A dachshund at the Sydney Writers’ Festival! They are a literary kind of dog.
Ok, its my last post about the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and its a long one sorry – I probably should move on soon…..but then there is the Children’s and YA Festival at the NSW Writers Centre next month where I will get my book-author-craft of writing fix again.
I can’t quite explain the excitement of the Writers Fest, but there is an unseen ripple of anticipation that flows along the queues and inside the venues at Walsh Bay – I am sure the same energy flows around at a music festival. They are different I know – a writers fest is not as noisy for one thing, and there probably aren’t quite as many hangovers – but at both type of festivals there is a the gathering of like-minded people who are all passionate about the same thing and there is an undeniable energy that builds from that.
What I love about the festival is how many diverse topics are discussed and how I can walk away filled with the knowledge of things that I didn’t know before, and be inspired by the many discussions and stories that were shared by authors about what is intrinsically a subject close to their hearts. I am filled with a new energy for writing after hearing these stories. Kathryn Heyman asked in her session on craft – What is the heart of what you want to say? What is it that only you can write about? What is the desperately alive thing? I can only guess that the authors who shared their stories with us – whether it be fiction or non-fiction, political, religious or cultural – were writing from their hearts and told the story only they could tell.
This got me thinking – what is the story only I can write – there are several, but one is particularly close to my heart, and I was so excited to start it a couple of days ago – I have already written three chapters of the first draft!
Here is a small summary of all the events I attended at the Sydney Writers Festival – I didn’t take notes on all – in some events I chose to just sit back and enjoy, and others I feel I couldn’t comment on confidently. Also, included at the bottom of the post are a few of my photo’s taken of Vivid Sydney. Sorry Friday night Festival Club, we missed you, but you were ditched for Vivid – it was too spectacular to be missed.
HERE AND NOW: DEBUT FICTION
→I was pretty excited when my blog post Debut Fiction at the Sydney Writers Festival was re-blogged by Kirsten Krauth on her website where she was a guest blogger for Varuna. Read her post and the lovely introduction she gave me here.
ADRIAN NEWSTEAD: THE DEALER IS THE DEVIL
After thirty years working with Aboriginal artists all over Australia, Adrian Newstead has produced the definitive expose of “the first great art movement of the 21st century”. He chatted with curator Djon Mundine about his story The Dealer in the Devil, that ranges all the way from remote Indigenous communities with their dispossessed populations of tribal elders and troubled youth, to gleaming galleries, high-powered auction houses and major international art institutions. It’s a story that’s humorous, thrilling and also a lament for a lost world.
EMMA DONOGHUE: FROG MUSIC
→This was a fantastic session – Emma was delightful to listen to. She is an engaging speaker, and after a sneak peek into her two novels she spoke about, it is clear she is also an engaging writer. Read more about the discussion in my blog Emma Donoghue: Frog Music at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Do numbers and years really define us? Irina Dunn talked to two authors whose books celebrate energy and creativity beyond the stereotypes. In Out of Time, leading feminist, writer and thinker Lynne Segal delivers a damning critique of the psychology and politics of ageing; and in Patricia Edgar’s In Praise of Ageing we meet eight people in their 90s and beyond who will inspire, entertain and motivate you.
→This was a really interesting discussion – what is regarded as ‘old’ anyway? People live longer, work longer, and just so everyone knows it – still have sex well into their later lives. As people (especially women) grow older – there becomes a time when they are regarded as ‘old’ but these ladies reject this term and – they still have important things to contribute to society.
ON CRAFT: STORYTELLING AND THE STORYTELLER
Lian Hearn’s well-loved Tales of the Otori series, beginning with Across The Nightingale Floor, has sold over four million copies internationally. Her recent novel, Blossoms And Shadows, about life in Japan in the 1850s, also sold widely around the world. Her most recent release is The Storyteller and His Three Daughters.
