SWF Wrap Up: ‘Going Home’ with Debra Jopson, Beth Yaph and Adam Aitken

A comment that this session ‘Going Home: Belonging, Family and Food’ at the SWF was “up there with some of the most stimulating sessions I attended at the festival” summed up the quality of the discussion and the engagement of the audience at this sold-out session with Debra Jopson, Beth Yahp and Adam Aitken. The Sydney-based authors on this panel were a pleasure to facilitate.

Their latest books could almost be described as political histories even though two are memoirs and one is a novel. They are full of journeys, fascinating facts, family and sensory depictions of home and place. Perhaps surprisingly, they are as much about Australia as they are about Lebanon, Malaysia and Thailand.

OliverDebra Jopson is a journalist. She’s been an investigative reporter, focusing on social and Aboriginal issues. She has won the prestigious Walkley award for journalism and Human Rights Commission honours.

There’s been lots of media interest in Debra’s debut novel, Oliver of the Levant which draws on Debra’s experiences of living in Beirut for two years as a young adult during the start of the civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s.

Her protagonist Oliver is a multifaceted 15 year old who desperately seeks a parent to love him and give him boundaries.

He runs wild in Beirut.

His attempts to romance an older Lebanese girl and his fascination with making bombs have explosive consequences.

Eat FirstBeth Yaph grew up in Malaysia and lived in Paris for five years, as well as in Australia. She’s part Thai, part Chinese and part Eurasian but even that’s not an completely accurate description of her heritage.

She studied Communications at UTS and has worked as an editor and teacher of creative writing at university level. She is an accomplished presenter, formerly hosting a travel program on ABC Radio National.

I first knew of Beth’s work through her novel The Crocodile Fury and her interest in music, explored in her memoir, has been showcased by the libretto she wrote, Moon Spirit Feasting.

Her memoir Eat First, Talk Later describes a road trip with her elderly parents trying to retrace their honeymoon trip. There are many diversions along the way – literal changes of direction – as well as diversions into the near past of Beth’s childhood and further back into her parents’ youth and the history of Malaysia.

AitkenFC_grandeAdam Aitken also has a fascinating heritage.

His Australian father worked in advertising and became a landscape architect and gardener.

His Australian grandfather was a soldier.

His mother was a beauty and university student from Bangkok.

His Thai grandfather was a governor’s deputy and his great-grandfather a fortune-teller and magician.

His Thai grandmother had nine children and loved chewing betel nut.

Adam was born in London. He lived in Thailand, Malaysia & Australia. As a young man he returned to Thailand to become ‘a real Thai’.

He studied English literature at Sydney University and now works as a researcher in writing at UTS. I first became aware of Adam’s work when I was promoting the poetry anthology he co-edited, Asian Australian Poets.

His memoir One Hundred Letters Home is a very frank depiction about his family and his life as the offspring of parents from Australia and Thailand.

It was quite a tricky brief to combine two memoirs set mainly in Asia and a novel about a boy in Lebanon but a synergy happened on stage and discussion flowed. Thanks to Adam, Debra and Beth.

YA at the SWF: Vikki Wakefield and the Best and Worst Years of our Lives

Vikki WakefieldLast week I spent three days with four top YA writers at the Sydney Writers Festival. We travelled from Roslyn Packer Theatre at the Wharf in the city, to Parramatta Riverside Theatre and our third day was at the Chatswood Concourse. These enormous venues were filled with secondary students from schools in Sydney and further afield.

Our two international author guests were John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boy at the Top of the Mountain) and Michael Grant (Gone, Front Lines) and one of our Australian authors was Claire Zorn whose publication of her new novel One Would Think the Deep was rushed forward in time for the SWF.

Our other Australian writer was Vikki Wakefield.

Vikki Wakefield spoke about how being a teenager can be the best – or worst – years of our life. Vikki spoke honestly and vulnerably about once being voted the girl least likely to succeed, failing high school but learning to discover the extraordinary in life.

She lives in the Adelaide Hills and loved horses when she was growing up. She has written some short film scripts and does party tricks, one of which she demonstrated on stage after a request by the audience.

Her novels are mainly for mature YA readers.

Her first two YA novels All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown have won awards and Friday Brown was shortlisted for the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award and CBCA award.

One girl in the audience declared that Friday Brown changed her life. Friday Brown

I think that Vikki must be nocturnal and I’m guessing that she always refused to go to the movies at the cinema and would go to the drive-in instead. Drive-ins feature in Vikki’s latest novel Inbetween Days.

