Skip to content

Helen Dunmore


  • by

Yes, I’m still talking about Adelaide Writers’ Week! It was my first time there and I couldn’t possibly cram everything into one, or even two, posts. And I do want to talk about Richard Flanagan. I was ambivalent about attending his session. I have read and liked Flanagan’s work before but I had little interest in reading yet another war story. That is until I sat down and began listening to Flanagan. He read from The Narrow Road to the Deep North at the request o711065f interviewer Steven Gale, while insisting that he loathes readings because as a listener he finds his ‘eyes rolling into the back of the head’. But both his readings and the story behind the book moved me profoundly. He was extremely likeable and funny, too. A knock-out combination in the eyes of any festival programmer.

Flanagan’s father worked on the Thai–Burma railway, or Death Railway as it was known, and spoke of his experiences to Flanagan as a child. The conditions were unfathomable. Flanagan took 12 years and five different versions to find the right way into the story he wanted to tell. During research for the novel Flanagan visited Japan and interviewed one of the cruellest and most notorious guards at his father’s camp, known as The Lizard. He asked Flanagan to pass on to his father that he ‘was sorry’. When Flanagan did so during a phone conversation, his father fell silent, then hung up. From that moment on he had no memory of his experiences during the war and Flanagan felt that The Lizard’s apology had in some way released his father. Months later the manuscript of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was finished and Flanagan bundled it off to his publisher. That very night his father died. Flanagan considers this more than a coincidence. I don’t recall feeling close to tears at a festival before, but Flanagan took me there.


Then during question time, an audience member posed a question about asylum seekers, prompted by Flanagan’s piece in the new Saturday Paper (do read it here). Flanagan recounted how The Lizard had explained that they felt no compassion for these skeletal Australian men crawling around in the mud because ‘they didn’t consider them to be human’. In a similar way, we treat asylum seekers as if they are somehow less than human. This is dangerous territory. Like  Indigenous Australians who were, until 1967, classified as flora and fauna, or the Jews in Nazi Germany (and any number of other examples), when we lose compassion for our fellow humans we commit terrible crimes. As Flanagan said, ‘It is a wicked poison for society to drink…that says it is good to be cruel.’ At this point in time both sides of politics are justifying their right to be cruel. No humane society should allow it.

While some authors — like Flanagan — shone more than others, the Festival organisers curated, without exception, a bunch of articulate, thoughtful and confident writers (bearing in mind Helen Dunmore’s truism: ‘None of the authors I’ve met are ever as confident as they appear…They are always more vulnerable and uncertain’). In fact, one of the authors I went to see — who is an old hand at festivals and exuded great confidence on stage — apparently threw up before going on, so terrible were this author’s nerves. This is somehow comforting for the rest of us!

Unfortunately the chairs were not as consistent as the authors, ranging from exceptional to pretty ordinary. A good interviewer brings out the best in their panellists so that the session flows and the interchange of ideas opens out. A poor interviewer results in a disjointed and awkward experience that authors must make the best of. Just because an individual is well regarded in the literary community and has an interest in the subject matter or the authors in question does not necessarily mean they have the skill to successfully chair a panel. For me, the two best interviewers at this festival were Steven Gale and Jeff Sparrow. Both were knowledgeable and relaxed in a way that set the authors and the audience (equally as important) at ease. They had notes but they referred to them in an unobtrusive way, rather than reading questions out word for word. (Of course, there were other good interviewers, too, but these two chaired multiple sessions.) Interviewing is a skill that is often underestimated. Except, perhaps, by authors. As Richard Flanagan noted, ‘Authors rise or fall on the strength of their interviewer.’

LuminariesThere’s still so much I haven’t been able to cover in these posts. New Zealand author and Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton was brilliant, managing to display both great intellect and great warmth. She gave us a detailed and fascinating insight into the research and structure of The Luminaries. I simply must read it now.

I am a long-time fan of Mandy Sayer’s work and she was both candid and funny during her session about her third memoir, The Poet’s Wife, which details her abusive relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Yusef Komunyakaa. That one is also on the list.

Rabih Alameddine and Alison Bechdel were a riotous combination. Alameddine’s story about how he killed his five imaginary friends in a car accident was one of the more bizarre and hilarious stories I’ve heard at a festival. And Jeet Thayil and Christos Tsiolkas were delightful, often disagreeing in the most amenable ways. (And can I just say that the festival wrap-up party was like a Christos fan club. He is just the most genuine and likeable guy and not surprisingly everyone wanted to hang out with him.)

