We spoke to Chloe Higgins about taking a long-running festival online and all the possibilities that opens up. 

Picture this.

It’s the start of 2020. After running seven successful writers’ festivals you have high hopes for the next and are just beginning to plan.

Then COVID strikes.

That’s the situation that Wollongong Writers Festival Director, Chloe Higgins, found herself facing earlier this year.

“I really didn’t know what to do,” she said. “A bunch of other festivals that were happening midyear were beginning to make their calls around going online, and we were in a weird space where there were a bunch of reports saying we’d be back to normal by November, but that didn’t look like that was going to be the case. We genuinely just didn’t know what decision to make. In a way, I couldn’t even program.

All of a sudden we were being given information around how to convert an IRL event into an online one and we were being given all these resources, but the tricky thing is I didn’t know at what point to make that call. Eventually, we just had to make a decision.”

But despite an initial bout of (understandable) nerves, Chloe describes the ultimate decision to go online as a freeing one—and a chance to realise some long-held dreams.

“Once we made the call, suddenly we had the opportunity to program all of the writers in the world—so long as they were willing to be involved, of course! And I’d always wanted to program artists from overseas, but I didn’t know how to go about it—while we could fly artists in from around Australia, we didn’t have the resources to fly a writer in from overseas. Going online gave me the opportunity to Skype them in.

Then I remembered how many books from Australian authors were sent to me, and how many more I’d get when we opened the festival up to international artists, and I thought to myself, what’ve I done? It was a bit of a rollercoaster really, from nerves to excitement and then back again!”

The resulting festival—as Chloe describes it—is different from any that she’s programmed before. Its topics cover new and transgressive terrain, such as a discussion reconsidering sexual pleasure, and programs a range of emerging writers alongside established ones.

“Normally with festivals you have key KPIs you have to hit around audience attendance and you’ve got that goal of selling a certain amount of venue ticket. That meant that before, we needed to program some artists who were well-known enough to get the program spreading,” Chloe said. “COVID-19 meant that the funding bodies removed their KPIs around audience attendance, which meant there was more flexibility for me to program artists or topics I found really interesting but which weren’t very well known or covered just yet. The stuff we’re programming around monogamy, sex workers, sexual pleasure … I don’t think we’d have been able to program that for an IRL event.

So it was liberating (to go online). It meant we could make this program anything we wanted it to be.”

The theme of this year’s festival is writing the body, a topic that’s close to Chloe’s heart. In a director’s note she writes:

the body as a subject in literature has always been fascinating… and remains one of the most important topics a writer can pay attention to today. I think that’s because when we talk about what it means to inhabit a body, what we’re really talking about is what it means to be human.

“I’d been wanting to cover these topics for a while,” Chloe said. “I can’t even pick one event out that I’m more excited about than the rest, although I’m pretty excited about the event on trans visibility.”

But she’s quick to credit the breadth of her program to the input of her artists, whom she works collaboratively with.

“I think when it comes to programming, it’s important that it’s not just your brain on the page. Generally, I’ll have a couple of rough ideas that I want to hit, or a big picture vision. But then I’m more interested in collaborating with people who are doing really interesting things inside whatever space I’m trying to explore and inside whatever theme, under narrower constraints. I’ll go to these people first for ideas.

Gala Vanting is a really great example of this—as a writer, sex worker and educator, I knew she had a lot of knowledge and I felt she should have some ownership over the event I’d programmed her for.

And I’ll work this way with most of the panel chairs. They’ll toss out a couple of ideas, I’ll have a couple of ideas, we’ll build something together. Or sometimes they’ll come to me with a fully formed event and, if it fits within my larger vision, I’ll help provide the resources or do all the admin around bringing their vision to life.

But I really love collaborative programming. Otherwise it’s just the same few brains from around the country on the page, isn’t it? I think it’s important to have other people contributing to what the festival is.”

This year’s festival is run entirely online and takes place from the 23–29 November.

Its stellar line-up includes artists such as Bruce Pascoe, American-born T. Fleichmann, Jess Hill and Vicki Laveau-Harvie, among others.

You can view the full program here.