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The Writer Behind The Melbourne Writers Festival


It has been a big year for Lisa Dempster.

The Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) director is taking the annual literary event into its 30th birthday celebration this month, and after two hugely successful years at the helm, the expectations are much higher. And Lisa has already delivered.

Under her stewardship, MWF 2015 will be hosting another sterling line-up of literary giants including Louis de Bernieres, best-selling author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Naomi Klein, a leading voice on climate and economics. And to think that six years ago, Lisa actually tried to stand in her own way of landing the coveted festival director role.

“The then director of the Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) was leaving and wanted me to replace him,” Lisa said. “My response was oh no, I don’t know how to do that! Luckily he was fantastic enough to tell me that anyone could learn to be a festival director but a passion for festivals could not be taught. I spent the first six months on the job in a state of panic. But after putting out my first festival I saw I had the skills all along.”

When the role of festival director for the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) opened up in 2013, Lisa drew from past experience and put her hand up. And now she is one of the key drivers and influencers on Melbourne’s literary landscape.


What are you doing differently with the MWF this year?

Two things. One is increasing the festival’s size to over 520 events, about 50 more than last year. It shows how far we have come since the first festival in 1986, which had 50 events.

The second is creating deeper audience engagement. Our audience does not want to passively watch people speak but be actively engaged in that conversation. So we are creating those opportunities by allotting longer question times and getting people to vote online for the questions they want to hear.


You have successfully used social media to significantly boost the EWF and MWF’s online presence. What were your strategies?

The first is collaboration. A festival like the MWF cannot happen without many different partnerships, which can really help you make a splash on social media than if you did it alone.

Second is to use social media beyond a marketing sense. We have created a space that not just conveys our marketing messages but also invites our audience to respond, participate and engage with us throughout the festival.




The MWF is not the only big thing you have done. In 2012, you cycled 1,250 kilometres across the Nullarbor alone. What inspired that trip and what did you take away from it?

I set aside time every year for a little adventure. I have mountain biked and done two-month hikes. These trips are an important part of my life and have taught me everything I need to know about leadership and life. Those lessons feed back into my daily life here.

I always do these trips alone because undertaking something on your own teaches you leadership. You make all the decisions, solve all the problems and find that inner strength to keep going.

When I am working on something like the MWF and hit a point where I am fatigued or feeling really discouraged, I think back to those adventures. To that time when I was exhausted and dealing with a flat tyre in the Nullarbor while being honked at by camper vans. And then I tap into the inner strength I had back then to keep moving.


What do you tell yourself when the going gets really tough?

I put a time limit on the situation by telling myself that in 30 minutes everything will be different if I just keep moving forward. In the outdoors, I remind myself that in half an hour I would have reached shelter or found water. With the festival, I tell myself that everything will be different in 24 hours. If you do not think the situation will change, then you probably should not be there.


You have already achieved so much both personally and professionally. Do you ever worry about reaching the finish line before you are ready?

I do not think there is a finish line with a career in the creative industry. What I really care about is literature and I know if I am working with writing, writers, books and ideas, I will always be satisfied. My career does not have a linear journey.


So what comes after festival director?

I honestly have no idea. The unknown is very exciting to me so I would like to conceptualise a different kind of role for myself. I love festivals and I would miss working on them so I think I will be in festivals for a while!


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