Established in 1986 as a joint initiative between the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts and the City of Melbourne, Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) was the sister festival to the Spoleto Festival. Our first year of events was held at the Athenaeum Theatre and heralded the Spoleto Melbourne Festival of Three Words. We quickly cemented ourselves in the literary calendar and by 1987 had already welcomed Australian and international authors including Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Angela Carter, Helen Garner, David Malouf and Vikram Seth.
Expanding into the 90s, the Festival grew from a weekend of activities at the Athenaeum to a series of events at the Kino Cinema and eventually flourished into a full program of events hosted at The CUB Malthouse. From these beginnings, the Festival has thrived as a cornerstone of Melbourne’s literary culture. By 1991, just five years after our inception, The Sydney Morning Herald had labelled MWF ‘Australia’s premier literary event’.
By the mid-1990s, our audience had doubled in size as we became host to over 150 writers, including Miles Franklin Literary Award–winners Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley. The first MWF Schools’ Program was held in 1995.
In 1998, the Festival was held autonomously from the Melbourne International Festival for the first time. As the ’90s drew to a close, we inhabited a wider range of venues including the Melbourne Town Hall, while our ambitious ‘On Tour’ events took us across the state and throughout regional Victoria.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Melbourne Writers Festival had emerged as a major international event, providing a forum for political and cultural discussion, sparking controversy and inviting innovative thought. In 2008, we shifted our Festival Hub from the Malthouse to Fed Square, and in 2010 relocated our office to its current home at The Wheeler Centre. Since then, the Festival has expanded at an amazing rate, and continues to offer a dynamic, enquiring program that presents writers of appeal to readers of all ages, backgrounds and passions.
In 2017, we joined forces with Jaipur Literature Festival to present JLF Melbourne, a festival that transported the magic, colour and excitement of India’s biggest literary celebration to Fed Square for Asia TOPA.
Throughout the years, MWF has been host to some of the greatest writers and thinkers from Australia and around the world.
Some of the many writers who have been part of MWF include Nobel Prize winners JM Coetzee and Seamus Heaney; Pulitzer Prize winners John Ashbery, Richard Ford, Frank McCourt and Annie Proulx; and Booker Prize winners Ben Okri and Graham Swift.
Our international guests have included Isabel Allende, Melvyn Bragg, Bill Bryson, Simon Callow, Paulo Coehlo, Junot Díaz, Roddy Doyle, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Dave Eggers, Robert Fisk, Jonathan Franzen, Tavi Gevinson, PJ Harvey, Pico Iyer, PD James, Boris Johnson, Terry Jones, Naomi Klein, David Levithan, Yann Martel, Janet Mock, Edna O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, Maria Popova, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, Rainbow Rowell, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Carol Shields, Lionel Shriver, Tracy K Smith, Zadie Smith, Angie Thomas, Colm Tóibín, Joanna Trollope, Marina Warner and Joss Whedon, as well as a delegation of cartoonists and writers from The New Yorker.
Celebrating Australian literature, the MWF program has featured, among others, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Julian Burnside, Robert Dessaix, Robert Drewe, Anna Funder, Helen Garner, Germaine Greer, Kate Grenville, Marion Halligan, Bob Hawke, Clive James, Marcia Langton, Shane Maloney, David Malouf, Melina Marchetta, Drusilla Modjeska, Les Murray, Henry Reynolds, Kim Scott, Anne Summers, Amy Witting and Booker Prize winners Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan and Tom Keneally.