Browsing Tag


Take four

15 May 2017

‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Audre Lorde

This is what we writers do, in our private corners of solitude. We put words on the page that go out into the world and speak to readers. But a writer’s job also involves getting on a stage and speaking directly to those readers, trying to articulate the thinking behind the messy and elusive process of creating a work of fiction. It can be nerve-racking and exciting and stimulating. In the lead-up to an event I always feel anticipatory nerves, but once I’m on the stage I enjoy myself, and often come away feeling buoyant.

I’ve been part of four very varied events on writing and/or editing in recent weeks and I thought I’d share a little about the experience of each of them.

‘Animal Rights Writing’: Nigel Featherstone, Sam Vincent, Karen Viggers and Irma Gold

Most recently I was on an ‘Animal Rights Writing’ panel with Karen Viggers and Sam Vincent. I’ve never seen a panel programmed on this subject before. (Hit me up in the comments if you have, because it’s a topic I’d love to see discussed more.) This session was chaired by Nigel Featherstone who managed to expertly guide the discussion through our respective areas of interest. Our books deal with kangaroo culling (Karen, The Grass Castle), international whaling (Sam, Blood and Guts) and the exploitation of elephants for tourism (me, a children’s book, Seree’s Story, due out with Walker Books, and a work-in-progress novel, Rescuing Chang). Our conversation covered much ground, but, for me at least, the key idea that emerged was that conservation issues tend to be distilled into polarised positions which don’t necessarily reflect the complexities involved. Life is full of grey, and solutions are rarely of the black-and-white kind. Fortunately, writing can explore the grey. While this event delved into the darker side of humans’ impact on the world, it was a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. And as the icing on the cake, I returned home to an email from an audience member who felt moved to get in touch after hearing me speak about the devastating situation facing Asian elephants. With both my books yet to be released, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this one.

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Noted: Ashley Thomson, Irma Gold, Alan Vaarwerk, Sian Campbell

As part of Noted Festival, I was on a panel with Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings) and Sian Campbell (Scum Magazine), ‘Literally the Worst: Bad Writing and Badder Editing’, with Homer Editor Ashley Thomson chairing. I wasn’t keen on the title’s negative angle, but I guess a feisty premise draws the crowds, and the event was certainly packed. Fortunately the focus of discussion was productive, emphasising ways for writers to improve their craft. We also spoke about the hallmarks of good editing and when to identify ‘bad’ editing. In particular, I spoke about the need for editors to work with the author’s voice, not impose their own. Our own idiom is always what sounds ‘right’, so good editors learn to recognise their own preferences and then set them aside. They essentially become chameleons, taking on the colours of the manuscript in order to help the author make their work the very best it can be. (As you can see, Shauna O’Meara choose to illustrate this part of our conversation; my first time immortalised as a cartoon!) We spoke about a whole lot else besides and the event was podcasted here if you’d like to have a listen.

For the next two events I was the one in the interviewer’s hot seat. It’s such a responsibility being the interviewer. Over the years I’ve seen the way poor interviewers give authors no place to go and leave everyone feeling flat, and conversely the way brilliant interviewers draw the very best out of their subjects, gleaning new insights. Part of the skill is developing a rapport with the interviewees before hitting the stage, which is of course easier if you already know them. It’s also important to be super prepared but then be able to go with the flow on the day, so that the conversation evolves, rather than rigidly following a pre-existing set of questions.

It’s such a privilege chatting with other writers, and the in-conversation event with Marion Halligan and John Stokes about their lives together was one of the loveliest events I’ve been a part of. Marion and John are perhaps best described as Canberra literary royalty. They are a warm, generous and supportive presence in the local community, and our discussion reflected that. There was much laughter, but also tears. Both have written so movingly about grief and loss, and John’s reading of his prose poem about the death of Marion’s daughter, ‘Funeral Address for a Stepdaughter’, had the audience reaching for the tissues. Marion once wrote, ‘Grief does not dissipate, it is something that exists, and must be valued, even treasured.’ Wise words indeed. It was a rich and wonderful hour spent with two marvellous writers.

