Sydney Writers’ Festival: Coming of Age

“I don’t write children’s books, my books just happen to be about children.”
– Sonya Hartnett

At the request of e-newsletter subscriber, Jessica, I woke up early – well, early for a university student – and made my way into the Sydney CBD for the 1p.m. Writers’ Festival session, Coming of Age featuring award-winning authors Sonya Hartnett and Craig Silvey, which was facilitated by Melanie Ostell.

As someone who sat through countless author visits in high school, I’ve always been wary about listening to authors give talks. Sometimes, they’re fantastic in front of a crowd, just as you’d imagined them, but sometimes, the author on the page is different to the author on the stage.

Thankfully, Hartnett and Silvey were every bit as engaging and entertaining as I thought they’d be. That’s not to say they were jumping around on stage in a showy, look-at-me-I’m-a-performer kind of way. They sat, relaxed, and carefully took turns in answering facilitator Melanie’s questions (and kudos to Melanie, she asked all the right questions). It was a very laid-back session, and it was so interesting to hear Sonya and Craig speak frankly (and with such wit) about their artistic processes, and the life experiences that inspired their latest works, Butterfly and Jasper Jones respectfully.

Jasper JonesCraig Silvey read from his Jasper Jones, and as a teen boy myself (for what? 9 more days…), I can tell you that he’s captured our verbal exchanges and attitudes expertly ([After spilling something in the living room] “He mops it up with a cushion”). Later in the session, after recounting a joke from the book which involved the hypothetical choice between living life wearing a hat made of with poisonous spiders or living life having each finger replaced with a certain male appendage, he remarked, matter-of-factly, “My book is deep,” and I knew, right then and there, that I’d be a life-long fan of his.

“Women come out looking pretty bad…”
– Melanie Ostell on Butterfly

ButterflyGirl politics features heavily in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, and when asked about teenage girls and their penchant for bitchery, Hartnett had some fun (“Sometimes you see it and you’re just like… ‘Arrghh, you little cretins.'”). She based the manuscript on the teen-girl relations she witnessed twenty years ago (when the novel is set). She gave the first draft to her fourteen-year-old neighbour, Matilda, and after finishing it, Matilda approached her and asked, “How did you know how the girls at [school’s name] acted?” So, clearly, nothing’s changed in the world of teen-girl relations. Hartnett joked that no-one ever admits to being the schoolyard bitch – grab one hundred middle-aged women and ask them, and they’ll all say they were the girls that suffered through high school. “Where do those girls go [after high school]? Do they just disappear?”

Melanie asked Craig for his thoughts, to which he replied, “I’m relieved I have a penis… [teen girl fights] seem like condensed Cold Wars”.

To steer the conversation to the subject of the session, coming of age, Melanie remarked, “Both books feature younger characters learning things they can’t fully understand… for many years to come.” The two were then invited to engage with the topic.

Sonya spoke frankly about her protagonist: “Plum’s a moron.” Cue the audience’s laughter. Then, she continued, “You’re not writing them, you’re writing to the reader. You’re saying, ‘Look, what is being learnt here?’ I’m not asking Plum to understand. At fourteen, no kid will understand what’s going on… The character is something through which you address the reader.”

Craig threw in his two cents, adding that coming of age isn’t necessarily becoming an adult. It’s something different. When you’re a teenager, you’re “a strange midget drunk living in a bubble” (his words), and the moment that bubble bursts, and you’re forced to see the world differently, and see the world through other people’s eyes, and you’ve become more empathetic, and leartn to distrust things, and created your own world-view, instead of just subscribing to others’ – that’s when you’ve come of age. Becoming an adult is simply aging, but becoming “of age” is earning that age through wisdom.

“People who read are the finest people in the world.”
– Craig Silvey

And he wasn’t just sucking up to ensure every member of the audience bought his book either. He went on to explain that readers come of age through the process of reading, and experiencing life through other people’s lenses.

So, go on. Get reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see Wendy Harmer.