5×15 at the Sydney Writer’s Festival

5x15SydneyI had the great delight of attending Sydney Writer’s Festival 5×15 session on Saturday. Similar events have sold out in London, Paris and New York. It works like this. Five speakers tell stories about their ideas, passions and obsessions. Just two rules: no scripts, and only fifteen minutes apiece, in a kind of spoken word cabaret. The facilitator was my dear friend and fellow Darkling, Diana Jenkins. Diana is a freelance writer. She holds a research PhD in English from UNSW and is news editor for Varuna – the Writer’s House.

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From left – Jackie Kay, Urthboy, Diana Jenkins and Kate Mosse after 5×15. Photo by Deborah Rice.

The event brought together an eclectic mix of storytellers. First was Jackie Kay, who talked about taxi rides. Jackie is a hilarious Scottish poet, novelist and short story writer. Her novel Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and her autobiographical Red Dust Road won Book of the Year at the Scottish Book Awards. The remarkable Amelia Lester shared some fascinating stories about fact-checking. Astonishingly, Amelia was appointed managing editor of The New Yorker at the grand old age of twenty-six. Award winning musician Tim Levinson, better known as Urthboy, talked about unclean slates and new beginnings. His album The Signal was hailed as a classic by Rolling Stone. In celebration of the government’s apology to the Stolen Generations, Urthboy reimagined Paul Kelly’s From Little Things Big Things Grow. The song helped raise over $100,000 for indigenous-run health and education programs. Next came internationally bestselling author Kate Mosse, who told of her passion for girl’s own adventure stories. Kate is the co-founder and honorary director of the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Lawrence KraussThe highlight for me however, was the final storyteller. Lawrence Krauss is a renowned cosmologist, and hailed by Scientific American as a rare public intellectual. He has written nine books, including the international bestseller The Physics Of Star Trek, and more recently A Universe From Nothing. Lawrence explained how Star Trek saved the world. I won’t give too much away. Suffice to say, I’m even more of a fan of this funny, brilliant man after hearing his story. Lawrence is not just an intellectual giant, but a man of great courage and compassion. It was a great thrill to meet him.

Di jenkinsThe facilitator Diana Jenkins, was the informative, cohesive glue linking these disparate speakers. Her immense wit and enthusiasm added hugely to the event’s success. You did a tremendous job Di. Thank you! I look forward to many more of these sessions at future Australian literary festivals. (P.S. Here’s a link to Di’s feature on last year’s London 5×15, if you’re interested.)


Varuna – The Writers’ House

Varuna  – The Writers’ House, is a wonderful asset to Australian authors. Established in 1991, Varuna is a unique environment in the Blue Mountains, designed especially for writers. The house itself was a gift to Australian literature in memory of the novelist Eleanor Dark. Eleanor, who died in 1985, published ten novels, including ‘The Timeless Land.” This was a best-seller in Australia and the United States, and was made into a popular television series.

Eleanor Dark was one of the first Australian novelists to defy the ‘cultural cringe.’ Her writings were sometimes experimental, often controversial and always unashamedly Australian. Considering her works were published between 1932 and 1959, this was remarkably innovative and brave. Eleanor was an advocate for social justice, education, women’s rights and Aboriginal reconciliation – a voice far ahead of her time. Manning Clark said of Eleanor Dark that ‘… she made a major contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of all Australians. She helped us understand who we are. She taught us that we could stand alone.’

Varuna is now recognised, nationally and internationally, as a special place for new, emerging and established writers of all genres. It offers a community of support. It enables writers to develop their work, to find their voice. Varuna works closely with publishers such as Penguin and Harper Collins, and it supports promising work through its pathways to publication programs.

I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy two stints at Varuna – completing a professional development residency with the inimitable Peter Bishop, and as a writer in residence during a regional writers week. At Varuna there is no television or radio. All mobile phones are switched off between the hours of nine and six. During this quiet time writers work privately, except for individual consultations with their mentors and/or editors. Writers are provided with nothing more than a room, work space, dictionary and thesaurus. Catered dinners are accompanied by readings, lively discussions and bottles of wine. Writers have been known to produce up to 50,000 words during a ten day residency. That’s what an environment totally dedicated to writing can do for you. It is quite simply heaven.