A few months ago, in late April, I made the pilgrimage to Melbourne for an exciting new writers festival called Speculate. As a writer and reader of speculative fiction, it was everything I felt had been missing from my other festival experiences, which tended to focus rather heavily on Literature, with the occasional Genre fiction panel almost as an after-thought.
Speculate, a festival focused entirely on speculative science fiction and fantasy fiction, packed into a single day an amazing line up of informative sessions with some excellent big-name guests, including Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, Michael Pryor, Laura E Goodin, Alison Arnold, Trudi Canavan and more. The sessions covered everything from setting, language, character development and futurism, with some often surprising discussions. I was incredibly impressed by the quality of this festival – in its inaugural event – and the work of the relatively small but passionate team who made it happen.
In light of this, I spoke to Festival Director Joel Martin about why he started Speculate and what it takes to create a writers’ festival.
What made you want to start your own writers festival?
Speculate was started because we felt there needed to be more speculative fiction discussed in the literary circuit, especially focusing on the craft of writing.
How long did it take to go from conception to the festival?
Ian Laking (our comms manager and my co-host on [my literary podcast] The Morning Bell) and I had a coffee at Flinders Lane after hearing a talk by Vince Gilligan (of Breaking Bad fame). I think that’s about the first time I actually verbalized my desire to make Speculate happen. That would have been July 2017. In hindsight not a lot of time to set up the inaugural event in April 2018 but I think we pulled it off!
Did you have any pre-requisite knowledge, skills or connections that helped you? Do you have a background or day job in arts or publishing?
I work as a freelance editor and through that and the podcast [The Morning Bell], I’ve been really lucky to meet some amazing people, including some of the talented authors that were at Speculate. But I think the one thing I’d want to highlight for the question is the team behind Speculate. Ian Laking, Rachelle Dekker, Alex Fairhill and many more people put plenty of work into the festival, working volunteer hours while juggling home lives, full time jobs, studies & newborn babies to make it happen (they didn’t literally juggle babies).
What were your biggest challenges in this journey? Any triumphs you’re especially proud of?
One challenge (and it’s a great one to have) was how to feature so many great spec-fic voices in one day! We’re quite spoiled in Melbourne to have some of the best spec-fic writers in the country and it was a real struggle to have to focus down on just five sessions. I never like picking favourites, but I was very proud of showcasing Dungeons & Development: Characters Under Pressure. It was an absolute pleasure to put together and it was a joy to be in the audience watching those amazing folks make something wonderful of it. I think tabletop, pen and paper and video games have unlimited potential to deliver great narratives and I want to see more of that on the literary circuit. Indeed, we should be embracing it!
What have you learned from this experience that you’ll take into next year?
So many things! A lot of that is on the backend side, as you learn to implement systems a lot more effectively the second time over and streamline the entire planning process. And we’ll have more time, which should be a huge help!
Do you have any long-term goals for the future of Speculate? Any particular guests you want to host? Any special venues you want to run it in?
I like to take things one project at a time, but I often think just like predicting the future of Science Fiction is a risky business, I wouldn’t want to guess at what shape Speculate might take in the future. Honestly, I have so many guest names I want to throw out, but I think the wisest course of action [is] for me to remain silent on that. Just be assured that we plan to always aim for the sky! We were very lucky to have the wonderful venue of Gasworks Arts Park. It really suited the community focused vibe that we hope to encourage at Speculate. As much as I know the question of venue is a serious one, let’s fantasise for a moment. If I had my pick of any venue in the world I’d want to hold a Speculate opening, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more impressive setting than Italy’s Verona Arena. Speculative Fiction is big on wonder after all!
What’s the biggest piece of advice for anyone else looking to start their own festival?
I’m going to cheat and make it two pieces of the same whole.
Identify clear goals in order to find your niche, and bring in people with likeminded passion, who will support you but also challenge and refine your vision. The team behind Speculate 2018 was critical to its success, and that might seem like an obvious statement but I can’t stress enough the importance of having a good group of people behind an idea like this. Writing often seems like a lonely profession, but a celebration like this need not be.
It was great having a chance to chat with Joel about his process and team, after experiencing such an excellent festival as Speculate. I definitely recommend you all sign up when tickets are released for 2019.
And while often literary events and festivals seem like the stuff of magic, at the heart you’ll always simply find dedicated, hard-working people with a vision and a passion for books, writers and writing. I hope more dedicated festivals pop up around the country – especially here in Adelaide where our writing scene really could use some activity outside of Mad March – and that we remember that a robust writing community is the most important thing to keep our industry flourishing. Aside from actually writing.
Words and photo by Simone Corletto
Simone Corletto is an Adelaide-based YA and Science-Fiction writer. She’s performed her work numerous times for Speakeasy and at the National Young Writers Festival. Her first co-edited anthology, Crush, was published by MidnightSun Publishing. Her work has also appeared in Empire Times, Double Helix, RiAus, and the 2017 Visible Ink anthology “The End”. She spends her spare time crocheting lumpy hats, writing about teenage superheroes, and telling people about her science degree. She tweets at @SimCorWrites