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We are what we hide: Sonya Hartnett, Malcolm Knox & Kari Gislason (and some thoughts on fish)

Golden Boys by Sonya HartnettSonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys was the first book I read this year, and it’s one of her best. Set in 1979 and written for adults, it is a story about children and the dark underbelly of silent suburbia, and the abusive fathers found therein. The ending is scorching and lingering, and I was very happy to see the book shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.

Malcolm Knox’s latest is The Wonder Lover, the story of John Lover, who has three separate families, with six kids, two in each (a girl and a boy with the same names!).

Kari Gislason’s The Ash Burner is a story of Ted who grew up with his father in a small coastal town after his mother died when he was young.

Their stories are tied together by untold secrets, lies and deception, power and abuse. All use the voice/perspective of children. Jill Edington, chair of the session, asked where did the spark come from?

The Wonder Lover by Malcolm KnoxKnox said he grew up in a family environment with a moral code, defined by church. With every novel you write, he said, you go back to the well in some way. For this novel, he explores the idea of that moment when, as a child, you become aware that the rules imposed on you by adults don’t necessarily apply to them, that adults have a different set of rules by which they live.

Hartnett professed amazement about Knox’s premise, that men get up to these things. She grew up in what is now Box Hill North in Melbourne. These days it’s almost inner city, but in those days it was almost rural. What she loves is walking around suburbs and pondering the silence that often pervades them, asking where is the life?

She recalled the wonder of the moment when someone from a higher bracket of wealth decided to move into the neighbourhood, what that felt like. Why were they moving here? One family arrived and painted their house white, which made it seem ‘like a palace’. In Golden Boys a dentist named Rex and his family, including the kids who have every toy known to humanity, move into a quiet neighbourhood. In an era when fathers were, at best, more absent than today, and at worse drank a lot and didn’t care much about their kids, the arrival of the caring and glowing Rex has a profound impact on the neighbourhood kids, especially siblings Freya and Colt, who have to make do with their drunkard father, Joe.

Echoing Knox, Hartnett said the way children can’t understand the world of adults makes very fertile ground for a story. As noted above, the story is written for adults, and Hartnett said as a writer you can reach across and connect with readers as confederates: you and I, she said, know what’s really going on here, but the children in the story don’t.

On the question of the story being timely, Hartnett said she wrote it before the more recent child abuse scandals and Royall Commission became front page news. All she wanted to do when she set out was to write down some childhood memories before she forgot them.

As noted above, each of the three books use the voice of the child in their narration. Knox’s book is narrated with the unusual first person plural ‘we’, from the point of view of John Wonder’s six children. Knox used Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, which also uses the first-person plural, as inspiration. He felt as though it elevates the story to a kind of myth.

Hartnett spoke about characters, about how she learned long ago not to fall in love with them because it’s too draining when you have to say goodbye to them. All my characters ‘are tools to do what I need and want’ as a writer. People love reading about children, she said, and they’re fun to write. For those of you who have read the book, and I suspect that number will only increase given the Miles Franklin Award shortlist, Hartnett said her long-time editor, after reading the manuscript, said to her, ‘So you want to be Colt but you’re only Freya’, which Hartnett agreed was right!

The Ash Burner by Kari GislasonGislason was born in Iceland. He was unsure why he chose a first-person child narrator, but cited the novel The Fish Can Sing by the Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Gislason’s child protagonist, Ted, searches for his lost mother by diving into the sea and swimming down to the bottom, because it is where he believes she is. It’s a heart-rending image, and a lovely example of one author’s work inspiring another’s.

It resonated strongly for me because every year at the festival I sit and have lunch overlooking the multi-million dollar units built upon Pier 6/7. But of course I don’t look at the units, or even the luxury yachts moored outside them. No. I look down into the jade waters of the harbour and watch the silver-backed fish mingling. Some of them are a good size too!

Book of Days projectI like the idea of those fish gathering beneath the finger wharves and listening to the things people are saying in the halls above. What things would the fish say, I wonder. What songs would they sing? So I tweeted something for Zoë Sadokierski’s Book of Days project on how to live (see #swfbod). I deviated massively from the sensible stuff most people were saying. My contribution related to those fish! (A faintly absurd idea it might seem, too, but something that connects thematically with the thoughts of Helen Madonald and Jonathan Lethem about our dwindling relationship with nature and wildlife, and, now that I think of it, echoing Ben Okri’s advice on the need to listen. Okri said listening is like suffering, and maybe that’s true, but sometimes it’s a joy and a necessity.)