Vikki sets this novel in an Australian town, with the thought provoking name of ‘Mobius’.

The main character is 17 year old Jack (nickname for Jacklin) who’s left school and her life seems pretty meaningless but she hopes for a better future.

Jack tries to keep her secret relationship with Luke alive. But she really wants to be loved both privately and openly.

Jeremiah seems to offer love but can he cope with Jack?

Vikki creates Jack as being vulnerable yet tough, knowing yet naïve.

Can Jack summon enough self-esteem, resilience and drive to turn her life around?

Vikki’s writing has an understated tone and style that seems particularly Australian. Her characters act like young Australians do and incidents occur realistically, such as the events in the derelict drive-in theatre and in the nearby forest, which are surprising without hyperbole.

Inbetween Days (Text Publishing) has just been shortlisted for the CBCA awards. Congratulations to Vikki for her vulnerable writing and authentic characters.

All I Ever Wanted

Protectors of Secret Natural Places: Tony Birch and Inga Simpson

TreesI was very fortunate to chair a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers Festival.

They both have had books long or short listed for the prestigious Miles Franklin award. Tony’s Ghost River is currently longlisted.

It was also shortlisted for two categories in this year’s NSW Premier’s Awards: the Christina Stead prize for fiction and the newly created Indigenous Prize.

Tony and Inga both know their way around universities, as well as being accomplished fiction writers who take us on secret, sensory journeys with their young characters, particularly into natural ‘inbetween’ places, around rivers and trees.

I was first aware of Inga’s writing when her debut novel, Mr Wigg was shortlisted for the Indies awards. I remember the ripples that her lyrical writing about an elderly man in his orchard caused in the literary community.

The writing in her second novel Nest is also the equivalent of fine slow-cooking with its depiction of Jen’s life in a sub-tropical forest but it is utterly captivating and suspenseful at the same time. Nest

Her new novel Where the Trees Were also has evocative descriptions of place – the river and trees.

A group of boys and one girl, Jay, spend their summer holidays before starting high school in the bush, mainly around the river. They find a circle of trees that seem to be out of time and world. Designs are carved into their trunks. Are they a story or code?

The parts of the story about Jay as a girl are told in first person. We also meet her as an adult in Canberra, told in third person.

The indolence of quite an idyllic childhood, although charged with the urgency of adolescence, changes to a harder-edged anticipation and anxiety when a conservationist, (we’re not immediately told her name is Jayne) is involved in stealing a carved Indigenous artifact, an arborglyph, a Wiradjuri burial tree.

Tony Birch’s writing is assured, direct and unpretentious.

I was very moved by his novel Blood, particularly the strength of character and loving heart of his young part- Aboriginal protagonist, Jesse.

His most recent novel is Ghost River, set in the 1960s where the intersected lives of two adolescent boys and the dispossessed river men play out alongside the Yarra River. Ghost River

Storytelling and the changes and roils of life are intrinsic to this novel, reflected in Tony’s own virtuosic story-telling style which moves from energy and adventure to trouble, pathos and weariness and back again like the river itself.

I wonder how much of his own boyhood Tony has drawn upon to create his lively characters Ren, and particularly Sonny.

Mr Wigg

SWF After Party

HMay was packed full of exciting book events, a number linked to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. My SWF week began with the evening announcement of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards at the Mitchell Library. It was a great opportunity to catch up with people and meet new authors.

The other awards evening I attended was the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA). This was a glittering event, particularly this year when we were asked to wear a splash of ruby red to celebrate the 15th awards dinner.

We were spoiled by having Casey Bennetto (creator of Keating the Musical) again as MC. He does an amazing job writing songs about those who present the awards and delivers these as mini-performances. Award presenters included international guests David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks), Michael Connolly (American writer of crime fiction and detective novels, best know for those featuring LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch), Anthony Horowitz (Sherlock Holmes and James Bond original novels, the Alex Rider teen series, Foyle’s War and Midsummer Murders) and Helen Macdonald (H is for Hawk), who also gave the closing address of the SWF.

 

2014 Miles Franklin winner, Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing) also had her own song and Casey Bennetto wished that he had written one for Marcus Zusak (The Book Thief). He ad-libbed something on the spot, incorporating ‘John Cusack’ to rhyme with ‘Zusak’. Zusak presented his former editor, Celia Jellett from Omnibus Books, Scholastic, with the Pixie O’Harris Award for service to Australian children’s books.

