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Punching above its weight – Canberra’s newest writers’ festival takes off

CANBERRA has always prided itself on being able to punch above its weight when it comes to writing and the Canberra Writers Festival, the latest in a line of writing festivals, wants to make just that point.

L to R, Steve Lewis, Karen Middleton, Allan Behm, Merlinda Bobis, Paul Daley, Kaaron Warren, John Clanchy, Karen Viggers, Robyn Cadwallader, Marion Halligan
L to R, Steve Lewis, Karen Middleton, Allan Behm, Merlinda Bobis, Paul Daley, Kaaron Warren, John Clanchy, Karen Viggers, Robyn Cadwallader, Marion Halligan

A sophisticated affair in terms of partnerships and business this time round, the Canberra event is affiliated with the Melbourne Writers Festival, and that is part of the Word Alliance, a strategic international partnership promoting Australian writers to the World. The festival is directed by professional events manager, Vickii Cotter.

But make no mistake about it, this is not our inaugural festival, though the name is new. The Australian National Word Festival, later Word Festival Canberra or just ‘Wordfest,’ ran biennially from 1983 to 2001 and chaired by local luminaries Alison Broinowski, Colin Steele and Marion Halligan.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Wordfest and books emanating from The House on the Hill are numerous, so the Canberra Writers Festival, running from tomorrow across “three iconic Canberra locations and precincts”, has a distinctive political slant, and indeed is themed “Power, Politics, Passion.”

Talking of bridges, some days ago a bunch of Canberra writers met on a chilly morning at the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge (photographically an unmistakeable Canberra setting) to talk up the pleasures of such an event and more specifically to prove to any sceptics that Canberra writers would be out in force this weekend.

Strategic analyst, former diplomat and senior Defence official and writer Allan Behm had no doubt about the benefits of such a festival.

“It gives you a chance to make up of the other people who write, writing is one of the loneliest things you can do,” he told “Citynews.” “Many writers are very introverted, and the other thing is that it gives some prominence to the art of writing– the most advanced art form we have,” he said, taking a quick swipe at what he called “death of reading anything more than 150 characters.”

Canberra horror fiction writer, Kaaron Warren, whose fourth novel, “The Grief Hole”, will be launched by Halligan at the festival, viewed the event in the context of the need for a writer to “understand your audience, to understand what they want to hear.” As well as writing about horror, she said, she took up serious issues like domestic violence and social questions. “I believe audiences are looking for a human story, you don’t want to put off one part of the audience, and you have to have both.”

Political writer and broadcaster Karen Middleton, in the throes of preparing the launch of her next book “Albanese: Telling it Straight”, spoke of the exhausting attention to detail needed in the last stages of editing. She’ll be running a writing workshop at the festival and taking part in panels.

Thanks to its deal with the Melbourne Writers Festival the event boasts overseas writers like AC Grayling and Yann Martel, yet the focus of this year’s event, which is packed with political writers, confirming Canberra’s national reputation as a centre of not writing per se, but politics.

While admittedly writer-journos like Chris Uhlmann and Paul Daley also write fiction, the list of political commentators pure and simple is formidable—Kerry O’Brien, Laura Tingle, Lenore Taylor, Don Watson, Christine Wallace, Leigh Sales, Annabel Crabb, and George Megalogenis…and so on.

Nonetheless there were smiles on the faces of Canberra’s literary figures like Halligan, novelist Robin Cadwallader and vet, novelist and book festival director, Karen Viggers.

“Who can complain?” Viggers asked, “when there’s such local representation”.

Among those who call Canberra home was the Guardian’s Paul Daley, who could validly claim to be wearing more than one hat.

Initially known as a foreign correspondent, Daley is the co-writer of “The Hansard Monologues: Age of Entitlement,” to be seen at the Museum of Australian Democracy, is also the author of novels partly set in Canberra, as well as non-fiction books investigating our Aboriginal heritage.

Also a Canberran, Uhlmann and his collaborator Lewis have seen novels “The Marmalade Files” and “The Mandarin Code” turned into a TV series broadcast on Foxtel.

As for Halligan, veteran of many a writing talkfest in Canberra, there was a grin on her face as she anticipated one of the ‘conversations’ she’ll be involved in, a discussion of ‘Modern Masculinity’ with abundant Australian author Nick Earls — “Now that should be interesting,” she said.

The Canberra Writers Festival runs from this Friday, August 27 to Sunday August 28, with a mixture of paid and unpaid events. For bookings and full program details visit

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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