Byron Bay Writers Festival director Edwina Johnson at the festival headquarters in Byron Bay.
Byron Bay Writers Festival director Edwina Johnson at the festival headquarters in Byron Bay. Marc Stapelberg

New Writers fest director is thriving in life’s new chapter

IT should come as no surprise that the new director of the Byron Bay Writers Festival had a bookish upbringing.

But it was not until recently, when reading some Dr Seuss to her five-year-old son Milo, that Edwina Johnson recalled meeting the great man, who was staying near her home on Sydney's North Shore.

"I was about Milo's age and can remember walking up a garden path in the dark to meet Dr Seuss. The door opened but I was too scared to look up. I just stared at these legs as our books were taken and signed and returned rather silently to us."

Aside from that slightly intimidating event, books were ever-present in her daily life.

"Both my parents are big readers and they always had piles of books beside their bed. The image of the two of them sitting there reading is burned into my memory."

Her parents read to her a lot and in turn she reads to Milo, something which, as well as unearthing hidden memories, provides other pleasures.

"I wasn't prepared for the joy of reading to my son and rediscovering the books I loved. I'm looking forward to reading Peter Pan and The Secret Garden."

Recently she stayed up until 4am finishing M L Stedman's "incredible, beautiful" debut novel, The Light Between Oceans, and is "really loving" The ACB with Honora Lee, by Kate De Goldi, one of several Kiwis coming to Byron.

Literature has always been at the heart of Edwina's working life too, despite being an economics graduate.

Her favourite unit of study at Sydney University was Italian and she has lived for many years on the Continent and in the UK, where she was born to Australian parents.

She helped direct a literary festival for the famous Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Co and had a senior role in the Sydney Writers Festival.

Paris was a "bijoux" event, she says, "an intimate experience in beautiful Paris with these extraordinary writers", a mere 30 of them compared with the several hundred at Sydney.

When invited to apply for the Byron role her first thought was "that's a big job" and it has, she admits, been four months of hard work.

"Milo started in kindergarten the same day I started here. He said he was scared and I told him I was too."

But off he trotted into a school filled with 600 or more strangers and Edwina says "he was brave and that helped me".

"This has been an opportunity to face our fears: to be scared but to accept that as OK, as a part of being human and part of growing. It's been really good on every level for both of us."

A self-confessed "worrier", she says she also has the ability to "come back" from the middle of the fray to a calm place within, "so you're responding from there, rather than with this manic energy".

Edwina has attended the Byron festival in the past and enjoyed it: "My view of it from the outside was that it was a really happy, relaxed, passionate exploration of the power of writing in every form."

She also admires its focus on Australian writers. "It's lovely to be able to invite a few internationals to add an extra - and very special - dimension to it, but I think it is revered as a forum for Australian writers and writing."

Headlining the "internationals" this year is Jeanette Winterson, with whom she has worked and who is also a friend.

"On her first tour to Australia, in Adelaide, the tents were packed and you could hear a pin drop as she spoke on why art matters."

If she has a theme for this year's festival it is to do with landscape and connection: how reading forms our internal landscape, and our writing is influenced by our external landscape.

The ocean provides another thematic strand: "It's so powerful for all of us in Australia. It restores and calms and nourishes us but then you think about how refugees are compelled to throw themselves upon the mercy of the ocean."

"But we don't want to get too gloomy. Bob Brown's latest book is called Optimism, so there's an opportunity to have a positive outlook for the future."

The 2014 event looks like fitting the bill.


Byron Bay Writers Festival :

The Festival runs at North Byron Beach Resort from August 1-3 with workshops starting on July 28. For more festival information or to buy tickets, visit or phone 1300 368 552.

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