Clunes Booktown Festival

Flat expanses of paddocks, dry from the summer months, stretch out with livestock dotted about them. In the distance, the lone pine tree on top of Mount Beckworth is visible. Like a giant lollipop, it rises above all the other foliage, looking both ridiculous and familiar. I’m transported back to weekend car trips, repeating the same song over and over on my Discman while daydreaming about big cities.

Clunes seems to appear out of nowhere: a spattering of houses, then an avenue of trees guide you, as you roll down into the town. Sleepy buildings call to each other across wide streets. At this time of year, the trees’ leaves contribute to the golden warm that I imagine draws people to regional Victoria for long lunches, fireplaces and (if you’re lucky) a spa. For people who grew up in the country, this season doesn’t have the same connotations, it’s more about dark mornings, trying to find a warm place to dry the washing and frozen fingers.  

The town was named after an area in Scotland. The name in Gaelic meaning ‘a green’ or ‘pleasant place’. But when I think of Clunes I think of warmer, dustier colours: oranges, reds and yellows and the sepia tones of the main street.  

Image of Star Wars book

When we arrive at the Booktown Festival people are setting up stalls and unpacking cardboard boxes crammed full of books. My partner Zoe and I get a coffee and watch as trestle tables are buried in book covers that haven’t seen the light of day in years. Today is May the 4th and we quickly snap a photo of the first Star Wars book we come across.

Sitting on a hay bale in the main street the cold seems to leech up from the ground and into our legs – the kind of cold that stays in your body all day, that familiar cold that is dense and unshakable. I feel like I’m a child again. Like we have actually come to Clunes to meet my grandma who’ll be driving us the rest of the way to Maryborough. The paddocks getting dryer the further we go. Thanks to her, the landscapes of regional Victoria will always have a magical quality.

The traditional owners of this land are the Dja Dja Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. We attend the Welcome to Country by a local Elder. She speaks about Bunjil, the creator and spiritual leader and his teachings – “Respect yourself, respect others and respect the environment”.

We wander up the hill with other festival goers wrapped tightly in coats and beanies. I have a list of panels that I want to go to. First up is Male Violence & the Contemporary Thriller with authors Sarah Bailey (Into the Night), Josh Pomare (Call Me Evie) and Jock Serong (On the Java Ridge). The panel description reads: Charismatic male characters committing violence against women is a staple element in one of the most popular forms of recreational reading, the Thriller. How does this stack-up today in the #MeToo era? While not a thriller reader myself, I’m interested in the idea of reinforcing problematic archetypes when writing these stories. So often we see men emerge from these stories as “heroes”, whereas, women are one-dimensional victims. Do thriller writers have to be conscious of reinforcing gender stereotypes? Sarah Bailey (whose book Into the Night centres on the character of Senior Detective Gemma Woodstock) notes that we are trained to appreciate the complicated layers of men and are more forgiving but with women, we find it harder to accept their flaws or moral issues. She also speaks about her experience as a writer being vastly different from the other panellists – when you are a woman writer there is the assumption that everything you write is a diary. Men on the other hand (in particular white men) seem to have a license to write from whoever’s perspective they like. I can’t help but notice that Sarah seems more conscious of her position and responsibility as a writer.

Read a collection of my live tweets from this panel here.

The next panel I run to (after accidentally going to the wrong venue) is Blaze a tale presented by the Wheeler Centre and featuring Tony Birch (Common People) and Alice Pung (Close to Home), in conversation with Paddy O’Reilly, to discuss the thrills, dangers and possibilities of storytelling. What does it mean to be a storyteller in Australia today?

The first thing I have to mention about this event is the location – Wow. It’s in the Town Hall. Think pastels, think ornate ceiling detail, think old, think high ceilings and then picture a stage decked-out with a concertina folded screen painted to resemble gum trees. Do you get the idea? (if not, here’s a pic that someone else has taken).

