Monday, May 04, 2009

A tribute to Jill Rawnsley

by Nicky Pellegrino, writing in the Herald on Sunday, 3 May 2009.

After seven years of organising Auckland’s writers’ festivals, this year will be Jill Rawnsley’s last. For a booklover it sounds like a dream job. Trawling the world for the most fascinating authors and then flying them over to entertain the masses at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

Over the seven years she’s presided over this literary talkfest, director Rawnsley has rubbed shoulders with giants like JM Coetzee, up and coming authors, performance poets and even movie star Richard E. Grant (pic left). For one weekend a year she brings people who write together with people who read and then enjoys the results.
The downside is, of course, the planning, the prodigious amount of admin and co-ordination, not to mention the potential clash of literary egos. “We’ve got to the point where we always expect there’s going to be one,” admits Rawnsley, “although we’re never quite sure who it will be. But you know I don’t blame people for that. It’s a stressful thing having to go out and talk about their work. A lot of authors that’s not what they signed up for.”

Rawnsley, a former book publicist, was talked into the job of festival director at a point when she’d gone freelance and was having babies. “My daughter was seven months old when I did my first festival,” she recalls. “She was up in a hotel room with a carer who would bring her down for breast feeding.”
Since then she and her team, along with festival founders Peter Wells and Stephanie Johnson, have grown the event into one that continues to attract major literary names and keeps audiences returning year after year.

This year’s big international stars include Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Australians David Malouf and Chris Tsiolkas, young British novelist Monica Ali, (pic right-The Times), and a selection of writers from The New Yorker. And then there’s the local talent, from Booker short-listed Lloyd Jones (left) to more recent arrivals on the NZ literary scene.

So far ticket sales are up slightly on last year plus, for the first time, there’s a schools programme that’s already attracted over 6,000 bookings. Rawnsley was inspired to get that off the ground after her experience last year of visiting the UK’s famed Hay Festival and being impressed by the number of families it attracted. “But I wasn’t at Hay as a lady of leisure staying in a nice B&B,” she points out. “I went there and worked as an intern.”

Visiting Hay gave Rawnsley some initial ideas for this year’s event. From there it was a matter of watching internet video footage of authors, talking to other festival directors around the world and getting a sense of who’s out there, available and likely to provide a stimulating session.
‘Writers are just a group of people like any other and there are some who love getting up and talking in front of people,” she says. “Those are the ones we’re really looking for. But there are others who clearly find it nerve-wracking. Richard E. Grant gets incredibly nervous before he goes out in front of a live audience. And then, of course, there are some people whose writing is so wonderful you don’t care what they do. They could stand on stage and read their shopping list and you’d be happy.”

For Rawnsley a really successful session involves some sort of human emotion. “It might be someone saying something they’ve never told an audience before, they’ll have a revelation on stage almost and those are the moments I really love. Then there are the sessions where you’ve got a bit of conflict going on and you’re conscious of those tensions. A little sparring is always good, although me being the control freak, I get slightly nervous!”
Often the biggest star of a festival can turn out to be one of the complete unknowns. In 2007, for instance, Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan was the surprise crowd-pleaser. “He was a revelation,” recalls Rawnsley. “Stephanie had seen him at a Canadian festival but aside from that no one knew anything about him. He didn’t even have a book, well he did actually but he had to bring it with him in his suitcase. By the end of the weekend we had a sell-out crowd because word of mouth had got out. I think this year American performance poet Sonya Renee is going to be the same.”

This festival will be Rawnsley’s last as director. “I feel really good about what we’ve achieved,” she says, “but I’m 45 and didn’t come into this thinking it’s what I’d do forever. For me it’s been a really full seven years and I’ve learnt an extraordinary amount and loved it. I was really shocked the day I realised it was time to go.”
She thinks it will be a positive thing for the festival to get a new director with a fresh perspective and is looking forward to trying her hand at other things.
“I’m almost ashamed to admit it but yes I would like to write,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever show anyone anything I’d written as I don’t have a lot of confidence in that area but I’d like to have the time to explore it some more.”

Nicky Pellegrino is an Auckland-based novelist whose latest title, The Italian Wedding, (Orion), was published last month.

Jill has indeed done a great job and I'll bet there are a number of book publicists and others lining up to apply for her job.

1 comment:

Rachael King said...

I'll be sad to see Jill go! She always does a wonderful job and manages to keep her good humour in the face of what must be extraordinary stress.