Foreign SoilIt was lovely to meet Josephine Moon (The Tea Chest) and Maxine Beneba Clark, who won the Literary Fiction Book of the Year for Foreign Soil, and I spied legends, Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) and Morris Gleitzman (Loyal Creatures) at the next table.

Some other award winners were Judith Rossell, who is snapping up awards, including the Indies, for Withering-by-Sea; Tim Low for Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World (Tim was so surprised, he was dumb-struck); and Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen for Tea and Sugar Christmas. Boomerang Books was shortlisted for Online Retailer of the Year.

52

Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton won ‘Book of the Year: Younger Children’ for The 52-Storey Treehouse and this also won overall ‘Book of the Year’, selected from the winners of each category. Another well-deserved scoop for children’s books.

Andy Griffiths was also a star at the SWF, signing books at the head of an enormous queue for, essentially, a whole day.

Because we are big fans of the Canadian TV series Orphan Black, we went to a screenwriters’ panel at the SWF, where Orphan Black writer, Lynne Coady, was speaking. She looks quite like the multi-role playing star of the show, Tatiana Maslany. Lynne got the conversation to a deeper level by confiding her fear of working as part of a screen-writing team. As an introvert who had been writing literary fiction alone in her basement she was worried how her voice would be heard in a group of, presumably, loud voices. Her vulnerability lit a spark in the panel’s discussion.

Waiting for the PastAnother highlight was hearing three eminent poets, David Malouf, Les Murray (Waiting for the Past) and Ben Okri read and speak about poetry. Moderator, poet/singer-songwriter Kate Fagan enhanced the session.

Another enthusiastic moderator was Davina Bell (The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade see my interview here) who chaired four YA authors in ‘Keeping it Real: Realistic Issues in Teen Fiction’. Authors included international Laurie Halse Anderson (The Impossible Knife of Memory), who intrigued the audience by knitting throughout the session, and Australian Melina Marchetta (Looking for Alibrandi, On the Jellicoe Road), to whom homage was deservedly paid.

Jellicoe Road

Guess who came to dinner: James Patterson in Australia

Rafe's Aussie AdventureThere is a media and reader buzz about James Patterson, the world’s biggest selling author, who is in Australia at the moment.

It was announced on Tuesday that Patterson is giving grants of $500 to $5000 to independent bookshops in Australia and New Zealand, to a total of $100,000. This is an extremely generous gift from this philanthropic author and is part of Patterson’s mission to stimulate children’s reading. The bookshops that receive the grants must have a designated children’s section. There is a simple application form to complete by 5pm Tuesday, 30th June at .

Patterson said, ‘Bookshops guard against a future in which far too many children are illiterate. So many bookstores are already making a difference in their communities and I’m looking to help bookstores who want to do more… This initiative shines a light on literacy. It prompts us to ask: what do we want our future to be and how do we get there?’

Indie bookshops in the US and UK who have received grants  have created a Hogwart’s Hut, a scary children’s book club, a story-telling tent and have carpeted the children’s section of a store in a different colour. Patterson is keen to get the word out about his Australian and NZ grants. He genuinely wants to make a difference to children and teens’ reading.

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I was very fortunate to have lunch with James Patterson in Melbourne yesterday. On my way there I passed bookshops overflowing with his titles. James is on a mission to get and keep kids reading. He believes that reading is the key to literacy and that kids who get to secondary school with low literacy will have trouble surviving. James was also at a cocktail party in Sydney on Tuesday night and the stunning harbour views from the roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House were straight out of his just released children’s book Middle School: Rafe’s Aussie Adventure, co-authored by Martin Chatterton.

This Middle School series is packed full of fast paced adventure, humour and illustrations. Each story also has an element of depth through characterisation and issues such as bullying.

Maximum RideMy favourite of his series is Maximum Ride, which begins with The Angel Experiment. The young characters have wings and are advocates of good over evil. When I asked James if he wanted to fly when he was a boy and if he had tried it, his eyes glinted and he told me the story of trying to fly off the second-storey of his barn. He was obviously unsuccessful because he doesn’t remember anything about what happened so it seems he may have had a rather hard landing (or was just too young to remember). His mother had to tell him about it later.

