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The Bard would feel right at home

Two days out from the opening of the Sydney Writers' Festival there is, says its director, no such thing as the calm before the storm. ''It's all go, go, go,'' declares Jemma Birrell. ''It's an intensive, crazy time.''

Eleven of 49 international and interstate authors, including the Russian immigrant turned literary celebrity Gary Shteyngart, the African-born performance poet Inua Ellams, and the British comedian Sandi Toksvig, fly in to Sydney on Monday. The human rights activist and author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker, and Emma Donoghue, Irish author of Room, arrived last week, and Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has been and gone.

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Last-minute author drop-outs and visa difficulties are the bane of Birrell's existence, and this festival is no different from any other. If not for illness, the Canadian memoirist Lawrence Hill would have loved to have been in Sydney to talk about his 2007 novel The Book of Negroes, and a television miniseries based on it, which is in production.

Bobette Buster, who worked with the Disney story animation team for years on development of Frozen, has stepped into the shoes of Matthew Luhn. Urgent phone calls were made between Australia, London and Singapore to sort out a visa issue with one writer only a day ago.

Birrell admires the physical centrepiece of this year's festival, a Shakespeare-inspired cafe and reading space. Sunday was day 18 of the construction of a recreated street scene from Stratford-Upon-Avon inside Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay, which is festival central.

Shakes-pier is the work of the festival's operation manager, Mike Smith, who conceived of the black and white plywood facade with its crooked timbers and tudor windows while admiring the mediaeval streetscape of Shakespeare's birthplace.


Planning for a literary festival begins many years ahead. Personal connections make a difference, says Birrell, but it ultimately comes down to timing. ''It's hard to pin down international writers because of their schedules. Hay-on-Wye is on at the same time and it's hard to convince some writers to make the long trip. I know to include a photo of the beautiful harbour setting when sending out my invitations.''

Non-fiction writer Andrew Solomon will open the festival on Tuesday night. There are 350 events - 39 have already sold out - scheduled across five days, of which half are offered free to the public.

New to the festival is a series of mini lectures on subjects ranging from the existence of evil to the philosophy of love. For the first time, the festival is live-streaming events from venues in Walsh Bay, one of which will feature the writers of the acclaimed TV series Redfern Now.

This is Birrell's second year as festival director and once under way she suspects she will be ''walking on air''. ''This is the best bit where it all comes together, people are milling about and the buzz and excitement is palpable.''