Having always loved these writers, I found this panel both relaxing and casual. Alice and Tony have the ability to weave tragedy and humour into their storytelling. They have such respect for the form and also for their characters. Tony crosses his legs and reclines back in his chair, performing for the crowd, aware that he is as much a character as the ones in his books. He tells us how he has a character from Clunes in one of his stories, but he’d never actually been here before. He’s broken one of his rules for character development. The crowd giggle. Alice talks about Footscray in the western suburbs of Melbourne where she grew up and how “it’s always been a novelty”. How a teacher from the affluent eastern suburbs once took a class excursion to her father’s electrical shop in the main part of Footscray after they read her book. There is no better illustration of the divide the Yarra weaves through Melbourne than this.

Read a collection of my live tweets from this panel here.

Next Panel – New Voices and Smart New Writing. Robbie Arnott (Flames), Sarah Epstein (Small Spaces) and Josh Pomare (Call Me Evie) reflect on the journey of the debut author and what lies ahead, in conversation with literary reviewer Michael McGirr. We arrive late to this talk and cram up the back on the floor. For everyone sick of rejection letters from publishers, this panel would have made you appreciate the long road to publication and the importance of patience.

“When I got the first personalised rejection letter I was really, REALLY happy. When you’re used to sending out hundreds of short stories and not getting a reply.”

Josh Pomare

This is THAT panel, where everyone talks about their writing habits – where you suddenly feel lazy for not getting up at 5 a.m. each morning before work and cramming in a couple of hours of writing. Where you wonder how they hold down full-time jobs and finish books. It makes me think about how we’re so fascinated by other people, we love to peep in their windows and imagine their routines. Thinking that if we match them we too could finish that manuscript.

Read a small collection of my live tweets from this panel here.

[Lunch break. Sandwich, obligatory custard tart and veggie pasty.]

We wander up and down the stalls, there are fantasy fiction enthusiasts and people dressed up in costumes, young writers’ workshops and a maze of hay bales.

We riffle through stacks of old books and then head into the Readings tent. After hearing Robbie Arnott speak I buy his book Flames. He will be the first male author I’ve read in years. Flames takes me to a place that’s familiar and unknown at the same time. It weaves in magic realism, mythology and drama and I finish it quickly in the weeks following.

Image of bookseller with book
James with ‘Instruction Manuals for Paper Hangers’ published in 1930.

I chat to a couple of stall holders – self-confessed bibliophiles James (Clunes)‬ and Andrew (Melbourne) who say that collecting books ‘just kind of happened’. Both of them look suitably qualified to sell books – James wears a beret and Andrew a fedora. They are also wearing the iconic stall holder’s maroon apron and James’s pocket is filled with pens and a calculator for adding up all those sales. I ask them if they have any hidden gems and they pull out a book – Instruction Manuals for Paper Hangers published in 1930.

The final talk we go to is Jane Caro in conversation with Melissa Cranenburgh from Triple R. Her new book Accidental Feminists, is about the generation of Australian women who changed life for those that followed. The audience at this event is the most raucous of the day. Women (and I find myself among them) who feel outraged at how little things have changed in 50 years.

Women have done an enormous amount of changing. Men have not. What has to change is not the paid work women do in the workforce, it’s the work men do at home.”

Jane Caro

Read a collection of my live tweets from this panel here.

When we emerge from the final panel the light has begun to change, the air is sharper and the stall holders have packed up. We head back to the car and drive out on a road that loops high above the town. We stop and take a couple of photos, golden trees and buildings nestled in the valley. We wind our way up the hill and back across the dry paddocks as the Kangaroos start to come out.

Where we walked

Clunes Booktown Festival


  • Panels – excellent content and presenters
  • The town Hall – OMG I want to host all of my future birthday parties there
  • I saw a dog dressed in a dinosaur costume
  • The bakery – custard tarts (obvs)
  • (Despite ending up in the wrong events multiple times and having to sneak out) The festival is small, you can walk it and the whole town quite easily

Low lights

  • I don’t get to fulfil my life-long dream of trying twizzled potato on a stick (somehow this milestone always eludes me)
  • That I couldn’t see everything
  • I think it’s a shame that these festivals aren’t accessible to everyone. How do we get people out of the cities and attending these? Public transport? More diverse programming? Hopefully, this is changing

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