Not many of us face persistent rumours we don’t exist.
It sounds like the premise for a novel, but the Canberra Writers Festival‘s new director Beejay Silcox has a personal, if bizarre, experience of just that.
A rising star in Australia’s literary world, she’s a respected writer whose short stories, literary criticism and cultural commentary appears nationally and, increasingly, internationally.
And, sitting across from me at Muse in Canberra, surrounded by books and tucking into lunch, she is most definitely a real person.
Her career began in the US and Cairo, where her husband was on post, but hit its stride in her parents’ shed in regional Western Australia after the pandemic curtain fell.
“I’d never been seen at an Australian literary event, there was only one photo of me online and I had – still have – absolutely no social media presence whatsoever,” she explains.
“There was this really persistent rumour that I was an Australian author who’d decided they wanted to move into sharp-tongued criticism, had invented a persona, found a stock photo to match it and therefore I didn’t exist.
“So when I turned up for my very first Writers Festival, completely incidentally wearing the same coat as in the photo, everyone sort of lost their minds that I turned out to be a real person.”
At another level, however, it makes complete sense: Beejay has been disappearing into words for years. She was one of those kids who reads under the blankets, reads through the night, devours books and lives in the rooms inside her brain.
It’s a familiar experience for smart, bookish kids from small bush schools: you understand that you are not really like everyone else, but also that people have expectations about you. Family, teachers, everyone who is invested in you wants you to succeed for them all.
Beejay went to university, tried to be a lawyer, knew in the first week that it was a horrible mistake but persisted. The expectations and the desire not to let anyone down pushed her on. She met her husband and made lifelong friends, but none of it was right.
Eventually, she spiralled into deep depression, a sense her body and mind were breaking down. She went home to her parents, slept 20 hours per day, went for long walks with her dad on the beach and let her mum feed her up. And as she slowly got better, she read, and read and read.
“Books saved my life,” she says simply.
“At the end of that six months of just turning into a person again, I said I can’t live other people’s ambitions. I have to work out how to live for myself.
“My wonderful husband said, there are things you want to do, and you’re putting them off like they’re the dessert of your life, like you have to eat your vegetables before you can eat them. What do you really want to do?”
The answer was books. Beejay got a master’s scholarship and started writing – about reading.
“I want to be at the very sharp edge of contemporary fiction,” she says. “I read the writers who are reflecting ourselves back to us now. I love the idea that I’m reading books that maybe in 100 years, people will be reading and wondering about.
Beejay says her job is being a locksmith, not a gatekeeper, a means of opening up a conversational space between the culture, the author, the readers, the time, the history and context of the work. She’s not interested in festivals as elevated PR for books.
“The ultimate thing for me is a hungry audience, a generous writer, and someone on stage who knows how to ensure people in the room are fizzing off the ideas. A good festival can be a grand invitation to think, to unpack, to be present, and to feel if you weren’t in the room, you will have really missed out. And I love that. Absolutely.”
Beejay’s love for Canberra will find its way into the festival. At least four books will be launched and half a dozen authors are speaking about their debut books. Advanced copies will also be on sale.
“When you hear a really great writers’ festival session, you stand in the hallway afterwards, and you hear everyone come out and they’re all talking to each other, and they’re not just talking to the person that they came with?
“That wonderful cacophony of people alive with ideas, wanting to read that book and eight other books around it, texting people to tell them you have to come see this person? That’s what I want,” she says.
The Canberra Writers Festival runs from 16-20 August 2023. The full program will be launched on 5 July.