Some of his other series are Middle School: Treasure HuntersI Funny and House of Robots.

James Patterson will be speaking tomorrow night, Friday 8th May, at 8pm as part of the SWF at Sydney Town Hall Swf.org.au/jamespatterson.

Sincere thanks to Random House Australia for giving me the opportunity to meet James. It was a lunch I will always remember.

House of Robots

 

Celebrating Mal Peet

Mal PeetMal Peet was a delight to read and meet. I can’t describe him as a YA author because he would loathe that description, refusing to see his writing pigeonholed into age categories. But clearly both young adults and adults appreciated his novels, and children his picture books.

He has left a legacy of memorable books (published by Walker Books) and is an author I collect, beginning with Keeper (2003), which won the Branford Boase Award in the UK and was shortlisted for the Deutscher Jungendliteraturpreis in Germany. Although I recall him saying that he never played the role of keeper/goalie in football, Mal created a vivid picture set against the backdrop of an imaginary South American jungle.Keeper

Tamar (2005) is one of his two books set around war and spying. It won the Carnegie medal and, like most of his novels, is for mature readers.

The Penalty (2006) and Exposure (2008) re-introduce journalist Paul Faustino, first met in Keeper. Exposure is a bold re-interpretation of Othello. It won the prestigious Guardian Award and was shortlisted for the Australian Inky Awards. This trilogy of sports novels achieves the distinction of having literary merit and also being interesting.

Life an Exploded DiagramLife: An Exploded Diagram (2011) is the partly biographical story of Clem who grew up in the 1960s in Norfolk, England. He outgrows his home, his parents and his place. He also outgrows his social status by falling for rich landowner’s daughter, Frankie.

At the same time that Clem is growing up, the Cold War, a time where the two superpowers, the USSR representing the Communist Eastern bloc and the USA, representing the Capitalist West, are playing a game of cat and mouse for high stakes – the safety or decimation of the world.

There are a number of explosions – actual and anticipated – while President John F Kennedy tries to stop his war chiefs from retaliating against the Russians and destroying Cuba.

When I first spoke about Life: An Exploded Diagram amongst other books, senior English teachers burned with curiosity. That was the book they wanted to talk about afterwards. I was incredibly fortunate to later chair Mal at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the brilliant Ursula Dubosarsky. We explored rites of passage in the 1960s through Mal’s Exploded Diagram and Ursula’s The Golden Day. Mal described Ursula’s writing style as ‘elliptical economy’ and his own writing as ‘verbose’ but ‘generous’ may be a better description. He was a raconteur, sitting forward in delight at the questions and I treasure one email to me, which begins, I do so like using the phrase ‘Hello, Joy’. The opportunities are none too common.

Cloud Tea MonkeysMy favourite of Mal’s other books is Cloud Tea Monkeys, co-written with his wife, Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard and shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. It’s a poignant tale about a young girl who has to take her ill mother’s place working in the tea plantations.

Mal Peet was an ebullient, intellectually active and curious man. He wrote with a broad sweep, across WWII and the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Football World Cup – but still with intimacy by telling personal stories. He was an inimitable writer.

 

Neil Gaiman Live

CoralineIt was exciting to see Neil Gaiman live at the City Recital Hall in Sydney on the weekend. It was a satellite event of the Sydney Writers’ Festival (surely one of the world’s best writers’ festivals). As Jemma Birrell, Artistic Director, mentioned in her introduction, Neil has over 2 million twitter followers so no wonder it was packed, with standing-only tickets sold as well.

Neil obviously enjoys reading from his works and speaking to his Sydney fans. He also sang with FourPlay, an Australian electric string quartet. They started with the Dr Who theme music; appropriate because Neil wrote two episodes of this cult series. He read from Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, an anthology that will be published 3rd February.

Neil reminisced about a presentation in the past where he could choose whoever else he wanted with him on the panel. His wish-list included his wife, Amanda Palmer – extraordinary singer-performer formerly from The Dresden Dolls (who he couldn’t stop mentioning during the evening) – and Ben Folds (one of my favourite singer/songwriter/pianists – and who Kate Miller-Heidke – composer of John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s  The Rabbits opera) has toured with. The panel planned to get together beforehand over a meal but Ben Folds suggested writing 8 songs in 8 hours instead. Neil explained, ‘If you don’t know Ben Folds, that’s all you need to know’. They ended up writing 6 songs in 14 hours and Neil sang us his song about Joan of Arc.Ocean at end of Lane

Neil is well known for Sandman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Graveyard Bookwhich he revealed was based on his experience of living in a tall building with his young son who he would take to the nearby graveyard to play. His son would ride around the graves looking completely at home.

