Big Stories at Brisbane Writers Festival 2017

Brisbane Writers Festival has had a new lease of life with the appointment of CEO and Artistic Director, Zoe Pollock for the festival’s 55th anniversary. The festival was about “The big stories – and the little ones in between” and the biggest story of them all was probably the recognition of Indigenous literature and creators, particularly the tenth anniversary of Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentaria, which won the Miles Franklin award. This was uniquely celebrated as an immersive dramatic and visual performance inside “Angel’s Palace”, a specially constructed “art-tent”, designed by Gordon Hookey.

The opening address was given by Alec Doomadgee, who spoke about “Indigenous knowledge creation”. He showed excerpts from his seminal film Zach’s Ceremony. Alec said that “reading books gives you a real history of the country you’re in”. He uses the arts and culture to tell stories and create change and urged us all to go away and do something for change. My family has something planned …

I was fortunate to moderate a panel session about “Connecting to Place” which explored how three authors create place as a character (or not – as we discovered) in their stories.

Melissa Lukashenko spoke about the significance of land in her beautifully written, award-winning novel Mullumbimby. Ashley Hay let us look inside a special Brisbane house, peopled over time by two vulnerable women whose lives interconnect. Her novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, has just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards. Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, Skylarking, was one of my best books of 2016 for the Weekend Australian. It is set on a windswept, isolated cape and is a fine piece of writing about friendship between two young women. Kate is destined for big things in the literary world if she continues to write at such a high level.

I also attended a session about the Australian book industry, “Published in Oz”. It was exciting to hear how writing and reading is the biggest art form that people engage with in Australia. 20% of Australians attend a book event annually and Australia has the highest per capita attendance at writers’ festivals in the world. Reading books is the number 1 favourite leisure activity of Australians. Double the number of Australians enjoy reading books to attending sporting events, playing video games or other pursuits. Australia also has the world’s top independent bookseller market.

Another enlightening session was a workshop for adults on visual literacy by James Foley. He has illustrated Sigi Cohen’s, My Dead Bunny, The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and other books.

The BWF also hosted “Word Play” an outstanding program for young people. My highlight was hearing Wendy Orr, author of the Nim’s Island series (the genesis of the movies), Peeling the Onion and the masterful historical fantasy based on the Minoan myths of bull-dancing, Dragonfly Song. This novel has also just been shortlisted for the Queensland Literary awards.

Thanks to the organisers of the 2017 BWF and to those involved. There was a very special buzz in Brisbane.

In A State Of Wonder

State of WonderUntil recently, Ann Patchett was for me one of those authors who name is familiar but whose work I’d never read. She was also one of those authors everyone seemed to assume I knew lots about.

She came out to the recent Brisbane Writers Festival (which I missed as I was overseas), and lots of well-read friends breathlessly stated both that they were going to see her and then, afterwards, that she was simply magic.

I composed my blank ‘I know exactly what you mean, when actually I don’t know at all’ face and nodded sagely, then scurried off to order myself one of her books.

Now I not only no longer have to do the ‘look like you’re in the know’ face while madly thinking ‘don’t let on you don’t’. Fittingly, given my ass-about-ness, I unwittingly ordered her recently released book, State of Wonder (probably because I didn’t know enough about her and this title sprang to mind; probably because it was the new book she was here to spruik and it had popped up in promo material).

No matter. It was exquisite (I’m trying to resist saying ‘it left me in a state of wonder’) and, if it’s anything to go by, her award-winning first book, Bel Canto, is doubly so.

That’s effectively one of the highest accolades I can give a fiction book, given my seriously non-fiction bent. I was rapt from the first paragraph of the first page, which opens with the following simple, highly visual, scene-setting sentences that immediately set the book’s tone and that throw us squarely into the middle of the story:

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things?

This single sheet had travelled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

‘What?’ she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, ‘It’s snowing.’

