Pulitzer and Booker prize winners headline Sydney Writers’ Festival

After three years of pandemic-forced cancellations, interruptions and inconvenience, the Sydney Writers’ Festival returns in May with its literary eyes focused firmly on the future.

When novelist Mohsin Hamid was in Australia last year, he suggested more writers should be looking ahead. That remark made Ann Mossop, new artistic director of the festival, prick up her ears. She decided that an important way to think about the future was to engage with different versions presented imaginatively.

Ann Mossop says a writers’ festival is about discovery.Credit:Louise Kennerley

“There are a lot of things happening that are quite dark. We think about climate change, we think about war at the moment, we think about uncertainty,” she said. “So it’s important for us to be able to say what we do in the present can make a difference to what happens in the future.”

Mossop has chosen “Stories for the Future” as the theme for her first festival. It will be the final one in a busy month for writers and publishers, with festivals in Melbourne, Bendigo, Brisbane and Margaret River.

“I want us to engage with writers who are talking about what has happened in the past, people who are trying to capture the present,” she said, “because this is all part of how we shape and see the future.”

Shehan Karunatilaka, who won the Booker Prize last October for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, will be a guest at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.Credit:AP

Among the guests heading to Carriageworks in late May will be four Booker Prize winners: Bernadine Evaristo, Eleanor Catton, Richard Flanagan and the most recent winner, Shehan Karunatilaka. They will be joined by double Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead. Other international guests appearing include Jenny Odell, Sam Neill, Tom Rob Smith, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Jason Reynolds, Anthony Joseph, Asma Khan, Peter Frankopan and Daniel Lavery.

Australian authors appearing include Tim Winton, Alexis Wright, Geraldine Brooks, Tracey Lien, Pip Williams, Jane Harper, Grace Chan, Helen Garner, Stan Grant, Grace Tame and many more.

Mossop said that the lingering impact of the pandemic had influenced some writers in their decision not to travel from overseas. But only two authors, British environmental activist George Monbiot and Ukrainian novelist Andrey Krukov, are participating in the festival via video link.

“One festival director said to me when I started the planning that the live festival is made by the people who accept your invitation. Our audiences know that the magic happens in the room and potentially with somebody whose work you didn’t know before … it’s about discovery, as well as about your favourite writers,” Mossop said.

The opening night address features Wright, Evaristo and Benjamin Law on “How the Past Shapes the Future”, while the storytelling gala includes Brooks, Frankopan, Kuranatilaka and eight other authors delivering “Letters to the Future”.

Mossop said the novel reader had always been one of the stalwart components of the SWF audience and among the sessions with fiction writers she had programmed one focusing on the form called “State of the Art”, with Whitehead, Catton, Flanagan, and Lien. “Those are all people one wants to hear talk about their work, and having them together will produce a really special conversation.”

She was particularly delighted to have Alexis Wright at the festival, discussing her new novel, Praiseworthy. “It doesn’t happen every year that somebody like her has a new book. It’s always an occasion, it’s always something different and something extraordinary.”

At this stage, there are no plans for the festival to return to its previous hub at the Hickson Road piers.

“That’s always under discussion,” Mossop said. “We’re very fortunate that we have two amazing locations where it’s possible to put on a festival. It’s always a balance of what it costs, how viable it is to negotiate with the various landlords and what that generates for our audience. This year the balance was in favour of staying at Carriageworks.”

A highlights guide to Sydney Writers’ Festival will be in the Herald on Saturday.

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