Wolves in the WallsI’ve been a fan of Neil’s graphic novels for YA and children for quite awhile. I’m always talking about Wolves in the Walls, illustrated by Neil’s extraordinary collaborator, Dave McKean. This is a fascinating picture book about Lucy, who hears wolves in the wall but her parents don’t believe her. The frames around the panels hint at what’s hiding. Some of Neil’s other books illustrated by Dave McKean are dark, intricate, imaginative works of art: Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, Signal to Noise and Mirrormask. I treasure my copies.

Many people will know about Coraline, the girl who finds new, sinister parents in another part of her house. Coraline has appeared as a graphic novel, illustrated by P. Craig Russell, a novel, and a movie.

Neil wrote Odd and the Frost Giants and Fortunately, the Milk, illustrated by Chris Riddell for children, and his picture books for young children are Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day at School, illustrated by Adam Rex. Fortunately the Milk

I haven’t yet seen the recent Hansel & Gretel and The Sleeper and the Spindle, illustrated by Chris Riddell. Hopefully they’re up to standard.

One of my all-time favourite movies is Stardust, based on Neil’s graphic novel. He has many other works published as well.

Thanks to the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this amazing event.Stardust

 

SWF tickets now on sale

Top of my list to see at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (tickets for the May 14 to 20 event are on sale now) are former head of MI5 and now novelist and Man Booker Prize judge Stella Rimington and former CIA interrogator Glenn Carle.

I could never be a spy, but can’t get enough of insights into their professions (Spooks, anyone?).

Among the big events I’m saving up to attend is the lunch marking the presentation of the inaugural Stella Prize for the best book of any genre by an Australian woman writer (May 18, 12pm). Wendy Harmer is hosting, and will be joined by Tara Moss, Di Morrissey, Anne Summers, Anita Heiss, Anna Krien and Sophie Cunningham.

Heiss’s session the day before, Am I Black Enough For You, looks a cracker too. She’ll be talking about her new book, written in response to Andrew Bolt’s infamous “White is the new black” column.

Cunningham will be talking about her writing life to open a day long session on Thursday, May 17, entitled The Forest for the Trees: Writing and Publishing in 2012. She’ll then chair a panel on what it takes to get published. In the first afternoon session, Australian publishers Margaret Seale (Random House), Sue Hines (Allen & Unwin) and Alison Green (Pantera Press) will discuss 2012’s challenges and opportunities with Picador UK publisher Paul Baggaley.

That’ll be followed by a session on the importance of literary journals, which leads into the ebookish session of the festival, “Off the Beaten Track: Digital and Other Ways Forward”. Former Booku.com blogger Joel Naoum, of Pan Macmillan digital imprint Momentum, will discuss recent industry developments with digital publishing consultant Anna Maguire, of Digireado, Elizabeth Weiss, of Allen & Unwin, and David Henley, of Xou Creative.

The day wraps up with a session on the year ahead with HarperCollins publisher Shona Martyn, literary agent Sophie Hamley, Shearers proprietor Barbara Horgan (who appears to be the only bookseller on the festival program) and Cunningham.

All this for $35. OK, so maybe I won’t have to save up for that one. The Australian Book Industry Awards dinner is a little more expensive at $220 a ticket, but you won’t find a better way to gain insight into what (and who) makes the industry tick than attending this joint publishing and bookselling industry event. It’s on the Friday night, from 7pm.

Many of the same bookish types will be at the 60th Book Design Awards on the Thursday evening. Tickets are $77.

There are several events related to journalism and social media I’d like to attend, but I’m locking myself away at the State Library for some workshops instead this year. The first, on the Friday morning, looks at Short Fiction in the Age of e-Publication. Author Rodney Hall will be looking at tailoring writing for e-delivery. No doubt there will be some tips and tricks to help me with my research on and publishing of longform journalism and short non-fiction in ebook form. You never know, I might pull a couple of old short stories out of the bottom drawer too.

That afternoon, Toni Jordan will be exploring the essentials of cool chick lit. And yes, there is such a thing, and the writing of it is not as easy as you’d imagine (otherwise we’d all have written several bestselling works of commercial fiction already).

