Famous last words: Laura Kroetsch reflects on seven years at Adelaide Writers’ Week

The 2018 Adelaide Writers’ Week will be the last for director Laura Kroetsch.

“It’s a miracle — a miracle! — I didn’t throw up on my first day. I was so nervous.” Reflecting on her seven years as director of Adelaide Writers’ Week (AWW), Laura Kroetsch has few regrets.

The nerves have subsided for the most part — except for a panicked jitter on the very first morning every year: “What if this is the day no one comes?” — so Kroetsch can appreciate what she and her team have achieved. Together they transformed AWW into an annual event, introduced an award-winning access program, launched the Kids’ Weekend, organised out-of-season events and increased book sales at the tent every single year.

Kroetsch’s Writers’ Weeks have been deep and worldly, engaged with themes of climate change, poverty, racial and religious tensions, gender, political responsibility and personal choice. The writers have challenged Australians to consider this nation’s privileged position, and to reflect on why and whether we deserve to be that ‘lucky country’. By bringing short-story writers, translated authors and first-time novelists to rub shoulders with the best-sellers, AWW has demonstrated that the littlest voices are as significant as the loudest.

Kroetsch won’t be going quietly, with her final program set to star a number of controversial titles. Clive Hamilton will present ‘Free speech in a Chinese world’, a session covering the cancelled publication of his book about China’s influence in Australia. The book, Silent Invasion, was deemed untouchable by many publishers, but has lately been picked up by Hardie Grant, who will be rushing to print it in time for Writers’ Week. Radical farmer Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler) will calmly set about tearing down the agriculture industry. And there’s more.

“Always when we talk about the Middle East there’s a little contention there, and I suspect that John Lyons who wrote Balcony Over Jerusalem isn’t hugely sympathetic to the occupation — he’s sympathetic to the Palestinians, and that always upsets people,” Kroetsch says.

“And another thing that might be difficult is a fair amount of the fiction is talking about class, and the kinds of disadvantage felt by working class people. Sophie Laguna’s The Choke is an utterly extraordinary novel about a little girl, and about the way the poor become disenfranchised. Michael Farris Smith from the States certainly writes about that.”

Even your lunch won’t be safe, as you’ll never want to eat octopus again after coming to grips with the revelations in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds. Despite what the controversy may suggest, Writers’ Week isn’t designed to alienate or remonstrate readers.

“You don’t have to be converted,” says Kroetsch, “you just have to consider. The spirit of these festivals is that you create a safe place for people to have these conversations, especially if they are dangerous, difficult conversations.”

Adelaide Writers’ Week in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens (photo: Shane Reid)

Year after year, Kroetsch and her guests have marvelled at the Writers’ Week audience and the spirit of attentive openness that creates the festival’s particular atmosphere. The event is free, so the audience doesn’t contribute to the finances of the festival – rather than be valued for the depth of their pockets, Writers’ Week attendees are valued for the depth of their engagement.

“Other festival organisers have asked me what my favourite literary event in the world is, and I have to tell them: Adelaide Writers’ Week,” Kroetsch smiles, and shrugs unapologetically. “It’s true. And it’s not about me – I’m just the caretaker. It’s the audience we get here that makes it so special. I love that there are only two stages and everyone gets an audience. I love that the audience has read the books. I love that they want to talk. I’ve never been to another festival where people just talk. They talk among themselves, they talk in the coffee queue, and they talk to the writers, who are so loved, and who feel comfortable to mooch about in the gardens all week.”

Next year it will be Kroetsch’s turn to mooch. Her work for Dark Mofo doesn’t include a move to Tasmania, so she’ll still be calling Adelaide home. Over the next year, she’ll be delighting in reading for reading’s sake — books by dead authors she’s not obliged to book for a festival — and joining in at Writers’ Week as a punter. She’s looking forward to it – excited to take a seat in the shade of the gardens, grab a coffee and share in the conversations she’s been observing for nearly a decade.

“I know it’s going to kill me having this last one — but it’s been a privilege to do the job,” she says. “I probably would have stayed forever if they’d’ve let me. This is a very precious event.”

Adelaide Writers’ Week
Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens
Saturday, March 3 to Thursday, March 8

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