The festival is over, baby

I’m home in Wellington, nearly a week after Perth Writers Festival finished, and still coming down from the experience: my first writers festival as an invited guest. It was everything you want a writers festival to be — the venue with its tents and pavilions put the ‘festive’ into festival; the high flyers, both established (Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble,Richard Flanagan, Lionel Shriver, Tom Kenneally) and freshly minted (Eleanor Catton), were there; and best of all I discovered writers whose work I didn’t know, but I think I’m going to love (Jeet Thayil, Evie Wyld, D.W. Wilson, Hannah Kent, Amanda Curtin, Nandi Chinna, David Vann, Yvette Walker, to name a few).

There have been some great round-ups of the festival — see for example Annabel Smith’s blog (just like ‘Evie’, her festival round-up comes in parts 1, 2 and 3), Hannah Kent’s posts for the Guardian, Emily Paull’s blog, Dan Pinchbeck’s blog on ‘The Game Changers’ sessions, which, sadly, I completely missed — but here’s my bit, for what it’s worth.



I had such fun in my own sessions. My three-hour workshop on creating great narrative from the start point of a ‘real’ story (in which I outed myself as a complete Helen Garner fan-grrrl) drew 20 participants and — from my perspective at least — was great fun, and really productive. The workshop was held in one of the lecture rooms on the carpark side of the Arts Building at UWA; last time I had been in that lecture room was as a student in, er, 1990, for third-year-BA Women’s Studies lectures. Happy times.

On Friday afternoon, after my workshop, I managed to catch the wonderful Lionel Shriver talking Big Brother, then Sarah Turnbull and Susan Wyndham on ‘Self Portraits and other Fictions’.



My own first panel session, ‘Not Absolute Beginners’, was on Saturday afternoon in the Juliet Tent, on the lawn between Reid Library and the Tropical Grove. Great big air-con units back-of-stage blasted out much-needed cool air to the audience. On stage, we caught their noise, but missed their cool; adding the effect of the stage lights, we all streamed buckets of sweat. No matter, though; D.W. (Dave) Wilson, Jordi Puntí and I made our own cool fun up there on stage, with local writer Bruce Russell chairing with aplomb.

Bruce Russell, me, D.W. Wilson and Jordi Punti melting in the Juliet tent [photo: @BloomsburySyd via Twitter]
Bruce Russell, me, D.W. Wilson and Jordi Punti melting in the Juliet tent [photo: @BloomsburySyd via Twitter]

We focussed on our shared start point of short stories and subsequent move to the novel form, talked about the role of loss, and particularly of absent fathers, in our novels, and touched on the effect of reviews and reviewers. Dave and Jordi are both in Adelaide for Writers’ Week this weekend, and Jordi will be in Wellington soon for New Zealand Writers Week — catch them if you can, and read their novels (D.W. Wilson, Ballistics; Jordi Puntí, Lost Luggage).

The only drawback (the only one) of appearing in sessions at a festival is that it blocks you from going to see other sessions, in your timeslot as well as much of the timeslot before and after as your report to the green room beforehand, and to the signing tent afterwards. My biggest regrets on that front are missing Anne Summers in conversation with Carmen Lawrence on Saturday, and Margaret Drabble in conversation with Liz Byrski on Friday.

On Saturday though, I did manage to catch a couple of great sessions in the afternoon: Hannah Kent and Evie Wyld reflected on their ‘Fallen Women’ with chair Annabel Smith; and Perth writers Amanda Curtinand Yvette Walker talked about the research behind their novels. I came home from the festival with the most recent novels by all five of these women in my suitcase. I’ve just finished reading Hannah Kent’s extraordinary Burial Rites, and can’t wait to get stuck into the others.

