I know it is probably sacrilegious, but I almost like listening to writers talk about their books more than reading them. Am I just strange, or is there some powerful chemistry going on when a story-teller re-tells their story interwoven with their personal lived experience?
In late February, early March, 2016 I spent a gorgeous ten days in my home town, Adelaide, attending one of the pre-eminent (so I’ve heard, as I haven’t attended any others) writers’ weeks in the world. There is a sense of pure indulgence, sitting under those beautiful trees, listening to very wise and patient human beings, speak about the books they have birthed in recent times, and not-so-recent times. It is a profound experience which I might yet be processing for a couple more weeks, if not months, now I’m back in my Melbourne stomping ground.
There are many facets that make up the diamond of Adelaide Writer’s Week, an integral part of the Adelaide Festival program, begun all those decades ago during the time of Don Dunstan.
As I was reminded by a number of people I sat with in the audience, it is one of the only free events in the world. The ability to be able to flexibly drift between the tents of speakers, without having had to have decided on who you want to hear, and booked, and paid ahead, is absolutely unique.
So too, I think, is the Adelaide audience’s capacity to engage deeply with writers, and the process of writing. This ability is matched by their propensity to look out for one another, and connect with complete strangers over books and ideas. I had lovely conversations about trees and travel, publishing and patriarchy in the warm embrace of an Adelaide summer.
Another aspect is how finely curated the program is, flipping between paired authors talking on themes and solo authors more closely with their work and lives under the spotlight, the directors skills at being able to anticipate and even create, thought-provoking combinations of writers and interviewers is simply poetry in motion.
To wander through the list of books I read each year, is to chart a course through ideas and themes that I myself deal with in my life. There seems to be a happy convergence of those themes, perhaps because that is the way of things – after all we see what we want to see.
I thought I might recount some of the ideas/issues I have been grappling with or that struck me when listening to the wonderful insights these authors shared. The wonderful part for me, is that one cuts out one’s own pattern from a shared experience. A bit like a snowflake cut-out exercise. Even though I shared this experience with thousands of others, my resulting snowflake of ideas, characters and experience from the six days on the grass will be unique – just like everyone else’s.
I must declare my leanings. I’m interested in writing historical fiction in colonial settings, fascinated by biography and French culture so I chose to visit the places where this would be discussed. As you will see from this blog, I am also exploring the concept of travelling and the journey of the soul, so this was another theme I looked out for in the offerings.
A place called winter. Patrick Gale has a beautiful voice and an eloquent way of putting things. I connected with his exploration of where fault-lines start in the patterns that are carried through generations and digging for the reasons why things come to be. As happened a number of times his talk was punctuated by the noisy flock of galahs that were the other resident artists for the week. He spoke of the myth and reality of the new colonies. The romanticised ‘new frontier’ and ideas of empire being sold as a lie. As with many authors, there was a deep acknowledgement of the displacement of indigenous people and I found much food for thought about how we write ‘the other’ in story. From a technical viewpoint, his description of writing drafts of the story first by chronology, then re-ordering, then from the reader’s perspective, to be really helpful.
One Life. Kate Grenville raised an issue I have thought about for a while now. Once you hear a story, whose story is it? What rights does another have over it? In her discussion of her previous work, The Secret River, Kate was emphatic that there is a line to be drawn about what stories we are ‘entitled’ to tell. The discussion ranged widely through creativity, choice, women’s lives and loneliness, but a pretty strong theme came across, that ‘ordinary stories’ have just as much right to be heard as ‘heroic’ ones.
Legacy. The conversation between Magda Szubanski and Leah Kaminsky about the legacy of war in their families and their writing was rivetting. In my experience of the stories told by my family, I related to the way they identified war traumas transferred down through generations. This seemed to be compounded by the experience of being second generation Australians. Magda summarised her experience of her father’s trauma and the way that it effected her, “He was the gong that was struck and I’m the one stuck in the reverberation”. There was a sense of helplessness in this idea, which Magda acknowledged and it is fascinating to me that while these traumas can have such an impact on people’s lives, they achieve greatly, whether in spite of it or because of it who could tell. Another aspect of this that seemed to be present for both writers was that there is a magnetism to telling this story, the drama of it. What is the place within us that resonates with the trauma and tragedy of war?
