Portrait

A conversation with the artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Michaela McGuire. By Sarah Price.

Michaela McGuire, Sydney Writers’ Festival

She enters the empty bar without a sound. Loose black dress and soft sandals, a neat handbag under her arm. Outside it is the last of Sydney’s summer – blinding sunshine and scorching heat – but Michaela McGuire looks cool and readily composed.

The wine bar was her choice. Fifteen minutes’ walk from her home in Sydney’s inner west, where she lives with her partner, the writer Liam Pieper, and a pewter-coloured cat. The bar is small, a narrow cavern wedged between shops on Enmore Road. In the centre of the room is a timber table, long and heavy, like you’d find in a farmhouse. Bricks are stripped bare on the walls, the ceiling is high and panelled and painted white.

McGuire sits opposite me at the table. Behind her is a wall of wine, a shiny canvas of bottles arranged in segments and lines. She begins to talk about her week. Monday she came down with a cold. On Thursday, in her role as artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she launched this year’s program. It took a year to organise. Needed to be moved from Walsh Bay to Carriageworks. Includes 60 international and 400 Australian authors. Involves a team of 30 staff and 350 volunteers. McGuire has been engaged in every phase of the planning. “It is like my baby,” she says, laughing.

Authors have been asked to examine power and its relationship to sex, money, politics, identity and the state of the world. The theme is a response to the ever-expanding reckoning of the past few months, “and the questions that have been raised about what it means to have power – who holds it, why, how, and how it can be wrested back”.

“I wanted the theme to engage with the current cultural and political conversations and also put a strong case forward for literature, storytelling and public conversation, helping resist the pull of a backward-lurching culture,” she says.

McGuire began the festival’s programming by drawing up lists across genres, topics and countries. She approached novelists, journalists, commentators, podcasters and critics. Searched for new voices and perspectives. Looked for exciting debuts. She considered the mix of fiction and nonfiction, and the representation across gender, race and politics. When deciding who to invite, she initially had “blue-sky plans, inviting a lot of living legends who, in all likelihood, weren’t going to be particularly charmed by the idea of sitting on a plane for 20-plus hours when they’re well into their 80s”.

As we talk, the bar’s long table fills, and McGuire’s voice ebbs around the conversations of others. She definitely has a reserved nature, she says. It was through her work on “Women of Letters”, co-curating and hosting live events around the world, that she began to feel comfortable speaking to large audiences. She has published three books of her own, and for two years wrote a current affairs column for The Monthly. Now, she’s dispassionate about her own writing. Since moving from Melbourne at the end of 2016, and beginning her appointment as artistic director, she hasn’t written anything.

The role of artistic director is her dream job, McGuire tells me. She can email any writer she’s ever admired, and she still gets a mild thrill seeing some of her heroes’ names pop up in her inbox. “I really can’t imagine loving another job as much as I do this one, so I feel very lucky in that respect, but also mildly terrified that once I leave, I’ll be looking at 30 comparatively disappointing years in the workforce. I feel creatively fulfilled and I like the strategy behind it – I enjoy making long-term plans, and putting systems in place to make sure I’m organised enough to stay on top of the enormous workload. After years of freelancing, it’s also a really welcome change to have colleagues, and I’m lucky enough to work with some of the smartest, most passionate people in literature.”

How does she balance the workload in the lead-up to the festival? “Not particularly well,” she says. “The long nights and six-day weeks do balance out across the year, sort of: come June I’ll be able to spend a few days at home each week reading and planning for next year before it ramps up again. There’s about three quiet months after the festival where I get a chance to catch my breath.”

Once the festival gets under way, McGuire’s job will be to support the authors, to make sure they are having a good time, and that sessions run smoothly. “I spend a lot of the week on the phone, responding to emails about ticket requests, running to convenience stores for weird things like hair ties and Diet Coke, and getting coffees. I’m always running around, on the phone to authors whose flights have been delayed, or have misplaced their schedule, or I’m escorting writers on foot to their sessions where there’s a tight turnaround time between their events.”

During the festival week, it is McGuire’s mother, Lisa, who will be her “eyes and ears on the ground”. Last year, Lisa booked in for a session on every line of the timetable, except two. She attended just under 30 events across the week. “I send her my suggestions, in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure document, and she’s a big reader, too, so has plenty of ideas of her own,” McGuire says. “She writes up notes on the things she’s loved, and what she thinks I can do better next time. She’s really good about taking coffee orders for staff and bringing them cups when they can’t spare the time to grab one themselves, and does a pretty amazing job of introducing herself to authors. I barely see her all week, but authors will constantly tell me that they just ran into ‘your lovely mum’.”

McGuire won’t see many of the festival’s events, maybe three or four, if she’s lucky. She will be on stage for the duration of opening night, and will get to hear André Aciman, Min Jin Lee and Alexis Okeowo speak. Once all the authors are safely in town, she hopes that things will settle down. She’ll try to get to Carmen Maria Machado’s or Emily Wilson’s sessions.

Halfway through the festival, on Thursday night, Helen Garner is speaking at City Recital Hall. McGuire says she will definitely attend that session. She is going to pretend her phone battery has died, so she won’t be interrupted.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Very McGuire". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.