Bel CantoTruthfully, State of Wonder was a book that both inspired and destroyed me simultaneously as I marvelled at Patchett’s simple-yet-flooring turns of phrase. I did wonder how much of it poured directly and perfectly formed from her head and onto the page/computer screen. I also wondered whether I’d ever be capable of something so simply sophisticated and compelling. Methinks not.

I had to stop dog-earing pages that contained sentences that blew me away because I’d have to dog-ear every page. One example includes:

At that moment she understood why people say You might want to sit down. There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.

Doesn’t seem quite so impressive on its own, but when you collate it with pages and page and pages of such understated elegance it’s, well, both awe-inspiring and a little depressing.

The long and the short of State of Wonder is that a doctor developing a fertility drug in the depths of the Brazilian jungle goes AWOL. The drug company she’s contracted to send another doctor to go find her. He winds up dead and yet another doctor is dispatched to find out what happened, bring him home, and also establish where the drug development is at.

That synopsis doesn’t do the tale justice, and Patchett has woven both a complex narrative of many overlapping, ultimately unveiling layers. Perhaps most fascinating is how she has created believable characters whose actions and motivations morph with such perfection that, rather than adhering to the stereotypes of the two-dimensional baddie and the untainted goodie, they subtly get under your skin and you find yourself admiring, understanding, being frustrated by, despising, and also liking them in equal measure.

Where State of Wonder sits in Patchett’s finger-flexing of her talents I don’t know. It will take me reading her other books to find out. But if State of Wonder is anything to go by, the others—especially the award-winning Bel Canto—are going to be magic.

Interview With Maggie Stiefvater

ShiverThe opportunity to interview young-adult-fiction writer Maggie Stiefvater was an opportunity too good to pass up. I’ve recently been introduced to her books by my friend and fellow writer Kate Armstrong. I figured who better then to help me interview Stiefvater (read: come up with intelligent questions) than her?

I’ve popped Kate’s questions and Stiefvater’s answers below and highly recommend that you both pick up one or all of Stiefvater’s books and catch her while she’s touring the country. This week she’s at the Brisbane Writers Festival and I’m gutted not to be in town to hear her speak in person…

You’ve got a lot of what some would call ‘dark themes’ in your books involving swearing and nudity and consumption of live meat (to name a few). How do you decide how far to push the dark-theme envelope in your writing? And do you think it’s important to include life’s darker side in stories for teens?

The young adult audience is an interesting and rewarding one to write for. Teens are clever and sophisticated readers; I would never ‘dumb down’ my writing for them. As both a reader and a writer, I love my stories to have extremes: very beautiful bits, but also very dark bits to make the beautiful parts shine more brightly.

LingerIs this for every reader? No. But the young adult shelf these days is filled with every flavour of novel out there, and it’s easy for a teen reader—like an adult reader—to find options that fit their comfort level. In short? I don’t hold back. If the story demands it, it’s going in.

As an avid follower of your blog [read: Kate is, but I’m signing up now], I’ve noticed how much time and energy you devote to connecting with your fans. Why is reaching out to readers important to you? And how do you keep it from swallowing you whole?

First of all, I love to write and blog. I’ve had a blog continuously since March 2006, when I began blogging as an artist. It’s great to feel like you’re not working in a vacuum, and having relied on so many author blogs for inspiration during my writing journey, it’s nice to feel like I can be a part of that for other aspiring writers.

It definitely needs to have boundaries, of course, and I’ve suffered quite a lot of growing pains over the years. I’ve gone from having a few thousand hits on my blog a year to over a million, and it means that sometimes I can’t answer every comment any more—a strange and agonising conundrum.

ForeverWhat’s the most interesting fan present you’ve ever received?

I’ve received some pretty darn interesting fan presents. My favourite, however, was a reader who gave me a copy of her favourite novel (other than mine, she was quick to say). It was personal without being creepy and it was a pretty good book to boot!

