THE Bendigo Writers Festival has been rocked by the sudden withdrawal of a high-profile author amid claims she was left with no choice but to step aside under pressure from the City of Greater Bendigo.
Crime writer Maryrose Cuskelly is the author of Wedderburn, a non-fiction account of a triple murder case from 2014 that was published in 2018 after a man was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of three members of a neighbouring family.
The book has sparked controversy among grief stricken members of the victims’ family, who are understood to have made representations to the City of Greater Bendigo for Ms Cuskelly’s appearance at the festival to be cancelled.
Ms Cuskelly yesterday confirmed she had been asked to withdraw from the program, and after being told about the ongoing pain and anguish of family members following the 2014 murders, she agreed to do so. “It just seemed appropriate to acquiesce,” she said.
Ms Cuskelly was scheduled to appear as part of three panels across the festival, and confirmed her book on the Wedderburn deaths was not to be the focus of any of those sessions.
She said she was aware of concerns the festival could have been disrupted as a means of protest against her participation, and that this could have had an impact on other speakers.
“I really don’t want the BWF to be damaged.”
In a statement to the Bendigo Weekly, festival chair Rod Fyffe said he and mayor Margaret O’Rourke had been contacted by some family members concerned about the author’s inclusion in the program.
“We then met with these family members, who shared that they continue to experience significant pain and heartache. They were quite distressed and their concerns were passed on to the author, who, following a discussion with City of Greater Bendigo staff, agreed to withdraw from the festival.”
Asked whether the City of Greater Bendigo was concerned at how this matter would be viewed in the wider community, Cr Fyffe said council and the organisation understands the family members involved continue to experience significant pain and heartache.
“And we do not wish to cause them any further distress. This has been the sole reason for acting on the concerns of the family.
“It is hoped the Bendigo Writers Festival continues to encourage debate and respect opinions of others.”
Ms Cuskelly paid tribute to the BWF’s director Rosemary Sorensen, who she said had been incredibly supportive and was even more disappointed that Ms Cuskelly would not be part of the event.
“I am really sorry she has been exposed to this level of intimidation.”
The award winning author said writing about true crime was rife with danger and the capacity to upset people.
Asked how her publisher Allen & Unwin had responded to news of her withdrawal, Ms Cuskelly said they were supportive, but were also disappointed at the move.
“I think from their opinion, it borders on censorship.”
In an email to festival supporters sent yesterday, Ms Sorensen said the organisers had met with “opposition to a speaker, by people who used their influence to suggest they would disrupt the festival,
because of this one speaker.
“That has been difficult to deal with, replacing the joy of creating something so valuable for a community with sadness and resignation.
“To feel defeated by that would be, I believe, letting you all down, and depriving all those who come to our festival on August 9-11 of the quiet magic, the lovely unpredictability, the shared pleasure that we know it brings, year after year. So, on with the show. It’s building, despite the setback, to be our best ever. I hope you agree.”