A Golden Age. Whereas I felt quite personally involved in the other sessions of the day, for this session, I felt like a spectator. I was absolutely fascinated by the characters holding the stage and felt that their stories and the story of their interplay on this stage would actually be far more fascinating that those of their chosen heroines. Laura Thompson has written about the Mitford sisters and Robert Wainwright about Rose Porteous, both stories, that of privilege and the world of the movers and shakers. It seemed a long way from my seat. It also seemed somehow titillating to be talking about these women, in a way akin to a Woman’s Day expose. I haven’t read either book, so I can’t comment on the angle that these writers were taking, however it always interests me what draws people to write about certain characters, or in fact whether stories choose their author.
Keating. The afternoon sun was beginning its westerly escape as a huge crowd assembled to listen to a commentary by arguably two of Australia’s most significant journalists about one of Australia’s most significant Prime Ministers, Paul Keating. The place was packed to the rafters to hear Kerry O’Brien taking the interviewee seat to Laura Tingle and they didn’t disappoint. The session could have easily spilled well into the evening, as Kerry loves talking about this topic and it was so interesting to his side of the Keating TV series. The ideas that stayed with me were that Keating had curiosity, imagination and was a warrior, but Kerry also pointed out whilst these things clearly had him ahead of the pack, Keating despised the idea of being “too far ahead of the mob”. This period in Australian political history will always hold a special significance for me as I was just starting out in my first job, and at that stage lapped up most things political. Now, not so much, but it was great to hear the period retold so skilfully.
Plain speaking Jane. I’m glad that Richard Dawkins couldn’t attend because when he was still on the list, I had decided (despite wanting to see Jane Caro more) that I should go and see what this man was on about. “There are no right ways to be a woman, only wrong ways, so be as wrong as you like”. It came in the first few minutes, but really it is Jane’s mantra. I ended the day, quite convinced that the value to me of Writer’s Week, is in the writers, not just their books. Jane reminds us that we needn’t apologise for being different any longer.
A Marriage. Lauren Groff and Virginia Reeves had a lovely discussion dove-tailing the stories of their respective books, looking at the theme of marriage. Is marriage possible? Is it desirable? Is silence malignant or benign? All big questions. The work of Gillian Rose was mentioned and quoted – “In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a fundamental change in the terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change . . . There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.” Love’s Work.
Traveller’s Tails. For a traveller, this session was appealling, and Fran Bryson and Beth Yahp explored faraway places but not surprisingly questioned where is home? Does travel enable in the traveller, an exploration of the concept of home. Fran’s vivid descriptions of her travels in Brazil, and Beth’s portrayal of her family’s history and the spiritual, unseen world was mesmerising.
Political Women. The second session hearing Jane Caro, but this time joined by Annabel Crabb. These two women have impeccable credentials in terms of social and political commentary and their insights into Australian society are candid and often a sad reflection of the struggles women undergo in order to be taken seriously in the world full-stop, and the world of work and politics in particular. In outlining the current climate, it reminded me of a book that I read a long time ago, Rhonda Mahoney’s, Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies and Bargaining Power. I’m not so sure I did get any answers, but I suppose it is always good to illuminate the issues.
The Life of Elves. The lilt of a French accent under the shady trees of Adelaide Writer’s Week was always going to be a magnet for me, but the combination of a wise, contemplative and humble writer speaking about her writing held me there. It was only part-way through the session, that I realised I knew Muriel Barbery’s, The Elegance of a Hedgehog, but not the book. It was a film I had watched in the past year in a flurry of video-shop movie binges of French films. I was so impressed with it as a film and I can’t wait to read the book. Muriel feels in her writing she gets the chance to build understanding where as in her work as a academic philosopher she was occupied with explaining. It was an insightful session.
