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Ubud Writers and Readers Festival creator Janet De Neefe

Janet De Neefe is the author of Fragrant Rice, which is as much an insight into Balinese society as it is a recipe book. In this her second interview for readersvoice.com, Janet De Neefe talks about the founding of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, in Bali.Janet De Neefe created the festival as a positive response to the Bali bombings in 2002.

READERSVOICE.COM: First up, could you mention any out of the way kinds of books you’ve enjoyed since your last interview, and maybe say a little about them.

JANET DE NEEFE: I have just read Abdulrazak Gurnah’s book called Paradise.

I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this writer before.

It is a beautifully written story set in East Africa on the brink of the First World War and tells the tale of a young boy who is pawned by his father to a rich merchant.

There are touches of ghosts, wild characters and sweet love with the magic of place that almost reminds me of Bali.

I couldn’t put it down.

I am searching now for more books he has written.

RV: The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival reportedly sprang up in response to the Bali blasts in 2002.

Can you remember where you were exactly and the circumstances, when you came up with the idea for the festival?

JD: I was in the process of finishing my book, Fragrant Rice, when the first bombing happened.

It was a devastating time for us.

I don’t think the rest of the world realized how much we suffered, how deeply depressed we all were.

It is a funny feeling, especially as an Australian, to feel the world close the door on you and almost blame you for something you didn’t do.

I often feel sadder now when I think about it, three years later, than at that time.

I guess we were all so busy then trying to help the injured in some way, that we didn’t have time to grieve.

At that point, I also realized we are on our own – there is no-one to help us.

I also realized that, sadly, the Indonesian Government would probably not help us either.

So I began to think of a way to bring people back to Bali, with a focus on healing and understanding.

After the bomb, the Ubud community held a wonderful peace festival and so I began to think of events to save us.

And because of my introduction to the literary world, I began to think that an international writers festival was the answer.

The following year, my book was published and I started to appear at writers festivals and decided that was it!

As a community-based activity, I realized the festival would bring all layers of the community together, lift saddened spirits and boost the economy.

RV: In organising the first festival, did you try to wing it yourself, or did you get advice from someone with experience in Literary Festivals?

JD: I had the help of my friend, Heather Curnow, from Tasmania, in setting up the first festival.

I had also, by then, become good friends with a few festival directors in Australia and Asia, in particular, Jill Eddington from the Byron Bay writers festival and Louisa Dear from Harper Collins.

There were a host of others who gave us all sorts of advice.

But essentially, Heather and I did most of the work.

RV: What were some of the first steps you took to get the festival started?

JD: To get the festival started, we informed writers’ centres around Australia, and started contacting writers and publishers for expressions of interest.

We also asked advice from funding bodies, such as the Australia Council and Asia Link.

We sent out feelers and everyone was so extremely positive that we knew we were on a good thing. …Again we asked for advice from other directors. We even needed assistance on developing writer’s invitations, contracts, protocol and other official letters.

We also had to devise a theme and then brain-stormed on writers we thought would suit that theme, and then slowly worked on program development.

We tried to follow a timeline but this was extremely difficult given our lack of manpower and, more importantly, our lack of funds.

We then started the long hard battle of sponsorship, which continued right up until the last minute.

We also had to plan printed matter, publicity and contact local businesses for support, such as hotels and restaurant venues.

It was, and is, a huge job!

RV: What problems did you face?

JD: Our lack of funds was, and still is, our biggest problem.

I have personally carried a lot of the costs for the festival, but do not know how much longer I can do this, especially with tourism at an all-time low.

I guess communication was a problem too.

People in Ubud didn’t know what a writer’s festival was – they have plenty of temple festivals, but a writer’s festival was something new, so we had to make ourselves understood before we could get support.

I think some people also thought I was only doing this for my own glory, without realizing I had sort-of offered myself up to the community, for the good of Ubud and Bali.

RV: How did you contact your writers for appearances for the first festival?

JD: Festival directors helped us contact writers and we also liaised with publishers and agents.

Now we try to contact the publishers to get in touch with writers to develop a stronger link.

They are very reliable and like to see their writers participating in events.

RV: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned about running a festival like this?

JD: Perhaps my biggest lesson was that I can’t always do just what I want!

I am very impetuous and driven by passion, and when I have an idea I jump in the deep end and go full speed ahead.

In an Asian community though, things are done differently, and you need to pay attention to those on the top of the ladder and then climb down the rungs, not the other way around.

But, if I did that the festival might not have got off the ground.

Sometimes there are just too many egos to massage and I didn’t have time for that.

RV: How did you learn about the administrative side of festivals, with program directors, steering and program committees?

JD: I am still learning about the administrative side of festivals and luckily have surrounded myself with a wonderful team who know more about it than I do.

It has certainly been on-the-job training, a bit like an apprenticeship.

But there is nothing more exciting than adding knowledge and feathers to your cap.
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