Story and photo Luis Feliu
Jonathan Parsons is excited. It’s his first year at the helm of what he describes as one of the ‘most loved’ writers festivals in Australia, which is just a few months away, and he’ll announce the lineup in mid-June.
It’s something he’s been working on since taking up the appointment last year as Byron Bay Writers Festival’s fifth after a restructuring which saw the joint role of directing both the festival and the Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre which runs it split into two roles.
Jonathan, a seasoned festival producer, feels he’s struck the right balance in the program to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
The 16th annual Byron Bay Writers Festival, on August 3-5, will feature over 100 writers of fiction and non-fiction books, young and old, experienced and novice, sharing marquees with filmmakers, songwriters, scientists and activists.
Jonathan’s first nice surprise was seeing the festival’s two-day primary schools program for this year booked out.
‘It’s a strong program for young children and for young writers, so we’ve brought parts of it into the main program this year which doesn’t often happen,’ he said.
Leading the bill in this category is popular children’s book author and comedy writer Andy Griffiths, who came to the festival five years ago, and returns this year to promote the latest book in his Just! series.
Prolific fantasy writer Isobelle Carmody also returns to the Byron festival after six years to promote her latest work. The author of the acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles appeals to many young readers.
‘We’re really proud that local writer Shamus Sillar will be a part of the festival this year with his first published novel, a travel memoir called Sicily, It’s Not Quite Tuscany.
‘He pitched his unpublished manuscript at this festival a few years ago and it was picked up as a result by one of the world’s biggest publishers,’ Jonathan said.
Novelist Charlotte Wood is well known among Australia’s lovers of cooking and eating and will talk about her new offering, Love and Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food. Charlotte attended the Byron festival in 2008 festival and is well known to patrons.
‘Fiction writer Jane Caro will be here for the first time this year and her latest historical fiction book Just a Girl, which tells the story of the early years of Elizabeth I, is simply a great read,’ Jonathan said.
Caro, a Sydney-based award-winning advertising writer, is also known through her Gruen Transfer television series appearances.
These are just some of the initial program highlights the new director is proud to announce.
‘I want to build on the strong history of the past festivals and the work of previous directors, it’s not a radical shift because clearly it’s working quite well after 16 years,’ he told Echonetdaily.
‘To me, it’s all about what writers are writing about and what publishers are publishing out there, there’s some really interesting writing in the science-fiction area, which is not surprising as some of the big issues of our time require an understanding of science such as climate change.
‘Technological changes are also impacting on society now, so lots of writers are grappling with that now and in the science fiction genre, that thread is coming through.
‘Other sub-themes coming through are economics and business because it’s on people’s minds as it impacts on their lives, environmental themes and there’s some fantastic fiction writers and travel memoirs this year.
‘It’s all about balance and we have an eclectic program which will be both familiar and surprising.’
Jonathan spends half the week at home in Brisbane and the remainder in Byron Shire working at the writers’ centre.
He has been a cultural programmer/producer for almost 20 years, most of that with festivals, including a four-year stint directing the popular Sydney Mardi Gras Festival from 1997 to 2000.
‘In 1998, it was our 20th anniversary festival when Kylie Minogue first appeared, so that one is particularly special for me,’ he said.
Jonathan started his festival career with Pacific Wave in 1996, an event focused on contemporary Pacific arts which was ‘really quite ahead of its time in engaging with the Pacific region’.
He also worked with the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2002 before ending up in Brisbane where he directed the River Festival, a ‘big community environmental festival’ then becoming inaugural director of public programs at the Queensland State Library.
‘I’d heard of the Byron writers’ festival for many years and knew its reputation was quite strong, so I came up here for the first time last year and saw how palpable the strong community ownership of the festival was,’ he said.
‘Clearly there was a real sense of the community here loving their festival and its informal nature.
‘I’ve been at Brisbane and Sydney festivals and it’s a different atmosphere, people buy day tickets instead of attending sessions, so they’re much more open to authors they don’t know, there’s that surprise element which is memorable.
‘Here at Byron we create a conversation between the audience (readers) and writers as well as between authors, that’s the real aim of it.’
Discounted early-bird tickets are now available till the release of the full program on June 15. Visit www.byronwritersfestival.com.au