April 14, 2024


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Beaches, bush and botanic gardens: Australia’s best regional writers’ festivals in 2021 | Culture

“Zoom panels have their upsides,” laughs Meredith Jaffé, author and director of StoryFest on the New South Wales south coast. “You only have to get half dressed, from the waist up!”

Though the Australian arts event landscape may look a bit different in 2021 – with coronavirus restrictions varying across states, and changing each day – major literary festivals across the country are forging ahead, with Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide all planning to host their events as usual (albeit with a fair amount of Zoom).

But if a year of uncertain state borders has given us anything, it’s a renewed – or newfound – love of interstate travel: not far from our cities lies a wealth of arts and culture, and a smorgasbord of smaller, scenic writers’ festivals worth travelling for too.

Two boys enjoying festivities at the 2017 Clunes Booktown festival.

If a year of uncertain state borders has given us anything, it’s a love of interstate travel. Photograph: Chloe Smith

Thanks to our newfound affinity for virtual drop-ins, regional literary events are able to lure more international authors than ever, with lineups that have the chance to compete with their metropolitan counterparts. Plus, as Jaffe says, “we have other, unique qualities that play to our strengths”: namely, the more intimate atmosphere of a smaller crowd; more focused time with authors; and collaboration with small local businesses, set among stunning scenery and venues unlike anything you’ll find in a city.

Below are 14 literary festivals in Australia’s regions that we’re looking forward to.

Dalby, Queensland; 11–14 March

Who: Speakers include Shane Webcke, Nick Earls, Jay Laga’aia, Will Kostakis, Anita Heiss and the Australian True Crime Podcast, with the full program out now.

$$: Sessions from $16

For fans of: reading, writing, and terrifying Aussie crime podcasts.

Hosting their inaugural festival early 2020, Words Out West are returning in 2021 with a strong lineup of fiction writers, journalists, foreign correspondents, podcasters and public figures. A two-and-a-half-hour drive inland from Brisbane, their program is diverse, featuring panel discussions, workshops, author talks and a whole-day writers’ retreat (that has sadly already sold out). Held at the Dalby cultural community centre, there’s even a Saturday night kick-on with the authors at the Library After Dark dinner and drinks.

A dinner at the 2019 Somerset Storyfest.

Dinner at the Somerset Storyfest, which hosts over 130 events across a week.

Somerset, Queensland; 13–20 March

Who: 2021 program TBA, but previously the festival has lured names like Andy Griffiths, Melina Marchetta, Will Kostakis and Matt Stanton.

$$: $8 per session

For fans of: A city buzz, in the coastal country.

A 90-minute drive from Brisbane, the regional town of Somerset has become home to the Gold Coast’s official writers’ festival. Storyfest hosts over 130 events across a week, including young writers’ dinners, illustrator battles, student workshops, literary lunches, writing and poetry competitions and business galas with esteemed guests. And it is just a 20-minute drive to Esk – Queensland’s historic town in the Valley of the Lakes – if you want to make a trip of it. Watch this space.

Castlemaine, Victoria; 19 March–4 April

Who: Speakers include Don Watson, Helen Garner, Gareth Evans, Carly Findlay, Tim Costello, Michael Rowland and more.

$$: TBA

For fans of: intellectual stimulation in a regional arts hotspot.

The Castlemaine state festival is a melting pot of music, art, theatre, film and – with its five-day writers’ festival – literature. Against the backdrop of Castlemaine’s stunning botanical gardens, Dialogues’ presentations, debates and panels will be led by leaders in Australian literature, politics and society. With Helen Garner discussing the art of memoir writing, environmentalist Paul Hawken speaking on climate action, and Tim Costello opening up a conversation about Australia’s role aiding third-world countries, Dialogues is not just about books, but ideas.

Stratford, Victoria; 23 April–8 May

Who: 2021 program TBA

$$: TBA

For fans of: Shakespeare; rivers.