And finally, I interviewed Robyn Cadwallader about her stunning debut novel, The Anchoress, as part of Festival Muse. I wrote about some of our discussion here, so I won’t rehash it, but Robyn was a delight to interview—thoughtful, insightful and intelligent. Our discussion lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

Next up, I’m heading to Holy Trinity Primary School in my role as Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. School visits are always heaps of fun, so I can’t wait to meet all those new little readers.

Filming (mis)adventures

26 October 2012

Before The Invisible Thread series I had never interviewed anyone on camera. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of interesting people for print but my voice, my words have only ever appeared on the page, and my image has remained hidden. Seeing yourself played back is an excruciating experience (how do actors cope with their overblown reflection at movie premiers?) and it revealed an irritating quirk.

Whenever I start talking I experience an uncontrollable urge to wave my hands about. After I saw the first few interviews played back I gave myself a good talking to. Note to self: Keep your hands down. At all times. My hands would not listen. In subsequent interviews the second I started speaking up they would jump. Waving, waving, always waving. During one interview I tried to unobtrusively sit on my hands but I quickly released them. When I wasn’t waving them around I was unable to think. However it seems many authors are similarly inclined, so I’m in good company. Here’s Omar Musa and me waving at each other.

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My hand-waving was not the only challenge we faced. There were also a few technical misadventures. The ACT Writers Centre — where we filmed the majority of these interviews — was a logistical nightmare. Never has any room had so many plug sockets and light switches and poles, all highly unappealing features onscreen. We did our best to avoid them but early on one caught out my indefatigable cameraman, Dylan. During set-up my head was covering it, but as I began speaking and waving and moving around, the nasty little offender began playing hide and seek. When viewing the footage it was distracting in the extreme. I did show it to a couple of ‘test cases’ who didn’t notice it until well into the interview, but I knew we had to reshoot my noddies*. A right pain, but you can be sure we didn’t make that mistake again.

Then there was the issue of the second mic. We had a reliable and professional lapel mic for the author but tried a series of different mics for me. So in a couple of interviews you’ll see me holding up a lovely gold number (disco queens eat your heart out). There was no issue with the sound quality but when the interviewer holds a mic it changes the dynamic, making it difficult to set the interview on an equal footing. So we swapped that for another lapel mic which, as it turned out, would have been perfect if we were working as spies but wasn’t so great for interviewing authors. It picked up everything in the room, and I do mean everything. On the playback I swear you could even hear the air moving. So finally we returned to disco gold but with me holding it between my thighs out of shot (as you can see here while filming Roger McDonald). Rather odd but somewhat less intrusive.

But perhaps the crowning failure came courtesy of an author who shall remain nameless who deadbolted one of the doors after entering the room. The interview went beautifully, said author exited out of the second door and shortly afterwards, taking a break before the last author arrived, we did too, carefully closing it behind us to ensure that all Dylan’s camera equipment remained safe.

When we returned, reflecting on how well the interviews had gone so far that day, we discovered that my key wouldn’t open door 1 (now deadbolted) or door 2 (which opened with a different key). While waiting for the security company, Dylan paced from door 1 to door 2 and back again, vainly trying them both at least 30 times each. ‘Stop, Dylan!’ I cried eventually, and he then attempted to convince me that I would be able to climb up through a high glass window above the door and drop ninja-style into the room. Needless to say I was somewhat reluctant, and thankfully we were unable to prise the window open. There was talk of breaking the door down; we weren’t ruling it out. Eventually the security man arrived and popped it open easily with a master key (I may have fist pumped, I can’t be sure). ‘The whole thing sounds Chaplinesque,’ a friend commented. Indeed.

Now I’ve confessed all our misadventures you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that this week’s interview actually looks pretty decent. A writer and glass artist of Arrente, Chinese and Anglo-Celtic descent, Jennifer Martiniello has plenty of insightful things to say. Make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up, and click that little triangle.

* For those as ignorant as I was, noddies don’t have anything to do with Big Ears or Enid Blyton. A ‘noddy’ is the technical term for when an interviewer’s questions are filmed after the interview has been recorded. We used two cameras for the majority of the series, but for the first few interviews we only had one camera and so after the author left I became adept at pretending they were still sitting in the chair across from me.

