‘The days go by so fast,’ my eight-year-old said tonight as we observed a Blood Moon over Melbourne. ‘The nights, too,’ she added sagely. I know she’s got a point when I glance at my blog and wonder if it’s really ten days since my last post. Ah, so many words to write, so little time.
Since my last post, I attended the Newcastle Writers Festival from 4-6 April. Run entirely by volunteers, including Director Rosemarie Milson, the festival was exciting, inspiring well organised and hospitable, with excellent chairing and great venues.
At the opening night event, Rosemarie described Newcastle as a city whose ‘narrative is evolving’. This was echoed by Wendy Harmer, who gave the keynote address and said that ‘the town’s desire to share passion builds social capital.’ (Wendy went on to mount a hilarious defence of ‘chick lit’ and ‘hen lit’, asking, ‘Why isn’t dick lit a genre?’)
Saturday morning I attended the panel, ‘Dangerous Ideas: Challenging the status quo’ with Russell Blackford, Clementine Ford. Antony Loewenstein, Philip Nitschke and Clare Wright, chaired by Jill Emberson. My tweets don’t do justice to the far ranging and fascinating discussion, but this is what I managed to get down:
Antony Loewenstein: On most issues, there are not two equal sides, though the media often portrays it as such.
Clare Wright: Women as instigators of change in history is a dangerous idea, because it challenges orthodoxy.
Philip Nitschke: It’s not a dangerous idea for people who are terminally ill to get help to die, but it is a dangerous idea to suggest every adult, regardless of their health, has the right to end their life in a manner of their choosing. Life may be a gift, but if you can’t give it away, it’s a burden.
Clementine Ford: ‘Nah, I don’t reckon’, or citing freedom of opinion, is not good enough as a response to hard evidence.
My first panel as a guest was, ‘It’s Complicated: Dissecting the hero in crime novels’, with Garry Disher and Adrian McKinty. The session was laid-back and enjoyable, thanks to Megan Buxton’s terrific chairing, and the fact that Garry, Adrian and I have all read and enjoyed each other’s work.
My second panel, ‘You Are Here: Writing about place’ was with local author Zeny Giles and travel writer Brendan Shanahan, chaired by novelist Courtney Collins, who kicked off with a quote from Eudora Welty in response to a question about whether place was her source of inspiration. Said Welty,
Not only that, it’s my source of knowledge. It tells me the important things. It steers me and keeps me going straight, because place is a definer and a confiner of what I’m doing. It helps me to identify, to recognize and explain. It does so much for you of itself. It saves me.
I remember responding to the question of whether place ‘saved’ me by saying, in fact, it had ruined me. My fascination with Southeast Asia, a love affair that began with my first visit to Bangkok in 1985, has left me with a permanently divided heart. When I’m in Asia, I miss Melbourne. When in Melbourne, I miss Asia.
We talked of techniques for bringing places to life, including the delicate balancing act of using words from languages other than English. We discussed why some places take hold of the imagination more than others. Some of us even fessed up about writing about places we’ve never been to.
I kicked off Sunday’s festival program by attending the session, ‘Nowhere to Hide: The challenge of the short story’ with Maria Takolander, Ryan O’Neill and Abbas El-Zein, chaired by Hunter Writers Centre director Karen Crofts. The session was both helpful and inspiring: advice regarding the ‘stroke of difference’ needed to make a short story stand out was particularly salient and made me re-think the structure of the story I’m currently working on.
Plenty of time was allowed for audience questions, enabling me to ask about the importance of plot in short stories. Abbas El-Zein suggested ‘plot doesn’t come first’ in the short story, saying, ‘There is an intensity in short stories — of character, timeframe, place — which is very hard to achieve in novels’. However, Ryan O’Neill suggested ‘a short story without a plot is a sketch.’ He added: ‘Something has to happen, preferably something bad. Happy stories are not so interesting.’ (Read Ryan’s post about the session on The Short of It).
The other memorable moment for me in this session was O’Neill quoting Nabokov as saying, ‘My characters are galley slaves.’ Maria Takolander, who advocates putting characters in difficult situations to shock and unsettle the reader and who described herself as ‘not afraid of sensationalism and titillation’, added, ‘My characters are galley slaves — and I whip them.’
Following this I had the great pleasure of interviewing Garry Disher, my stablemate at Text Publishing (though I noted that he was the thoroughbred and me the Shetland pony!). As the author of nearly 50 works across a range of genres, Garry is a thoughtful and learned interview subject, as well as an inspiration. His latest novel, Bitter Wash Road, is simply stunning. It didn’t surprise me to see The Newcastle Herald describe this session as a festival drawcard.
I capped off a wonderful festival experience by seeing Courtney Collins interview Linda Jaivin about her new novel, The Empress Lover, which Jaivin describes as ‘a love letter to Beijing.’ And I caught the tail end of ‘Secrets and Lies: The art of the crime novel’ with Adrian McKinty and local crime writers Jaye Ford and Barry Maitland.
I left Newcastle happy and inspired, having made new friends and spent time catching up with old ones. It’s hard to believe Newcastle Writers Festival is only in its second year. I predict it will go from strength to strength. Like the city itself.