I came away from the festival buzzing, but now it’s time to put on the kettle and relax with my massive pile of festival books. The only question is, which one to start with?


  • by

IMG_8385Festivals always afford writers the chance to talk shop, and Adelaide Writers’ Week was no different. There were so many wonderful conversations — both on and off the stage — about this industry that we’re all part of in one way or another.

On stage, the combination of English writers Margaret Drabble and Helen Dunmore resulted in one of the best sessions I’ve been to at any festival. Drabble and Dunmore covered a huge amount of ground but I’d like to pick up one particular strand of discussion. Both authors spoke about how difficult it is for new writers to get published these days. ‘It was easier for us,’ Dunmore said. ‘Now writers have to be so savvy. And I do think talent is missed.’ Drabble added, ‘Now novels never even get out of the slush pile.’

But if you do manage to get your first novel published, the difficulties are far from over. If your book doesn’t sell as well as the publisher expects, the second won’t be published. There are many authors out there now — prize-winning, critically-acclaimed authors — who can’t get their books published. As Malcolm Know once said, ‘Bad sales are the wall through which novelists can no longer ghost.’ These days an author can produce a novel a publisher considers to have literary worth and still not get published.


BookScan, introduced in 2001, tallies book sales from Australian stores and provides publishers with detailed data. In other words, everyone knows exactly how many copies your last book sold. And if it wasn’t ‘enough’ the next book won’t find a publisher. As Dunmore noted, the major publishers are ‘terrified’ of publishing short fiction collections ‘because your figures will go down. And next time your novel is published everyone will look at that and orders will go down’.

The result of all this is that sales and marketing departments wield great power. And they don’t take a long view. As Dunmore said, ‘We were allowed to develop from book to book and not have great success but for new authors now there’s a lot riding on that first book.’ She went on to note that some writers ‘need three or four books to find their stride’ and in the past were granted this license. The publisher invested in the author because they believed in them. Dunmore concluded that the current sales-driven approach ‘is bad for readers as well as writers’.

A session later in the week on ‘Reading in the Marketplace’ delved deeper into these issues. Rebecca Saunders from Little, Brown Book Group (UK) explained how Amazon and Goodreads inform their acquisition decisions. They look at the number of reviews an author has and their average rating. Given that Saunders is managing a commercial imprint, the authors she is interested in will typically have thousands of reviews with an average four- or five-star rating. She also looks at the most heavily borrowed books in libraries.

Even just ten years ago publishers didn’t have access to any of the data that is now collected via Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter and eReaders (from which publishers receive very detailed information, right down to that sentence you underlined on page 108). All of this means that more than ever readers are driving publishing decisions. For example, Saunders said that prior to the success of Fifty Shades of Grey they would never have acquired a book of erotic fiction ‘because we wouldn’t have been able to get it into the supermarkets’, therefore limiting sales. Now, of course, they know that ‘there is definitely an appetite out there for erotic fiction so we have followed suit’.

However, there are clearly problems with simply following readers. As Daniel Crewe from Profile Books (UK) said, what about the books that readers ‘want to read that they don’t yet know they want to read’. Got that?! He cited Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which has been a bestseller for Profile. ‘Prior to that book, thousands of people wouldn’t have said they wanted to read a book about punctuation.’ And yet 10 years after it was first published it is still selling.

When I asked the panel about those earlier points made by Dunmore and Drabble concerning newer writers Saunders admitted that ‘it can be a little bit brutal’. However, she mentioned Gillian Flynn as an example of an author that Little, Brown remained committed to during her first two books, which sold modestly, before Gone Girl exploded into a bestseller. ‘Bestsellers are one in 100, so if an editor believes in an author and sees a place for them on their list they will continue to support them through at least a few titles.’ Crewe said that Profile Books do invest in authors long-term but that ‘the majors tend to have less patience’.

So where does all this leave us? A question worth posing is, would a book like James Joyce’s Ulysses be published today? Certainly not by any of the major publishing houses. It’s an awful thought that so many books widely considered to be of cultural importance simply wouldn’t be published today. And we would be the poorer for it.

Are you feeling as depressed as I am? Well, there is a glimmer of hope and it lies largely with the smaller independent publishers. Even some well-established authors are now turning to the independents who are still willing to invest in writers they believe in. But that’s a story for another day.

The final installment, Writers’ Week, Part 3, will be along shortly…