I had always dreamed of being backstage in the ‘green room’. Mingling with other ‘stars,’ I could indulge in outrageous demands such as having coconut water shipped in from a remote island or insisting that I receive a foot massage every thirty minutes.
To achieve that fantasy I probably shouldn’t have been presenting at a school-run book festival. But the green room at the Gold Coast’s Somerset Celebration of Literature remained a highlight. An oasis managed by three ever-smiling volunteers, it included fresh food, chilled water, coffee and even a green wall. Authors buzzed around signing books, taking selfies, comparing tips and sharing absurd yarns. One detailed how it took ten years to write his first book before his run of five more. Another talked about her famous TV characters. There were illustrators, poets, comedians, fart book authors and memoir writers. Their presentations told of warlocks and super spies, teen heroes, teen angst, billionaires and puppy dogs. The act of writing is so often isolating, so hanging with these other authors was pure inspirational fuel.
Yet outside, in the public arena and at the frenzy of the bookstore signing tables, the real action pumped. Authors would be swept between venues by two assigned students from Somerset’s ‘Wordsmiths’ writing club. ‘They are at your every whim,’ was explained and later proven, as my helpers, Angelika and Anastasia, would run to get food and water. Now this was like a dream come true, given that it is every author’s wish to have two talented assistants on call. In fact, the helpers were so unanimously treasured by the authors-in-residence; I started to worry about their potential kidnapping. I could picture the nationwide police manhunt; thirty authors would have their doors kicked in, the guilty instantly identified because their clothes would be ironed and their Facebook pages updated.
But even the ‘wordsmiths’ could not guard their authors from the unpredictable questions delivered by the students. ‘How do you rate your own book…out of ten?’ A difficult assignment, but my humble reply of ten…and a half, was accepted. Georgia, a year 4 student interviewed me about my book ‘On The Road With Kids’ and the year I spent criss-crossing Europe with my family. She fired the question that even the ABC’s Richard Fidler missed. ‘Is everything in your book really true?’
Later while scoffing chips, I met Burnett State College’s librarian. She told me of Somerset’s Sponsored Schools Programme, an eleven year-old literary fund that has financed over 10,000 students from rural areas to attend. This year, over 200 kids arrived on the programme, coming from Goondiwindi, St George, Burnett, and Central Australia’s Nyangatjatjara College. ‘It’s such a prize,’ she smiled. ‘Our kids simply couldn’t afford to come otherwise.’
Thousands of story-lovers attended the three days and other literary events that blended with the Coast’s Bleach Festival. The opening night’s party buzzed with an infectious vibe, helped along by an open bar, fireworks, and a stunning volume of free candy and snow cones. But it was the passionate professionalism of the mostly-mum volunteers and the students that brought it home. Together with Somerset’s teachers, staff and parents they continue to pull off one of the Gold Coast’s finest annual events; Australia’s premier youth literary festival.
One afternoon, as I was plotting the ‘borrowing’ of at least one ‘wordsmith’, a senior student from a visiting school approached me. He had attended my earlier session and I sensed by his blushing cheeks he was keen to talk. ‘I want to buy your book,’ he explained slowly, ‘because my Mum and Dad work really hard. And I have three brothers and sisters. And well…we all love each other very much. But….we don’t spend much time together.’
This stabbed at the essence of my book, and my heart. I sat rock-like as he continued. ‘I just want to take your book home, read it and share it.’
I couldn’t dream of anything better.