If you knew the world was ending, what books would you reach for? Which authors would you take into the bunker with you? Welcome to 2020, when the question has never been less theoretical. 

At the beginning of every year, the Independent Bulletin of Atomic Scientists considers humanity’s chances of wiping itself out, using the metaphor of a Doomsday Clock striking midnight. When the Cold War ended in 1991, the scientists positioned the clock’s hands at 17 minutes to, the farthest away from midnight that they’ve ever been. Nuclear weapons were disarmed, unilateral agreements were made, walls were torn down. Yet since then, we have crept ever nearer to midnight. This January, the clock lurched closer to the symbolic apocalypse than ever before: just 100 seconds to catastrophe.

According to the scientists, the two simultaneous existential threats of nuclear weapons and the climate crisis have been compounded by a third: “cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns” that prevent the public from galvanising and demanding change.

It’s Almost Midnight and the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival hopes to serve as a wake-up call. We invite you to join more than 400 of the world’s most exhilarating, honest, clever, ambitious, joyful and disquieting writers and thinkers, who are writing and fighting to halt the clock’s movement.

Across the program, we’ll hear from journalists who are distilling and dissenting the careless rhetoric, reckless defiance of scientific fact and political paralysis; leading scientists, health experts, policymakers and commentators who are lighting the way; and some of the world’s most electrifying, boundary-pushing novelists who are refl ecting and redefining the world around us.

We won’t wilfully remain in the dark.

To open the Festival, Bernardine Evaristo and Alison Whittaker will each deliver an address on the theme, Almost Midnight. Bernardine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other, a joyfully polyphonic, gloriously original work that has become an irresistible novel for our times. Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet, essayist, legal researcher, and author of the virtuosic, genre-defying and award-winning Blakwork.

One of America’s most influential writers Siri Hustvedt (The Blazing World and Memories of the Future) joins author and Academy Award–winning co-writer of Birdman Nicolás Giacobone (The Crossed-Out Notebook) to consider the role and responsibilities of creators in times of crisis, with Arts Editor at The Australian Ashleigh Wilson

A giant of creative non-fiction, Leslie Jamison discusses her acclaimed body of work (The Empathy Exams, The Recovering and Make It Scream, Make It Burn) with writer and critic, Rebecca Harkins-Cross.

Nobel Prize–nominated founder of the Umbrella Movement Joshua Wong (appearing via video link) and City on Fire author Antony Dapiran consider the precarious future of Hong Kong with the Financial Times’ South China correspondent Sue-Lin Wong.

In the past decade of climate and energy warfare in Australian federal politics, Malcolm Turnbull – the nation’s 29th prime minister – is the only leader to have lost his job over the issue twice. He joins Annabel Crabb to reflect upon the state of political reform and his new memoir, A Bigger Picture

Former Greens leader Bob Brown joins Scott Ludlam to discuss campaigning on conservation issues, Bob’s life’s work and his new book Planet Earth

A master renderer of planetary devastation, Jeff VanderMeer (Borne and Annihilation) talks about his new novel Dead Astronauts, and why he remains an optimist.

Leading teen activists and School Strike 4 Climate organisers Jean Hinchliffe, Daisy Jeffrey, Varsha Yajman and Sherice Jackson speak with Jack Manning Bancroft about how they are taking climate action into their own hands.

One year after the shocking terrorist attacks in Christchurch, some of our greatest writers discuss the role that literature plays in defeating the rise of white supremacy, Islamophobia and xenophobia within modern Western societies. Osman Faruqi speaks with New Zealand Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman (Know Your Place), Layla F. Saad (Me and White Supremacy), Ruby Hamad (White Tears/Brown Scars) and Michael Mohammed Ahmad (The Lebs).

Lisa Taddeo (Three Women), Eimear McBride (Strange Hotel) and Nichole Perkins (co-host of Slate podcast Thirst Aid Kit) join Yumi Stynes to examine the writing of female desire. 

Kevin Wilson discusses Nothing to See Here, his darkly comic and surprisingly sweet exploration of what it means to be a family, with Michael Williams.

Julia Phillips’ powerful debut thriller Disappearing Earth draws readers into an astonishing cast of characters connected by an unfathomable crime that takes place on a remote Russian peninsula.

