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.

Winter Warmers and writing festivals

Baby, it’s cold outside.

The skies might still be blue but, with the temperature dropping to the chilly depths of the low teens, winter has arrived in Sydney.

Walking to work this morning, everyone I passed was bundled up in hats, wool coats and scarves, except for one confused looking group of Irish backpackers I passed who were happily running around in t-shirts and shorts and admiring how warm it is.

I used to think 13C was warm too – in Ireland, 23C is hot and over 25C is sweltering. I’m not joking – we once had a “heatwave” where noon temperatures stayed at 27C for a week and doctors were issuing medical advice on sunstroke and dehydration to a confused populace from every radio and TV. When I first arrived in Sydney I basked in the sun even in the middle of winter. Sadly, I have now been in Australia for long enough that when the temperature drops below 15, I get chilly.

The Queenlanders are rubbing it in too – happy Facebook and Twitter updates on how balmy it is, people talking about strolling in the sun at South Bank. In return my Sydney and Melbourne friends write unhappy little comments on their Facebook, and then we all get together and tease poor Canberra for its sub-zero temperatures at night.

On the plus side, all this cold is perfect reading weather. What could be nicer than curling up under a blankets with a really massive book? I’m back on my epics again – (rereading Game of Thrones, and catching up on the new Robin Hobb’s) and getting stuck into some non-fiction too.

That said, I may be longing for the sun but next week there is nowhere better to be in Australia for the annual Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. Fatima Bhutto  whose powerful memoir “Songs of Blood and Sword” explores of one of the world’s best known political dynasties and the tumultuous nature of life in Pakistan, will give the opening address setting the stage for a festival that explores the topic of power. Talks and panels will explore various diverse issues under this big umbrella, from reactions to Wikileaks, dealing with China’s growth in wealth and power, leadership and climate change.

The festival casts a broad net, taking in fiction and non-fiction, and inviting everyone from AA Gill and Anthony Bourdain to discuss food and life (sadly,  sold  out) to poets and political analysts to showcase their work.  If you are interested in climate change, don’t miss a chance to see paleoclimatologist Curt Stager (whose recent release, Deep Future, is currently keeping me company under the doona for evening reading) and others will talk about current issues and the future of action on climate change.

If you can’t make it to Sydney, (perhaps it’s just too cold for you here) you can still catch plenty of the highlights as the ABC will be broadcasting on Saturday and Sunday May 21 and 22 from the festival. You can also still find a lot of content from from 2010, allowing you browse your reading interests from under your doona. It’s enough to make you feel all warm and fuzzy.

Interview with CRAIG SILVEY

Those who were reading the blog’s coverage of the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival know that I went to see Craig Silvey not once, but twice. The first time, I went at the request of e-newsletter subscriber, Jessica, who couldn’t make it to the Coming of Age session herself (click HERE for my thoughts on it). The second time I went to see Craig, however, I went as a fan. A fan of him, not of his work, I hadn’t gotten around to reading Jasper Jones in the twenty-four hours since I’d seen him last. He was one of those authors that seemed quietly confident on stage, who don’t resort to shamelessly plugging themselves by beginning each sentence with, “Well, I’m a successful author” (yes, I’ve heard authors say it), and he was great to watch.

Well, now having read Jasper Jones, I can say I’m a fan of both Craig the person, and Craig the author. That quiet, subtle vibrancy of his personality translates onto the page. It’s definitely worth a read, if just to see what all the fuss is about. Haven’t heard the fuss? Well, in 2005, Craig was named as one of The Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Novelists. His debut, Rhubarb, was selected as the inaugural book for the ‘One Book’ series of events at the 2005 Perth International Arts Festival. He is, in short, a big deal.

I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with Craig earlier in the week for an interview. Okay, that’s a lie. Well, technically it’s true… we sat down, just not anywhere near each other (thanks to the joys of email). So, to continue the streak of exclusive author interviews here on the Boomerang Blog, I give you Craig Silvey…

Rhubarb was both a critical and commercial success – as you worked on it, did you ever anticipate that it would be received like it was?

