Women of Letters is a monthly afternoon of literature and correspondence which returns to Sydney this weekend. Sabine Brix spoke to its co-founder Michaela McGuire about celebrating the lost art of letter writing, the event’s humble beginnings and the ongoing quest to secure Cate Blanchett as a guest.

When writers Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire attended the NSW National Young Writers’ Festival in 2010, they got inspired – so much so that they decided to curate their own event to showcase the kind of female talent they discovered on their journey.

“While we were at the festival we encountered a lot of younger female writers that we’d never heard of – people like Anna Krien and Laura Jean McKay,” McGuire notes.

“All these wonderful people that we thought – it was such a shame that we had to go to Newcastle to see them and they just lived in our hometown.”

It wasn’t long after that McGuire and Hardy sat down to discuss the idea that would eventually become Women of Letters.

“I think the initial concept was basically women and doing something in the pub and raising money for animals,” McGuire says.

“It took a little time to touch on the letters concept but once we had that idea we didn’t bother trying to think of anything else really, it just seemed like it would work.”

Now in its fourth year, the concept has seen the event take over stages in Australia, America and Europe, with a monthly event in Melbourne. It pays homage to the art of letter writing by inviting a cross-section of prominent, and sometimes lesser-known, female musicians, writers, politicians and actors to pen a letter in accordance with a set theme.


[Image] Curators Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy. Photo: Supplied

In an age where rapid fire electronic communication is often the norm, the art of letter writing remains more of a considered process.

“You might have taken half an hour or had a glass of wine while you wrote it, or a cup of tea,” McGuire remarks.

“I love that you can see that sort of evidence, if they [the writer] spill something on it or if their handwriting changes or if they were tired when they wrote it. You have to put a lot of thought in – emails are so everyday now they’re not really special.”

Thankfully the guests invited to Hardy and McGuire’s events are the kind of funny, inspiring and intellectual individuals whose writing is thought-provoking. It’s just that securing the talent takes time.

“A lot of it is about lining up people’s diaries, especially with places like Brisbane and Sydney that we only get to a couple of times a year,” McGuire says.

And it’s fair to say that for some of the previous contributors – past events have featured Edie Falco, Amanda Palmer and Judith Lucy – white space in the diary is as rare as hen’s teeth.

“Sometimes it takes three years to get someone onto our stage,” McGuire admits.

And who is their most sought-after guest?

“Cate Blanchett,” McGuire exclaims excitedly.

“Just because she’s the one person that we can’t get. And she’s objectively great.

“We’ve been trying for so long, her managers hate us. So I don’t think we’ll stop the event until we get her.”

Aside from the big names the event has drawn, part of its appeal lies in its amphoral nature – the event is not recorded.


[Image] Women of Letters, May 2014 Photo: Sarah Walker

You can of course buy the books, (not every writer chooses to have their story published) but sometimes nothing beats being in the audience, especially during particularly emotive readings.

McGuire cites one of singer/songwriter Angie Hart’s letters as a defining moment for her.

“She wrote a letter to the best decision she ever made and it was incredibly powerful. She spoke really frankly and really honestly about quite an abusive marriage she’d been in – physically and emotionally abusive.

“It was just one of those letters where you could hear a pin drop in that room.

“Her current lovely husband was on one side of the stage and she had another friend, waiting in the wings, on the other side in case she started crying or needed support. She made it the whole way through the letter.

“There was deathly silence the whole time and then the room just erupted. That kind of sticks with me.”

Women of Letters featuring Myf Warhurst, Blanche D’Alpuget and Jill Dupleix is on at the Red Rattler on Sunday June 15. Tickets $20 with proceeds going to Edgar’s Mission. Book here.  Women of letters is currently available through Penguin books.

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