Fairy Tale. Again making my way to see Muriel Barbery, this time in a lovingly curated session, paired for a magical discussion with Patrick Dewitt. Perhaps it was these authors, perhaps because they were discussing fairly tales, or perhaps it was just happenstance, but this session was a goldmine of beautiful ideas to me. The meaning and etymology of words is fascinating to me, but even more so through the lens of a French speaker. Because the languages share so many common words, the exploration of the different meanings held in the two languages, or the discovery of old English words that are still used in French with the same meanings is one of the things that most enchants me about speaking with French speakers. In what ways is a virtuoso virtuous for instance? The conversation roamed far, looking at the intertwined relationship of nature and art: the creativity of people and it’s connection with nature. Patrick’s book exploring two people communicating confusion/unrealised desire, Muriel’s two little girls who understand stuff (reminiscent of the sensitive ones in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News). Not only were the stories discussed, but the life of a writer was considered. A writer can’t control the thoughts: in a way they are a follower. Following, listening and observing – all key skills that need to be cultivated in the craft of writing. A writer wouldn’t want to force their point – arguing, convincing or being the purpose of the writing is not the aim. An enchanting time.
The Making of a Writer. Bill Manhire and Max Porter, witty and intelligent with salient advice for budding writers. The nuts and bolts of being a writer with an elegant sufficiency of words. I can’t remember if it was this session or the other that Max spoke at, but at some point he said something about it not being so useful reflecting too much on the life and character of the author as he didn’t feel it was helpful in reading the book. I beg to differ, and on later reading his Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I was struck at how economic is his use of words, a feature of his elegant spoken word during the sessions. In this session he mentioned that he the author must make the book the most ‘itself’ it can be, however once it is finished and in the possession of the audience, it assumes a life of it’s own, and the life that the reader gives to it. He said that ‘finding the singleness’ never worked for him. It was interesting to hear the writers speak of the location where they write – shutting the door on the family and sitting down for allocated slots of stolen time. Bill said “It is the job of every writer to find their voice and speak in it”. In this way writing becomes the playful search for the voice. The importance of editing was mentioned – asking the hard questions in the 1st edit. What makes a good writer? Reading. Ideas books – don’t throw away anything. I understand this, and have accumulated many notebooks already. A most helpful session.
Ocean of the Future. I could listen to Simon Winchester all day. The combination of his voice, his knowledge, his journalistic/storytelling style make for a wonderful session. His book, The Map that Changed the World, has sat on my shelf waiting for me to read it for many years and in the months following the festival, I had the pleasure of reading The Surgeon of Crowthorn but before I heard him speak I hadn’t read his books. He felt that his secret to success is to have a good idea, a good structure and good writing. I would add to that, write often. He has published over twenty books. I liked the ideas for providing structure to his books Atlantic – the seven ages of man, and the five classical elements used for The Men Who United the States. I have always appreciated this in books and hope to employ it in my own. Another reason I could listen to Simon all day is that I appreciate his observations, such as the United States “seeing the Pacific as their own private lake”. Seeing this in light of the current TPP negotiations is a very interesting observation, and one which aligns with my view of the world. It is always easy to appreciate your own ideas mirrored in another isn’t it – especially when so fluently and intelligently presented!
Undermajordomo Minor. Patrick Dewitt and Max Porter. These two had the benefit of a pre-existing relationship so the session felt like phone tapping this dynamic – an editor and one of his authors. Patrick, with dry humour notes “I don’t necessarily turn my back on the world … but my interest is waning”, while Max quips about cross-dressing, “I come from a country where the people that run it, do that kind of shit every Friday night”. I haven’t noted much else about the discussion, but remember being amused and fascinated at the same time.
The Crow. Jonathan Bate and Max Porter with Michael Cathcart talking Ted Hughes. Despite the confluence of subject matter, the discussion was a little disjointed, and was plagued by a few technical hitches, and the session was also being broadcast to Radio National. However, it was a fascinating wander over the life and works of Ted Hughes, the intertwined story of Sylvia Plath and two authors views on the phenomenon. The highlight was a recording of Ted Hughes reading his poems at the same Writers’ Week, in it’s infancy in the 1970s under these same trees. A revealing session.
