It was a couple of years ago at the Sydney writers’ festival when I caught up with one of my mentors, the writer and journalist Robert Wainwright. We were having breakfast in a five-star hotel on Sydney harbour. As guest writers, we were put up in suites with water views; there were presents from sponsors in the rooms (thank you Aesop!) and at night publishing parties with good wine. All around us at breakfast were the 99%, the earners of the roughly $11,000 that writers make per year, staying in a nice hotel by the water. I wanted to cheer. It was like a scene in Rent where the struggling creative poor had stormed the mansion, or if the kids from Occupy found themselves in the boardroom.
Surveying the riches of the breakfast buffet Wainwright said, “Tumbleweed [my nickname from him], this is why you do the book. This is your reward.” He was joking, the work is reward enough, as is the connection you make with readers at the festivals – people who support and engage with your work.
But being invited to a writers’ festival can also feel like getting high off the fumes of a past era – where writers occupied a higher social perch than they do now. Back in the day, talented writers were part of the international jet set in the way that Rihanna or Cara Delevingne are now. Think Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball, or F Scott Fitzgerald and the suites at the Plaza, and parties and houses in the south of France.
That age is over. Bankers stay in the nice hotels. Footballers are feted. Meanwhile, writers get their meagre funding cut, while arts coverage shrinks and even the big guys – the writers with the blockbuster books and large advances – are no longer written up in the gossip columns or photographed by paparazzi on yachts.
Yet a taste of this past glory remains with some writers’ festivals.
The Ubud writers’ festival – which I attended this week – ramps it up to the point where a visiting writer may feel as if she’s entered an alternate reality, where at any moment Bianca Jagger might ride in on a horse, or a flying champagne cork might hit you on the head. For a start, the opening party is at a royal palace.
It’s all very Mustique in the 1970s with writers put up in villas with swimming pools, and author parties out on rice paddies with traditional dancers and people wandering around in the torch-lit dusk murmuring, “Have you seen my driver?”
Writers, with their misshapen backs from too much hunching over laptops, complaints of palsied arms and tennis elbow, diminishing eyesight and discoloured teeth, are transformed during their week at the Ubud writers’ festival. By the third day their bodies are limp and relaxed from all the massages, they are tanned and their hair tangled from the mornings out by the swimming pool, or from being on the back of a motorbike, being ferried between events. Sometimes the men (their usually mottled English skin tanning) wear batik shirts or sip from cans of Bintang on stage. This is their Keith Richards phase – this is their French Riviera, their Monterey, their Ibiza.
And at night, there are parties. Writers gather on the lawn for dinner on long tables where one might find that they are seated next to Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, or a Maltese poet, or an Indonesian heavy metal guitarist, or an Iranian comedian.
The feeling is of one week of a long, lovely house party in the tropics with an interesting guest list: Simon Winchester, Kate Holden, Ian Rankin and Tim Flannery.
But my favourite thing is meeting authors from the region, people I’ve never heard of but who have published dozens of books, have film deals and thousands of social media followers.
This year I was on a panel with Trinity (no last name necessary), an Indonesian travel writer and blogger whose stories about being naked in various situations (on a beach in Sydney, at an onsen etc) led to her publisher censoring her work, fearful of a backlash in Indonesia. Wearing a shirt donated to her by a local fashion house (they contacted her via her Instagram page to see if she would wear their clothes), after the session she was mobbed by fans.
Perhaps the idea of the jet set author is not dead after all, at least not in Indonesia.