Any theatre or literature nerd will feel at home here. Opening on Shakespeare’s birthday, more than 20 events are hosted across two weeks, including the Avon Village Faire Day; performances of Julius Caesar and Bard’s Banquet; and the Shakespeare Through the Ages arts trail. There will also be food stalls and barbecues, fresh produce, live music and workshops, set among Victoria’s charming, historic village of Stratford.

Clunes, Victoria; 1–2 May

Who: 2021 program TBA, but Robbie Arnott, Tony Birch, Jane Caro and Alice Pung have made the trip in the past.

Wallet: $10 to get in; under 16s and locals free.

For fans of: Local wines, rare books and very pretty heritage buildings.

Just a 25-minute drive from Ballarat, or a slightly longer 90 minute road trip from Melbourne, the Victorian gold rush town known for its historic buildings and cobblestone streets hosts the annual Clunes Booktown festival on the first weekend of May, featuring book talks, author-meets, book browsing, live music, street theatre, and wine and food tasting with charming, local businesses. The festival’s slogan sums it up: for the love of books.

The Fraser Street Book Bazaar at the 2017 Clunes Booktown Festival.

The Fraser Street book bazaar at the Clunes Booktown festival. Photograph: Chloe Smith

Bendigo, Victoria; 7–9 May

Who: Program is out on 3 March; previous lineups have included Benjamin Law, Min Jin Lee, Clementine Ford and Louise Milligan.

$$: $15 per session

For fans of: Victorian homes, a good feed and vintage talking trams that teach you things.

Another gold rush boomtown distinguished by its history and art, Bendigo is home to central Victoria’s annual Bendigo writers’ festival. Usually hosted in winter, the festival is moving things forward in 2021, excited for a hybrid of virtual and live events to commence in spring. With more than 150 speakers, workshops and “big-idea sessions” led by big-name authors, the festival also features food: breakfasts, brunches and gourmet galas, previously hosted by SBS Food Safari’s Maeve O’Meara.

Margaret River, Western Australia; 14–16 May

Who: 2021 program TBA; previous lineups have included Matthew Reilly, Liz Byrski, Anna Funder, Tim Costello and Clementine Ford.

$$: Individual sessions from $10; three-day pass $195

For fans of: Food trucks, jazz and walks along the riverside.

A three-hour drive from Perth, nestled deep in wine country, the Margaret River readers and writers’ festival is the biggest regional literary event in Western Australia. Inspired by the state of the world (which has been rather chaotic in recent times), the festival is building its lineup of events around the theme Written Worlds: exploring the future of our world with optimism and opportunism. You can learn stories of boodja (country) on walks around the river mouth, or join author-led workshops, book talks, brunches and movie screenings, all hosted in collaboration with local businesses.

Bellingen Shire, New South Wales; 11–14 June

Who: 2021 program TBA, but has previously featured Kerry O’Brien, Morris Gleitzman, Robert Drewe, Jason Steger, Rachel Ward and Clementine Ford.

$$: TBA

For fans of: artisan markets, tranquil rivers and slam poetry.

Halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, Bellingen is known for its gorgeous rivers and natural scenery. This festival takes advantage of that, situated near the Dorrigo world heritage rainforest and along the Bellinger River. Its program is focused on showcasing Australia’s diversity of talent, and features slam poet Jason John running poetry workshops for all ages. With the Bellingen growers’ artisan market a must-visit on Saturday mornings, you can make a June long weekend of it.

Central Coast, NSW; 12–13 June

Who: 2021 program to be released in April.

$$: TBA

For fans of: coastal towns and beach strolls with the kids.

Entirely volunteer-led, Words on the Waves will call 2021 its inaugural year. The team is bringing together readers and writers for book signings, conversations, workshops and a dedicated schools program on the sun-drenched coastal Umina beach village. It can’t get any more scenic.

Meredith Jaffe and Jane Caro discuss Accidental Feminist at Storyfest 2019.

Meredith Jaffe and Jane Caro discuss feminism at StoryFest on the NSW south coast in 2019. Photograph: Ollie T Cool

Milton, Mollymook and Ulladulla, NSW; 18–20 June

Who: 2021 program TBA, but the festival has booked Markus Zusak, Leigh Hobbs, Amal Awad, Maggie Beer, Jane Caro, Jaclyn Moriarty and Joanna Nell in the past.

$$: $20–$60

For fans of: book talks, beaches and egg and bacon rolls.