Salt Creek. Having been researching my own interesting family history in colonial Western Victoria, I was really excited to hear Lucy Treloar talking about her experience writing her book, Salt Creek. In addition, the book is set in my home state, South Australia in an area that I frequently travelled through to visit my aunt and uncle on a farm north of Kingston during my childhood, so this session held a special interest for me. How does one adequately deal with the subject of dispossession and the ‘obliviousness of the colonial attitude’ – partly a religious Victorian attitude of dominion, mingled with concepts of empire. On one hand the pride exhibited by Darwin, “impossible to behold the far colonies without high pride and satisfaction” and on the other the reality that “death follows the indigenous wherever the European goes”. It was a session where the realities of that time were treated with sensitivity and encouraged me to read the book.
The Natural Way of Things. The galahs visited again during this session advertising their breakfast arrival in the park. I came part-way through this session, and it wasn’t one that I had on my list, but part of the discussion I caught was about the difference between marketing aimed at men and women, the former being about augmenting their power, the latter being to make up a perceived deficit. Charlotte Wood has since been numerous awards for this book, and I need to put it on my reading list.
Archipelago of Souls. A reflective session in which Gregory Day asked, “What do we do with the darkness (inside ourselves) when we want to love each other”. An interesting look at the effects of war; fear and defensiveness. Observing people choosing to be away from other people because they don’t know how to bring the ‘awful thing’ (their trauma), with them to the relationship. One thing I found useful was the idea that ‘if it sounds like writing, throw it out’.
Chance Developments. It would be an interesting exercise to survey readers about which Alexander McCall Smith books they prefer. I myself, have never been attracted to the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, however once I started the 44 Scotland Street series, I became hooked. I’ve also dabbled in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, but haven’t got as far with them. Alexander’s whimsical, quirky and funny view of life is not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but he draws the crowds and I really enjoyed hearing from him in person. His nature spills into his books, and he is an author that regularly has me laughing out loud – which can be disconcerting for other passengers on public transport. A lovely session.
Outsiders. Given the large number of Aboriginal writers in Australia, I was a little surprised by how few make it into the program of Adelaide Writers’ Week – outsiders indeed. One exception was the wonderful discussion between Tony Birch and Paddy O’Reilly. Tony’s extensive experience as a writer and teacher of the technique of writing was evident in the discussion, but especially in answering the questions posed by several writers at the end of the session. He writes to the character until it becomes a part of him. He also brought a strong sense of place in his descriptions of Birrarung (the Yarra River in Melbourne) of his youth, and the distinction between land rights and the rights of the land, the agency of the river. The river is the backdrop for his novel, Ghost River and in it he deals with kids faced with challenges which they are resilient enough to survive. The idea that learning to listen and learning to write are intertwined brought up again the themes that had come up earlier in the week. The discussion covered the importance of observing land and place and making this the subject of research – detailing noise, smell, image and texture. Finding out what a place isn’t is just as important, and this sense of bringing the story into relief was also a technique used in writing stories. Both authors encouraged writers to give their stories space after writing, reading again at a distance and getting other people to read, joining writers groups for critique and also suggestion. It is important to find the method for you, of letting the character unfold. For the technicalities of writing, this was an excellent session and it brought forth many more questions from the audience than there was time for them to be answered.
Adelaide Writers’ Week 2016
On a couple of occasions in the early 2000s, before I moved away from Adelaide, I managed to drop in to AWW for a couple of sessions in between lectures of my Bachelor of Music at Adelaide University. 2016 was the first time I have made the time to attend for the whole week and immerse myself in the atmosphere. It is for me indulgent yet indispensable in its inspiration. The space it creates for practising listening and being open to the wisdom of experienced writers is a true blessing, and over the past year I have found myself reflecting on the ideas it has raised for me more than once. The impetus it creates for an aspiring writer is palpable, and I would classify it now as a must-do for my professional development.
I’ve booked my trip back to Adelaide for the 2017 version and I await it eagerly!