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Day 1, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Katoomba

19 May, 2008

A two-day regional segment of the Sydney Writers’ Festival is being held at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, today and tomorrw. The venue is the turn-of-the-century Carrington Hotel, which perches at the top of Katoomba’s main street.

Today’s speakers included Forrest Gander (USA), Steve Toltz and Trevor Shearston (Australia) and Hermione Lee (England). Here are some of their random comments that I jotted down when I could.

Forrest Gander: American poet, novelist, essayist and translator

When I looked up Forrest’s website, I jumped to the unkind conclusion that he would come across as a sophisticate, dropping esoteric terminology as a literature academic. Instead, he took time and care with his ideas rather than trotting out a canned talk. (It’s easy to understand why speakers try to save their mental energy and sanity when they hit the publicity circuit to talk up their latest book.)

  • Forrest studied geology, but a life-changing health issue, melanoma, turned his focus to poetry. In many of his poems, he draws on his scientific background. He talked about the special attraction of the desert country, mentioning Mary Hunter Austin’s writings in the 1930s, which concern the desert landscape and culture. He talked about the different way of seeing in the desert, compared to other areas, where your sight lines are screened because you are looking through living forms (eg bushes, trees).
  • To live in the world, one must develop a ‘callus’. But a poet [and any writer?] also needs to remain open to the world. He likens this need to an alligator snapping turtle. The poet ‘opens self to profound listening’, like the turtle opens himself to stillness at the bottom of a pool, in order to attract its prey.
  • I was amused at the description in one of his poems, about someone who has ‘lost the consolation of faith but not the ambition to worship’.
  • He and his wife started the Lost Road Press to help writers who may not otherwise be published. Perhaps it’s his publishing background that has made him interested in ‘the whole hog of the art of writing’. How pleasant to hear this view in an age of increasing specialisation.
  • He does not believe in the idea of a ‘lone genius’, instead emphasising community and other cultures, saying that his own writing is ‘full of the voices of other writers’. Part of his views must come from his translation work with Spanish poets. He thinks we need to ‘wake up’ and be ‘vigilant’ about using these differences/nuances, and he mentioned Robert Creeley’s title, I Know as I Write, as providing a sense of what writing does for us.

Trevor Shearston: Australian novelist of many books set in Papua New Guinea

Trevor is a passionate and good-humoured writer about New Guinea, where he lived for many years. His latest novel, Dead Birds, is set in 1800s pre-colonial Papua. The narrator is an utamu, the spirit of a tribesman who has been beheaded. The Italian naturalist, Luigi D’Alberti, who is exploring the Fly River, has the man’s head pickled and kept in a jar aboard his ship. The spirit tries to understand what it is seeing and hearing as it goes with the expedition.

  • Trevor says, ‘We all write from our obsessions.’ His obsession is New Guinea, in part because very few others are taking this up as a subject. And although some Papuans are writing about their culture, he says it is a futile exercise because they have no avenues to publish their work.
  • Because Dead Birds has a Papuan narrator, Trevor said he wanted to capture an authentic Papuan voice. For example, Papuans expect a level of detail that non-Papuans may find odd or boring. Non-Papuan readers may find the style difficult, but they should persevere, ‘do battle with it’.
  • In the days of exploration and colonisation, ‘who were really the savages?’ His book provides some answers. D’Alberti, the naturalist, unleashed fireworks when he came to a longhouse/village, which made the people run away. Then he plundered the longhouse for items he could sell in Europe, e.g. the bodies of the birds-of-paradise.
  • Trevor at first could not find a publisher. Then, through a personal connection, he got a publishing deal with ABC Books. To reduce the costs, the book has been printed in a small format, and the typeface is also small. Trevor laughingly said that the small format and close type has the happy result of providing an oppressive sense that matches the plot. I found the type much too small to read comfortably.
  • His biggest challenge was writing about commonplace things that the spirit-narrator would not know or understand in the same way. He uses the example of the spirit seeing the crew make water hot then throw leaves in it. The modern reader suddenly thinks, ‘They’re making tea.’ As he wrote, he had to keep in mind what the spirit knows, and what the spirit can pick up through observation.