You’ve commented on your blog that you’ve been surprised by the way readers have bonded with some of your characters. If you could have real-life relationships with some of your characters, who would you be most likely to:

  • be best friends with? James from Ballad
  • get romantically involved with (in a reality where you were single and teenaged)? I don’t date characters. Strict policy.
  • Have heated arguments with? Isabel from Linger

You’ve done a lot of travelling in the last few years promoting your books. How has exploring new places inspired or informed your writing?

Oh, definitely. Life in general informs my writing and so travelling invariably works its way in. There are references to my journeys that I’m sure a very intent reader would see. My latest book (coming out 2012) bears a Ned Kelly reference from my time here in Australia.

What drives your storytelling: a recurring image, a particular character, a theme, a message you want to put out into the universe, or all/none of the above?

Usually the reason why a book cries out for me to write it is because of a central mood or feeling; then plot and characters and theme wander in, generally in that order. Really, it’s like when you go to a movie theatre: you don’t say, ‘I feel like watching a movie with a man embodying his personal demons in order to overcome them as he fights crime in the form of a bat.’ You just say ‘I feel like watching some character-driven action movie!’ That’s how it feels for me. I know what SORT of book I want to write, but not always what it’s about at first.

There are so many reasons why authors say they write. But what is it that really compels you to write, and in the genre that you do?

It’s subconscious, whatever it is. I have to tell stories. When I don’t write them out, I dream them. It’s just who I am. And as for the magic? It’s what I love to read, so it’s what I love to write.

This one’s for avid aspiring writers everywhere: if you could give one piece of writerly advice, what would it be?

Write the book you wish you could find on the shelf, but can’t.

Writers often say that their characters like to take on minds of their own and act as they see fit, with or without the writer’s permission. Have you found any particular characters challenging to work with in this regard? Or have they all been well behaved?

I’m a firm believer that writers should be in control of their own novels. I don’t like to get sentimental about writing or imagine there is a muse exerting influence outside of me. I will say, however, that when I’ve done my job well and I’ve brainstormed and immersed myself in the world of my novel, that I can sort of step outside my body and let my subconscious push the characters forward. I suppose it could feel like the characters are driving the action, but really, it’s the mental groundwork I’ve already done sweeping the novel to its logical conclusion. It’s dreaming the story, but while you’re awake. And that, to me, is pretty magical.

The Scorpio RacesStiefvater is appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival and touring throughout Australia. I’ve read her first book in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series, Shiver, and am heading home from China soon to read the next two, Linger and Forever.

Her next book, The Scorpio Races, will be released in October, so I should just about be up to date with the other books. Huge thanks to Kate Armstrong for helping out (read: coming up with) the questions. I’m looking forward to writing about her just-published book and book tour on here one day.

This Isn’t A Blog Encouraging You To Rush Out And Buy His Books

Deer Hunting With JesusI’m pretty cynical about the interest in an author immediately following their death—I find it tasteless, especially when retail stores quickly order in stock and set up a display to capitalise on that short-lived interest—so I’m fairly reluctant to be writing a blog about Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting With Jesus and Rainbow Pie.

But then I’ve spent the last few days thinking about Bageant almost non-stop since his death a week ago. I wasn’t aware he had been unwell (apparently he’d been battling cancer for the last four months). Nor was I aware that the 2010 Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) would be the last time I saw him.

I first discovered Bageant via the affable, insightful interviewer Richard Fidler, whose ABC Radio show is my first-downloaded, first-listened-to podcast each week day. My brother and father heard the same podcast and we haven’t stopped rabbiting on about Bageant (and Fidler too, for that matter) ever since. Bageant is that kind of writer—once you encounter him and his work, your outlook on the world is never quite the same.

I might have earned a reputation as a book thief, but I chuckled when my brother bought my father Bageant’s most recent book, Rainbow Pie, ‘for his birthday’ and then promptly ‘borrowed’ it back. The book hasn’t made it back to my father yet and we all know and are amused that it won’t. Fortunately he’s a fast reader and managed to inhale its words before my brother snarfooed it. For the record, I reckon that every book my brother steals from my parents is a book I’m entitled to steal from him—it’s karma and simply balancing the book-thieving scales.

