Sydney Writers' Festival: Literature spreads beyond the page

When Jemma Birrell invited Vince Gilligan to the Sydney Writers' Festival last year, he was too busy working on the final season of his hit TV series, Breaking Bad, and its coming spin-off, Better Call Saul.

When she invited him for this year's festival the timing was wrong again. So Birrell, determined not to miss out, extended the festival to suit him.

Gilligan's talk about Breaking Bad at Sydney Town Hall on May 1 is sure to sell out after Australians led the illicit downloads of the final episode, which was watched by 10.3 million people worldwide.

''Vince is able to manipulate our sensibilities and make us question our own moral standpoint. The heart of the festival is books but the art of writing is not only in books,'' says Birrell, in her second year as artistic director of Australia's biggest writers' festival.

The rest of the festival will take place from May 19-25 with 400 writers in 350 events expected to draw a crowd of more than 80,000.

On the guest list is Alice Walker, a grandee of US literature and political activism who was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Colour Purple.

She will appear at the Opera House with Aboriginal musician Archie Roach (''one of her favourites'') and with Aboriginal author Alexis Wright at Parramatta's Riverside Theatres.

Singer-songwriter Tim Finn will also perform under the festival's banner, ''Thinking Season''.

''We're looking at writing that makes you think differently, from a new perspective,'' Birrell says. ''It's what all festivals do but we want to push the boundaries.''

Literary fiction still features strongly, with international novelists including Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton, Amy Tan, Gary Schteyngart, Emma Donoghue, A.M. Homes and Irvine Welsh.

Adam Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel set in North Korea, will be in conversation with Jang Jin-sung, a former poet laureate for Kim Jong-il whose memoir Dear Leader exposes life in the totalitarian state.

Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American scholar and author of a controversial book about Jesus, will discuss the Middle East with Ari Shavit, a historian of Israel and Zionism.

Birrell lived in Paris before taking on her festival role and is pleased to bring Jacques Roubaud, a French poet, mathematician and member of Oulipo, a group formed in the 1960s by writers using strictly constrained forms.

The story Sydney Writers' Festival: Literature spreads beyond the page first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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