In which I appreciate the tweets of @AnnabelSmithAUS
In which I appreciate the tweets of @AnnabelSmithAUS

The person in the chair (facilitator, interviewer, whatever you might call them) at festival sessions can make or break that session. One of the best I saw in action was Annabel Smith, who — beyond her own skills as a writer — proved herself a triple threat on the festival front: a fantastic chair (prepared, interested, drawing great responses from her subjects with thoughtful questions); live-tweeter extraordinaire of sessions for which she was in the audience; and then, post-festival, her three thoughtful blog posts form a useful and informative round-up of the festival. As well as live-tweeting herself, Annabel did everything to encourage others: in the sessions she chaired, she encouraged the audience to tweet, gave the festival’s hashtag, and the twitter handles of those on stage for the session. Still, she — and others — reported being admonished to ‘turn it off and pay attention’ by others in the audience, more than once (Emily Paull talks about it here).all five of these women in my suitcase. I’ve just finished reading Hannah Kent’s extraordinary Burial Rites, and can’t wait to get stuck into the others.

@AnnabelSmithAUS tweets Amis
@AnnabelSmithAUS tweets Amis

I was grateful for Annabel’s tweets, and those from Jenny Ackland and others, not least from the Martin Amis session on Saturday night at the Perth Concert Hall, where it was too dark for me to take pen-and-paper notes, so I just sat back and enjoyed the moment. Amis was funny and clever and gossipy — perfect — and the tweets from Annabel, Jenny and others form my de facto notes.



My final session was programmed in the final timeslot of the day on Sunday, just before Richard Flanagan’s closing address, so I had relaxed time in the audience early in the day, without needing to clockwatch. The day’s first session featured Eleanor Catton, Margaret Drabble and Jeet Thayil, chaired by Geraldine Mellet. As always at writers festivals, I discover writers I know little or nothing about, but immediately want to read: Jeet Thayil was one of these. He read from his novelNarcopolis, from the swirling poetry of the 6-page sentence that starts the book, and I was smitten. There’s something about novels written by poets that grabs me. Drabble and Catton were wonderful, too. A beautiful, thought-provoking start to the day (and I have about three pages of notes to remind me of that stand-out session).

I loved the idea of filling the gaps, telling the story that hadn’t been told, that the ‘Absence at the Heart’ session with Hannah Kent and Jo Baker (in conversation with Rachel Robertson) promised to consider. I’m reading Baker’s Longbourn now (and sniffling and sneezing with her cold, dammit!), and loving the below-the-stairs, hogshit and chilblains view of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (or ‘the other novel’, as Jo referred to it — clearly, she gets to refer to it a lot in interviews).

I’d been keen to catch David Vann in session, after chatting a little to him at the festival (and using a quote from him in my workshop on Friday). His session at the Dolphin Theatre, in conversation with Stephen Romei, was great — warm and funny. He finished with a heartfelt shout-out to New Zealand as a wonderful place to live (Vann lives, these days, up Kerikeri way for six months of the year) — kia ora to that. On the recommendation of several writers at the festival, I’ve picked up Legend of a Suicide to start my David Vann reading journey.

My final session at the festival was late in the day on Sunday. Queensland-based Inga Simpson and I were chaired by the delightful (and busy! She raced to us direct from chairing Robyn Davidson and Tim Cope) Liz Byrski. Inga’s novel Mr Wigg has, like mine, an old protagonist. Her Mr Wigg finds his creative practice in blacksmithing, in telling stories to his grandchildren, growing and nurturing his orchard and cooking and preserving its produce. My Lena creates music, and — in the end — tells her story. We had such an enjoyable session with Liz, talking about our older characters, talking about creativity later in life, talking about older characters in fiction and life, and about what inspires us. There was an unexpectedly large crowd — almost standing room only — in the Woolnough Lecture Theatre so late in the day.

After a lovely signing session, Inga and I headed to the Octagon Theatre just in time to catch Emily Mann introducing Richard Flanagan, to give his closing address on love stories. Flanagan was funny, erudite, and emotionally and intellectually gripping. You can read his closing address in full here. It’s a long read — he spoke for an hour — but I urge you to read it through. Perhaps, like Richard Flanagan, like me, you do not agree.

It was a beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring end to a festival that was all of those things. Thanks and congratulations to Emily Mann, Liz Newell and the PWF team for their warm welcome, a seamlessly run event, a great success, and enormous fun. I’m so proud and happy that Perth — home — was my first festival on stage. Onward to the next: New Zealand Writers Week, 7-12 March.

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