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Day 2, Sydney Writers’ Festival, Katoomba

20 May, 2008

After yesterday’s session, then an evening dinner with the authors, I came to the 10am start of Day 2 with ‘conference lag’, like jet lag.

I was pleased to see that the used book sale attracted many customers. The books were ones I’d weeded out of the library at Varuna Writers’ House. Proceeds will be used to buy modern books, especially reference books and books about writing.

Today’s speakers were John Burnside from Scotland, and Australian writers Charlotte Wood, Jacqueline Kent, Toni Jordan, Vicki Hastrich and Camilla Noli. Again some random comments from the authors that I jotted down during the day. (And I hope I’m accurate!)

John Burnside

John Burnside is a Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer, and memoirist.

  • He talked about having worked in a steel mill, his early drinking (starting at 12) and mental illness, for which he was periodically hospitalised and on anti-psychotic drugs. Somehow, he said, he decided to make a responsible, normal life for himself instead of maintaining this ‘wildness’. For him, part of creating this normal life was becoming a computer programmer, but everything changed when he started to write poetry and had his first book published. When he talked at dinner last night, he described the making of gaskets, and how it was divided into women’s work and men’s work in the factory. I’m sure others had the same thought– how many brilliant minds are ‘lost’ because of the lack of opportunities or encouragement.
  • Talking about his most recent novel, The Devil’s Footprints, he said he liked to have his stories rooted in some old, simple story. In this case, he had read a story or news item about a seaside town where it had snowed, and the next morning the townspeople found a set of cloven hoof prints coming from the sea and going across the town. In creating this story, John wanted to establish a character who through his own fault ends up with nothing, a character who is not strong or charismatic. This character does something wrong–well, several things–and then exacts a penance upon himself. Through this, he learns to value the small acts in domesticity and work.
    Some audience members became upset when John and his interviewer started telling the whole plot. People yelled out, ‘Don’t tell us!’–but they did. Luckily, I’d already read the book. It seems rather bizarre to give away the whole story minutes before the usual post-talk book buying and signing. When I buy a book at a writers’ festival, it’s often because the author has withheld the mystery of the plot but said enough tantalising things about it that I need to know the whole story.
  • Artists should remind the powers that be that life is more complex than they want us to live it. The powers that be want us to see life in simple terms.
  • John started writing poetry, then set out to learn more about it. The poets who first made him want to write poetey included Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Octavio Paz.
  • You have to work with your personality type, i.e., you’re stuck with it and can’t get out of it. You can’t wear orange robes and chant–and suddenly be someone else. Accept that you’re not going to move on and become something completely different–because as you move on, you carry yourself with you.
  • Professionals want to intervene so we never suffer from depression, but it is natural for humans to be depressed.
  • His memoir, A Lie About My Father, sounds quite interesting, as John finds out more about his Dad’s difficult childhood.

Charlotte Wood, Australian novelist

Charlotte has written three novels. The ideas below were either Charlotte’s or from her interviewer, Tegan Bennett Daylight.

  • Charlotte starts by getting an idea for a character, and then she looks for things to surround and flesh out the character, an accretion of details.
    She also starts by thinking of major goals and minor ones. For her most recent book, her major goal was to write something about grown-up siblings who were raised in a country town. This goal functioned as a ‘back of the room’ theme, based on the question, ‘What are families for’? Then she developed smaller goals within this framework.
  • Charlotte is interested in what is not said, how sometimes what is talked about is not what’s important, how you can write a scene that appears to be about one thing but it’s about another.
  • She said it’s great to find a novel where someone is writing about the inexpressibility of life, where you read someone who articulates something for you. For example, Australian writer Joan London, Richard Ford (Lay of the Land) and William Maxim(?). Her current ‘good read’ is Wallace Stegner.
  • She is researching the issue of the ethics when writers ‘borrow’ or take details from people’s lives. The author, Susie Orbach, calls this ‘robbing a person of the richness of who they are’. Charlotte recounted her experience of talking to a boring man, who lectured her on screw-top wine bottles. She flet she could not use this experience herself because it was too close. Perhaps it felt too much like ‘robbing’ him. But she was happy to give the idea to Tegan, given that for Tegan it was a second-hand scene that she could work on in a fresh way.
  • A writer needs resistances in life, things to write against.
  • Sometimes the best writing is about the hardest stuff.
  • What is fiction? It is getting into that space of things you can’t talk about.
  • As you write scenes, as they accumulate, you get to know how your character feels about life.
  • Intimate writing is close writing, not just close attention to plot but reliance on the slow accumulation of detail.
  • You become a writer because you keep bloody noticing things.

