BEHIND THE FESTIVAL LINES:
an interview with Michaela Bolzan, founder and director of the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival
As a new feature of Verity La we’ll be going behind the scenes and interviewing the lesser-known, unheralded movers and shakers in Australia’s literary world. The first cab off the rank is Michaela Bolzan, the hard-driven engine behind the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival. Michaela began her creative career twenty years ago as a director/producer of theatre, after completing her BA Hons (Drama) at the University of Newcastle. She has produced a series of Environmental Theatre productions over several years for the Historic Houses Trust in a number of their properties, including Vaucluse House and Hyde Park Barracks. Michaela also co-wrote and produced several highly topical Theatre-in-Education plays that toured into high schools throughout NSW, SA, and Victoria. For the past 16 years, Michaela’s ‘day job’ has been producing in-flight entertainment for a dozen airlines around the world including Qantas, Virgin Australia, Aircalin and Son Air, for which she has won a number of awards for her world. Michaela’s company, Creative & Co is producing the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
Tell us about how the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival came about?
I was a Sydney-sider for my entire life until my parents retired to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales about four years ago. Their move really introduced me to the region as I would come and visit them on weekends. As I started to explore the Highlands I became aware that not only is it a little patch of paradise, there are many creative people living here: writers, musicians, heaps of painters and more. My ‘day job’ is a producer, and so I started to think about creating a platform in which these creatives could come together and do their stuff. I’ve loved the concept of ‘festivals’ since my university days and always thought I would eventually produce them. For me, bringing a community together in celebration of ‘something’, whether it be writing, the arts, music, food, wine or whatever, is what really lights my fire. I love hearing creative people discuss their creative process, and I thought other people may enjoy listening to this too. So I decided that I would pack up my city office and apartment and I move to the Highlands to produce my first festival. I decided on a writers’ festival, because I could see that there were a number of bookshops in the region and I thought maybe, just maybe people might turn up to listen to some great authors. My hunch was right and we staged our inaugural SHWF last year… and yes, people turned up to listen!
It’s great to see writers festivals start to pop up outside the big cities. How do you see the regional festivals being different to the more established, urban festivals?
I agree, it is great seeing more regional towns establishing their own unique writers festivals – the more the merrier, I say!
There’s no denying the major capital city festivals, like the Sydney Writers’ Festival, are sensational. They can attract big-name authors and have travel budgets to accommodate authors from around the world. They also have larger production crews and more volunteers to share the massive volume of work required to put on festivals. We certainly don’t have those little luxuries, and as a result wear multiple hats. However, the one aspect of the larger festival that isn’t so great is the sense of physical – and sometimes emotional – separation the audience has with the authors and vice versa. At our festival, and I’m sure like many other regional festivals, there isn’t the massive crowds and so it’s a lot more personal and intimate. I actually received a great deal of positive feedback last year from festival-goers who loved the fact that their favourite author was staying at the same hotel, and so could actually share a meal together and talk. I also had a number of our authors write to me afterwards and comment on this, from their perspective. After working in isolation on their books for months at a time, they found the personal interaction and networking opportunities a welcome relief. I recently learnt that one of our gardening authors from last year’s festival was commissioned by a local family to design their new Aussie native garden, and he stays with them every few months to supervise the construction. Nearly 12 months on, they recently invited me over for breakfast to see the results. Not only is the garden beautiful, an amazing friendship has developed between these people. It was magic to see. I’m really keen to develop this platform that allows for creative interaction between people.
I love the idea of regional literary festivals being personal and intimate. Can you tell us a little more about the format of the Southern Highlands’ Writers Festival – what can attendees expect?
The 2013 Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival will be a three-day event this year. The bulk of the events will take place at the Gibraltar Hotel in Bowral, so once you get there, you can easily wander from one session to the next, get an excellent coffee at the festival cafe and by some books in Berkelouw Books ‘pop-up’ book shop, all under one roof, keeping warm and dry, which very important in the Highlands in the middle of winter!
