Izzy Roberts-Orr

Izzy Roberts-Orr is the Co-CEO and Artistic Director of both the Emerging Writers Festival and the Digital Writers Festival.

She is also a podcaster, part of the team behind Sisteria and The Rereaders, as well as Broadwave, a curated network of Australian podcasts telling community-driven stories.

Izzy is also a poet and playwright.

Izzy Roberts-Orr spoke to The Garret about her podcasting and writing career.


ASTRID: Izzy Roberts-Orr, welcome to The Garret.

IZZY: Thanks for having me.

ASTRID: Izzy, you're a poet, a playwright, an editor, and a podcaster. You're also the festival director and co-CEO of the Emerging Writers Festival. You deliver a large part of your career to helping other writers and poets build their careers. Tell me what drives you?

IZZY: Hmm. Good storytelling I think is at the heart of it, I think. There's a Joan Didion quote, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’, and I think that's very accurate. So, a lot of the storytellers that we work with at the Emerging Writers Festival in particular are such vital voices. They're speaking truth in the face of abuse of power or thinking about pretty fundamental problems with our society on one hand. And then on the other they might be finding moments of wonder and joy and beauty and hope in the middle of quite difficult political situations as well. So that's probably the heart of it is both kind of a desire to hear a good story told well, but also the thinking beyond that about what power words have to change the world.

ASTRID: So how do you define an emerging writer?

IZZY: We can ask that question a lot at the Emerging Writers Festival…

ASTRID: You just rolled your eyes, and I ask, because it is such a difficult thing to define. And yet so many people in industry, including myself, use the term.

IZZY: I didn't know that I was rolling my eyes. I should work on that. That's really bad. I do that good. That's why rolling your eyes is cool. Yeah, we get asked that question a lot. And I think when it comes to the festival what an emerging writer is, is quite broad, it's self-defined. So, if you think that you're going to get something out of the festival, it may be that you have been a poet for ten years and you're emerging as a playwright, and you're going to get something out of the festivals. So great, we have space for you there. It's not tied to, oh, you've published two books. So sorry, you're in the mid-career category now at Ubud. It's a lot broader than that and it's self-defined.

Actually, back when I was a creative producer intern at the festival a number of years ago, one of my fellow creative producers made a collage as part of with, we had some stuff going on for White Night that year and as part of an event there, and it was like, it was kind of a fish bird hybrid that was jumping out of the water saying, ‘Have I emerged yet?’ And I feel like that kind of monstrous idea of we, the sum of so many parts, whether that be the inspirations that we take on and the different phases of our practise, we're kind of, you never really leave the chrysalis I don't think.

ASTRID: Tell me, how do you balance your own artistic practise with your responsibilities as an arts administrator?

IZZY: That is the million-dollar question. I got a lovely kind of shock actually when I had first started in this role. And it was at an event with our MIT partnership, the students there were kind of reading their work and it was Bonnie Cassidy was like, ‘So have you written any poems?’ And she was the first person to ask me when I had first started this role. And I was shocked because I was like, ‘Oh, even my friends and family, they don't actually ask how I am’. They say, ‘How's the festival going?’ That's the first question. But that gave me a bit of a jolt to be like, ‘Oh, part of the reason I think I'm hopefully good at this job is that I am an emerging writer myself. I have experience with craft and practise in many different forms. I'm part of those communities. I am invested in them in a way that has an understanding for what it is to be an artist in those spaces’.

IZZY: So yeah, I see those hats as being quite different. I think it's really important that as, particularly as a curator, that you can put aside your own writing and your own preferences, because there's other things at play often. For example, I don't read a lot of crime, but I know that a lot of other people do, and that's something I need to learn how to programme well and make sure that people enjoy it and take my priorities as a programmer there too to make sure it's an event that I still think is reaching what we're trying to do as a festival. But yeah, that other hat is the, they kind of, they relate to each other, but hopefully they don't, one doesn't supersede the other, I suppose.

ASTRID: When you're in creative life, do you have a routine?

IZZY: I'm starting to work on one now. It's taken me, honestly working, like the festival is, it's quite full on, it's a lot work…

ASTRID: It is.

