met were Norman Jorgensen and James Foley, respectively author and illustrator of a fabulous picture book, The Last Viking. Hearing about their collaborative process was fascinating, as were their accounts of the challenges and delights of presenting to an audience of five year olds.
It was a privilege to spend that time in a place few people ever get to visit. I’m sure most of us took away ideas or themes for future work; the rattling shutters, the song of the wind and the vast expanse of ocean on all sides, not to speak of the dark history of the place, could not fail to spark the imagination. Actually, we considered staying up all night and writing a novel, one chapter each, about a group of writers forced to stay together on an isolated island, but the need for sleep won out.
The festival program proper was substantial, starting with a full day for school children, for which I presented a workshop on Legends and was thrilled by participants’ creative work (mostly bizarre urban legends such as the Mongolian Ear Worm!) For the adult sessions I ran a workshop on Voice and was delighted with the balance of ages and genders among the attendees, and their readiness to put pen to paper at short notice and to read their work aloud. The overall enthusiasm was remarkable, and I found the atmosphere significantly different from that of many bigger literary festivals. These were not passive readers expecting to be entertained, they were lively, eager and well-informed participants. And, of course, that enthusiasm brought out the best in the presenters.
The 2011 Big Sky festival was exemplary in its programming, its organisation and the attitude of its staff (how fantastic to see the entire staff of the regional library turning their hands to catering, transport, tech support and assorted problem-solving, all with genuine smiles.) Organisers of larger festivals could learn from the success of this one.
Have you attended a particularly good writers’ festival? What did you enjoy about it? What would your ideal festival include?