Writers festival wows despite 'ghost guest'

William Yeoman

It looked grim from the start. On paper, the lineup didn’t immediately shout guaranteed success. Then it transpired one of the headline acts was going to be more ghost than guest, appearing only via live video link. Then the high-profile speaker for the opening address withdrew. Things were going from bad to worse.

And yet the 2015 Perth Writers Festival, which concluded on Sunday, ended up being one of the best for years. By far.

Ask anybody who was there and search social media (#pwf15 on Twitter is a good place to start). Everyone – authors, artists, musicians, audience members, facilitators, volunteers, UWA’s resident ducks – agrees: it was, to use a much-overused but in this case entirely appropriate word, amazing.

Let’s start with what I personally couldn’t see but quite obviously should have. According to our spies, former Greens leader Bob Brown and American death row lawyer Bryan Stevenson were both eloquent and inspiring in their opening and closing addresses respectively. I’m kicking myself too for missing Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert deliver her Perth Concert Hall talk on creativity. Even big-name authors were raving about the event afterwards.

I did, however, get to Michael Cathcart’s live video interview with Booker Prize winning-author of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel, also at the Perth Concert Hall. Not only was the witty, intelligent and somewhat eccentric Mantel highly entertaining, not least in her highly expressive body language; Cathcart’s questions were thoughtful and probing and elicited some wonderful responses from his subject. Many of us were a bit concerned about the whole video thing, but frankly Mantel was so engaging she could have been speaking from inside a rubbish skip and it would still have been the best thing in the world.

Dynamic discussions: DBC Pierre. Picture: Ben Crabtree/The West Australian

One writer who was more than present at the Festival was rock god children’s author Andy Griffiths, whom I kept running into, so omnipresent was he. As local author Amanda Betts tweeted, “Overheard in the queue for Andy Griffiths session: ‘There’s more people here than at the Giants!’ True”.

There were dynamic panel discussions between Vernon God Little author DBC Pierre and Child 44 author Tom Rob Smith and among Liane Moriarty, Hannie Rayson and Liz Byrski. There were conversations with hipster editors and contributors from some of today’s most stylish and innovative magazines as part of the Stylemakers series. There were musical and verbal exchanges among John Darnielle, Abbe May, Jae Laffer, Rayya Elias and others as part of the Fine-tuning series. There were tear-jerking sessions from 9/11 witness Porochista Khakpour and Emma Healey, whose debut novel written from the perspective of an elderly Alzheimer’s sufferer has become a worldwide sensation. There were side-splitting sessions from stand-up comedian Sami Shah, rapper and poet Omar Musa and pub poet and children’s author AF Harrold. There were fantasy authors, crime authors, children’s authors, hard-hitting journalists, columnists, memoirists and just about every other writer you could think of, many of whom said this was the best writers’ festival they’d ever been to and wondered if they could maybe get a job here so they would never have to leave Perth.

Not that everything was perfect. Some session facilitators, either through inexperience or arrogance, were dreadful. The quality of the food and beverages from the outdoor venues was generally poor, and the queues at the University Club restaurant were consequently unreasonably long. As usual, the air con units in the Romeo and Juliet tents were beyond loud, and in those sessions I chaired I told people not to bother turning their mobiles to silent as they wouldn’t hear them ringing anyway.

But these are minor points, and PWF program manager Katherine Dorrington and her team are to be congratulated on delivering a superb writers’ festival that I have to admit will be a hard act to follow. One personal request: can we please have a series focusing on comics and graphic novels soon?