IZZY: …which is what I love about it. And there's a lot of space outside of that that's really important to maintain as well. As I said, maintaining, making sure that I'm still an active member of those communities that I'm going to see people's work outside of that, that I'm following up people who I'm mentoring and checking in with them. So now I kind of feel like I've got a bit more of a handle on it. This year's festival was the first festival that I programmed from scratch. And now I kind of feel like I know what I'm doing, which means that there's a lot more space to create outside of that for my own practise.

So yeah, actually I had a gig last night, which was the first time I've read poetry in quite a long time. And yeah, it's always a good reminder to keep creating. I think what works best for me, my friend, Frankie, or colleague Frankie, who works next door at Express Media in The Wheeler Centre, they have this idea of thick time, which I really like, which you need to write poetry. So not just half an hour scribbled after work before, when you've kind of been using your creative juices all day. Not just a snatch moment on the weekend between doing your chores, but actually sitting down and needing half an hour to drink your coffee and just sit, and then half an hour to read through some drafts, and then half an hour to have a break and go for a walk before you can actually really sit down and invest in it. So, carving out that space. Yeah, it's quite difficult I think these days.

I think the new routine I would like to start, but that isn't currently is about Saturday is for me a day that I can often be quite productive if I'm very disciplined. You need to have at least a weekend though. And the other thing that I would say is like, my job's full time and kind of the as I say, there's more than that to do as part of it. So just being a bit gentle with yourself I think when you're doing those things and learning that it can take time and that's all right. It might take me another two, six months. It might take another year to do, to really finish that project and be happy with it, but that's okay.

ASTRID: It is okay. You've mentioned the word community I think twice now, both in reference to the community that is the Emerging Writers Festival, but also you as an individual seeing other people's work, being involved in mentoring. How important is that community and networking and mentoring within the industry for emerging writers?

IZZY: I think it's everything. I remember that being one of the really key things that sort of started my love affair with the Emerging Writers Festival was hearing at the closing night, again when I was interning with the festival and Sam said like, ‘Look around this room. This is your community. It's not just a festival like now we've reached the end of this 10 days’. And a festival kind of creates a temporary community certainly, over the actual time that it's on, but that doesn't stop when the festival does. And I really, that really stuck with me and kind of remembering to invest in that in those ways.

And actually, I think it was at the start of last year. So, it would be just before I started this role, we had an event at Pavilion called Independent Convergence, which was an event that was kind of, it was for independent artists to come together for a day and reflect on their practise and have conversations around their practise, around ethics, around funding, and sort of provide peer-to-peer mentoring. And it was like, it all just was like people pitching in their ideas and time to make this thing happen. It wasn't resourced or anything like that. And at that space I said that one of my hopes for that year was that I, or in the future at least, would learn enough that I could start to be giving back to other people and passing on that mentoring that I've had in many different ways for many different people, whether they know it or not.

ASTRID: When you put together the programme for the Emerging Writers Festival, how do you do it? And I guess I'm asking on behalf of writers who might like to see themself on a programme.

IZZY: First thing I would say for writers who might like to see themselves on a programme is we do an open artist call-out, it is that simple. And I read every single one of them more than once. The open artist call-out for the Emerging Writers Festival is on, it opens in November and the open artist call-out for the Digital Writers Festival, which I'm currently programming that's, we also produce a Digital Festival in October every year. That opens in July. So, there's two possibilities. If you're not based in Melbourne, for example, or, well, although we do have some travel budget and we bring artists from interstate, there's always more people from interstate then we can afford to bring down for the festival. So, the Digital Festival is often a really great inroad for people as well to start getting in touch with other Melbourne artists and that sort of thing.

So yeah, that would be the number one thing is apply in November. It's fairly straightforward. And if people have questions about the application process, they are very welcome to get in touch. For this year's festival we did a kind of frequently asked questions and a little live YouTube stream with myself and the program coordinator. So that really broke down exactly what we're asking, exactly what we're looking for or open to. And so, I would recommend doing that sort of research, particularly if you haven't been to the festival before. That can give you a real sense of who we are and what we do.

