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Write On: Celebrating ten years of Newcastle Writers Festival

In 2023, Newcastle Writers Festival will celebrate its tenth anniversary. To mark the occasion, Swell sat down with director, Rosemarie Milsom, to learn more about the festival’s history, highlights and her hopes for its future. Cover Photo: Chris Patterson

For any book lover, literary buff or curious mind, the Newcastle Writers Festival (NWF) is a much-loved and much-anticipated annual event in our city’s calendar. Beginning in April 2013, NWF is the brainchild of current festival director, Rosemarie Milsom. While working as a feature writer and columnist at the Newcastle Herald, Rosemarie wondered why Newcastle didn’t have a writers festival. Then, like all big thinkers, she set about to make it happen.

Ten years on, NWF has grown to now include one hundred writers across ninety events spanning the course of three days. Returning March 31 to April 2, NWF 2023 will, as always, be a celebration of writers and readers, creativity and ideas, as well as being a celebration of the festival’s tenth anniversary.

Here, Swell chats to Rosemarie about the festival’s history and memorable moments, while contemplating what’s in store for the next chapter.

Words: Emily McGrorey
Photography: Chris Patterson
Tara Moss speaks to Tracey Spicer. Photography: Chris Patterson

What was the process of bringing the festival to life from concept to live event?

Honestly, it was very stressful. I was working as a journalist; my kids were young, and my husband was working afternoon shift… so, I learned to get up at 4am and do emails, then go to work and do my normal job. On the weekends I’d do more organisation. Like with anything new, you have the idea, and somehow you find the courage and you hope people will come. People came and there was so much enthusiasm.

What was your aim for the festival? 

To celebrate writing. As a newspaper journalist,
I had watched and been a part of several rounds of redundancies and I had watched good people leave the industry. I was concerned that the value of writing was being diminished and I felt passionate about it. So, I thought, well, what can little old me do? I feel strongly about the power of literature and so I just wanted to elevate it.

How would you describe the literary community in Newcastle?

I think the literary community in Newcastle is very, very fertile. It’s a connected community. Poetry at the Pub has been going for more than thirty years. There’s a local publisher, Puncher & Wattman, that’s published Grimmish by Michael Winkler. It was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2022. We have local poets that have been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. On the 15th of October we announced Blue Mountains writer Alejandra Martinez as the winner of the Fresh Ink Prize, which is an emerging prize for regional New South Wales writers. Among the five shortlisted writers, there were two from Newcastle. I’d like to think that the community here feels valued and appreciated.

In 2023 the festival is celebrating ten years. As the founder of the festival, how do you feel about reaching this milestone?

I feel extremely proud. The past couple of years have been incredibly demanding and challenging and I’m not the only person who thinks that. But not having the ability to host events during Covid, working to keep our audience engaged and to keep funding coming in meant a lot of sleepless nights. It was tricky, so it feels like even more of a significant achievement in a way. It’s kind of like everything that could have been thrown at us has been. So, I’m proud of the fact that we’ve managed to keep our head above water.

What have you learnt from the past couple of years?

To innovate. We were the first in Australia to go online. Someone tweeted, ‘I think you’re the first in the world’ and that’s probably right in terms of a literary festival. We cancelled on March 13, three weeks before the festival was to start in 2020, and we were online the weekend the festival was meant to happen. There was no footprint, there was no model, I couldn’t look up a manual on how to do it. I’m proud that as a small team in a regional city we essentially set the benchmark. We innovated and adapted in a very short time- frame. Essentially, at the heart of a good arts organisation that ability is required. You need to adapt, to be flexible and be creative.

Rosemarie wondered why Newcastle didn’t have a writers festival. Then, like all big thinkers, she set about to make happen.

Photography: Liam Driver

I had to step in and host a session with Trent Dalton. He finished it with a big sing-along, 'All You Need Is Love'. He divided the whole crowd up and we were all singing. That was pretty special. It felt like a moment where we all just breathed a sigh of relief that we were back together again.

Over the past decade, what have been some of your memorable moments of the festival? 

There’s been some incredible moments. Our first opening night speaker in the very first year was Miriam Margolyes. She was here for a good twenty four hours before the festival and the Friday afternoon of the opening night, she said, ‘Oh, I think I need a piano.’ Thank goodness we were at the Conservatorium of Music and so they wheeled out the piano, but then we had to find a pianist. There are those kinds of last minute things. 

Then there’s moments like this year when the session host’s child got Covid and we were still under the isolation rules… so I had to step in and host a session with Trent Dalton. He finished it with a big sing-along, All You Need Is Love. He divided the whole crowd up and we were all singing. That was pretty special. It felt like a moment where we all just breathed a sigh of relief that we were back together again.

