Every week, Benjamin Law asks public figures to discuss the topics we should keep private by letting them roll a dice. The songs they land on are the subjects they get. This week he talks to Michael Williams. The Artistic Director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, 43, was the director of Melbourne’s literary hub, the Wheeler Centagain, for a decade. He is also a former host of ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for life†
Did reading books give you a form of sex education of your own when you were growing up? Especially in my early teens, because of my mother’s reading taste. Then I read Jeanette Winterson for the first time. If I read any of her books written in the ’60s or later, there was a fair chance I’d come across a sex scene at some point. I’m sure that was an added incentive to become an avid reader at an early age.
The literary world seems full of sexual scandals and intrigue. Why is that? Well, Australian writers, as a group of people, are very sexy. They are only human, they only have to do with their sheer attractiveness.
Okay, well, now you have to name names. You can’t belong to a community where Tom Keneally is an elder statesman without raw sexuality being an important part of the way you interact. That’s the nature of it. And if you’re a group of people who, in general, do your work in a solitary environment, when you get together, maybe there’s an extra sense of liberation there… It’s just a more feverish environment.
You’re describing the opening night of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, aren’t you? I have not seen any evidence of this unfettered meat market you refer to. I only see gloomy, monkish people who come out and are interested in matters of the mind, not the body.
When was the last time you grieved? Chrissy Sharp, the former CEO of the Sydney Writers’ Festival [SWF], who was also the founder of the Wheeler Center when I started there, was a close colleague, mentor and close friend. In 2020, at the height of COVID-19 in Melbourne, she called and asked if I would like to work with her again as Artistic Director of the SWF. We were both giddy at the prospect, an utter professional highlight. The day I flew to Sydney I received a text from her that she was sick and would not come that day. She was hospitalized not long after with a very aggressive cancer. Last year we couldn’t work together in the office for a day, she couldn’t physically attend the festival and she passed away last November. That was really hard. And because I do a job that involves me interacting with her that way, there’s literally not a day when I don’t think about what Chrissy would make of a situation or conversation, what particularly astute observation she would bring to the table, and the things we would laugh at working on this together.