ASTRID: For you as a programmer, when you're balancing a lot of different competing interests, different stakeholders, different expectations, what makes, once someone has applied, what makes their idea, their creative work stand out?

IZZY: What's interesting, we're a curated festival. And so, although we do take ideas, it's often more likely that we have a framework for the festival that we are fitting people into. So, there's like there's sort of a push and pull, and it's quite hard to say that we do it one way, because we don't. It changes and that's that curation process is an ever-evolving process. I mean, to mention about that process as well. So, the application goes in and we get about 400 applications. We're committed to programming at least a quarter of the final number of artists that make it into our programme from that open call out. But with it, like with the number we had from this year's call-out for the 2018 festival was probably about a one in five chance that you would be programmed. So that gives you a bit of a sense of that.

And then in terms of it, so we read it as the programming team and we kind of go through and we pull out threads of ideas, but it's not just the idea that people have pitched us. Some folks might be like, ‘I have no idea what I want to do, but this is my writing practise. And here's a link to a poem I just had published and here's as link to a memoir piece and I'm starting a podcast in the next month’. And we're like, ‘Great’. And I check out all of that material as well. And I really think about where that artist is going to fit and if there might be other spaces for them. So there is the space to talk about your interests and your work, as well as pitch an idea.

ASTRID: When you're creating the festival, obviously your focus is on creating the most dynamic and innovative festival that you can but are you aware of the kind of responsibility that you hold in terms of getting a gig at the festival might be someone's leg up, might be a thing that gets their work noticed. How do you approach that?

IZZY: Absolutely. And I mean, so the final part of that process, it doesn't stop at me and the programming team reading the applications. We have a programme advisory committee. And so that's around six folks from within industry and also representing a number of communities and groups that are to offset the fact that I am one person with one life experience, one brain. And even within our programming team that's two people with two life experiences and two brains. But it's kind of some of the things that we might not pick up on from an application, from an artist who might be doing their first ever artist application. That's kind of why we have these vetting systems in place in order to ensure that we have a fair balance within that as well.

Representation is something that's really important to us, and by that and inclusion. By that I mean, like looking at our programme, you really want to see the breadth of the incredible emerging storytellers that are practising across this continent today. And part of that is making sure that it's not just me looking at it and thinking, ‘I really love lyrical poetry, so the whole festival is going to be about that this year’.

ASTRID: Izzy, you're young, and you have quite a position in the industry. Taking a step back from the Emerging Writers Festival and the Digital Writers Festival. What are your opinions on the literary industry as a whole in Australia?

IZZY: It's been quite interesting watching a little bit of going on with Melbourne Writers Festival. I think Ben Law summed it up very well in a tweet, which essentially said, ‘If you are Anglo middle-class and over 40, 99 per cent of writers festivals in this country already catered to you’. I'm excited by some of the possibilities of how things are moving in terms of programming. We have a very long and rich history of really innovative programming, we're a festival for writers with expanded that now to mean storytellers.

We're not just about publishing books and it's been really wonderful to see exactly what you just said. The Emerging Writers Festival is a launch pad for a lot of folks. And I kind of see that as a bit of a powerful position for us really as well, which means that we get to help shift things and go, ‘No, these stories are really important’, or, and kind of be a bit of a counterpoint sometimes. And yeah, that being said, I think broadly it's a wonderful industry. Again, the sense of community, the fact that folks mentor each other. And I think critical rigour is something that we're quite good at a lot of the time.

ASTRID: Can you explain that for me?

IZZY: I think you have to be critical of the things you love in order that they may grow. And part of that will be in terms of work rather than. So being able to look at something that someone's produced and give it critical feedback. That's not the same as negative feedback. I think we do quite well. I think in some ways we can do better, but that also extends to the industry when it comes to what we're producing, whether that be theatre works or books, whether that be about the staff within the industry. One example would be that we are quite, we're an overwhelmingly white industry, and that is a problem. And yeah, I think we need to be able to be critically reflective within our own positionality and think about how we can start to shift those things going into the future as well. It doesn't serve anyone well I don't think to have homogeneity in a creative community.