The Invisible Thread series: Roger McDonald

19 October 2012

On a searing blue-sky day my cameraman, Dylan, picks me up and we road trip to Roger McDonald’s home, just outside Braidwood. When we hit dirt roads we follow Roger’s concise instructions with landmarks that include sulky wheels and stock ramps. The landscape is like something out of a novel, a Roger McDonald novel perhaps. There is half a rusted car, a group of Clydesdale horses, and a pair of cows standing in the middle of the road who watch us approaching with disinterest.

I have just finished telling Dylan that I don’t think I could live in the middle of the bush, and then we come upon Roger’s home. I immediately take it back. It is stunning, a building my architect brother would surely admire. Later Roger points me to a passage in his 1996 novel The Slap where he prophesied a ‘hand built’ house with ‘rammed earth walls and ironbark slabs, a wide verandah of stringybark poles and an atrium of heavy glass saved intact from the demolition of the original Hatton Holdings building, bought for a song in Sydney’.

Stepping out of the car, Roger is already outside to greet us. Down the hill a little way a pile of wood is flaming. ‘It’s the last day we can burn anything,’ Roger tells me. ‘We’ve been chopping down some of the trees nearest the house.’ We stand side by side looking out at the landscape, the frogs chirruping. There’s something about the place. Its stillness instantly lulls me.

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Inside I decide I’ve definitely found my dream home (care to swap, Roger?). There’s a collection of teapots on the kitchen counter, covetable art on the walls, and floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows looking out across the hills. Roger tells me that at night the only lights to be seen are fifteen kilometres away. The view inspired one of my favourite lines in When Colts Ran: ‘On the main highway fifteen kilometres away cars have their headlights on, so far off that as the minutes pass their lights go piling into each other in a continuous animated pulp of diamonds.’

The house is made up of three separate buildings and we walk to the second where Roger’s office is. While he makes tea a cat creeps out from the adjoining study where his wife works. I reach down to stroke her but he warns me she’s a face scratcher. ‘Oh,’ I say, retracting. ‘But she’s very beautiful.’ ‘You can think that,’ he replies. ‘I’m not a cat person myself.’

Roger McDonald interview2Dylan sets up the cameras in Roger’s writing space. The window frames a canvas of gums. As the cameras start rolling the cat picks her way delicately across the camera cords about our feet. Roger has so many interesting things to say. It always fascinates me that writers of Roger’s stature rarely think of themselves the way others see them; they still doubt their ability, still feel anxious about every new book. I used to think that experience and accolades must lessen these feelings over time, but it doesn’t seem to be so. Roger says, ‘I put so much pressure on myself…Even when I’m close to finishing [a book], I’m thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ That’s my struggle…it always seems just a little bit out of reach.’ And then on the need for feedback he says, ‘Readers can be very shy about saying something to authors. They don’t realise that an author is a thirsting person in the desert.’

We go on to talk about everything from why he feels he has finished writing about the landscapes of his childhood to the experience of being at the centre of the Miles Franklin Award furore when an all-male shortlist was revealed. (Do yourself a favour and just watch him.)

I reluctantly conclude the interview. I could have asked so many more questions, but we’re trying to keep these interviews to a reasonable length. Roger offers us lunch—salad and an omelette with eggs from his chooks—but I am still tied to my feeding baby and we turn him down with regret. Instead he assembles a carton of eggs for us both and stands in the driveway waving us off.

That night I crack the eggs with their luminous orange yolks and make a frittata. ‘These are Roger McDonald Eggs,’ I tell my kids. ‘Who?’ my daughter asks. ‘Roger McDonald. One of Australia’s finest authors.’ She doesn’t pause, pushing another forkful into her mouth. ‘Oh,’ is all she says. She’s so used to meeting authors that it doesn’t impress her much, but I think the frittata tastes particularly good.

The Invisible Thread is an anthology of 100 years of writing from the Canberra region, edited by yours truly.