Writing Super Hero

American PsychoI realise it’s odd that I haven’t blogged about the three sessions at which I saw Bret Easton Ellis at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, especially given that he was one of the primary reasons for me forking out the cash for a ticket and hitting the road. The truth is, I haven’t completely grasped the sessions, much less known what to write.

I went down with the very real fear that the writer to whom I’ve long looked up would not meet my pre- or potentially ill-conceived notions. I mean, he’s only human, but in my obsession with his writing genius I may have built Ellis up to writing super hero status. Certainly the media has painted him as the poster child for, well, lots of culture-slamming, disaffected-youth, violence-promoting stuff. But really, who knew what to expect from the writer who’s built his career skewering the west’s and youths’ empty and ultimately doomed fascination with consumerism?

The first session was an intimate in-conversation set-up with The Book Show’s Ramona Koval. Now, this isn’t a Koval-bashing blog, but I will say that I’m really not a fan. She’s a woman of a certain age and reading taste (and I’d argue that she’s also been doing the job for too long and is completely over it), and Blind Freddy could have seen that she was going to be a complete interviewing mismatch for Ellis.

Just how wrong, though, was pretty shocking to those of us who’d paid good money for this session in addition to our festival tickets. I won’t go into gory details here, but you can podcast or listen to an excerpt of the session on The Book Show. Long story short, Koval opened with a long and literary question and Ellis answered it with the words: ‘Delta Goodrem’.

It seems he’d seen a Goodrem music video here and, knowing nothing else of her history, tweeted that she was hot. He didn’t expect the passionate, mixed response he got to that and waxed lyrical about how Australians have a really warped, love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Goodrem.

It wasn’t the answer Koval was after and the interview took a kind of train wreck turn for the worse, with Koval getting all school teacher meets grandmother trying to pull Ellis into line and Ellis allowing himself to be anything but.

I came away disliking Koval more than ever before, but also a little less keen on Ellis. Sure, as the author of such titles as American Psycho, he couldn’t have been a completely compliant interviewee—the man’s got an authority-bucking reputation to uphold, after all. But I wanted to like him and I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say—unfortunately the Delta Goodrem joke was funny in the first instance, but less so as he repeatedly returned to it.

What I came to understand as the festival progressed, however, and what a few weeks of musings have helped me cement, is that despite appearing a seasoned (potentially hardened) industry professional, Ellis is a very humble, quite fallible human at heart. Quite incredibly, in spite of 25-odd years in the business, Byron was his first ever writers’ festival appearance.

And he was nervous.

It’s hard enough speaking about your work to a room full of people when you’re starting out, but potentially doubly so when you’ve already made it and are expected to be all over this stuff. Ellis had 25 years’ weight of expectation on his shoulders when he sat in front of a microphone on a stage in packed tents. Everyone expected him to both know what he was doing and to have something intelligent and articulate and incredibly insightful to say about his writing.

The issue was that he isn’t that type of writer. He’s a guy who is compelled to write and who can’t explain the—as Koval kept asking him—‘whys’ of his work. He doesn’t—and can’t—analyse it academically, and any attempt to do so makes him uncomfortable. Which is why Koval got him offside and ‘off message’ with her eight-questions-in-one literary-focused questions.

But here’s the thing. Ellis did have extraordinarily intelligent and insightful things to say about his work or the industry as a whole—he just needed to be asked straight-up, straightforward, not-too-serious questions. And when he was asked those, he answered with great aplomb and humour.

I laughed out loud when he talked of how the media constructed this mythical writing ‘Brat Pack’, as if they all got in a car and travelled together in a group at all times. I laughed even harder when he said that rather than being upset about the fact that American Psycho is sold in shrink wrap in Australia (as his publishers thought he would be), he thinks it’s ‘cute’.

It was those candid comments, his laughter in the face of trite cling-wrapped censorship, and his real-life anecdotes about the industry and about what it’s like to be a writer (padding about home alone working and occasionally catching up with friends for beers) that I found the most entertaining and memorable.

And that is perhaps what I loved and now love even more about Ellis—he’s a regular guy (which includes being prone to nerves), he’s a real writer, he doesn’t take the industry or himself too seriously, and he has brilliant and witty things to say if we stop trying to put literary, analytical words in his mouth. Upon a second listening of the now-infamous in-conversation session with Koval, I hear all that. And I officially love Ellis, my writing super hero, more than ever before.

The ‘Just Right’ Festival

Fatima BhuttoIt’s held annually less than three hours’ drive from my doorstep, but for some reason I hadn’t made a pilgrimage to the Byron Bay Writers Festival. Until this year, when I bit the bullet and signed on for a three-day pass. Admittedly the carrots of Fatima ‘I don’t believe in birthright politics. I don’t think, nor have I ever thought, that my name qualifies me for anything’ Bhutto, whose writing, familial, and political connections intrigue me, and Bret Easton Ellis, he of Less Than Zero, Glamorama, and American Psycho fame had a lot to do with it. But, just one day into the fest, I’m so incredibly glad that I finally made it down and so incredibly mad at myself for not making it before.

Writers’ festivals both soothe and inspire me. I feel at home surrounded by like-minded people and love that I have an excuse to discuss nothing but books, reading, and writing for hours or days on end. Sometimes, though, I can find the crowd sizes, crush, and sheer logistics of getting from tent to tent overwhelming.

Less Than ZeroBut like Goldilocks trying on writers’ festivals for size, I think I’ve found the one for me. With four main tents and a smattering of food venues within a contained area and distance that enables you to duck between them as you try to catch sessions running concurrently, I think the Byron Bay Writers Festival size is just right. The location and set-up is quaint and intimate, the crowds not too large, and the food, which includes spinach and ricotta ‘snake’ pastries and eggplant and feta balls with parsley mayonnaise, is heavenly.

There’s also writing-related artwork in the form of a kind of tower of books and a chair made from letters, both of which I officially want for my house. And even though I’ve come down by myself with little planning and no broadcasting of the fact, I’ve run into and caught up with lots of people I know. Couple that with some random conversations struck up with strangers over a shared interest in an author or session and plans to get to the lighthouse and the beach tomorrow and I’m wondering what’s to date kept me away.

GlamoramaOf course, topping the list of perks is that I’ve caught one of my favourite ever authors (Bret Easton Ellis) and discovered two whom I think might quickly become one (Susan Maushart and one whose name I didn’t catch but who replaced the last-minute drop-out Bhutto)—both of which I’ll be blogging about in coming days. If you’re in Byron, near Byron, or can get to Byron at short notice, there are two days left of the festival. I wholly recommend coming on down and trying it on for size.

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.