Rhubarb exceeded my expectations by getting published in the first place. I was always aware of how difficult it is to get published, particularly without solicitation, so i felt very very grateful to have been given that opportunity. Everything that happened beyond that has been a real blessing. I’ve been very fortunate to have a wealth of support from a community of readers and industry peers, who have helped give Rhubarb such an amazing shelf life, which has meant, more than anything, I’ve been able to keep writing.

You mentioned at the Sydney Writers’ Festival that you were making notes on Rhubarb back when you were 16 – how long did it take you to write the first draft, and were there any significant changes that you made in the editing process?

When I started Rhubarb, I was so naive about the process that I thought I’d have it finished in a few months. I didnt write the last sentence for another three years – and I still have no idea what im doing. Rhubarb is actually a longer book for having been edited. There were a number of threads that needed more engagement and clarification, so it was more a process of fleshing out, rather than trimming the fat, which was my experience with Jasper Jones.

Speaking of Jasper Jones, how would you pitch it in one sentence?

A regional Southern Gothic Coming-Of-Age story about two boys with a secret, searching for the truth in a town that trades on myth.

What drew you to writing a “Southern Gothic”-style book set in Australia?

Initially it was no more than the fact that I wanted to have a go. I’ve always adored Southern Gothic fiction. There’s something very warm and generous about those regional American writers like Twain and Lee and O’Connor, and it seemed to be a literary ilk that would lend itself well to the Australian condition. It was only after the themes announced themselves, and I realised where the book was headed that it seemed so apt and important to have these literary elements.

Out of Jasper, Charlie and Jeffrey – which one is most like Craig Silvey? Is there anything autobiographical about any of them, or any of your other characters for that matter?

I like to think I’m fairly evenly distributed through the three boys, though Charlie probably bears the larger share of my character, simply because we come to know him so well. Like Charlie, I was a bookish kid who was terrified of girls and insects but like Jeffrey Lu, I was also a cheeky, unflappable little antagoniser. I think, though, as I grow older, I’m evolving more and more into Jasper Jones: a little quieter, a little stronger, and a little more solitary.

So many hypotheticals spring up over the course of Jasper Jones, so, I pose to you one of my favourites: which could you rather live your life with, penises for fingers or a hat on your head made of poisonous spiders?

Spider hat. Hands down.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

Twain or Vonnegut.

Most annoying thing about being an author?

It’s far less annoying for me than it is for those closest to me. It’s hard being an author, but it’s harder knowing and loving an author. George Orwell said: Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And it’s unfortunately true. It’s something you’re beset by, it’s like some kind of seductive parasite that takes you over and wont leave you be. It’s not like other jobs where you can leave your woes at the office. It’s a very private battle. A very mild, genial form of schizophrenia. These characters and their story sort of take you over, and you delve further and further into their lives. And soon they’re taking more of your time and your nutrients, and you’re inhabiting this fictional world with a closer focus than the one you’re supposed to be living.

And, of course, that leaves less and less time for the real people in the real world who rightly expect to be an important part of your life. And you hope that they understand, or at the very least stay patient, but all they really know is that you’re absent when it counts. And so you want to tell them that it’s worth it, you want to show them what’s roiling inside your head, but of course you cant. You’ve got to wait it out and see it through. And so there’s this communal faith and patience, and more than enough teeth gritting, and in the end, you present this pound of flesh, and you hope that it might help reward that faith, that it might be worth it, that it might make these precious people proud. Because if it doesn’t, then you’re kinda just a self-centred douchebag.

If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

The first novel I ever wrote, when I was fourteen years old. It was as hideously and hilariously bad as it was earnestly epic. And it was called The Drug Warden. Enough said.

The last Australian book you read?

Breath, by Tim Winton.

Craig Silvey is one of our Featured Authors of the Month for June, and to celebrate, Boomerang Books is joining forces with our friends at Allen and Unwin to give blog readers the chance to win one of three copies of Craig’s newest release, Jasper Jones, so keep your eyes on the blog for competition details. It will be announced separately to our monthly giveaway, details for which can be found HERE.

As an aside, I’m really loving interviewing authors as part of our new, revitalised Boomerang Blog, and I hope you’re enjoying reading the interviews just as much. That said, do you have a particular Australian author you’d like us to interview? Send me an email, and I’ll see what I can do. 🙂