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Turning pages by Neha Kale (extract)

Sydney Writers’ Festival Artistic Director Michael Williams is ready for the challenges of 2021. 

Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai

Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai

Michael Williams has never cared much for the limelight. There’s as much value, he believes, in fading into the background as there is in taking up space. When he’s hosted public conversations with the great writers and thinkers of our time, as director of Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre of Books, Writing and Ideas, he has struck a delicate equilibrium between pushing a subject further and reigning himself in. 

‘You need the right balance of an ego to believe that you can do it, that you think it’s worth people listening to you,’ he says. ‘And the ability to put ego aside and realise it’s not about you.’ He flashes a wry grin. ‘The best interviewers disappear completely and then steer the guest into a personal revelation and everyone is surprised. That is the point of the exercise. To be an enabler rather than a star.’ 

If you’ve taken a fleeting interest in literature or culture in Australia over the last decade, chances are that you’ve witnessed Williams in action. Here he is, speaking to Helen Garner over Zoom as part of a November 2020 Guardian Australia book club, the writer revealing that publishing two volumes of her diaries makes her feel like ‘her guts are hanging out on a clothesline’. 

There he is on stage with Colson Whitehead at the Northcote Town Hall in 2017. The Pulitzer winner admits he doesn’t think he would have been good enough to write The Underground Railroad, his searing look at slavery and freedom in America, when he was younger. ‘How do you think you would have got it wrong? What do you think naivete would have done to the story?’ Williams asks, without missing a beat, his curiosity emboldening the audience, ratcheting up the tension. 

Again, at the Athenaeum Theatre in 2018 with US novelist Jennifer Egan. ‘There are a lot of thrills in this job — but the moment in which you meet the Jennifer Egan and she says, “Call me Jenny” — I can’t go on!’ he jokes, fanning his collar. Later, talk turns to the writer’s late brother Graham, an artist who lived with schizophrenia. ‘He is in me ... and always will be,’ she says. The conversation is pure Williams. It’s punctuated by lightness and humour. There’s insight and catharsis, an intellectual generosity that swings in both directions. 

When I meet Williams at Sydney’s Old Clare Hotel, it’s a week before holidays. The city is fueled by its madcap December energy, that lurch towards unmet deadlines, year-end reunions, last-minute obligations made more urgent by the spectre of coronavirus. Williams, dressed in black, rushes in a few minutes late, a casualty of undecipherable Sydney streets and a wayward Uber. In March, he resigned from his 11-year post as director of the Wheeler Centre. In August, he was appointed the interim artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, replacing Michaela McGuire, whose 2020 festival — featuring the likes of Leslie Jamison, Siri Hustvedt and Bruce Pascoe — was cancelled. A week later, the city went into lockdown. 

Programming Sydney Writers’ Festival during this moment is fraught with challenges. How should cultural organisations serve their audiences? How do they avoid the pitfalls of that much-maligned ‘pivot to digital’?  

Williams is warm and self-deprecating. But his eloquence hints at someone who believes in the power of words, the importance of choosing them carefully. 

Neha Kale is a writer, journalist, critic and magazine editor based in Sydney.

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