Interview with a Writers’ Festival Director: Alex Bligh warms up Dunedin for next year

Interview and article by Aaron Blaker

After the leaves had settled and autumn had given way to winter, as memories of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival give way to anticipation of the mid-winter carnival, on a bleak, rainy day in June I met with Alex Bligh in steam-windowed Strictly Coffee. She bought the coffee, I brought the questions. She kindly consented to answer most of them but was far too gracious and savvy to share any controversial anecdotes.

(All questions are in italics)

alexandra_bligh_5361ee7c6eAaron: Alex, you are a practising lawyer and you have two young children. Despite your full life, you then initiated, co-organised and chaired the madly successful Writers and Readers Festival, a process and event that must have taken a lot of time and energy. Why, and how did you do it?

Alex: I’ve been convening a book club for the past few years, and enjoying that, so a Festival was sort of the next rung on the ladder.

Maybe further on than “the next rung.”

You might be right. But Dunedin has so many writers and readers. It really should have a Festival. Once we got started – planning, gauging interest within the literary community and contacting writers – it just took on momentum and we couldn’t have stopped it, even if we’d wanted to. And yes, it was busy, but that was fine because I liked what I was doing, and we had a fantastic organizing group.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee for Dunedin’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature was also busy during this period of Festival planning. Were you or other members of your group involved with this? 

storytime train

The Storytime Train at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

Annie Villiers was on the organizing committee for the UNESCO City of Literature bid, and I attended many of the bid’s meetings once I knew, which was as soon as I started organizing. It was just great timing, but they go together, obviously, and one complements the other. If Dunedin were to become a UNESCO City of Literature, then the profile of the Festival would naturally increase, and the presence of the Festival confirms that Dunedin is indeed a City of Literature!

Speaking of this city, you have lived here in Dunedin for quite a few years now, having moved here from Australia, and while you are now part of the ‘literary community,’ would it be fair to say you weren’t before the Festival? Did this make it easier or more difficult for you to have a central part in the process and actual event?

I definitely wasn’t part of that community. I mean, I am a reader, and there are writers in my book group, such as Emma Neale, but apart from those connections, I was very much an outsider. That made it harder and easier– I was this inexperienced, Australian renegade, muddling through to some extent! But on the bright side, I hadn’t offended anybody in the past, in what is quite a small community. Really, we were met with such goodwill and positivity, right from the start: writers, readers, Creative New Zealand, booksellers, the organizers of other festivals, media– everybody was very receptive and it was great in that respect.

Were there any tough aspects to the process?

Well, as I say, it was all very positive, and the organizing group – Phillippa Duffy, Manager of the University Book Shop, Annie Villiers, local writer and UNESCO City of Literature Bid committee member, Kings’ High School librarian Bridget Schaumann, and Event Co-ordinator Katherine Quill – had a wide array of strengths, and a lot of fun at meetings! I guess one aspect that was tricky was compiling the list of writers who we wanted to be in the Festival. We started very wide, got a lot of opinions from various people and groups.

What was your criterion?

Quality, I’d say. We tried to set the level very high.

You succeeded in that. I was staggered, as was everybody I spoke to, upon learning of who was in your line-up. ‘Stellar’ was no exaggeration.

Thanks. We were really pleased with the line-up.

53_naveAny lacunas in the programme, things you want to redress next year?

Well, while it was great to use so many of Dunedin’s beautiful venues, we didn’t anticipate the logistical issues that would be presented for organizers and booksellers, who needed to be sprinting off and setting up other venues in a hurry. Usually, a festival would mostly take place in a central venue.

The different venues were a feature though, I thought, and perhaps only a city like Dunedin would have so many glorious venues within walking distance of one another. For example, I was at the Art Gallery five minutes before an event was due to start, realised it was the wrong venue and sprinted through the Octagon to the Library and sat down with a minute to spare.

Well, that’s right, so this aspect was very good for the audience. But it made for a tight schedule, as I say, for us and for groups like the booksellers. Just something for us to keep in mind next year. We’d also like to have more contact with secondary schools, and have cheap or free events, out of school hours, for students.

It must have been lovely to meet and interact with such a creative and talented group of writers. Did any of them surprise you?

evening_with_eleanor_cattonYou’re right, they were great. There were no surprises as such, but I picked up Eleanor Catton from the airport, and spent a bit of time in her company and she was really lovely – an observer, quite quiet, but lovely. One of my friends commented, after listening to her conversation with Finlay McDonald, “I’m not sure if I’m in love with her, or really envious of her.”

Strong response! I went to listen to and Alexander McCall-Smith and they generated strong responses too – mostly laughter and rapt attention. So Dunedin responded very positively to the writers; how did the writers respond to Dunedin?

They loved it! You mention Huw – he for one is very keen to come back.

And I glimpsed McCall-Smith, after his session at St Paul’s Cathedral, looking pleased as punch as he was led away to the more secular sector of the Octagon.

Well, there you go.

* * *

Then Alex checked her watch. I thanked her for her part in bringing the writers to the readers, the readers into view. She had given me an hour and substantial insight into her experience of the Festival. We went back out into the rain. It could have been grim. But winter is manageable when you know the city you live in is a city of literature, when the midwinter carnival is imminent, when the next Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival is only three seasons away.

Interview and article by Aaron Blaker

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