The start of my big week of literary shenanigans began on Monday night when attending the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – and on Tuesday it was up to the fabulous Carrington Hotel in Katoomba for Blue Mountains program of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It has become a bit of tradition for me and my fellow writers fest tragics Angela & Sharyn. I am pretty sure this is our 6th year at the Carrington, and as always, we enjoyed it. Geordie Williamson is a favourite chairperson of ours and always leads a well researched in-depth discussion, and we also spotted Kate Fagan there – she can’t hide from us! We missed her commentary this year, but I guess she should be allowed to sit back and relax and enjoy the festival as well. We’ll forgive her chairing on Monday when we really wanted her as a chair on Tuesday. Hint hint SWF, we always go to the Carrington Hotel on the Tuesday each year and we want Kate!
John Connell and Ellen Van Neerven talk with Geordie Williamson about the role of place and the resonance of the past in their fictions.
Geordie kicked off the day with the first session with Ellen Van Neerven, author of Heat and Light, a novel inspired by the intersection of familial history, location and identity, and John Connell, an Irish writer, award-winning journalist, and producer who was awarded the Varuna Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship to finish his first novel, The Ghost Estate.
Geordie commented of on the fact that these two new and emerging writers are from different countries with different backgrounds and traditions. He asked Ellen and John: Where did you grow up? What are your origins?
Ellen Van Neerven is of the Mullinjali people, (around the Gold Coast and scenic rim of NSW), and Dutch heritage. The winner of the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished indigenous writer says that all of her work is writing back to country, and that every time she goes back to country it is like a heightened experience for her.
John Connell’s origins lie deeply in County Longford, Ireland. His story is a rural story, and growing up there he had a great sense that the old Ireland still lingered, full of men and women of great intelligence and wit, storytellers who never had a chance to go to school. The Ghost Estate was inspired by the boom and bust in Ireland, which was fueled by building industry. He grew up in the in-between, when old Ireland was being pushed away and the people grappled with change.
Geordie commented that both authors are writing out of traditions but both the Aboriginal and Irish traditions are problematic.
John described himself as caught between the generations, he grew up not quite ‘in country’ as past generations, but more like half in the past/half in the future. He navigated characters in his novel that are not quite part of the past, but not entirely in the future either.
Ellen: Heat and Light is not a memoir but autobiographical in some ways. The first part of story is about her great-grandfather, and the conflict between the people born in cities and those born in country, and the passage that you make going back and forth. Some of the characters in her novel are experiencing that passage back into country.
John: The people he is writing about are ‘in country’ and want out. Poor, ill educated people who are subjected to the power and whim of others. They are offered a chance to escape, but they seem to be losing an essential piece of themselves in the process. In Ireland, he says, you are your town, then parish, then county, and the people are deeply connected and tied to the land and the place of their people.
Geordie: To what degree as you started writing did you feel the shaping forces of the market, or the award culture? How you navigate those factors when writing your own work?
Ellen: She was quite nervous prior to publication, and thought Heat and Light wouldn’t fit the market. She won a prize (David Unaiopn Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Writer) which resulted in publication offer from University of Queensland Press. She noted that the manuscript needed a lot of work though. She was hesitant, but had the support of her publisher and editor, and not being a traditional style of book, she searched for a way to fit it in – but then came to the realisation that ‘it is what it is’ and was guided by her editor to split the book into the three parts of Heat, Water and Light. As a young emerging writer she is very much influenced by peers but is really trying to do her own thing.
John: Writing is a tough life and in Ireland he has so many brilliant writers behind him – it’s a tough market. There is a line in his book ‘our story is suffocating us’, and he feels that pressure from the successful Irish writers of the past – Joyce on one shoulder, Becket on the other and John McGahern to the left. He finds thats it is interesting and tricky to find his place amongst it all, but is trying to navigate his own way as a writer. It takes time to establish yourself and through things like writers festivals people can get to know the writer, and maybe see a little bit of them coming through in the book.
Geordie: When you start do you outlay a complete plan, or do you write it out from memory. How to approach it?
