Banner Image
Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai

Turning pages

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

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.

‘When you put something online, it changes who can engage with it,’ he says, taking a sip of his long black. ‘Many organisations use the language of events to describe what happens in the digital space [but] they are not events, they are broadcasting.’ He pauses. ‘The things I love about an event rely on people being in the room and the chemistry between those people and the audience. The experience of turning to the person next to you.’

Williams’ edition of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, pandemic willing, will recreate some of this magic. It will focus almost exclusively, he says, on Australian writing. He reads 100 books a year. He’s blissfully unfazed by literary snobbery.

‘I read the stuff that I take pleasure in and I will rarely force myself to labour through something I don’t like,’ he says.

‘I had a friend point out to me that I am 41 — so if you’ve got another 40 reading years, you’ve got 4000 more books to read. It concentrates the mind on how we make these choices.’

Williams admires a well-shaped sentence. ‘But for me it is about story — a good story well told will always captivate me.’ Programming the festival means devouring Australian literature. Helen Garner’s new diary, of course. The latest Kate Grenville and Richard Flanagan (‘amazing!’). He was blown away by Collisions, the recent short fiction anthology by Liminal, an initiative that nurtures Asian–Australian writers. When he speaks about it, his voice changes register, rises with excitement and I’m reminded, once again, that his hunger for good writing is born of a deep and real enthusiasm.

‘It brings marginalised voices of Australian writers of colour to the surface but that is the least of it,’ he muses. ‘What’s so energetic about this collection is: here are a bunch of astonishing writers who are taking risks in bold, literary ways.’

For Sophie Black, a long-time colleague and the Wheeler Centre’s Head of Publishing, this perspective is typical of Williams.

‘He constantly got a kick out of the smarts of the people that walked through the door at Wheeler,’ says Black. ‘Whether they were big-name authors, first-time writers or audience members.’

He’s never afraid to aim high, Black says. She describes working alongside him as ‘exhilarating’. ‘Michael’s natural state of being is to operate with a coffee in one hand, a book in the other and at least three new ideas in his head,’ she says. ‘He also doesn’t take himself too seriously, despite having a giant brain that could give you a dissertation on any random book you picked off the shelf.’

Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai
Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai

Williams was born in Melbourne and grew up in the inner north suburb of Brunswick.

‘My two sons go to the same primary school I went to and it is very weird dropping them off and picking them up from school,’ he grins.

His father was a public servant, his mother a teacher. Literature, he says, was a formative part of his childhood. ‘I read too old for my age and I was desperate for more,’ he laughs. ‘But I would hate for that to sound like a claim for precociousness.’

His family holidayed near Foster, a seaside town in country Victoria, where his grandfather would treat him to a new book from the local independent bookstore. ‘My aunts and uncles and grandparents were all great readers,’ he says. ‘Everyone on their armchairs or towels had the book they were reading. Books were what we discussed. My idea of celebrity, my idea of excitement, was all about books and writers.’

Williams enrolled to study literature at the University of Melbourne. ‘I hated it!’ he groans. ‘When I was there it was very focused on theory and you could go through many semesters of study without reading a book. Bury me in close textual analysis and I will be very happy.’

Although he switched to history, he wrote his Honours thesis on the legacy of the Miles Franklin Award. He was fascinated, he says, by the prize as an ‘ordering mechanism’ for Australian literature, a way of upholding a colonial literary vision. ‘There were relatively few writers of colour, very few women,’ he says. ‘Stories were overwhelmingly historical, rural, realist. It was something I wanted to dig into.’

He fell into a job at Text Publishing out of university, working in international rights and contracts before training as an editor. There, he edited crime writer Shane Maloney and acquired Addition, the debut novel from Toni Jordan.

‘It was a story about a woman who suffers from OCD and ends up being happy with her independence,’ he says. ‘[Text publisher] Michael Heyward loved it but said “I’m going to tell her that the couple should end up together.” He said, “Toni, the book has the wrong number of chapters — there are 13 letters in [the protagonist’s] name and only 12 chapters and she is an obsessive counter. It would matter to her, so it matters to us.” It was a close reading. And then he made the case for changing the ending.’

He smiles at the memory. ‘Toni rewrote it,’ he recalls, ‘the book sold to a US publisher for a lot of money and made her career. I wasn’t capable of making that decision.’

Williams, who had worked at Text for eight years, moved to New York. In his late twenties, he interned in the office of a literary scout and lived in an ‘awful flat’ above a sandwich shop. He worked around the clock, writing reviews for The Age back in Australia to supplement his income, but a job in publishing eluded him.

Six months later, he came home.