ASTRID: Not at all. The creative vibes always do better when there's difference of opinion and difference of everything. Izzy, you recently returned from Edinburgh, another city of literature. How did you get there and what did you learn? Because of course your career continues outside the Emerging Writers Festival.

IZZY: It was really exciting that the city of literature office sent across a cohort of programmers to meet up with people in this other city of literature. And one of the really cool benefits I think of it was actually going with that group of people and having the opportunity to get to know some of the folks who are working in programming in different spaces throughout our city. And also extending that to Geelong, Marianne, who does Word by Word, was fantastic to meet her. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to really pick her brains about that non-fiction festival and how things work down in Geelong. And we also had Julia from Writing New South Wales come along with us. So that was great too.

I think I have a bit of a love affair with Scotland. I lived in Glasgow about four years ago, and this was the first time I'd been back. It was four years almost to the day since I'd been there. There's something really remarkable about meeting folks who are operating in such distance and finding that they kind of structure things in similar ways. They're dealing with a lot of similar questions. They have a lot of similar kind of queries when it comes to industry or funding. And that was really wonderful. I just really enjoyed it. I don't know what else to say. I mean, I feel like there's, I had hoped to bring back some programming insights, but I was quite surprised to find in some ways that really it was very similar conversations. And so, the insight if I could bring anything back is actually we're doing really well.

ASTRID: That's good to hear.

IZZY: Yeah.

ASTRID: I have another question for you, Izzy. Like me you are the previous recipient of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship. When you think about the burgeoning careers of new writers, writers who want to crack through, how important are fellowships and prizes like that?

IZZY: Time is so important. I mean, I was kind of getting at that before when you asked me how I'm managing to fit my own practise in and being time poor is a real killer basically. Time and space. So, having somewhere a desk and time that is writing time are absolutely vital. The Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships are a fantastic example of that. And yeah, I found that really productive and I've actually just recently been like, ‘All right, I think I've got the manuscript that I was working on then is now like ready’.

ASTRID: Well done.

IZZY: ‘Cool, finally’. But yeah, I think, I mean, we find that really important, which is why we run a number of opportunities ourselves. The Richell Prize for unpublished manuscripts is you submit three chapters of your work and that's been really successful. We've seen a lot of people be published with Hachette through that. And the prize is $10,000, which is, and a mentorship to work on your manuscript, which is obviously fantastic.

And we've also just run for the first time this year the Emerging Writers Fellowship with the State Library. And again, that's a month of writing time. You get a dedicated desk at the State Library. It's kind of a perfect amount of time for an emerging writer I feel as well. And there's a stipend attached to that of $2,000 and it's really designed for someone from interstate. So we pay for their flights and we have home-stay accommodation for them in Melbourne as well. Yeah, it's very important. It's kind of goes back to even the ideas of a room of one's own a space and some time are really vital.

ASTRID: It does, but I've got a harder question for you, Izzy. Tell me about how writers at any point of their career can make a sustainable living in Australia, even in a city of literature that is so welcoming, like Melbourne?

IZZY: I'll let you know when I figure it out.

ASTRID: I was hoping you had the answers.

IZZY: I really don't, and it was interesting. I mean, I think there's a delicate balance here sometimes as well. I'm quite pragmatic about this in some ways, but I'm always interested to hear actually as well when slightly older generations within the creative industries see what they have to say. So like, I know that Esther Anatolitis has just been on kind of a bit of a world tour figuring out what best practise models we have for supporting artists. So that's with NAVA, the National Association for the Visual Arts, but I think a lot of the learnings there will be applicable for writers as well. And then you have folks like Ben Eltham who works really strongly with MEAA, the industry, like our union, which I think not enough writers join the union.

