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Canberra Today 3°/5° | Friday, August 19, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

In a word, writers’ festival chief likes a challenge

Canberra Writers’ Festival artistic director Jeanne Ryckmans… “Canberra is a very different place… and some would question whether it can attract sexy drawcard authors – I knew this would be a challenge.”

THE seventh (but really sixth) year of the Canberra Writers’ Festival is just around the corner and artistic director Jeanne Ryckmans is ready to face it with aplomb, despite three horror years behind her.

The 2022 festival has 70 events running at the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Museum, the Press Club and Kambri Cultural Centre at the ANU.

Ryckmans, who joined the board of the festival in 2018 and applied for the top job in 2019, is far away the most knowledgeable and connected literary person to have held the position since the event’s inception.

Raised in Canberra, she studied at Sts Peter and Paul Primary School, St Clare’s College and the ANU before heading to France to get away from us all.

Ryckmans’ literary sensibility was fine-tuned when she lived in Paris for six years, working on the hit TV arts program, “Bouillon de Culture”, fronted by celebrity Bernard Pivot, 

Back in Australia she became an arts reporter and presenter for SBS, before moving into magazines and the publishing industry as a seasoned literary agent who’s worked at Cameron’s, Random House and HarperCollins Australia.

It was Steve Lewis, one of her HarperCollins authors, who told her about the festival and suggested that she apply for the job – madness, since she still has a day job in Sydney, but she could see the potential for the festival.

“Canberra is a very different place from Sydney, Byron or Melbourne and some would question whether it can attract sexy drawcard authors – I knew this would be a challenge,” she tells me. 

She found herself just one of two, with executive director Paul Donohoe, rising to a team of about six during the festival itself, but thought: “I do really like a challenge”.

“What I didn’t see coming was the pandemic, but then we found that there was a silver lining in it and we trialled a unique hybrid mode, using Zoom,” she says.

That gave them the opportunity in 2020 to invite writer-thinkers such as Gloria Steinem, Mary Trump and Simon Winchester who, from the comfort of their own homes, connected with live audiences. In 2021 they tried to move the festival to November, but it just didn’t come off.

Third time lucky, but it hasn’t been easy. 

Ryckmans tells me about an attack on her from the Twitterati in 2020 for a perceived lack of diversity, which she describes as “really disturbing and shrill and upsetting”.

Her detractors, who weren’t Canberrans by the way, claimed she was too “white” (her mother is Chinese) and attacked her for quoting the eminent sinologist Pierre Ryckmans without noticing, it seems, that she was quoting her own father.

She has. “Really, you do your best,” she says, telling me she has accepted some very astute advice that what you do is to wipe the crap from your shoes and move on.

“We survive thanks to our venue partners and the ACT government on the smell of an oily rag,” she says

She applauds the festival’s decision to keep the theme of “Power, Politics, Passion” every year, but believes she’s at last introduced a solid component of local writers and poetry into the mix, with more to come, along with workshops mooted for 2023.

Now she wants to engage more Canberrans and grow younger audiences.

Hard-hitting American author Lionel Shriver.

She’s introduced lunchtime sessions called “Novel Grazing Lunches,” (a pun on navel-gazing), lined up some “hard-hitters” such as Lionel Shriver and Isabela Allende to appear via Zoom, as well as live appearances by Germaine Greer and Prof Amanda Tyler, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s associate.

Other live appearances will be from Liane Moriarty, author of “Big Little Lies” and “Nine Perfect Strangers”, a true Aussie superstar, and Peter Sutton in conversation with Don Watson about Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu”.

With a new generation, Ryckmans has even programmed a children’s weekend at the National Museum where Peter Garrett’s author daughter, Emily Garrett, will appear. 

“I’m always interested in family connections in the writing world,” she says.

Canberra Writers Festival, August 10-14.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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