Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Gilbert and Witness J will feature in next month's Canberra Writers Festival

US feminist and activist Gloria Steinem features in this year's Canberra Writers Festival program. Picture: Supplied

US feminist and activist Gloria Steinem features in this year's Canberra Writers Festival program. Picture: Supplied

In a time of rolling bad news, some bright spots are starting to light up Canberra's upcoming social calendar.

Or, as artistic director of the Canberra Writers Festival Jeanne Ryckmans puts it, "when life throws you potato peels, you make vodka".

Like almost every other literary event scheduled for 2020, the outlook for this year's festival looked rocky.

But as restrictions in the capital have eased, the Canberra festival is forging ahead next month with a small and tightly curated program, featuring some big-name literary stars.

"Our point of difference is that we play to the same theme every year - we consistently stay with 'power, passion, politics'," Ms Ryckmans said.

"You can program to those three words anything and everything. But the one 'p' I did not provision for was pandemic."

Coronavirus has thrown up a series of challenges that have resulted in a reduced program of 28 events that play to Canberra's traditional themes.

US feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem will be making an appearance, along with Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, British pop philosopher Alain de Botton and Irish crime writer Dervla McTiernan, among others.

But all will be appearing virtually, on a screen from the comfort of their homes across the sea, along with a host of local literary personalities, some of whom will be live on stage.

Best of all, from the organisers' perspective, said stars will be staying put and cutting out the cost of business-class airfares and the time lost through jet lag and travel logistics.

The program also includes beloved ABC interviewer Richard Fidler - this time being interviewed about his own new book - Peter Greste, Heather Morris, Rick Morton, Stella Prize-winning Jess Hill, and acclaimed historian William Dalrymple.

The former Australian intelligence officer known as Witness J, who was subject to a secret trial and imprisonment for breaching Australian national security laws in 2018, will be appearing for the first time in public, live but in disguise, in conversation with Canberra author Robert Macklin.

Of the 26 events, all will be streamed, but only some will have live components.

Punters can choose to attend live events, or subscribe to watch them at home.

"It's been a challenge, but I do love a challenge," Ms Ryckmans said.

"What COVID has taught us is how to work in a different way, how to approach the known, and reinvent. This is why we wanted to go ahead, because we think this is a particularly important time in the arts, with what's happening with universities and arts degrees, we need to be supporting our local writers and the publishing and bookselling fraternity.

"This is our way, even though we're going to be hit hard as we're not for profit. It's a labour of love, and something I'm personally passionate about because I've been working with authors and books for close to a few decades."