Set across multiple towns on the south coast of NSW, StoryFest – led by Meredith Jaffé – collaborates with small businesses to present a weekend of celebrating stories, in all their forms. This year’s festival will feature workshops and conversations led by documentary-makers, memoirists, editors and fantasy world builders, with a gala night opened by an international headliner and an Australian film night featuring the movie’s creators and stars. Also important: sausage sizzles and egg and bacon rolls will be served by beach vendors, to enjoy on your post-book-talk strolls.

Cairns, Queensland; 13–15 August

Who: 2021 program coming soon; previous guests include Ashley Hay, Simon Kindt, Julian Burnside, Jane Caro, Richard Fidler, Alexis Wright and more.

$$: TBA

For fans of: literary luncheons with big-name thinkers in a tropical rainforest.

A biennial event, the Cairns tropical writers’ festival is back on this year. Though the 2021 program has yet to be released, previous highlights include breakfast with Julian Burnside, lunch with Jane Caro, dinner with Richard Fidler, lectures by Alexis Wright, and workshops led by a plethora of writers and thinkers. With the Great Barrier Reef and wet tropics rainforest as its backdrop, and a focus on showcasing distinctive Australian voices of the region, this festival’s like no other.

Siena Stubbs reads from her book Our Birds at the 2020 NT Writers Festival, on the Mangrove Story Walk around Ludmilla Bay.

Siena Stubbs reads from her book Our Birds at last year’s NT writers’ festival. The festival’s location alternates between Darwin and Alice Springs. Photograph: Tim Nichol

Alice Springs, Northern Territory; 26–29 August

Who: 2021 program is out on 22 June. Previous guests have included Bruce Pascoe, Christos Tsiolkas and Alexis Wright.

$$: TBA

For fans of: diverse voices and Top End scenery.

An immersive four days of literary celebrations inspired by the landscape, the NT writers’ festival program boasts workshops, book talks and poetry readings against a backdrop of lush botanic gardens, tropical sunsets and desert skies. Morris Gleitzman and Arnold Zable have celebrated the festival for its diversity and unique atmosphere, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad says it “moulds into the landscape and cannot exist anywhere else”.

Albury-Wodonga, Victoria; 8–12 September

Who: 2021 program coming in July; previous years brought out Alice Pung, Amal Awad, Christian White, Arnold Zable and Catherine Fox.

$$: TBA

For fans of: panels, performances and a good laugh.

A busy program of panels and workshops led by authors, illustrators and journalists, Write Around the Murray has become a beloved celebration of literature and the arts. Festival director Ann-maree Ellis’ highlight event is the Stereo Stories dinner, where short memoir stories written by high-profile guests as well as lesser-known authors are narrated through song: “Poignant, hilarious, just all-round cheery,” she says. The three-and-a-half-hour drive from Canberra or Melbourne will be worth it.

**Assignment name**The Bad Diaries Salon session at the 2019 Word for Word festival.

The Bad Diaries Salon session at the 2019 Word for Word festival in Geelong. Photograph: Mike Dugdale

Geelong, Victoria; 19–21 November

Who: Program to be announced in September; previously has featured Bruce Pascoe, Kirli Saunders, Aunty Fay Muir and Sue Lawson.

$$: Five-session passes for $45

For fans of: anything nonfiction.

Head into Geelong – just over an hour’s drive from Melbourne – if you’re looking for a festival dedicated solely to Australian nonfiction. Hosting its eighth annual festival this year, Word for Word is a forum for thought, connecting writers, academics and festivalgoers over discussions on topics such as the climate crisis, global politics, health and history.

Last year Word for Word hosted its inaugural nonfiction schools festival program, in collaboration with Australia’s leading First Nations publisher Magabala Books. With more than 4,000 students from 41 schools across Victoria registered in sessions, they’re rolling out another schools program this year too.