When the Wheeler Centre took up residence on Little Lonsdale Street, it had been two years since Melbourne was named a UNESCO City of Literature. ‘Victoria’s bid for Melbourne was about a broad base of literary activity — independent booksellers and book clubs and libraries and zine publishers,’ says Williams. The centre’s remit, he says, was to act as a hub for this activity and deliver public programming that sparked the imagination. It opened its doors in 2010, thanks to the patronage of Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler.

‘No one had asked for the Wheeler Centre,’ Williams says. ‘If you were a struggling writer who felt there weren’t enough grants or a literary organisation working on the smell of an oily rag, you might resent it. It wasn’t a given that we were going to be embraced.’

The way Chrissy Sharp tells it, Williams’ vision was clear from the beginning. Sharp, the CEO of the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre’s founding director, flew in from London to find a Director of Programming. ‘Michael was very engaging, knowledgeable and funny and when his interview was over, I walked him to the lifts and came back and announced to the panel: I WANT HIM,’ she tells me via email.

The Wheeler Centre’s opening gala, held at Melbourne Town Hall in February 2010, saw Australian literary luminaries — including David Malouf, Alex Miller and Tara June Winch — each share a story that had been handed down to them through the generations.

‘Two thousand people came out,’ he remembers, shaking his head incredulously. ‘For the first couple of years, I was crippled with anxiety that it wouldn’t work. But from day one people came out in big numbers and the numbers stayed.’

Who attends talks at cultural institutions? Too often, participating in culture in Australia hinges on feeling entitled to spaces that have been defined by whiteness, by class, by invisible histories of power. Williams, who assumed Sharp’s role in 2011, understood this from the outset. In his time as the centre’s director, he oversaw events such as Debut Mondays, a weekly series that featured readings by emerging local writers. He launched The Messenger, a podcast that explored life as a Sudanese refugee on Manus Island in collaboration with oral history project Behind the Wire. Together with the Aesop Foundation, he conceived The Next Chapter, a mentoring scheme that gives time and funds to writers from underrepresented backgrounds, fostering their book projects.

He helped pioneer the feminist ideas festival Broadside. Over two days in November 2019, the likes of novelist Zadie Smith and essayist Jia Tolentino discussed the ways in which our brains were being colonised by the internet. Monica Lewinsky spoke about the power of reclaiming narratives. Gounpel academic Professor Aileen Moreton-Robertson, the author of Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, critiqued the Enlightenment origins of mainstream feminism. The festival, which I obsessively followed from Sydney, didn’t just reflect the zeitgeist. It also pushed the cultural conversation somewhere new.

Not that Williams’ directorship was entirely smooth sailing. In 2014, the centre drew criticism when a Palestinian–Australian playwright, Samah Sabawi, was dropped from a public debate. She appeared at the centre in June 2019 as part of a series called Writing in Exile.

Cultural institutions, of course, are increasingly swept up in debates about ‘cancel culture’. But for Williams, this discourse focuses on the wrong questions.

‘I don’t believe in false balance — I believe in expertise and I want to hear from people who are knowledgeable and passionate,’ he says firmly. ‘The platforms we have are finite so who is worthy of being included is entirely at the prerogative of cultural organisations. There was that minor brouhaha about Brisbane Writers Festival not inviting Germaine Greer. [For me] the key question isn’t “Are you being censored?” but does programming represent filling a gap that otherwise wouldn’t be filled?’

Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai
Michael Williams, photo by Joy Lai

Five years ago, Williams was in the audience at the New Yorker Festival, listening to the critic Hilton Als speaking to Toni Morrison.

‘It was a conversation that could only happen in that time, in that place, between those people,’ he says. ‘There was not a person, I’d wager, who didn’t feel immensely lucky to be there.’

The best work a festival can do, he says, is belong to the place where it is. Melbourne and Sydney’s literary scenes are often unnecessarily pitted against each other, I point out. ‘They are very different cities, very different cultures,’ he says. ‘At a creative level, at the level of the writers, I’m not sure how much it matters.’

The crises of the last year has seen us take refuge in books, seek new worlds and old truths through the portal of writers’ imaginations. With borders closed, I say, Australia feels further away than ever. We talk about Geoffrey Blainey’s 1966 book The Tyranny of Distance.

‘The other thing that’s important about the Sydney Writers’ Festival,’ Williams tells me, ‘is to address that slight tendency to fetishise the starry names from overseas — at the expense of being aware of the talent that is right here within reach.’

Aren’t we in danger, I think privately, of looking inward rather than outward, of falling back on nationalism, of forgetting that Australian writing is both of this unceded place and part of a world beyond it?

Williams, ever the sharp interlocuter, has anticipated an answer to these questions.

‘The great danger of that kind of thinking is that it presupposes a cultural monolith of creative endeavour,’ he says, eyes twinkling. ‘I don’t think the value of listening to Australian voices is about pretending they happen in a vacuum. They are constantly in dialogue with experiences and lives elsewhere.’

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

This story appears in Openbook autumn 2021.