Browsing Tag

literary festivals

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.

Continue Reading…

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.


11 March 2014

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.

Continue Reading…

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?


9 March 2014

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.

Continue Reading…

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…