And Ben does particularly quite a lot of work there with the freelancing of MEAA. They're also doing quite a bit of work at the moment about digital workers' rights, which is going to be kind of the new frontier. And I don't know, whenever I talk to people about the union, sometimes I get back a bit of a, ‘Oh, but what do they actually do?’ And it's like, ‘Well, you have to join the union and go to the meetings and tell them what to do. You've got to buy in and be part of it to make it better’. A union is only as good as its members. So just tapping out isn't really going to be very useful either. And I honestly, I do think that we have to collectivise and I think that we have to start talking about ways to advocate for ourselves better. Because a key problem for emerging writers is often that they don't know what rates are appropriate. Very few places pay ASA rates and they're wonderful to have as a benchmark, but in reality that's just not how well writers get paid.

ASTRID: It's not, it's also not how many writers get their start. Tell me about the ethics of unpaid internships and articles written for exposure and all that type of getting your foot in the door?

IZZY: I think internships are an interesting one to me, because I have done a lot of work for free and that is how I have my job.

ASTRID: Me too.

IZZY: So, but I also really see how that is being exploited.

ASTRID: Me too.

IZZY: And I also, I think it's a really fair and important point as well to see who is able to do that kind of labour. And I burnt myself out more than once trying to do that, because I didn't have independent finances, which some folks do. And I didn't have good health for a long time either which some folks do. But there are other privileges that I have that I'm sure made that a lot easier for me to engage with as a form of CV building and being able to get myself to where I am in my career. I'm really not a fan of them. And I think we need to look at other models, but saying that we run internships at the Emerging Writers Festival, and I did one, and like many of our other staff have done them as well, but that's not conditional. We also, we don't hire people because they've done the internship. It's not kind of a through line, but we do like to try and reward our interns for the great work they've put in if we have work to give them, like, ‘That's great’.

And you know, there are other ways that that works out too. I have quite close mentoring relationships with those folks after they finished up with us. I like to meet up with them for coffee again and see where they're at. And if I have connections to give them or suggestions for jobs and I can be a reference, absolutely I'll do that. At the moment we run them and we've had lots of conversations around that. But for us it's about trying to make sure that that is like a best practise internship and the best possible model and gives the most possible to those folks, because I still think there's value in it. But at the same time, I think the how rampant it is across the industry is really quite worrying.

ASTRID: It is worrying. And I ask, because when you are trying to build a CV, you're trying to get those blocks that get you to a permanent position or a well-paid position or the security of a regular pay check. You need these opportunities. But I guess my question, Izzy is, how can emerging writers to help themselves and build their CV without necessarily burning out or working for free?

IZZY: Time again, I think it's okay, you don't have to do it immediately. I definitely, I studied law before I went to study at RMIT and do professional communications. I've not done creative writing actually. I've learnt all of my writing craft outside of institutions for the most part. So then when I kind of transferred, I felt like I'd lost all this time. And then I was quite desperately working full time and studying, and now I look back and I'm like, ‘Whoa, chill, it's fine. It's okay, you're 22. It's all right’. And yeah, I don't know, I'm happy to be where I am now as well, but just like slowing things down is good and looking at what you actually want to be doing. I think again, I'm just quoting Ben Law all the time, but…

ASTRID: He knows his stuff.

IZZY: ... I remember quite a few years ago when I was having this dilemma and being like, ‘Oh, I've got to cut some things, because I just, I'm not even sleeping. How do I make space to be a person outside of all of this energy that I'm pouring into things I care about?’ And yeah, Ben's kind of breakdown was basically, ‘You know the value of something to you. So either it's that it is going to pay and it's going to feed you, or it's that it's something you're really passionate about. And if it's neither, definitely don't do it’. And I think there's a bit of a danger sometimes too in accepting gigs that are free means that we essentially become scabs in our own industry. And that encourages people to think it's okay to pay really low fees or to pay not at all.

Yeah, so I would say that. And I think also again, finding community, so when you don't know what a fair rate is yet, and people are asking you to set that yourself, for example, if you're freelancing. I'll actually, I'll use the example of podcasting. It's a relatively new kind of production role in some ways. And it's weird. The award rates have kind of taken a while to catch up. So maybe five years ago doing podcast production, looking up the award rates. So kind of a lot of it was more geared towards journalists working at say ABC RN, or it was freelance work that was more writing focused or it wasn't kind of acknowledging that audio engineering is a specific skillset and should be paid appropriately.