Rainbow PieBut I digress. I can’t claim to have known Bageant personally, or any more than any fan of his work can. But I exchanged a brief few words with him after his session at the BWF which have stayed with me. I was sitting reading a book between sessions, soaking up with warm, spring sun when I saw him heading towards me. I smiled, made eye contact in that you-don’t-know-me-but-I-know-you way and, when he was close by, said, ‘I really enjoyed your session’.

He smiled widely, nodded, and said ‘Thank you very much’ in his gentle, Southern drawl. I went back to my book and he continued on his way. He reappeared a few minutes later to ask me for directions to the taxi rank—he’d lost his bearings and I was happy to be able to help out. He thanked me again, we exchanged some laughing remarks about how easy it is to get distracted by the surroundings of the beautiful State Library of Queensland and Gallery of Modern Art, and he headed off to catch a cab.

They were two small moments, and ones that he probably subsequently forgot, but that left me simultaneously excited and humbled. I didn’t gush or convey in those two moments how great a hero he was to me—how through him I’d gained an appreciation for the true origins of America’s so-called ‘rednecks’ and how they aren’t stupid, but rather are trapped by a complex machinery of capitalism and other, difficult-to-discern factors. Nor did I say I also admired his charity work in Mexico, his incisive intellect and wit, and his utter lack of pretence. But I hope I conveyed some sense of how much his work had inspired me.

This isn’t a blog encouraging you to rush out and buy his books (and, as you’ll have noted by now, it’s absent of its normally tongue-in-cheek style), but it is a blog asking you to consider reading them at some stage (and if you happen to want to buy them, that’s ok too). Were he writing this blog, I’m sure Bageant would end it with a laconic observation that cuts through to the heart of a matter and frames it in a perspective-changing way. Me? I’ll simply say that his death is a tragedy and that a read and a re-read of his books is worthwhile.

Your Dress Is Tucked Into Your Underpants

Day three of the Brisbane Writers Festival saw me sitting on a panel. I know, a mention beforehand would have been handy for those of you keen to heckle, but I was so incredibly nervous I didn’t tell anyone. Not even my mum. She found out about 9pm last night and changed her plans to come down and offer moral support. And I’m kind of glad she did.

After AmericaAs far as I know, the panel went well. At least, I hope it went well—the whole thing is a bit of a blur of anxiety-meets-adrenalin and the couple of friends who were there were under strict instructions to give me hand signals to say ‘slow down’, ‘you’re not making sense’, and ‘your dress is tucked into the back of your underpants’. You know, the gestures that are required when all those public speaking horrors are realised. Often all at once.

But the audience seemed interested, the other panellists were fantastic, and I got a few laughs and a few questions—neither of which I was expecting. The panel was entitled Twittering, Pinging, Poking, Facebooking: The World of New Media. My co-panellists were the esteemed John Birmingham, of He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, Weapons Of Choice, and After America fame, and Chinese writer Mian Mian, famous both because her book, Candy, which focuses on the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll of post-Mao China, was banned there for 10 years, and because she sued Google for scanning her book without permission. My expertise, obviously, was in blogging (this blog is one of five I regularly write).

Weapons of ChoiceAs my first time on the other side of the writers’ festival microphone, it was simultaneously terrifying, exhilarating, and incredibly humbling. I’d love to recount the witty repartee that I participated in, but trying to recall is like trying to catch clouds. I do know there was some mention of the woman who put the cat in the bin in the UK last week, who is now being mocked with a viral spoof that involves someone dressed up as Sylvester the cat putting a human in a bin. I do know I managed to talk about how I think hardcovers are outdated and should be rendered obsolete (for the record, most people agreed with me). And I do know I managed to get in a mention of the Hot Guys Reading Books blog I’ve previously blogged about.

I also know that I managed to make it through the session coherently, at an understandable pace, and that there were no dress-tucked-into-underpants incidents. At least, none that I’m aware of. Thanks to those of you who came to support and heckle—both were much appreciated.