Jacqueline Kent, Australian biographer

Jacqueline is the author of two social histories and six books of YA fiction. Her biography about Beatrice Davis won the National Biography Award.

Her latest biography is about the life of Hephzibah Menuhin, the sister of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Hephzibah married an Australian and lived here after WWI for a time, before leaving her husband and moving to England. Jacqueline is an enchanting speaker who tells a good yarn about her subject. The hour allotted to her talk passed quickly. During the discussion, two unrelated members of the audience indicated that they had attended the final Australian concert of the Menuhins in Australia in the late 1970s. One audience member could top that–she’d visited Hephzibah in London in 1975 and met Yehudi–but didn’t know who he was. Small world!

  • You need to like your subject at least a little because the person will be in your head for five years.

Toni Jordan, Vicki Hastrich, and Camilla Noli

The last session was called, Writing Obsessions: New Australian Fiction. It was an interesting and unified discussion because all three authors had created obsessed characters.

  • Toni Jordan’s first novel, the recently published Addition, has been sold into 10 countries. The story is about a character who adds up everything as a way of living in the everyday world and keeping the demons at bay. Given that description, it was a surprise to find that the novel is hilarious–or at least the part that Toni read out. Toni says that when she speaks about her book at literary events, members of the audience tell her about their own obsession with numbers. I’m more numbers-adverse so it’s hard to imagine counting things for fun or for peace of mind.
  • Vicki Hastrich’s recent second novel is about someone obsessed with the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I could not get into her first novel, Swimming with Jellyfish, but the discussion about this one, The Great Arch, makes me want to read it. Her starting point in wanting to write the story was when she discovered a book that a clergyman had written about the Harbour Bridge–an eccentric account of engineering details, such as the composition of all the bolts used. The book Vicki found was volume 1, but no volume 2 was ever published. She was intrigued with the story of the kind of person who would amass and record so much information. But she wanted to write a fictional account, not a biography. And so she did. This is the second time I’ve heard Vicki speak and she always impresses with her practical, but in-depth thinking about her writing choices.
  • Camilla Noli’s first novel, Still Waters, concerns a woman whose impulses war against the commonplace view that mothers naturally take care of their helpless children. Instead, she finds motherhood ‘devouring’. It sounds like a thoughtful but confronting read.
  • It’s valuable to write from the point of being interested in ordinariness–but bring out the extraordinariness contained in this ordinariness.

The trio discussed point of view. Toni said her book was short because it would have been hard to sustain anything longer when writing in first person and present tense. Camilla’s book is written in first person as well, which adds to the story’s intimate and repressive quality. The interviewer talked about how readers are ‘locked’ inside her character’s world, in part by the first-person POV. Vicki used third-person, which enabled her to create a well-rounded sense of the main character, given that others could comment on him

With that session over, the Katoomba part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival ended. As we filed out, the hotel staff were already stacking up the chairs and dismantling the stage. All in all, it was a delightful two days, with a pleasant variety of speakers, much wit and humour, and some insights in the mysteries of the writing process. Congratulations to Varuna Writers’ House, one of the sponsors, for organising a thought-provoking and entertaining program.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marsha permalink
    28 May, 2008 10:19 pm

    Hi Angela,
    I too was taken by the idea of using a traditional or supernatural story as a base for exploring a plot or a character.
    I enjoy your blog–many unusual ideas that others aren’t writing about.


  2. 28 May, 2008 7:02 pm

    Thank you for blogging about John Burnside … it is so confirming to hear a writer talk about a transition from madness through poetry and a love of the old traditional tales – the cloven hooves through the snow. For these are the things that fill me with hope about our characters, our natures, and illuminate them too.


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