All this is to say that Gislason, who almost made an art of not talking about his book, had hooked me, so to speak, with that one image of the boy swimming in search of his mum. So now I have to read his book, and I feel compelled to track down Laxness’s novel too!

Sunday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: me!, for not sticking around to go to the closing address by Helen Macdonald. I had already spent a fair few dollars on the events I attended, but I would have loved to hear Macdonald again, and am looking forward to hearing the podcast of her speech when it becomes available.

Even hand for: more sessions were ticketed this year than in previous years in order to, as one volunteer said to me, ‘assist crowd control’. This is good in some ways, as it allows organised attendees to guarantee a seat at the events they want to attend and thus not have to queue for everything. But it does mean paying more. I definitely spent more money. So long as there’s always some free stuff, and the chance to see some of the bigger names on free panel sessions, I think I can live with that. The festival has become a victim of its own success. Which brings me to…:

Thumbs up for: to the Walsh Bay redevelopment plans announced in the Sydney Morning Herald here, which will see the transformation of the waterfront precinct between the Harbour Bridge and Barangaroo into a dedicated Arts precinct. On the cards are more theatres, better facilities for existing arts bodies such as the Bangarra Dance Company & Bell Shakespeare Company, a new concert hall for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and other works, including additional restaurants.

Of specific relevance to the Sydney Writers’ Festival is the reworking of the Pier 2/3 interior, which will hopefully increase the number of areas available for SWF sessions, as well as the reworking of the area between Pier 2/3 and Pier 4/5, which appears likely to improve the festival experience for everyone even further. The festival has become a victim of its own success in the last few years, with bumper crowds, so hopefully these developments will take it to another level again.

SWF LogoThat’s it for SWF 2015. Well done to everyone who worked on the festival: the volunteers, management team led by Artistic Director Jemma Birrell, corporate partners, and of course all the speakers from Australia and overseas. I’ve many great memories. I hope sharing them has given you a flavour of another fine festival. Now I’m off to listen to the fish sing…

Imagined Futures with James Bradley, Jonathan Lethem, Emily St John Mandel & David Mitchell

Ashley Hay was given a hard task with these four authors, whose works feature dystopian or alternate worlds, those ‘imagined futures’. Not because of the authors themselves, of course, but because there was so much to unpack from each book’s weighty vision of our imperilled future.
Chronic City by Jonathan LethemJonathan Lethem is an American writer who, after early science fiction works, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in 1999 for his novel Motherless Brooklyn. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship (‘Genius Grant’). Chronic City is not his most recent work, but its story set in a strange version of New York in which a large tiger destroys buildings and a grey fog envelops part of the city, made him a worthy addition to the panel. The novel was named one of The New York Times’s ten best novels of 2009.

In response to Hay’s question to each of the panel, about what made their stories imperative when they wrote them, Jonathan Lethem spoke of his amazement and rage at the post-9/11 atmosphere that had taken (re-taken?) over New York City, where money had ‘gauzed over’ that horrific and galvanising event. There was ‘a fog of amnesiac displacement’. After 9/11 the city had looked both outward and inward, at the causes of the attack, questioning American geo-political stances. And here it was, only 3 years later, and it had been swept away by greed and the mighty dollar. Chronic City was a response to that.

David Mitchell, author of the genre-bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), said the original idea was to follow the life of a single 75 year old person in ‘micro stories’, with one for each year of her life. He soon realised, however, that writing from the point of view of a new born baby was ‘problematic’(!), and thus opted for a novella per decade. He wanted to explore time, deep time, and asked himself what you would pay for a Faustian pact to avoid mortality.

Station Eleven by Emily St John MandelCanadian Emily St John Mandel’s acclaimed novel Station Eleven was a finalist in the 2014 National Book Award (US). Her earlier work was in the area of crime fiction, and she said she wanted to break free from that area before she was pigeon-holed. Her story follows an amateur theatre group travelling the countryside after a flu pandemic has wiped out 99% of the population. When she began thinking about a post-apocalyptic world, she figured that the disaster wouldn’t last forever. Her novel deals not with the pandemic but with the aftermath.

Clade by James BradleyI read James Bradley’s Clade earlier this year (not reviewed). It’s a novel of ambition, following one family over three generations, well into the future, in a vastly changed environment. It has some wonderful writing, and some disturbing environmental catastrophes. He set out to write a novel of climate change, a subject that is ‘very resistant to fiction’. He wanted to link large geological time with a human story, one that had both continuity and rupture. His story echoes Mandel’s in this way, because while the world falls apart life goes on.