John’s story popped into his head all in one – and he treated it at a job writing a few hours each day and always left a little bit to write the next day. John Malouf told him ‘Even when you’re not working on the book – you’re working on it.’ It’s always on your mind.
Ellen: She doesn’t plan – with a memoir you have your little bits of truth that are like sign posts. There might be a path mapped out but not sure where you’ll end up. Ellen writes from place and family story.
Read Angela Long’s review of Heat and Light HERE.
Sydney Writers’ Festival appearances:
Ellen Van Neerven:
- A Pack of Lies: Narration in Fiction – Walsh Bay 21st May 11.30 – 12.30
- The Honest Awkward Truth – Walsh Bay 21st May 4.30 – 5.30
Geordie Williamson talks with Helen Macdonald about her award-winning book H is for Hawk.
Geordie describes H is for Hawk ‘as a beautiful piece of grief work, about a woman and her hawk‘ but it is also a (book blurb) ‘kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant novelist T.H White‘, a tortured novelist whose masterpiece, The Goshawk, describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.
Helen began the session with a reading from her novel, a section of the book where she meets her hawk Mabel, for the first time. Helen’s beautiful lyrical writing was captivating:
‘..the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything in brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.’
Geordie: Tell us a little bit about why you are such a passionate falconer.
Helen worked as a falconer in the Middle East, and had been nuts, as she describes it, about hawks and falcons and obsessed with being a falconer since a young child. She practised this craft with older men, solitary people, the ‘monkish elite’ and thought she was one of these guys, part of their fellowship.
Helen goes on to say that when her father died suddenly at 67, her world ripped apart. She had been incredibly close to her dad – and at first she thought she was fine but really she was falling apart. Her novel grew from this grief.
Geordie asked how she dealt with putting her grief down for all to read, with self-disclosure without treading on other people’s grief (in her family).
From what I gather from my memories of the session and my scribbled notes, Helen wrote of her own grief, and her own journey through it. I will learn more soon, as I have her book sitting next to me now as I type this, and I’m very much looking forward to the reading of it.
Her father was a quiet private man, and not much of him is in the book and Helen says she wanted to be careful – some books are written within the grief, others are written after. She wrote H is for Hawk five years after, but it is not emotion written with tranquility of hindsight and looking back thoughtfully, there is raggedness to it. Geordie noted that Helen’s writing is fragmented in parts followed by longer sentences, an elegant unfolding of wonderful prose. Helen says she tried very hard with the styling and syntax – short sentences followed by an unspooling of words. The human aspect of the book was much harder to write about, but the words about her hawk Mabel, flowed easily.
Helen says there is ‘no getting over grief, you just incorporate it into your life. It changes the architecture of who you are as a person.’ Her book is about falling off the world for a bit, and working her way back. She spent time in a feral state in the country, her landscape had changed and there were times when she didn’t want to come back. Helen feels that if you are broken you can go into the wild and you heal yourself, but she went too far. From what she was saying I gleaned from it that she almost lost herself. And for her, antidepressants pulled her back from the edge.
Helen came back into society after a year in the wild training Mabel and eating way too much rabbit. She learned a lot that year – including ‘how finite our lives are and how short’. She still slips into her hawkish eye sometimes.
Helen says ‘Falconry is about letting birds go and hoping they will come back to you’ and she comments on the many ‘parallels between life and nature.’
This was an amazing session – Sharyn, Angela and I enjoyed it a lot. Helen was wonderful to listen to and we are all looking forward to reading H is for Hawk for our Book Club in July.
Sydney Writers’ Festival appearances:
- Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk – Walsh Bay 21st May 1.30 – 2.30
- Back to the Wild – Walsh Bay 23rd May 3.00 – 4.00
- 2015 Closing Address Helen Macdonald: On Looking at Nature – Walsh Bay 24th May 6.00 – 7.00pm
The two afternoon sessions I attended were Joan London: The Golden Age and Helen Razer and Bernard Keane: A Short History of Stupid. More to come from me about those sessions. Too many things to do and not enough time! Watch this space!
For more information, full SWF schedule and tickets please visit the Sydney Writers Festival