There’s been some hectic moments. I remember in 2019 when the opening night was Gillian Triggs, Joe Williams and Ben Quilty. I met a Newcastle Herald journalist and photographer at Gillian’s hotel so they could conduct an interview… So I took them up… and I said to Gillian, ‘Your event tomorrow morning is nearly sold out’ – (She was  scheduled to perform at opening night as well as a single event the next morning with the late Jill Emberson from ABC Radio) – She said, ‘Oh, what event tomorrow morning?’ I mean, she might not have turned up… I remember thinking, we could have had a packed venue and no Gillian.

There have been moments like that and sometimes I wonder what other bullets we have dodged that we weren’t even aware of?

What can people expect from 2023’s festival?

There’ll be a celebration. We’ll be asking people for their memories and photos. We will acknowledge the tenth in a significant way but it won’t dominate the whole festival. It’s not going to just be a trip down memory lane, it’s about looking forward as well. It is very important to me to look ahead to the next ten years.

What do you look for in selecting writers to participate in the festival?

Good writing. I’ve not invited some people because I think their books are hyped up and I don’t necessarily think the writing is strong. Also, I must be confident that they’re comfortable on stage. We’ve had panels on climate change, on the coal industry, on resilience after the bushfires; writers who have clear perspectives about what’s happening in the world. Sessions are created around an idea or common themes or links between the works that we hope will gel with the audience.

Why do you think the festival strikes such a chord with the local community?

I think Newcastle audiences are passionate about the arts and I think we sometimes underestimate that. Wendy Harmer describes writers’ festivals as the new churches. It is a time of thinking and reflecting and there’s not a lot of space for that in our lives because it’s go, go, go. Social media is in your face. There’s this completely and utterly binary thinking – you’re either pro or you’re against – and I feel like writers’ festivals are just very anti that. These are intelligent people who have important things to say. They are smart and empathetic, because you must be, to be an effective writer, particularly with fiction. So, you get these incredibly intelligent conversations and I think it triggers thought and reflection. 

Sessions are created around an idea or common themes or links between the works that we hope will gel with the audience.

Julia Gillard and Rosemarie Milsom NWF 2021. Photography: Simone de Peak

We’ve had panels on climate change, on the coal industry, on resilience after the bushfires; writers who have clear perspectives about what’s happening in the world.

Clementine Ford at NWF 2022. Photography: Chris Patterson

What’s your advice to aspiring writers in the Hunter?

Try to connect. There are different writing groups around – Hunter Writers Centre has writing groups. There are poetry events and festivals. You can make a submission to NWF. We have an open submission process which is unique. Attend the festival, engage with other literary organisations. If you’re looking for guidance, you can enrol in some amazing online courses. 

What’s the best thing about being the Director of NWF?

I get to read lots of books and I get to meet lots of amazing writers and I feel so privileged. After this year’s festival, I took Helen Garner to the airport and I had lunch with her beforehand… and sitting there on Newcastle Beach having a really great, lively, passionate discussion, I just sat there and I thought, forget all the other amazing moments, just this moment makes it all worthwhile because she’s someone that I so deeply admire and respect. That’s an incredible privilege to have that opportunity just to be chatting to Helen about love, life, kids, grandkids, the whole bit – I just treasure that. 

What’s the most challenging part?

The logistics of it. Ideally, it’d be great to have the money to have some more staff, just to even the work load out a bit. It’s always the stress of funding every year. Every festival, you’re never guaranteed funding for the next one. We rely heavily on our major sponsor, the NSW State Government. Obviously, we haven’t had proper ticket sales for three years. This year, we were down thirty per cent and that’s been reflected across other festivals – that’s significant. We still want to offer free sessions because we want the community to come along so we want to make it accessible, but our sustainability is always front of mind.

Looking forward, where do you see the festival in the next ten years?

I think it’s going to evolve and that my role and the team’s will evolve. We’ve got our creative writing Story Hunter program in schools which runs for six weeks. I hope that goes on to be a wonderful and meaningful experience for students as they get to create their own chapter book. I hope that program will roll out to other places in the Hunter like Cessnock, Maitland and Port Stephens. We want to help young kids connect with writing and telling their story particularly after the impact of Covid. I think that’s very important. We all should have the ability and the support to tell our stories.

Hopefully we’ll continue to innovate. I think there’ll be ongoing challenges, there always are, but hopefully we can also diversify our revenueand grow  our sponsorship… I feel very positive about that.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or NWF?

I just want to add, because I think it’s important, that we rely on one hundred and sixty volunteers. There would not be a festival without the volunteers. The festival is really built on a foundation of goodwill thanks to the writers who came to the first festival and thought, ‘Let’s give them a go,’ and to the volunteers, some of whom have been with us since the first festival. That commitment is extraordinary. Often the writers in their feedback to us say, ‘Your volunteers are amazing. They are happy and hospitable.’ The volunteers really set the tone.

We rely on one hundred and sixty volunteers. There would not be a festival without the volunteers.

Photography: Chris Patterson

As seen in Swell Issue 16. Grab your copy here

View the festival program and grab your tickets to the
2023 Newcastle Writers Festival 

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