→Lian Hearn began her talk with comments about what makes a particular author write a particular story at a particular time, and what drives an author to turn and inkling of an idea into a novel. For her, she is usually struck by a an idea, or a scene, place or character, and from there the idea of the novel will germinate, sometimes for a lengthy period while she researches. It is within her wide-ranging research that her ideas continue to form, characters appear, the story expands and the heart and soul – the theme and voice of her novel grows. Within her research she is on the prowl for interesting historical moments, but only uses the elements that make the story come alive and advance the novel.
Daydreaming is a very important to Lian, she often writes early in the morning when her mind is slightly unhinged, before going for a long walk where scenes suggest themselves to her. Her advice is to never forget about inspiration – don’t just rely on plot and structure. She never relies on an outline – which she admits can sometimes lead to disaster, but for her she has to begin without knowing where she is going (Plotters would squirm in their seats at the thought of this!), but everyone is different and it certainly works for Lian.
But even the best of writers, Lian included, has momentary flashes of depression when she feels like her book isn’t going the way she thought – the voice isn’t quite right, the book needs more research, or is flat. Nice to hear to an aspiring writer like me that it happens to the best of us, but I think if the passion for the project is there – and the passion for writing – the writer’s instincts will kick in, and maybe, like Lian – after a long walk and a little daydreaming, ideas of how to give life to the story will suggest themselves. Maybe a glass of wine would help too.
HOW DO NOVELISTS ENGAGE WITH POLITICS?
Issue-driven novels can be supremely powerful. how do authors tell their stories, share their views and use fiction to reflect contemporary social issue? Margot Saville talked to Christos Tsiolkas, Kathryn Heyman and Alexis Wright about their books Barravuda, Floodline and The Swan Book.
→The three authors spoke separately before a short question time at the end. The following short commentary are notes taken from their words, not my own. it was a fascinating discussion but i couldn’t quite capture the passion and emotions of the session so I am glad I was there to hear them speak.
They touched on the importance of portraying truth behind their stories and feel that it is the responsibility of the novelist to comment on issues in the world today. Who you pay attention to is intrinsically political. Who is it that we are standing alongside? Who are we in solidarity with?
For these writers – the novelist cannot be disconnected from the world they came from.
Their novels engage with the reality of the times – the problems with the world at large – indigenous rights, climate change, religion, the value of human life and its ranking – our class-less society that still has its underlying classes, poverty, migration and education. Their characters are flawed, as we all are, and their complexities and hopes are expressed on the page.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL FAITH
A Muslim-Christian-Muslim, a Jewish-Atheist and a Scientist-Atheist-Humanist walk into a room. Find out what happens when authors Reza Aslan, Antony Loewenstein and Jim Al-Khalili sit down to talk about faith and what it means to believe in something with or without religion, with John Cleary presenter of Sunday Nights on ABC Local Radio.
→Ok, I am not able, nor will I ever be able to comment properly on this incredible session. This was probably one of my favourite sessions at the festival – it was just extraordinarily fascinating. I started taking notes and then realised it was futile – not only was I so mesmerised by the discussion I couldn’t even begin to take notes – but I felt that my feeble attempt to comment on it wouldn’t quite capture the intricacies of this particular subject. If you are interested, then listen to the audio telecast on Sunday Nights on ABC Local Radio here.
ON CRAFT: THE QUEST WITH KATHRYN HEYMAN
What is story for? Why do we need it? And what are the elements needed to create story that transforms? A well structured narrative – in fiction or non-fiction – gives a glimpse of transformation, not just for the characters, but for the reader. Acclaimed novelist Kathryn Heyman works through elements of narrative structure to explore how story is made, how it impacts on your life and why it matters now more than ever.