When I was a twentysomething Sydney-sider, I used to dream of landing a spot on the list of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists, and attended the presentation to the winners at the festival each year. Given absolutely zero novel-writing went on between festivals, it was never going to happen. The closest I got was joining the judging panel for the award a few years back. SMH literary editor and founder of the event Susan Wyndham will be on hand to announce this year’s winners on Sunday, May 20, at 2.30pm.

It’s the ability to commit to creating a long piece of writing, and to seeing the project through, that I admire most about young writers. If you’ve ever written a novel, or a novella, or a memoir, or a thesis, give yourself a pat on the back even if you haven’t been published. Just getting on and doing it is a huge achievement.

Check out the full festival program at www.swf.org.au. You can save your chosen events into a personal schedule to print out or save for later smartphone/tablet reference (there is a download to calendar option but I couldn’t get it to work on my iPad).

Many of the events are unticketed, so you could just turn up, admire the Harbour views, grab a bite at Fratelli Fresh across the road, then drop in on a random session for some serendipitous literary magic.

See you there!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Another Sydney Writers’ Festival comes to a close, and yet another talk about the ‘future of the book’, this time by acclaimed science writer James Gleick in the closing address of the festival tonight. Gleick’s talk drew heavily from his new book, Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Talks of this nature have become so commonplace at writers’ festivals and in publishing circles that a significant amount of time was set aside to debunk, ridicule and then gently agree with some of the more egregious clichés in this particular genre of literary talk.

To wit: a certain amount of rambling about the smell of books. I’ll be eternally grateful to Gleick for introducing me to the term biblionecrophilia (borrowed from Ben Ehrenreich at the LA Review of Books). However, while he did a good job of making the smell of books feel like an unimportant issue, he spent a good ten minutes on the topic and still left me with the impression that he secretly loves a good whiff of the pages of a slim leatherbound volume. I can’t blame him: I don’t mind the occasional whiff myself.

Gleick also spent a lot of time on the myth of the death of the book. He rounded up a whole herd of related tropes: the death of publishing, printing, the author, the written word and the ‘long form narrative’. All were given a reprieve, thankfully, though he does think some traditional publishers might not “yet think that the experience of ebooks should be beautiful.” He also believes that the publishers who triumph will be those who “regain confidence in their traditional virtues”, especially the “art of editing”. I couldn’t agree more with both assertions, though neither are breaking new ground, as far as observations about the future of the book go.

Having said this, Gleick stopped short of allowing that the form of the book – whether it is within the container of physical pages or inside an e-reading device – will ever change dramatically. The book, he said, is a “narrow communications channel” – and that is a good thing. While he seemed emphatically against the idea of hypertext fiction, he seems to assume that the failure of that venture to make in-roads into serious literature therefore means that interactive fiction never will – and will always be something separate from ‘the book’. The videos, animations and other graphical quirks of ‘enhanced’ ebooks, are no more than improved versions of the photographs and line drawings found in traditional non-fiction books. “Books, after all, have contained pictures, along with words, from the earliest times.” However, he says:

I don’t want hyperlinks in my books, or in the books I’m reading; I don’t want social bookmarking, or opportunities for online dating, or any other form of multitasking. I don’t need a chance to create avatars for my favourite characters. I don’t want anything, that is, to take me out of the book. The book is not a multimedia spectacle with subtitles … They talk about mash-ups, where the creative user can mix and mingle fragments from books at will. They encourage user interfaces that allow annotations by the reader, not just in their private margins, but collective sharing … Books are to be liquefied, seeped out of their bindings. There are smart and famous people who talk as if this is a good thing. I think they couldn’t be more wrong about what books are and what they are destined to become.

Although I’m of two minds myself about the book transforming into a multimedia spectacular, I don’t rule this out as either categorically a bad thing or an impossible one. Not only that, but many of the features Gleick outlines as being both undesirable and impossible have already been implemented by Amazon and others in e-readers that are available for purchase right now. Yet the author, for all the research and historical evidence he has accumulated demonstrating time and again the inevitability of change – still firmly believes that the narrative long form book is both superior to other forms of storytelling and will not ever be superseded. Does this come from any kind of evidence? Or is this just what James Gleick wants to happen?