It was really quite difficult to figure out how much you should be paid as a freelance podcast producer. And what was important there then was having, being able to talk to other people that were doing that work and say, ‘How much do you charge?’ My friend had a similar experience with photography where there's kind of not a lot of set rates. And it was meeting other photographers who are sort of at the same level as she is, and being like, ‘Oh, you include charge for hire of your gear?’ Like, ‘Of course there's wear and tear that happens there because I'm bringing my own camera along’. Like, ‘Oh, I never thought to do that’. Learning how to do your tax and what you can claim and those sorts of things. Facebook groups are really good for that. Being able to ask other people what they charge and why.

ASTRID: The transparency, and also coming back to what you were talking about before, community and networking, having that feedback, giving that feedback.

IZZY: It's a form of collectivising. And again, don't dismiss the union.

ASTRID: I wanted to ask, is there anything that you would recommend new writers, emerging writers to avoid doing?

IZZY: Ooh, I kind of, my creed is a little bit, regret doing the thing rather than not doing it.

ASTRID: No, fair enough. Just thought I'd put the question out there.

IZZY: I don't know. I feel like there's more things I'd recommend you do do. Like trust yourself, trust your work and just keep doing it. It takes time to get good at your craft. It takes time to figure out what jobs are worth your while. It takes time to learn how to advocate for yourself and advocate for how well you should be paid and to find yourself a place in this beautiful, extended community of folks who want there to be good craft and want there to be good stories out there in the world. But find your people.

ASTRID: I want to ask you about podcasting. Certainly, you and I both enjoy and love podcasting. You've been involved with several and you've recently founded Broadwave pods. In your opinion, what is the opportunity for writers in podcasting?

IZZY: I really want to see some more creative podcasts.

ASTRID: So do I.

IZZY: I've been banging on about this forever. I'm an old school radio play lover though. So my first kind of creative text love is Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

ASTRID: Izzy, look, I have Dylan Thomas written in my notes here because I am also a forever fan of Under Milk Wood.

IZZY: I think we've spoken about this before.

ASTRID: We have. For our audience who doesn't know Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, it's a very famous play written specifically for Richard Burton's voice. And it is a play designed to be listened to, not necessarily read. Ideal for the medium of podcasting.

IZZY: It's a play for voices is the sir title. And I think I have seen a stage adaptation of it and it just does not work.

ASTRID: Irrelevant. Just look it up on YouTube people. But in terms of obviously in Australia and around the world we have narrative long form journalism and true crime podcasts. But I'm honestly interested in your thoughts on scripting plays, scripting stories to be heard?

IZZY: Well, firstly listen to that Dylan Thomas work, because it's, I think that would be a really good grounding for anyone in terms of thinking about how to write for radio. There's a lot of incredible sound out there, I'd recommend Paper Radio as well. That is an Australian podcast. They're not creating anything new anymore, but that is creative fiction with creative audio. It's really beautiful.

I'm really furious that someone has, Radiotopia has released these podcasts that I should have done this idea earlier. It's very specifically tailored to my niche interests. When I was 15, I made a little short film called The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects. This podcast is exactly that. It's told from the perspective of a soda can was the first episode. And then the next episode was a lamppost. And essentially the host every episode, it's not released weekly, interviews an inanimate object. It is so beautiful and just joyous. To listen to something like that is just this little wonderful little speck of sunlight when often so much of what we're consuming is quite horrific.

ASTRID: True crime. My goodness. Izzy, I often ask guests what advice they would give to emerging writers, but that's what we've been discussing and that's what you do in your career. So instead, I'd like to finish asking you, what can we expect from you next?

IZZY: I have a lot of things on the go at the moment. And again, I think I've come to sit peacefully with the idea of a lot of these things taking quite a long time. I am going to finally put together this manuscript of poetry and do something with that. I am going to start writing a play from November this year when the Digital Writer's Festival's over. That's what I've officially set aside time to work on that project. I have started working on a novel and I reckon that will take me five years. Don't hold your breath.

ASTRID: Fair enough. Izzy, thank you so much.

IZZY: Thanks for having me.