Festival Of The Book

Imperial BedroomsHighlighters and pens ready? Check. Reading positions selected? Check. Sleep caught up? Er, who needs sleep?

The launch today of the Brisbane Writers Festival program, coupled with the fact that the Byron Bay and Melbourne Writers Festivals’ programs are already out, means that we are officially entering the festivals of the book, writer, and reader.

Which means that I am madly highlighting, circling, and agonising over which sessions to attend when. And which session to attend when there is a clash, as there invariably regularly is at such high-calibre events.

For booklovers, be they readers or writers or both, writing festivals are akin to annual religious pilgrimages, with enlightenment found courtesy of the authors and panels.

The festivals are also likely to clean out our bank accounts, with book-buying fiends such as myself best frisked for our weapons-of-choice credit cards on the way through. Nothing short of confiscation or cutting up of credit cards will prevent me from (legitimately—I only steal from family) obtaining the books of the authors whose stories (and stories behind stories) the festival unveils.

This means, of course, that my mini mountain of un-read books doubles in size. But so too—if it’s at all possible—does my desire to take the phone off the hook, take the internet offline, and to hunker down and read.

American PsychoI’m excited every year by the festival line-ups, but this year I’m particularly stoked as two of my long-time favourite writers are heading down under. Bret Easton Ellis, he of the likes of American Psycho, Less Than Zero, and the freshly minted Imperial Bedrooms, which is currently in transit to me courtesy of this online bookstore (see, that credit card again—and the festivals haven’t even started) is making his first trip to Australia courtesy of the Byron Bay Writers Festival.

Meanwhile Joss Whedon, the genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more recently The Dollhouse, will be packing out the Melbourne Town Hall on the first night of the Melbourne Writers Festival. I say packing out because his session has already sold out—I missed out on a ticket, am completely gutted, and am very seriously wondering what Eliza Dusku’s Dollhouse character Echo would do to get herself in there were she me…

Regardless of whether I manage to make it in to see Whedon (thankfully I at least have a ticket for Easton Ellis), nothing quite matches the buzz I get from writers’ festivals. I’ll be blogging about the sessions I attend at each of them, kicking off with the cosy Byron Bay.

I have highlighters and pens ready to plan out the session logistics. I am testing out the best reading positions as I read authors’ back catalogues in preparation. Sadly the two former mean that the latter—catching up on or stockpiling sleep—is impossible. But when it comes to writers’ festivals, I’ll take the two out of three.

A plea from the Brisbane Writers’ Festival team

The following message was just received from the Brisbane Writers’ Festival:

As 2009 rolls on and everyone here in the office is happily dreaming and planning for September, we spare a thought for all those who have experienced destruction and loss in North Queensland and Victoria.  In a time when so many feel heart ache we here at BWF have joined forces with our 2008 partners Clayton Utz Lawyers on a special project, and would greatly appreciate your help.

Together with Clayton Utz Lawyers we are currently collecting children’s books for an anonymous women’s refuge here in Brisbane.  In a secure location this organisation provides safe and nurturing accommodation for women and children who are experiencing domestic violence.  Women and children who arrive are traumatised and uncertain about their future.

With this in mind, at the beginning of March we are going to send the refuge as many as books for children aged 15 years and under. We seek your assistance in whatever hope and joy these books may bring into their lives. If you would like to help, please send any of your pre-loved or freshly purchased children/young adult books to the office (details below), by the 27th of February 2009.

Deliver books to:
 Brisbane Writers Festival
12 Merivale Street
South Brisbane QLD 4101
Post books to:
 Attn: Charis Holt
Brisbane Writers Festival
PO Box 3453
South Brisbane QLD 4101

BWF is happy and proud to be working with you, our supporters, and Clayton Utz Lawyers to bring hope and joy to the lives of others. 

From the bottom of our hearts we say thank you!

All the best,
the BWF Team.