My question for you all today is what we talk about, now and in the future, when we talk about books. It seems clear that the establishment is (reluctantly) ready to accept the ebook as a tolerable receptacle of book-like knowledge – but what about the enhanced ebook? What about fully interactive book apps? Where do you draw the line? And how much do you think the boundaries of what we consider a book now will change in the future? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

50 Books You Can’t Put Down

It’s that time of the year again. The Get Reading campaign kicked off at the end of last month and for the first time they’re offering an iPhone app to help readers connect with books.

The app is free from the App Store, and I’m surprised to say that it is excellent – far more useful than the Get Reading brochure available from most good book stores.

For those who don’t know, the Get Reading campaign runs every year and is designed to get people who wouldn’t usually read a book to have a go. The way it works is that there’s a list of 50 books broken down into a few basic categories: non-fiction, new authors, page turners and escapist reads. If you buy one of those books from a participating store you get a free exclusive book written specifically for the campaign. This year you get a choice between 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010 and Tickled Onions by Morris Gleitzman.

The iPhone app is great for browsing the books available and with the click of a button you can read the first chapter of the book or find a bookstore near you to buy it integrated with Google Maps. You can even find a place to read the book, as the app contains a directory of coffee shops (cute!). The app also has a schedule of Get Reading events that are being run throughout the month, which you can pinpoint and get directions to if you decide to go.

One-off apps of this nature are often a bit gimmicky, but I, for one, am all for them, so long as they are well made and actually useful, as this one is. Over the past year I noticed a Sydney Festival app and the Good Food Guide, and I’m hanging out for an app of this nature for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which has a notoriously annoying schedule.

My only gripe, predictably, is that ebooks are not included in this year’s Get Reading campaign, though this is hardly the fault of the iPhone app. Nonetheless, it’s disheartening to see that in a campaign run by the government to get people reading at any cost, they have not managed to include reader-friendly ebooks as part of the promotion. (To be fair, they may have tried and failed – the only real Australian ebook retailer is Borders/Kobo, and they may have declined). Ebooks are incredibly easy to buy – and it wouldn’t be difficult for retailers to rig up a system for giving away the free books in a package (it is definitely possible with online retailers of dead tree books – cheers Boomerang! – so it should be possible for ebooks). At any rate, I applaud the effort, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next year.

You can download the iPhone app here.

The Gap

I came to a realisation yesterday while attending the Interrogating Twitter session at yesterday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: there is a significant gap between those who get Twitter and those who don’t. And that gap may never be bridged. How can it? Those who despair of social media genuinely believe that it will destroy our language and do irreparable damage to our consciousnesses. But those who use social media can barely understand why everyone is complaining about it.

I don’t necessarily think this gap is generational. The panellists ran the gamut from the venerable Ruth Wajnryb through to the younger, hipper end of the spectrum with John Freeman and David Levithan. Nonetheless, all of the panellists seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing wrong with Twitter (or other forms of social media) and that we shouldn’t worry that it will cause the next generation of children to be illiterate. In fact, if anything, the panellists seemed mildly perplexed that this should even be at question. The only dissenting voices came from the audience, who managed to sound exactly like the fusty SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype.

So where does this gap come from? And why? Freeman’s new book, Shrinking the World, posits that each forward leap in communications technology has been greeted with scepticism, fear and contempt. The Gutenberg press was called the ‘devil’s machine’ by monks and the telephone was going to tear families apart. Nonetheless, Freeman cautions that Twitter, just like any other communications technology, is not necessarily benign. How could it not change the way we think, he says, when we can barely go a moment without checking our phones?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people of late. And it perplexes me – maybe because I’m absolutely on the ‘understanding Twitter’ side of the gap. Why is there a persistent myth that those who participate in the brave new world of texting, Twitter and Facebook suddenly become automatons who cannot make the choice to switch off their devices and will have some kind of panic attack if they’re ever alone? Nothing I’ve learned by participating in social media has led me to believe this to be true.

This kind of Luddite moaning about the value of being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’ is ubiquitous on the other side of the gap. I had a conversation with another (very young) author at the SWF about travelling on the train. Nowadays, he says, it’s impossible to have a moment of quiet introspection while on the train, such is the cacophony of noise produced by communications devices. Since when, I ask you, has public transport been the most Zen part of anyone’s day? Human beings have spent thousands of years going to remote locations in order to be truly alone. How has that changed?

You always have the choice. Whether it’s to switch off, go somewhere quiet or to not participate in social media at all. As David Levithan said – if you’re not interested, don’t worry about it.