Byron Bay Writers Festival director Jeni Caffin gets ready to move on.
Byron Bay Writers Festival director Jeni Caffin gets ready to move on. Jay Cronan

Jeni Caffin revisits Writers Fest

THERE have been so many embarrassing moments. Every time I open my mouth I find there are two feet firmly planted in it!”

So Jeni Caffin describes her tenure as Byron Bay Writers Festival director. “I used to have long red hair and looked a little like the writer Linda Jaivin. More than once I have been berated for the smuttiness of her book, Eat Me. I wouldn't even get the chance to say, ‘I'm not that talented!'” says Caffin with her signature laugh.

With a presence much larger than her petite size, the effervescent festival director Caffin is barely contained by the small, Byron Bay book-filled festival office where I meet her. This is to be the fourth – and last Byron Bay's Writers Festival for Caffin – the outgoing Director of the Northern Rivers Writers Centre and festival. When talking with Caffin it is impossible not to be won over; she is good humoured, sharp and energetic, all the attributes you imagine would translate into an effective festival director.

Caffin comes alive as she recalls when her appointment as Byron Bay Writers Centre and Festival director was announced in 2006. “It was a stellar moment for me personally, and it felt incredible being handed the reins,” she says. “But at the same time it was very humbling, and I thought, ‘God, I hope I don't break it!'”

It's easy to understand how Caffin nabbed the top literary gig in the region. In conversation, she often reiterates her insatiable curiosity for ideas and people. That, combined with her experience has proven to be a winning combination to concoct successful festivals and direct a growing writers centre.

Caffin came from a successful career in book sales, firstly as manager of the Angus & Robinson flagship store in Pitt Street, and then as the National Events and Publicity Manager.

After moving to the region from Sydney in 2003, Caffin joined the Byron Bay Writers Centre as a volunteer, then two years later Caffin was appointed the Byron Bay Writers Centre and Festival publicist in 2005 – a position she held for another two years. Caffin sees her background and experience in book sales and promotions as a perfect segue into her new role. Another plus for Caffin is that she came to the role with some understanding as to how much hard work was ahead of her, and, as she says, it was less of a shock for her than for someone less familiar with the writers' centre and the festival.

Caffin describes her journey as director as, “Not entirely smooth”. She elaborates: “In 2008 there were the floods and last year we almost died of woodchip inhalation. On top of that, each year we contend with the strange situation that for an annual festival – we don't have a permanent home. Come festival time, it's like reinventing the wheel again and again.”

Most other festivals have a permanent site. And for Caffin, this lack is responsible for some of her more sleepless nights. “Being homeless certainly adds to the stress, but we're very blessed this year that the new owners have let us come back to the Belongil site,” says Caffin. “There's something about being on the seaside, being surrounded by gardens and the close proximity to the dining room.”

Caffin continues, “It is absolutely an aim of the festival to work towards having a permanent home. It's very wearing having to secure a home each year plus it's also very expensive having to submit DAs to council each year. It also creates a lack of long-term planning ability for the festival, and budgeting can sometimes be fantasy-like.”

When I asked Caffin what was the most stressful time for the Byron Bay Writers Festival, she barely pauses as she recalls the 2008 festival. “It had rained for days, and I heard the rain teeming down all Thursday night,” she says, “So on Friday morning when we got there, chairs were literally floating in the water, I knew there was no way the site could be salvaged. It was devastating.

“People thought there would be a refund, but everything was already paid for, the writers were flown in, accommodated, the site was paid for. We're a not-for-profit organisation and we struggle to make ends meet every year, this is why we have to sell tickets. Our sponsors are also very important to us, we wouldn't be able to do it without them. The same with our wonderful volunteers.”

Caffin happily recalls some of her favourite festival moments, “For all who were fortunate enough to hear it last year, Robert Dessaix's lecture was the triumph of the festival. He was amazing, heartfelt and sincere. For the 2008 festival, one of the moments that lives in my brain included walking around the festival site and hearing Mark Seymour's beautiful voice drifting out of one of the tents. Comedienne Denise Scott captivated listeners everywhere she went; she was truly fabulous. In fact, I love anything to do with the comedy writers. There have been countless highs and I've laughed so much. There's a meeting of interesting minds that you can only get in a live festival setting.”

I put it to Caffin that writers and festivals may be for some writers, an uneasy mix. Caffin agrees, “Absolutely. And why should writers be entertaining? There are now so many festivals and of course they need writers – for some writers that creates a burden to perform. If they don't come across well, there's the risk that will impact book sales, and for others that do connect with an audience, their books can fly, even though they may be mediocre.

“It's a strange beast that we have created; there's definitely a writers' circuit. In the month of August alone there's Byron Bay, Melbourne and Brisbane writers' festivals, so I do wonder how some of them find the time to write. I send out invitations in November, and I'm always amazed by the speed that the acceptances come back.”

Caffin tells authors that participating in a writer's festival is a conversation and not a presentation. “I also suggest to them not to rehearse a performance.” So how exactly does Caffin choose her authors? “For me, it's all about ideas,” says Caffin. “Some writers pique my curiosity more than others. What they have to say is not necessarily all on the page, so that's when I want them for the festival.”

This year Caffin has scored a coup with Bret Easton Ellis participating in the festival. “I wanted to bring some international spice to the festival,” says Caffin, “Southern Cross University are so wonderful how they have supported us to bring our international guests out to Australia.”

So this all begs the question, where and why is Caffin going? “There's no hidden agenda,” Caffin emphasises, “I've given it my all and my partner has had little attention. It's really time we had a break together, I want to tear around and see things, I love to travel, and my partner and I have not had much time to do that.”

So how does Caffin feel about letting going of the reins? “It sounds like a cliché, but for a writers' festival that is so intensely ideas-focused, it will reach a time when it will need new ideas! I would hate to think that the Byron Bay Writers Festival has become too closely linked to my brain. After four years, I would like to sit in a marquee and see someone else's ideas come alive.”

As it transpires, the interviews for Caffin's replacement are taking place at the time of writing. “I would expect at this year's festival the next director will be accompanying me around the site,” says Caffin.

After her travels, Caffin plans on staying in the region, which she loves dearly, as well as spending a certain amount of the year in Bali and Europe. But what will she miss the most? Caffin claims it will be the injection of energy that comes together when a writer commits to the festival. “And I'll miss my team in here,” she says. “It's a very happy office.”

Beyond the travel and the much needed time with her partner, Caffin is sure that she would like to continue making herself useful in the Byron Bay community.

“If a use can be found for me!” she laughs. Somehow I think there will always be a good use for Jeni Caffin.

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