→This was such a great session I had to do an entire blog post about it. Read it here – Kathryn Heyman: On Craft – The Quest
AMY TAN: THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT
Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a deeply moving narrative of family secrets, the legacy of trauma, and the profound connections between mothers and daughters, that returns readers to the compelling territory Amy Tan so expertly mapped in The Joy Luck Club. With her characteristic wisdom, grace and humour, she conjures a story of the inheritance of love, its mysteries and senses, its illusions and truths. Amy talks about her latest book with ABC RN’s Michael Cathcart.
MADONNA – WHORE AND OTHER FICTIONS
Gold-digger, dumb blonde, mother, inspiration… There are so many labels given to women throughout their lives. How does the way women are treated in society affect us all? Both women and men are invited to hear Tara Moss, Nakkiah Lui, Emma Donoghue and Kate Ceberano as they examine the common fictions about women.
→This was a great session. Tracy Spicer interacted with four amazing women who have all achieved great successes in their lives despite the labels thrown at them. Does a novelist have to be defined as a lesbian, or a dumb blonde, or a fat black bitch when their books are reviewed, or they are commented on in the media? These labels shouldn’t even come into it, but they do unfortunately. But why? The way successful women are defined in the media and society is a complex subject and this was an interesting, funny and heartfelt session. I am really looking forward to reading Tara Moss’s new book The Fictional Woman and Kate Ceberano’s memoir I’m Talking.
RICHARD FLANAGAN: LOVE AND WAR
Richard Flanagan’s powerful and moving elegy for lost love and depiction of the cruelty and tenuousness of life on the Thai–Burma railway is being widely hailed as a masterpiece of our time. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a war ballad with both tenderness and brutality, partly inspired by his father’s true, harrowing experiences in the notorious Japanese POW camp. Steven Gale spoke to Richard Flanagan about this extraordinary achievement from one of our most accomplished authors.
→Again, this was a another great session. Richard Flanagan was articulate and funny, and the readings from his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North were haunting and beautiful, even with the brutality and sadness. I read this book for book club a few months ago – but I rushed through it a bit. It was a hard read, but beautifully written. For me it was one of those novels that would be worth a second read after a discussion, and now that I have heard Richard Flanagan read several scenes from the novel I would love to revisit it and really take it in properly.
ON CRAFT: TRAUMA NARRATIVES
In a traditional narrative, we expect literary characters to grow and change. But, what of characters whose stories are of loss, dislocation and marginalisation? In this incredibly informative session on the craft of writing, Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson examines the ways in which stories of troubling experiences manifest themselves in fragmentation, repetition and deflection. He studies non-linear release of information and distancing techniques, showing why some characters lack insight and refuse change, focus on minutia and have difficulty locating the beginnings and endings of their stories. Chair: Stephen Romei.
→Adam Johnson finds it interesting how people tell painful stories. To him, a person would not tell a painful story in linear fashion – it would be stop-and-start and jump back and forth. A painful story doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end and it doesn’t start in one place and end in another.
How does memory work? Is it single pictures or is it cinema like? Adam suggests we all take time to think about how our memory works.
Some people disassemble trauma and store separately into the backs of our minds. When the trauma is talked about or recalled – it is sometimes told in fragments, or backwards, and is sometimes unreliable. Often when a traumatic story is told the teller re-lives the trauma, so to minimise the power to hurt the teller, they will often gloss over some parts, or don’t tell parts of the trauma at all.
How do you chart a story where the character avoids aspects of their lives that are too troubling to face? There could be a tension between the need to tell the story and the pain of telling the story. What if your character has a lack of growth, and move backward and forward to ultimately be left emotionally where they began? Most students in his writing class take the accepted story structure – this structure is taught because it is easy to teach, but to Adam, this only works for a certain amount of stories. Adam suggests that the writer learn his or her craft, but to also trust your instinct and perhaps withhold something big about the character – the reader does not have to be told everything – we don’t have a narrator to our lives that follows us around relaying every details of our day – so neither do our characters.
