Reading for a living: Laura Kroetsch on Adelaide Writers’ Week

Laura Kroetsch became Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2012. Ahead of the 2016 event, Kroetsch discusses the challenges won and still to come for SA’s premier literary festival.

“Almost as soon as I got here, people started stopping me and asking if I was going to ‘change’ things,” says Laura Kroetsch, Adelaide Writers’ Week Director. “It’s perfect,” we told her, “Don’t ruin it.” In 2012, when she took on the role, Kroetsch had no idea of Adelaide’s characteristic suspicion of New Things. “There had been a piece in Australian Book Review about this big,” she says, pinching an inch-wide square between her thumb and forefinger. “The last line was ‘…going to improve sightlines and sound’, and a journalist asked me, ‘What do you mean by that?’ I said, ‘Just that we’re going to improve the sightlines and sound’ – ‘But what do you mean?’ – ‘Just so it’s easier to see and hear’ – ‘So you are going to change things.’” At the memory, she smiles, sharing a look of mixed incredulity and fondness. “I don’t think I let it sink in,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Huh! What funny attention to detail here.’” Four years into Kroetsch’s captaincy, members of Writers’ Week’s traditional audience still dole out feedback tinged with distrust. “We didn’t think we’d like it, but we did,” Kroetsch was told after Clive Hamilton’s session on climate change. These unfamiliar, ‘non-literary’ topics have been integral to recent Writers’ Week programs. Kroetsch is an ardent defender of all types of literature – popular, non-fiction and experimental – and adores poetry. She was thrilled to see large audiences flocking to Adelaide Writers’ Week for the poets. Her late father, Robert Kroetsch, was an award-winning writer and poet, and Kroetsch explains she grew up in a superbly literary household. “I had extremely permissive parents,” she says with a laugh. “To the point where I could even come home from school to read, because I didn’t really like school very much.” Annie Dillard and Joan Didion were the key writers in Kroetsch’s formative years, and she returns to their work year after year. Kroetsch grew up in Binghamton, in upstate New York, with her mother, father and younger sister (who is sporty and social and “not a reader at all”). “It was an interesting neighbourhood to grow up in, because we had so many post-World War II immigrants and their children who were my age, and it was after Vietnam so we had a lot of Vietnamese immigrants. I feel very privileged to have grown up that way,” says Kroetsch. Curious – and hungry – Kroetsch was always intrigued by the homes of her neighbours. “As a kid, I was really fascinated by the ways different houses smelled, because of course everyone’s home smells like them, but it also smells like the cuisine. I love food. I’ve always loved food. I was always angling to get something to eat,” she says, laughing. “We never had soy sauce when I was a kid; we never really got bagels. My mother’s from the South, so we had fried chicken and grits. There was always something I loved that someone else had.” The multicultural fabric of her neighbourhood stretched beyond the dinner plate, with Kroetsch and her sister picking up their first ‘job’ feeding fish on the Sabbath for the Orthodox Jewish family who lived across the street. It’s perhaps these roots – peeking into the lives of others – that drives Kroetsch’s fascinations today. She’s dedicated to diverse voices: Indigenous writers and translated authors, angry women and frustrated scientists. “I want Writers’ Week to be a conversation, and I want people to talk to each other and get mad or get sad or get angry,” she says. Although she strives for breadth and inclusion with her programs, there are still obstructions to overcome. “The big challenge for us is it’s very hard to get people to engage with Aboriginal literature,” says Kroetsch. “We have had a racial incident at every festival I’ve done. That’s one place where we’re not getting anywhere, and that is very discouraging to me. Ali Cobby Eckermann was verbally abused, and that really upsets me. She was really good about it, but had I been there I would not have been as well-behaved as she was. Those are the things that make me angry. And that’s where we must keep trying.” Adelaide Writers’ Week Saturday, February 27 – Thursday, March 3 adelaidefestival.com.au/2016/writers_week/Adelaide_Writers_Week_2016 For more detail on the full program, click here

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