In just a few weeks the Digital Writers Festival will be happening, and we can’t wait. Run by the very approachable and fantastic foot-in-the-door enablers at the Emerging Writers Festival, this eleven-day festival is a brand new event, open and accessible to anyone, anywhere.

Festival co-director Connor Tomas O’Brien was kind enough to tell us more.

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WB: What is the Digital Writers’ Festival, and who is it for?
CTO: The Digital Writers’ Festival is an eleven day digital smorgasbord of live-streamed online discussions between readers, writers, and publishing types. Almost all of the events are free, and will be running at between February 13 and 24.

The festival is really for anyone with an interest in reading or writing. That’s an incredibly broad target audience, but that’s the idea. Because all that’s required to engage with the festival is a web-enabled device, it means we can run a festival that’s accessible to those in regional areas, those with disabilities, or those who otherwise can’t engage with the writers’ festivals that take place in the capital cities. It also means we can run events that wouldn’t be tenable for traditional writers’ festivals, in which every participant has to be in the same place at the same time.

WB: What do you hope to achieve with the festival?
CTO: When we started thinking about what the Digital Writers’ Festival should look like, we decided to break apart what “festival” means. We wanted to figure out whether it’s actually possible to run something you could legitimately call a festival in the online space. The internet is a vibrant place, but there’s something about real-world festivals that’s missing from the web – that feeling of embodiment, and of collectively sharing an experience with a group of likeminded (but not too likeminded!) people at the very same time. Festivals are also what I think of as serendipity multipliers: you go to a festival and you open yourself up to unexpected experiences and unexpected interactions. Ultimately, I’d like the Digital Writers’ Festival website to feel like a real space people can visit over the duration of the festival, where they can engage with new people and new ideas. The feeling of immediacy and presence is also really important: the events will all be streamed live, and I think there’s something appealing about knowing that you’re sharing the same experience with a group of others at the same time… even if they’re located all across the globe.

WB: What’s the process of creating a whole new festival been like? 
CTO: We’re running the Digital Writers’ Festival through an Australia Council residency grant, which means that I’ve been able to draw upon the expertise and absolutely vicious competence of the Emerging Writers’ Festival team. In a sense, the Digital Writers’ Festival is really just an extension of the groundwork the EWF team have been laying for over a decade – every year, they’ve been pushing the boundaries in terms of digital festival programming, and it just feels as though we’ve reached a tipping point where there’s enough going on digitally to branch that all off into a self-contained festival.

But still: it is a new festival! And, in a sense, it’s a weird festival, because we’re trying something novel instead of just replicating an existing festival model. The main hurdle has been figuring out a way to position the festival so that it can clearly justify its own existence, and trying to strike the right balance between experimenting with new ideas and keeping the concept as clear and straightforward as possible. In the few months before we made the Digital Writers’ Festival concept public, I think I was most worried about the idea not gaining traction, because that can happen when you’re trying something different. But as soon as we pre-announced the festival, the response seemed to be, quite resoundingly, “I was waiting for something like this to happen.” So now I’m not terrified about that anymore, I can re-focus my terror on the logistics of actually pulling the festival off in February.

WB: And which events are you most looking forward to? 
CTO: I don’t want to play favourites, but there’s some stuff that we’re running that just couldn’t take place at any other festival. One of the panels is a global meetup between representatives from most of the world’s UNESCO Cities of Literature, speaking about different approaches to building and maintaining vibrant literary cultures, which is just going to be incredibly exciting. During the first week of the festival, we’ll be helping launch a series of digital writing projects from a handful of emerging Australian writers, from an international live streamed performance poetry project to a ‘Literary Turing Test’. We’ll also be hosting a one-on-one chat with indigenous writer Siv Parker, running a roundtable between Australia’s current crop of student media editors, a book club with the Kill Your Darlings team (culminating in a live chat with author Luke Carman), and a panel on online sex writing with the Scum Magazine team. The program is deliberately very diverse, ranging from a very serious discussion about whether Twilight fan fiction should qualify as a literary genre, to interviews with publishing industry insiders and video game critics, to 12-hour manic writing projects, to roundtables looking at how minority writers can construct support networks online.

WB: How, where, and when can we attend the festival?
CTO: The full program is up right now on the website, and from the 13th to the 24th of February, the site itself will transform into the festival hub – if you visit when a session is taking place, you’ll drop right into the video stream, with the opportunity to interact with artists and generally multiply your serendipity.

The Digital Writers Festival program is announced tomorrow, and the festival is running from the 13th-24th February.

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