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Why Attend a Writers’ Festival?

23 May, 2013
Atrophaneura varuna astorion

Atrophaneura varuna astorion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 2013 Varuna-Sydney Writers’ Festival finished Tuesday night. As chair of the Varuna board, I was on tap to answer festival goers’ questions and greet our authors, but I still managed to attend all the sessions.

Many literary festivals have become behemoth events. Varuna has not. All presentations take place in the large dining room at the magnificent Carrington Hotel, built in 1882. Having 200 people in one room, all listening to the same session,  promotes a sense of literary camaraderie and enjoyable discussions amongst listeners.

Why attend a writers’ festival? It offers a fantastic way to discover new writers. You are confronted with new and different ideas, from the philosophical to the writing-technical. You have the opportunity to discuss issues with others in the audience, or with the writers themselves. And, like the varuna butterflies pictured on the left, you can flit to whatever interests you, drink ideas on offer, and discover new, nourishing books and authors.

Varuna provided its audience with a great line-up of talent this year.

  • Michelle de Kretser, one of our most respected, award-winning writers, discussed her new novel, Questions of Travel. She explores thorny issues, such as who gets to travel, why people choose or are forced to travel, and how guidebooks both help and hinder our travelling experiences.
  • Geordie Williamson is a major literary critic as well as a member of the local Blue Mountains Council.  In The Burning Library,  he discusses Aussie authors and books that have been almost forgotten.
  • Three young debut novelists, grouped under the heading, Landscapes of Love and Loss, read from their new work. Berndt Sellheim: Beyond the Frame’s Edge. Yvette Walker:  Letters to the End of Love. Jessie Cole: Darkness on the Edge of Town, shortlisted in major literary competitions.
  • Helen Trinca’s Madeleine: A life of Madeleine St Johnrefers to the first Australian woman shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Trinca is  managing editor of  The Australian. I especially liked hearing how she searched for information, and I admired her ethical stance when delving into someone’s life.
  • American Cheryl Strayed talked about her best-selling memoir, Wild. Her view that she could not write this account earlier says something about letting life-changing experiences ‘age’ properly.
  • Hugh Mackay, the famed social commentator, discussed his latest book, The Good Life,  about engaging meaningfully with others.
  • Anne Summers, famed social commentator and feminist, discussed her new book, The Misogyny Factor. The book details how powerful women, especially in politics, are pilloried by the press, male politicians, political cartoonists etc.
  • Three novelists discussed their new work. Jesse Blackadder’s historical fiction, Chasing the Light, about the first women adventurers in Antarctica. Local author Mark O’Flynn’s The Forgotten World, a comic account of a forgotten encampment here in the mountains.  Julienne van Loon‘s novella, Harmless, about a journey, with a modern interpretation of Buddhist stories.
  • Ramona Koval, famous as the past presenter of the popular (but now defunct) radio program, The Book Show, has written a memoir, By the Book. An engaging speaker, she talked about being the child of two Holocaust survivors, growing up in Australia, and her love of reading.
  • Dermot Healy, Irish poet, novelist, and playwright, read from his novel, Long Time, No See. It has all the quirkiness, magic, and intimacy often found in Irish works. And hearing it read with an Irish accent was particularly charming.
  •  I enjoyed hearing three writers discuss the short story form. Georgia Blain: The Secret Lives of Men. Cate KennedyLike a House on Fire. Josephine Rowe:  Tarcutta Wake.
  • Local writer Jane Skelton launched her debut short fiction collection, Lives of the Dead. The event was sponsored by the publisher, Spineless Wonders, which specialises in short fiction and electronic (spineless) delivery.
  • I enjoyed the panel session of writers who had contributed their migration stories to the new anthology, With Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home. The comments gave me an insight into my feelings about a step I took years ago, to be part of Australia.
  • Another highlight was having a seat on the ‘poetry bus’ to Jenolan Caves, where a poetry reading was held in a large cave. Poets: Sandy Holmes, Philip Hammial, David Brooks, Bronwyn Lea, Aboriginal Australian Lionel Fogarty, Kate Fagan, Irish Dermot Healy, and American Devin Johnston.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 May, 2013 11:31 am

    My favourite quote from the festival was from Cheryl Strayed, who in answer to a question about why it had taken so long for her to get around to writing “Wild” said: “I needed to apprentice myself to the craft”.


    • 23 May, 2013 1:51 pm

      Yes, that was a great one. I liked her comment about two categories of journey/challenge memoirs’: 1) Action–‘look at me, I put myself through something’ and 2) Action that transformsw–‘I did X and it changed me.

      A good example is from short films I saw last night, from the Banff Mountain Film Festival. A couple were focused on the ‘doing’–biking, longboarding, etc. It was all about adrenalin and risks but, at least for me, they offered little engagement. The best one, Reel Rock 7, provided a comprehensive account of the personality and physical feats of a young guy who rock climbs–without a rope. So much more memorable because I learned more about his personality, values, interests–and how his exploits were transforming for him.


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