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Small Beginnings – Willy Lit Fest Turning 15!

Festival President Angela Altair reflects on 15 years of the Willy Lit Fest.

It opened with the famous Radio National quiz, has attracted some of Australia’s biggest names to Williamstown, featured nudity, sport and even a boxing match!

2018 marks the 15th anniversary of the Williamstown Literary Festival. Co-founder Angela Altair is delighted that a one-off event dreamt up over coffee and crepes with teacher-librarian Catherine Ryan is still going strong.

“We knew Willy was home to some brilliant talent so we approached locals like Andy Griffiths and Leigh Hobbs to get involved, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Andy’s support was crucial from the start. He did publicity shoots in the lead up, happily posing with a desktop printed poster for the first fest – then became a festival staple, drawing thousands and thousands of young fans to his hilarious Sunday morning sessions. National treasure and Australian Children’s Laureate (2016-2017), Leigh Hobbs, has been another much loved Lit Fest regular.

“Programming was ambitious from the start, with big names like Shane Moloney (who arrived with his pooch on leash), Kerry Greenwood and Shaun Micallef joining local luminaries such as Terry Bracks and teacher Billy Green reading from their favourite books.

“We opened Friday night with the famous ABC Radio National quiz hosted by Jane Clifton,” Angela recalls. “This followed with weekend sessions at the Mechanics Institute, Breizoz Creperie and the Town Hall supper room. It was pretty basic by today’s standards: our audio consisted of one portable mike which we had to race to different venues as needed!”

The festival was the first of its kind in the West, and owes much to its founding to the late, great Robin Grove, the scholarly local who passed away three years ago. A member of the fabled Melbourne university English department, Robin’s lectures on T S Eliot and the Bronte Sisters reached legendary status at Melbourne. A sublime writer and speaker, Robin contributed to the program in so many ways: including running his famous literature workshops, judging the writing prizes and securing top speakers.

Emboldened by the popularity of the first show, work got under way on WLF No 2 – this time incorporating the launch of a writing competition named after Victorian novelist and poet Ada Cambridge.

“I’d heard of a play about this once famous writer, Ada Cambridge, who’d been the vicar’s wife at Williamstown but whose name was all but forgotten,” Angela recalls. “Playwright Rodney Wetherall read from his play at the prize giving and our founding patron Joan Kirner was among the judges.”

To promote author and boxer Mischa Merz’s new book Bruising, the Lit Fest staged an exhibition bout with former world boxing champion and Williamstown local Barry Michael.

For a suburban festival run by a handful of volunteers, the Willy Lit Fest has always dazzled with the daring and the different and has welcomed some of Australia’s best loved and most respected authors including Helen Garner, Shaun Micallef, Tony Martin, Gideon Haigh, John Marsden, William McGuinness, Marieke Hardy, Paul Cox, Martin Flanagan, Raf Epstein, Steve Bracks, George Megalogenis, John Harms, Alice Pung, David Astle, Denise Scott, Arnold Zable, Morris Gleitzman, Sofie Laguna and, in 2017, Markus Zusak, Jane Harper and Clementine Ford.

WLF proved a career springboard for local talent like Lucia Nardo, Jackie Kerin and Claire Saxby who has gone on to write over 50 books for children and young adults. Angela believes originality, risk-taking and location are keys to the festival’s enduring success.   “We’ve always prided ourselves on being ‘not just another writers’ festival’ but one that has broad appeal.” An example was the introduction of Vin Maskell’s Stereo Stories, a combination of music and story-telling. The show has become a highpoint of the WLF, and unearthed hidden talents of stars like Andy Griffiths, a surprisingly funny head-banging rocker.

Angela also credits a succession of creative program directors for this lasting success, including current leader Loraine Callow.

“Compared to the big writers’ fests, we still run ours on the proverbial oily rag,” Angela said. “But Loraine is highly respected in the industry, attracts the biggest names and crafts a program full of variety and entertainment. In terms of quality, it’s right up there with the big Festivals.

“Over the years we’ve been blessed with a remarkably talented and hard-working bunch of volunteers full of passion and talent and a willingness to put in 24/7 for the sheer love of it,” Angela said.

“Last year we hit record attendances and had the most wonderful feedback,” Angela said.

Angela is thrilled that the Festival has grown from its small beginning 15 years ago to a weekend that sees the historic Williamstown Town Hall filled to overflowing with happy Festival goers.

“We’ve given thousands of book lovers, young and old, the pleasure of meeting their favourite authors, we given budding writers the chance to hone their craft at our famous workshops and provided a stage for established writers and those just starting out. And along the way, we’ve all had plenty of laughs. For this book tragic, it’s the ultimate measure of success.”