There was a window of about three months after this year’s Writers’ Week when director Jo Dyer thought the worst was over and 2022 might return to a golden time when international authors visited Adelaide and mingled in the gardens for a couple of days.
They would do a drawcard session, usually promoting a book, then sit on panels while also engaging with other writers, making new connections and enhancing the thrill of the event.
The hope was short-lived. Speaking from Sydney in her sixth week of an open-ended lockdown, having missed a scheduled work visit by only a couple of days, Dyer says she is now struggling with being away from Adelaide for so long.
“There is a certain point where I think, ‘well I’ve just got to be in Adelaide’, so then I’ll have to quarantine – presuming they will let me in – but then I’m there and it’s not like I can come back, and my son is here,” she says. “This is the stuff that I never, ever considered when we were trying to work out whether commuting between cities would work, and it did work brilliantly for the first two years.”
It has been a time for reflection, and Dyer announced this week she will direct one more event, her fourth, but no more. While Writers’ Week has a history of directors with long tenure – Rose Wight ran it for 17 years, Laura Kroetsch for seven – Dyer, who extended her initial three-year contract to include 2022, thinks four is a good number for her.
“You just don’t want to overstay, but I preface this by saying that Adelaide Writers’ Week has been quite different in the way it is managed,” Dyer says. “I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that but it is much more normal for directors of festivals to do between three and five years.”
It was during the window when Dyer thought 2022 would not be COVID-19 affected that she extended her contract, hoping to go out on a more normal year. But in about May this year, even before the virulent Delta strain wreaked new havoc, this started to look doubtful. Her legacy will now be two years of normal events – last year’s Writers’ Week just scraped in but for a couple of harbinger COVID-related cancellations – and two of the slightly disappointing new normal.
“There is no doubt that the capacity to have international authors in person is preferable,” she says. “They are contributing a really fantastic and exciting dynamic; and not just the high-profile ones. It’s having someone come in with an outside perspective and engaging with the audience, each other and the local authors. It’s fun and it’s exciting and it’s stimulating.”
It became clear there was to be no reliable timeline for the resumption of international travel and no event organiser could deal with that uncertainty. Planning began for a repeat of this year’s pandemic event where local authors attended and international writers streamed into the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens for sessions shown on giant screens before live audiences. There is even an upside, Dyer says, in being able to invite authors who may not have been free to come to the other side of the world.
She will turn this continued adversity to good use. While no author names will be released until October’s program launch under the Adelaide Festival of Arts umbrella, Dyer says the week will be themed under the heading, “A Better Picture”.
“We keep talking about a bigger picture and I think that is key but it is asking us to think about what it is we have come through, what has that experience revealed to us about ourselves and how can we use that to try and make Australia a better place?” she says. “It is about saying, ‘what can we take from what has been a really tumultuous and discombobulating experience for many people to make sure we come out of it stronger and better?’.”
On the personal front, Dyer is expecting a less intense time than last February when her role as a key confidante of the deceased Adelaide woman, Kate, at the heart of serious accusations of sexual assault against the then Attorney-General, Christian Porter, became a harrowing focus of national attention. The previously unidentified federal minister named himself during an extraordinary press conference, in which he strenuously denied the allegations, just before one session was about to begin.
The unfolding national scandal was taking place partly in Writers’ Week sessions with former Prime Ministers, Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard, and former federal minister Christopher Pyne all creating news.
Dyer says she was thankful for the demands of running Writers’ Week because it wrenched her away from the distressing events of the case. Having succeeded since in a high-stakes legal case seeking to remove a lawyer from Porter’s team who Dyer believed was conflicted, and winning costs from Porter of $550,000, she feels her role is almost over.
“It was an extraordinary time, there is no doubt about it; there I was at the busiest time of my professional year with this story breaking all around me,” she says. “But I think my time on centre stage is over to a degree. There will be more to come, I think, on that story and while Christian Porter sits around a Cabinet table – and is this week managing business as leader of the house – there is still a sense that there is unfinished business.”