We kick off on Friday 12th July, which is the last day of the school holidays, with a fantastic Kids’ Day program. There will be three amazing, award-winning of kids authors reading from their latest books, a magician, and the Sydney Story Factory will be running creative writing workshops. And it’s all free!
Then, over the weekend, we switch to adults and are offering 19 one-hour sessions that are a mix of panel discussions with several authors and ‘in conversation’ events with one author. I’ve tried to cover a wide range of genres and topics to make sure there is something for everyone. We’ve got some ‘big’ names such as Richard Glover and Anne Summers, who I know our festival-goers are going to want to see. But I’m so excited about all of the sessions as we are covering some fascinating areas of writing including romance, vice, and the massive growth of young adult fiction, to name a few.
On the Saturday night there will be two festival events that I’m hoping people struggle to decide which one they will attend! The first option is a sensational Literary Dinner at Berkelouw’s Barn in Berrima with guest chef Giovanni Pilu. Giovanni will be cooking from his latest book, A Sardinian Cookbook, so bring your appetites. The Barn is oozing in atmosphere and we’ll be sitting surrounded by literally thousands of books! And back at the Gibraltar Hotel, we will be staging option two, which will be the Southern Highlands’ first ever talent quest called Fest Factor (as in X Factor) hosted by comedian Anthony Ackroyd! It will be a wonderful opportunity for poets, singer song-writers, comedians, or anyone who just want to get up and read or perform their latest work. And we’ll be awarding some great prices, so make sure you register your interest on our website, if you want to participate.
A sense of community is clearly important to the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival – how do you go about making a feature of this?
From when I first decided that I wanted to produce a writers’ festival in the Highlands, I knew it had to be for, and about, our local community. And as the new gal in town, I have tried my hardest over the past 18 months to meet and talk to as many of the local writers and readers, local businesses and tourism ventures, and potential festival-goers, to better understand their needs and wants. I believe a successful festival needs to accommodate so many different agendas from around the community, but I hope as people get to know me and how I work, they realise that I am trying to unite us in really creative and positive ways. There are so many wonderful examples of towns around the world that benefit from having a successful festival based there, from the Elvis Festival in Parkes, NSW, to the Spoleto Arts Festival in Spoleto, Italy. In many ways it’s far more effective to stage a festival in a smaller community, rather than a huge city – you can in fact have a bigger impact.
It must be an almost super-human amount of work. What do you get out of organising such a complex event?
There is no denying that I’ve been working around the clock to produce this event for months and months. And when I say ‘around the clock’ it’s often between 4.30am and 9am and then again after 5pm; of course, I need to keep working full time to fund it.
Let’s just say I am consuming a lot of multi-vitamins at the moment!
I have to be honest in saying there are some days where it definitely feels TOO much and I dream of running away to a tropical island; but that only lasts for a moment and I snap back to reality. But then I find myself in an absolutely wonderful meeting with some sensational, like-minded creative people and I become totally inspired and excited by what I am hearing. And then I remember that this is why I am producing this Festival: to have experiences like that.
A year ago, at my first festival, I only had one friend living in the Highlands, who I use to work with in Sydney. Now as I go into my second festival, my address-book is full of amazing new friends, and it’s totally due to the Festival. People say it’s often hard to make new friends as you get older. I tell you what, produce a festival and you won’t be short of invitations to new friends’ art shows, birthday parties and drinks.
It’s been worth it.
What do literature and books and writing mean to you personally?
There’s no denying that books mean different things to different people. For some people, it’s a form of escapism, whether that be getting involved in a saucy romance or finding yourself in some far flung country. It’s a chance to meet new characters, who in real life you might not get the chance. For me, I love the fact that books and literature and poetry, make me think a little bit more about myself and the world we live in.
I belong to a book club here in the Highlands and I love it when we all read the same book and yet there can be so many different opinions and thoughts about it. I find myself then learning even more when I hear the various gals’ perspectives and that then shifts my thoughts a little too.
On our website we use that great Tom Stoppard quote: Words are sacred… If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. I really like this quote – it’s so true.