As a young girl, Kate Eltham was constantly changing her mind about what she wanted to be when she grew up. Even now, she hopes her path will continue to surprise her. But after a long career-finding journey, from being a biscuit sales manager at Arnott’s to working in multimedia at a dotcom in San Francisco, Kate found her way into the world of writing and literature. After spending six years as the CEO of Queensland Writers Centre and founding digital-literary think tank if:book Australia – the Institute for the Future of the Book – Kate has excitedly taken on the role of festival director at Brisbane Writers Festival.
What was your childhood dream?
I didn’t really have one! I was always interested in writing and I started writing from quite a young age. I also became a pretty passionate reader early on. I was very into stories and books, but I had all sorts of different ambitions that would change pretty regularly as I found out about things. I wanted to be a paramedic, a film composer, a music therapist … and definitely a newspaper editor. I created a newspaper when I was 12 – the Leslie Street News. But I didn’t have one burning ambition that I stuck to for very long at all.
Do you remember the first book that had an impact on you?
When I was in grade six, I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time – that was a really conscious moment. It’s a wonderful book for every girl to read because she’s such a fantastic, independent female character, but it’s also a book about wanting to be a writer. That was sort of the first time I had read a novel where I had become aware of a protagonist who had an ambition to tell stories. I loved that – it was quite enchanting.
How did you get your start in writing and literature?
I moved around a bit looking for different sorts of jobs that were about the intersection of culture and technology, and eventually I got a job as the CEO of Queensland Writers Centre. I had kept up my writing over the years and I was involved in a lot of volunteer projects around writing and publishing, and I think that involvement was partly what convinced the committee that I was a good fit for the role. I spent six-and-a-half years there, and then came to this role at Brisbane Writers Festival.
What has been your greatest achievement?
When I was at the Queensland Writers Centre we set up if:book, the Institute for the Future of the Book, which was on the back of about two or three years of trying to immerse myself in the digital future for writing and publishing. I had found that there wasn’t really anything in Australia dedicated to that digital future. There was a lot of talk from different people in the sector, and there was resistance from traditional publishers and businesses. Amazingly though, there weren’t a lot of people who were actually trying to find what those future business models might be. if:book was really set up to be experimental and explore those models. In some ways, it was set up to fail – not as a think tank, but fail in its experiments – so that it could demonstrate innovation. But it has become a really important piece of the literary sector and I’m really proud of that.
Who inspires you?
I’m really inspired by information design – by the new forms of storytelling that are emerging from data and design coming together in new ways. People like Nicholas Felton, for example, I find hugely inspiring. I’m also inspired by a lot of the new social enterprises that are coming out of the technology sector, such as Candy Chang’s work after Hurricane Katrina, and also Emily Pilloton, who has been doing some really interesting social projects with disadvantaged communities across North America.
Where do you find peace in life?
I recently took up running – and I am not much of a runner – but I’ve found something quite meditative in that. I really love Brisbane and I find a lot of joy just walking around. When I’m writing a short story or thinking about something for the festival, just listening to my iPod and walking around my neighbourhood in Wynnum, looking at the ocean, is often the best way to puzzle through it.
Do you believe in a god and, if so, which one?
I believe in people! That probably sounds like a bit of a fortune-cookie answer, but I am so optimistic about people’s ability to solve problems and come up with solutions to the challenges that we each have. I think the human race should get to take credit for the beauty we see around us.
What are your words of wisdom?
I think they would have to be that passion trumps everything. I really do. When you find that passion – and it doesn’t have to be one thing, or the only thing that you’re meant to do your whole life – but if you’re passionate about it, so much positive energy comes from that and people will want to come and join you in whatever it is.