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2013 Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival

Interview with writers Sophie Cunningam and Cate Kennedy

The 2013 Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival is on this weekend. Highlights include local resident, George Negus, in conversation with David Marr discussing Political Leadership and Marr’s Quarterly Essay Political Animal: the Making of Tony Abbott, as well as the ever-popular ‘Paddle With A Poet’ event.

Events take place around the Bellinger River, Coffs Coast and Dorrigo National Park, surroundings which have inspired many writers. This year’s focus is on Australian women writers.

Events include (full program here) :

  • Seminars, talks & panel discussions with thinkers and writers
  • Free events with local writers
  • Free events for children
  • Satellite events in nearby towns
  • Workshops
  • Book launches
  • A literary lunch
  • Poetry Slam

Estelle Pigot interviewed two outstanding Australian female authors who are presenting this year’s festival – Sophie Cunningham (Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Co-Founder of The Stella Prize and author of Melbourne) and Cate Kennedy (award winner writer and popular author of Like a House on Fire and The World Beneath).

Sophie Cunningham is attending the Bellingen Readers & Writers Festival for the first time this year, as a special guest speaker. Her literary friends have visited the festival in past years and returned full of praise, “I’ve been to Bellingen over the years – as a tourist – and found it a beautiful, special place,” she says. “I’m keen to go back there with a purpose.”

Both Sophie and fellow author Cate Kennedy agree that regional literary festivals make for a more personal and social experience, where readers and writers can meet and mingle with like-minded attendees.

“There’s much more opportunity for connection in a community-driven event,” Cate says.  “Writers are more relaxed, the audiences are more engaged (because of the size and intimacy of venues) and I find myself being much more open and candid in panel events because of this atmosphere.”

Sophie sees the value of a regional festival’s ability to showcase the specific creative flavour of the area. “Such an event promotes the region’s cultural and economic development and provides an enriching experience for young readers and writers. I always prefer small writers festivals,” she admits, “partly because it’s easier to meet people and partly because the emphasis is on local, not international, writers.”

Her most recent book Melbourne is an intimate portrait of the city she grew up in. As a writer, the question of place is a concept close to her heart. It is the subject of a discussion she is taking part in for the festival, called ‘Evoking Place’.

“I’m a huge Drusilla Modjeska fan, and she’s a friend,” she explains, “so I’m very much looking forward to our conversation about place on the Saturday afternoon.” The theme of place is one that looms large in Australia’s literary scene for various reasons, but as Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, Sophie sees the dialogue between urban and country as essential to our identity.

“Most of our important writers are regional writers, though some of them may have chosen to move to the city at some point, or are city-born and then moved to the country because they wanted that particular intimate relationship with place. It’s crucial we continue to connect city audiences with country ones, and vice versa.

“You simply wouldn’t have a literary scene without that kind of exchange.”

Cate Kennedy lives in Benalla, a regional town in Victoria with a population of 11,000. “I feel enormously privileged to be living in a place which allows me to think and write about the real world around me, both the natural world, which forms a huge part of my inspiration, and the emotional and social world of non-urban Australians.”

“There are a lot of voices out there that don’t get much of a look-in when it comes to the ‘national discourse’ and the more we can be privy to those stories and voices, the greater our chance of actually connecting with and having empathy for people who don’t happen to make their livelihoods or spend their time in cities,” Cate explains.

“Fiction is one way we can illustrate how the inner lives of regional Australians are every bit as complex, rich, challenging and absorbing as those of urbanites. It’s a rebalance, hopefully.”

Living and working outside of a major city, Cate has an interesting perspective on the particular challenges that face regionally-based writers. “Most people expect me to say something about feeling cut off from literary networks and needing to maintain a presence via the internet or blogging or whatever, but I actually think that lack of constant contact with a ‘writerly community’ has been an advantage.”

Cate says she is of the ‘old school’ when it comes to her practice and believes that productive work comes out of “quiet, undistracted, cloistered time, rather than the stimulus of being a part of an active network in a major city.”

She says, “like many people who live outside a major city and who work as artistic practitioners of some kind, nobody in my town really knows or ‘gets’ what I do, so it stays a private, home-based deal where I have nobody to answer to or amuse except myself.”

For her, the real challenges for regional writers can also be blessings in disguise. She recognises that the sense of being isolated – “that feeling of striking out on your own, following your own instincts, with fewer excuses for distraction or procrastination” – can be essential to the process, “they have also turned out to be the very things I’ve needed to actually get any work done.”

As part of her involvement with the festival, Sophie will be promoting The Stella Prize in Bellingen. “It’s important to promote The Stella Prize to all Australian writers wherever they live. It’s something we’re passionate about and connects with women writers -and men, too, I hope – everywhere.”

This new and exciting literature prize was created to address the imbalance of female representation in Australia’s most prestigious writing prizes. Four of the 12 long-listed books in this year’s Stella Prize are by writers – “fantastic women,” says Sophie – who will be attending the Readers & Writers Festival. They are Patti Miller, Romy Ash, Carrie Tiffany and of course, Cate Kennedy.

As for what else she will be getting up to over the course of the weekend, she’s finding it hard to choose what she is most looking forward to on the program, but mentions hosting a panel with Bill Gammage on Saturday morning. His book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, was mentioned by Simon Crean at the Creating Spaces Conference last week as a work of great importance for Australians and the arts and Sophie agrees that it is “an extremely significant book.”

Cate is looking forward to “listening to other writers describe where their stories have come from, paddling on the river now that the floodwater’s gone down, and being able to have conversations with local writers about books, ideas, and yarns.”

KEY DATES & INFORMATION

Date: 22 – 24 March 2013

Where: Bellingen, Dorrigo and in Coffs Harbour at the Library

Email: info@bellingenwritersfestival.com.au

Web: www.bellingenwritersfestival.com.au

Tickets: Roots Records, 2/52 Hyde Street, Bellingen