ONCE UPON A TIME: MYTH AND FAIRYTALE
Albert Einstein once said, “if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales”. Join Cornelia Funke, Vikram Chandra and Tony Birch as they explore both myth and the enchanting world of fairytales. What are the tales that preoccupy, entertain and guide culture today in the land of Oz? How did they make their way here? What has happened to them over time?
→This was one I wished I had taken notes – but take my word on it – it was such an interesting talk! As the writer and reader of a fantasy I was swept up with the discussion.
Kristina Olsson, Steve Bisley and Robert Hoge share their family stories in their moving memoirs. Kristina Olsson reflects on her complicated family history, a child’s disappearance, and the pain and silence surrounding it. Steve Bisley reflects on what he describes as a rich childhood with a poetic mother who greets storms with arms outstretched and a brutal and unloving father. For someone whose mother once said she would not under any circumstances be taking him home from the hospital after he was born, Robert Hoge is a remarkably sympathetic and understanding son. Chair: Richard Morecroft.
→What was the motivation or trigger that prompted them to write their story? For Kristina it was at the request of the brother who was lost, for Robert, he wanted to repay the debt to his parents, to other parents who went through the same thing, for those who are different. As an actor, Steve’s career had been spent telling other people’s stories, and he wanted to write one of his own – and he thought – what better story to write then one he knew very well – his own.
→How difficult was it to be so personal? Robert needed to tell the story truthfully, he needed to show the hard, the ugly, scary, funny and sad times. He needed to be honest. Steve, found his mother’s story to be the hardest part, he thought his fathers part would be harder. Kristina felt one step removed, and began the story in third person, but she needed to place herself in the story and allow the grief of the story to flow through the generations. Kristina said – you can’t write about your mother without writing about yourself.
→Memoir is about memory, but how reliable or accurate is it? Steve remembered everything – almost too much. Robert’s mother wrote a detailed diary, which he commented upon it being an amazing and wonderful resource. For Kristina, every person she talked to had a different memory of the incident, so she had to reconstruct some parts of the book.
I really enjoyed this packed session – it is another reason I love the Sydney Writers Festival – our day on the Saturday was open-ended – we had no firm plans, and of the many things available to go to, we decided to go to this session – I knew nothing of their books – but all three authors had an interesting and painful story to tell, and they did it well.
NEW WORLDS: DIGITAL STORYTELLING
Publishing isn’t what it used to be. For our panelists, the digital revolution has truly enriched the possibilities of writing and connecting to an audience. Cornelia Funke, renowned author of the Inkheart and MirrorWorld series has moved into app development. Digital producer Kavita Bedford has created Mapping Frictions as a digital storytelling project. Melbourne-based writer Connor Tomas O’Brien has directed a writers’ festival that took place solely online. Poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams is an avid Twitter user even teaching poetry workshops via the online platform. They talk to Neil James about how the digital world has benefited their writing.
→WOW – this was so fun! It wasn’t one of those sessions where you felt rude to be checking things on your smart phone – it was a session where phones were required, twitter apps were open and it was time for online interaction, sharing, connecting and twitter poetry. First we were told the hashtag for the session #digstory, and then encouraged to tweet during the session. So I, and many other people in the room tweeted. Within minutes we were engaging with each other – sending messages back and forth and favouriting tweets. By the end of the session I had about a dozen new followers, I had followed the same if not more and I had written a Haiku poem by tweet. It was really bad – I need some Haiku practice.
Each of the four panelists talked of how they had used the digital world to connect to others with their writing – which was really interesting. If I have learnt anything from beginning a blog, and going to writers days and festivals, is that like-minded people want to be able to connect and engage with each other – from all over the world. What this group of people are doing are changing it up – and creating new ways to connect. It is very exciting – and I want to be involved.
For an amazing finish to four fabulous days at the festival – Inua Ellams recited a poem – I can’t tell you what it was about, but it was brilliant – and as described by Neil James in his introduction – his voice is like honey.
Thank you for reading if you have made it this far! Here are some photos of Vivid Sydney.