As a colourful addendum to the State Library, The Wheeler Centre would have to be its bionic heart. Appointed by the State Government in its quest to make Melbourne a UNESCO City of Literature, The Wheeler Centre’s mission, says director Michael Williams, who has been on board since its opening in February 2010, “was to make it easier to engage with books, writing and ideas.” A community hub, then, without the usual wafty ideas such a project generates.
Originally from Brunswick (he recommends crime writer Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan series set in the ’burb), Williams rose through the ranks of Text Publishing before taking a sidestep into radio, hosting breakfast on 3RRR.
While he admits his tastes will be palpable in the programming, he’s succeeded in creating a program that both entertains and poses interesting questions, theories and conundrums, whether through the Lunchbox/Soapbox or regular shindigs such as Intelligence Squared Debates and Two Sides of the Story.
“We did a series of three interconnected events called Sad, Angry, Happy,” Williams says, “where we heard from a group of writers and thinkers and scientists about the nature of moods, and talking about depression, anger and life, and the search for happiness. We worked out really early on that we couldn’t pitch things to the same audience every night, but that we had to be a broad church and talk equally about other art forms or science, or politics or religion, or whatever took our fancy, and that eclecticism keeps it interesting.”
Recent guests of renown include The Psychopath Test’s Jon Ronson, wunder-novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and hard-hitting British journalist Katie Adie. Bret Easton Ellis, muses Williams, drew the most avid book groupies. “Tickets sold out within about seven minutes for that event,” he marvels, “and I’ve never seen a more post-coital book signing queue in all my life. Everyone had a sort of glazed excitement.”
Williams is by no means only angling for the shiny big names, however. Take Debut Mondays, in which first-time writers can promote their work, providing, Williams hopes, a “rock star aesthetic for all writers”.
The Wheeler Centre is also home to some well-established literary organisations that focus on professional development, such as the Victorian Writers Centre, Express Media (which aids under-25s in getting published) and the Melbourne Writers Festival. In September the launch of 20 annual Wheeler Centre fellowships were announced.
“While our public program is curated by us, hopefully we’ll also become a focal point,” Williams says. “Let’s say a passionate Melbourne reader loves going to the Melbourne Writers Festival every year and attending all the events, but at the end of it is wondering how to connect with the poetry community more. By Melbourne Writer’s Festival and Australian Poetry both having their offices in the one building it becomes easier to make the connection to one and then the other. There is no reason why the world of books, writing and ideas has to feel somehow hard to break into, or exclusive, or difficult.”