In late February wordsmiths of varying stripes will gather around UWA’s University Club for a packed week of debate, ideas and practical know-how. This year’s Writers Week (as part of the Perth Festival) is curated by Will Yeoman, a name many will recognise from the arts pages of The West Australian. It’s a dream gig for Yeoman, although as Varnya Bromilow discovered, one he did not expect.
Will Yeoman already had a pretty good gig. As literary editor for The West Australian newspaper, he was one of the few remaining arts writers after layoffs and redundancies at The West early last year. Yeoman had been doing the job for seven years – turning out plenty of crisp writing of his own as he reviewed the latest releases in the literary world. But then he got a phone call.
“I was surprised and delighted,” he laughs when we catch up on the phone before Christmas. “Katherine Dorrington had been curating the Writers Festival for 12 years – and doing a great job – but she’d just landed a new position heading up the new children’s literature festival in Claremont and that left Perth Festival in a bit of spot.”
So you leapt into the breach? How did The West feel about that?
“Ah, but I’m still doing The West thing!” He says, sounding vaguely incredulous.
“Yeah, I work at The West five days and then I work at the Festival on the other two.”
He laughs again. “Yeah, it’s a little nuts. But I love it. It’s a dream gig.”
Yeoman is no stranger to coordinating festivals – over the years he’s had a hand in major international writing festivals in Melbourne and Singapore and in 2015 he co-founded the New Norcia Writers Festival here in WA.
When I say to Yeoman that it’s a very impressive line-up for his first Festival, he explains that when he was so quickly handed the reins in July, a few pieces were already in place. Dorrington had already started negotiating with Alan Hollinghurst, Cory Doctorow and Robert Drewe. “Yes, I already had a good start,” says Yeoman. “But the Festival is a whole week of events so I really needed to leap in there and act quickly.”
What’s that process like, then? Did he have a guiding principle as he went about curating his first festival?
“I wanted the Festival to get back to books,” Yeoman says. “You know, there are plenty of festivals and events out there now about ideas – with TED talks and ideas festival all over the world now, it’s very popular terrain. So I really wanted to get back to books. Still talk about ideas obviously, but to really focus on writers and the craft or writing as part of that discussion.”
His slate of guests reads a bit like a fine bookshelf. Apart from the aforementioned stars, Yeoman has snared Kim Scott, Louise Penny, Robert Dessaix, AC Grayling, Di Morrisey and Graeme Simsion amongst a wealth of others. And then there’s the little matter of Tim Winton.
How on earth did he persuade the usually reclusive Winton to come to the party?
“Negotiations were….lengthy,” Yeoman laughs. “I just thought I should give it a crack – he’s one of Australia’s foremost writers at this point and he’s a West Australian so that’s a big draw. I mean I didn’t know what he’d say – he’d never come before. But after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, he agreed and then we even got him to agree to read from his new work. That was a real coup.”
Winton will read from his forthcoming novel The Shepherd’s Hut, described as a powerful meditation on lost boys and the riptide of toxic masculinity. So, if he’s reading, will most of the authors read?
“Yes,” Yeoman confirms. “Almost all of them have said they’ll begin by reading an excerpt from a work.”
And what is the event he is personally most looking forward to?
“It’s really hard to choose – we have some really incredible writers attending so I’m enthused about all of it,” he says. “But I am particularly excited about the Helen Garner and Kim Scott discussion. They’re both fantastic speakers as well as writers with strong opinions. They’ll be tackling the topic – why literature matters – and I think it’s going to be really fascinating.”
Speaking of topics, how much has he guided the writers, in terms of discussion questions or panels?
“While curating the program I’ve tried to give the writers leeway to talk about what they would like to talk about,” Yeoman replies.
“I’ve really steered clear if proscribing what needs to be discussed. Hopefully that means we end up with a lot of passionate discussion and debate as writers talk about what they feel strongly about.”