Of course, the Melbourne Writers Festival wasn’t all about me. Thanks to the childcare provided by my cousins Mary and Georgia, I was able to attend a couple of sessions in addition to the ones I appeared at (blogged here, here and here).
On Friday afternoon, I joined a packed auditorium at BMW Edge for ‘From Woolf to Wolf’ with Sophie Cunningham, Monica Dux and Emily Maguire discussing A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, and The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf respectively. Judging by the size of the crowd, whatever the state of contemporary feminism there is clearly an appetite for discussion and debate on these classic texts. Estelle on the MWF blogging team was posting about the session in the seat next to me: read her summary here.
Sophie Cunningham mentioned the Bechdel Test, new to me, a test popularised by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, which evaluates films according to three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. Sophie was dismayed by how few contemporary films passed the Bechdel Test in this era of making as much money out of film as possible by targeting 20-something-year-old men. Food for thought, it’s worth applying the Bechdel Test to the last three films you’ve seen to see if any pass.
Saturday afternoon I went to Feddish to hear my old friend Bernard Caleo launch Gregory Mackay‘s new graphic novel Francis Bear. When Bernard described Francis Bear as ‘a Richard Scarry book that grew up’, I just knew I had to buy a copy for my brother Luke, a grown-up Richard Scarry fan. The other memorable line of the event was a quote from Pat Grant: ‘the art of icon making — less information for more meaning.’ And thanks to Bernard for putting me on to Grant’s excellent comic Waiting for Something to Happen about Cronulla.
After the launch I hung around at the Festival Club in ACMI and got to hear Steve Kilbey warming up for his session, ‘Songwriter Speaks’. As difficult as it was to drag myself away, I was headed to The Communal Voice to hear a panel of writers comprising British novelist Barbara Trapido, Anjum Hasan from India and Eduardo Antonio Parra from Mexico speaking about managing hosts of characters and narrative. I went primarily to hear Barbara Trapido as I am a big fan of her novels.
When I first walked in, Barbara was seated, grim-faced and frumpy looking. Only when she started speaking did she reveal how smart and funny she is. Asked about which comes first, the character or the story, Barbara replied that for her characters appeared in tandem with the story. ‘I kind of stalk them,’ she said. Of the story, she said ‘I have the sense of it plotting itself’, adding, ‘I know this can’t be true, but it’s about the other side of the brain working.’
Barbara described writing as ‘the urge to make shapes and balance from the chaos of life’, and in a wonderful observation noted ‘Random life is full of coincidences too unlikely to use in a novel.’
I was also very impressed with Anjum Hasan and bought her novel Lunatic in my Head after the session. The book is set in Shillong, a culturally diverse town in northeast India where Anjum was born. She said she was ‘inspired by the fact that we live in such a diverse society in India, which we take for granted when we’re not fighting with each other.’ She described as ‘a kind of trance’ the act of getting inside the heads of her different characters.
Barbara Trapido added that she does her research into characters after the fact, not before, preferring to ‘just go for it’ in terms of character development. ‘Sometimes you’re faking it,’ she confessed.
And then she read a passage from Sex and Stravinsky from the perspective of a ‘bulimic, permanently furious’ 16-year-old white South African girl.
Oh that we could all fake it that well!