Hermione Lee: British writer, best known for her well-researched biographies

Hermione has a formidable, academic reputation. Many in the audience were expecting a brilliant but rather overly detailed talk. After all, her new biography of novelist Edith Wharton is so thick!

Her lecture was the highlight of the day, as she mixed fact and conjecture, information about Wharton with her views about writing biographies, and her personal experience in going on the Whartonian ‘hunt’.

  • She talked about how you get obsessed with your subject, to the point of suffering from ‘biographer’s lunacy’. This happens when biographers become so involved that the subject seems to be living again and close at hand. For example, if they are in the subject’s former home, it may feel that their subject is about to walk into the room. Lee talks about being a museum where Wharton had set one of her fictional scenes, and feeling as if the two characters from that novel were about to come around the corner.
  • She says that a biographer should not make things up, no matter how tempting. Biographers need to be able to say that they do not know about some areas, that the evidence is not there. Of course they can conjecture.
  • She said it’s worthwhile for biographers to ask whether they see their subject as younger or older than themselves. Eg, Hermione first took the conventional view of Wharton as the older grande dame, but then worked with the fact that Wharton had started writing when young and had a long literary career.
  • When I asked her about Wharton’s literary legacy, she said that she would describe her as the ‘American Balzac’, with the same kind of penetrating social analysis and description of the upper class. But, she did not have a significant impact on the next generation of writers, because her popularity waned in her later career.
  • Her favourite Wharton novel is Custom of the Country.

Steve Toltz: Australian writer with exciting first novel

His newly released first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, is a 700-page epic that is being released in the US, UK and Australia. Steve came across as an engaging, self-deprecating author. He also had a greater interviewer, Malcolm Knox, who thought up unusual questions, interacted with the audience, and presented himself as a strong fan of the book.

  • He doesn’t believe in not reading others’ work while writing. Seeing what published writers were doing helped him work out where he ‘fit’. Some seminal influences on his writing include authors John Fontaine (not sure about who this is–the pioneer writer about deserts?), Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer), Raymond Chandler, Knut Hamsen (Hunger) and the Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, whose ‘extreme pessimism is extremely funny’.
  • He enjoyed using the label of writer in countries other than Australia. In some countries, calling yourself a writer is taken as a given, with no follow-up questions, such as ‘where have you published?’ It made life much easier, but after telling so many people that he was a writer, he decided he had to write something. He had written stories and other works for competitions.
  • While writing, he lived in different countries and undertook a number of dead-end jobs, i.e., ‘moving from the bottom rung of one ladder to the bottom rung of another’. One job was as a movie extra, which he called being a ‘warm prop’.
  • He gave a quote from someone: Writing is a way of talking without being interrupted.
  • If you’re telling the story of a shark, your point of view differs depending on if you’re a marine biologist or a person whose leg has been bitten off by a shark.
  • Vonnegut talks about writing as jumping off a cliff and growing wings on the way down. Steve had written two stories, which he thought would make a good beginning and a good end to a novel. Then he spent 4 years writing the middle, learning how to write as he went.
  • He got nowhere when he sent his manuscript to the agents/publishers of the authors he liked. Through a friend of a friend, he managed to get an author and a publisher. The process took 6 months.
  • In exploring his characters, he thought the main point is not so much how we should live, but how we should not live. He said we get to this answer by questioning.

Poetry Outloud: Forrest Gander, John Burnside, Deb Westbury, Mark O’Flynn, and Craig Billingham

Unfortunately, I missed this last session. Later, I had dinner with the writers who were staying at Varuna Writers’ House and by all accounts, it sounded like it had been a great finale to Day 1, reading and hearing poetry for an hour.

Some of the audience have commented that the Sydney Writers’ Festival has too much poetry in it this year. Although I currently do not write poems, I have always found poetry–at least good poetry–especially potent when read out loud. And poets get so few venues for their work to be noticed, compared with novelists, that I don’t begrudge them having more space on the festival program.

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