Iranian author Amir Ahmadi Arian (Then the Fish Swallowed Him), Iranian-born New Zealand politician Golriz Ghahraman and The Atlantic war and terrorism reporter Mike Giglio (Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate) discuss the current realities of life for Iranians both at home and abroad.

Bruce Pascoe speaks about his award-winning and paradigm-shifting works Dark Emu and Salt in conversation with Sally Warhaft. Bruce also joins Alice Bishop (A Constant Hum) and Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen (Fire Country) to consider Australia’s response to last summer’s bushfires with ABC’s Hamish Macdonald.

Irish writer Colum McCann and ABC Radio’s Philip Clark discuss Apeirogon, Colum’s epic novel about an unexpected friendship between two men – an Israeli and a Palestinian – divided by conflict but united in grief.

Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig and White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker discuss A Very Stable Genius, their behind-the-scenes account of Donald Trump’s first term, in conversation with ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly.

Celebrated British writers Bernardine Evaristo, Johny Pitts (Afropean) and Nesrine Malik (We Need New Stories), and journalist and playwright Bim Adewunmi explore the history, future and post-Brexit present of black Britain and Europe. 

Uncanny Valley is Anna Wiener’s prescient, page-turning account of our digital age. Set against the backdrop of our generation’s very own gold rush, Anna retells her days in San Francisco’s 2010s Silicon Valley culture, which Rebecca Solnit describes as “like Joan Didion at a startup”. 

Soviet-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev (This is Not Propaganda) and The New Yorker’s Moscow correspondent Joshua Yaffa (Between Two Fires) explore how a culture of mistruth emerged in Russia, and what it says about the future of the West. 

A master of popular criticism, The New York Times christened Daniel Mendelsohn “our most irresistible literary critic”. Picking up on a conversation that began at Sydney Writers’ Festival five years ago, Daniel sits down once more with David Malouf to discuss their deep appreciation of the classics.

The voice of modern vegetarian cuisine, award-winning cook Anna Jones (The Modern Cook’s Year) discusses her life-friendly food, her latest book and making a positive impact on the planet with food, with Lee Tran Lam.

Some of the Festival’s most distinguished guests – Nicole Dennis-Benn (Patsy), Tomasz Jedrowski (Swimming in the Dark), Daniel Lavery (formerly Daniel Mallory Ortberg, Something That May Shock and Discredit You), Daniel Mendelsohn (The Bad Boy of Athens), Claire G. Coleman (The Old Lie) and Ronnie Scott (The Adversary) – sit down with Krissy Kneen and reveal the queer texts that shaped them.

Clive James died in November 2019, leaving behind an unrivalled legacy of books, poetry, prose, essays and memoirs. Join a panel of Clive’s friends and fellow writers – Richard Glover, Peter Goldsworthy, Kathy Lette, Paul Muldoon and host Kerry O’Brien – as they read a selection of his work, share stories and celebrate his life.

At Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, former Socceroos captain Craig Foster discusses his campaign to free young footballer and Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi, who was detained in a Thai prison for 76 days. Craig and Hakeem join ABC’s Tracey Holmes in conversation about Fighting for Hakeem.

At The Concourse in Chatswood, comedian and writer Shaun Micallef sits down with Chris Taylor to chat about comedy, satire and the best loved sketches of Shaun’s TV career. 

Families will descend on City Recital Hall and Riverside Theatres to see the world-famous creator of Dog Man and Captain Underpants, Dav Pilkey, and to the Seymour Centre to see comics legend Raina Telgemeier (Guts). 

Family Day returns to Carriageworks with a program to captivate and delight young readers featuring rapper Briggs, historian Christopher Lloyd and Irish author Catherine Doyle.

For the first time, All-Day YA is taking place at Carriageworks and will feature UK guest Alice Oseman (Heartstopper) and showcase many of this generation’s exceptional Australian YA voices. In a special evening event, YA fantasy author Leigh Bardugo joins Piéra Forde to discuss the Grishaverse.

Acclaimed author of Doxology, Mislaid and The Wallcreeper Nell Zink will deliver an unmissable closing night address. Nell will talk about how – as midnight draws nearer on the Doomsday Clock – writers might look to the intrinsic tragedy and renewal of nature for inspiration.

We hope you’ll join us.