How an adventure inspired Sydney Writers’ Festival curator Jemma Birrell

22 Apr 2013

Jemma Birrell returned home from Paris last year to take the reins of the Sydney Writers' Festival, one of the world's largest literary events.

But her seven years in France coordinating the events and festival program at a high profile Parisian book shop has helped inspire Sydney's new rich and varied program, launched last week.

Birrell has been thriving in the book industry for more than a decade, a period in publishing that's been tumultuous and exciting: international reading companies and communities have emerged online, ebooks taken off and territorial rights have begun to evolve.

She was working in literary events and publishing before she left for Paris on a whim, deciding she needed an adventure. A former editor at Australian publisher Allen & Unwin, she also coordinated the Vogel Award. "I loved what I did and was really passionate about reading manuscripts and writing. But I was 27, and I decided it was time for an adventure!" says Birrell. "You just have to try these things out sometimes."

She touched down in Paris on a new working visa, not knowing if she'd be there for six months, a year, or that she'd fall in love with the city and stay for years. While she spoke some French, she wasn't confident she had the excellent language skills required to work in publishing. So having previously worked at Ariel books and then in an advertising agency before joining Allen & Unwin, she started approaching book shops.

Birrell landed a job at Shakespeare and Co, an Anglophone bookshop in Paris, where she developed the events and festival program into an internationally renowned offering. "We started gradually and little by little built the program up. And we had a stronger and stronger reputation," says Birrell.

She credits the diversity of talent she drew to the bookshop with the rapid growth of its brand. "I got in musicians and philosophers and a real range of authors. Every edition of the festival [got bigger]. While the numbers were the same, 40 authors, in terms of where we were doing events, the magnitude of what we were running and where, grew," says Birrell.

She notes that working in Paris and Sydney has its differences. "This SWF is one of the biggest literary festivals in the world and there is certainly a different energy in Sydney than in Paris," says Birrell. "There is something very charming and old-worldly about Paris. In Australia, there is a more vital energy. We're faster adaptors to technology, and there is a real hunger for newness, for freshness. It's been really fun to work with."

Her first program for the Sydney Writers' Festival focuses on storytelling, and includes a range of international and local literary superstars such as Cheryl Strayed, and Anna Krien. Birrell's "small but fabulous" team will be managing hundreds of events across venues spanning Sydney. Conversations about women's rights are on the agenda as are several life storytelling events. "You'll get to hear so many different women's stories," says Birrell. "Our storytelling theme lets us bring together so many disparate, fascinating little elements."

Rose Powell

Rose Powell is a journalist with Women's Agenda sister publication StartUpSmart.

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