Hay asked whether the Dark Ages were an inspiration for any of the writers. Mandel said she didn’t need to look back. There was enough ‘economic ruination’ in post-GFC America for inspiration as to how things might look and feel.

Bradley spoke of the decline in species numbers, particularly in birds. He noted the massive decline in bee numbers. Lots of things that scientists had said were markers of real tipping points, things he put in the book, have worryingly come to pass in recent months, from the release of methane from Siberian permafrost to a change in the earth’s rotation as the result of ice melting at the poles.

Lethem also spoke to birds and how we have become disconnected from the wild in cities, giving the example of some New Yorkers’ reactions to a single red-tailed hawk, which built a nest on a co-op building in New York. Some occupants of the building were happy to see it, whereas others felt it diminished the value of their homes and wanted rid of it.

Jonathan LethemLethem then spoke of one of the most disturbing things I think I’ve ever heard. After 9/11, once the twin towers’ scrap metal had been sifted through for remains,, the metal was melted down and used to build an aircraft carrier, which was subsequently used in the Gulf War. It was as if the USA were taking the graves of all those lost and using them as a ‘sword with which it could smite’ the country’s perceived enemies. How could this type of thing happen? He recalled seeing this same aircraft carrier sail into New York Harbour some years later, and the response in his heart to seeing this weapon of war.

The World Witout Us by Alan WeismanMitchell entered the discussion here, tying together some of the other panellists’ thoughts, by asking if anyone had read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which explores the way nature reclaims and regenerates if it is left to its own devices,, and which Mitchell declared as excellent. Birds, he said, fare very well; the descendants of dinosaurs survive and thrive if and when humanity finally loses its foothold on the planet.

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellMitchell was asked by Hay about his uber novel, and rather than say he is ‘inking-in his large sheet of paper like a map’, as he did the night before, he said simply, ‘I’m not that clever,’ but he did admit to planning ahead a little more than he had in the past, placing some of his characters in ‘scenarios’, including Marinus, one of his favourites. So maybe there is a little more of the map being inked behind the scenes, so to speak.

Did actors, which appeared in several of the novels, asked Hay, provide the authors with an element of ‘performance’ they were seeking, or some sort of subterfuge? Mandel thought all characters are actors in a way. She had no specific reason for her choice other than her own experience with people she knew in off-off-off-Broadway(!) amateur theatre companies, in which to be a part meant you really loved the art because there was no way you were ever going to be paid for it. Her story did, however, feature a comic book, which allowed her extra freedom because she could use different language in it, words that characters wouldn’t.

Lethem made the point that while his book features a sit-com actor, he is an actor rather than an artist. Bradley said there is a merging of real and virtual worlds. He spoke about what was for me one of the most interesting things in his book, so-called ‘sims’, in which photos and videos and other visual records of a person are made into simulations of the person after they die so their loved ones can still interact with them. The sims are fitted with learning algorithms that allow them to learn how to better respond to their loved ones. So you can have these walking ghosts in your house. But the technology also allows loved ones to massage the sims, meaning they can wipe out the ‘bad’ traits of the person who has died! In a way, the sims provide us with a way of reincarnating us. But, like in Mitchell’s work, they are very poor representations of real humans. Something very important is lost in their construction. It’s not a way to truly live.

Hay raised the notion of hope. Is there a place for it? She liked to think there was a place for it in all of the novels. I didn’t take too many notes here, so I’d advise listening to the podcast when it becomes available, but in each of Mitchell, Bradley and Mandel’s work there is a note of hope at the end. You’ll have to read the Lethem to find out what he thinks!

It was an excellent session, with the wonderful Ashley Hay doing a sterling job: see my Saturday ‘Thumbs’ below for more on her…

Ben Okri: The Age of Magic

The Age of Magic by Ben OkriWinner of the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road (which I loved), Ben Okri’s latest novel The Age of Magic follows eight people on a journey to make a film documentary about Arcadia. I dearly wanted to see Okri in another session with two acclaimed Australian poets: Les Murray and David Malouf, but that session clashed with another I attended, so instead I saw him in discussion with Radio National’s Michael Cathcart, talking about The Age of Magic. The session is available to listen to online at Radio National here.

I highly recommend it. Okri is such a pleasure to listen to: measured, scholarly and playful. He read from the book and some poetry too.

Cathcart opened up by asking what a ‘quilf’ (spelling?) is. Okri said it’s ‘an imaginary real creature’ that the novel is loosely structured around. He experienced on a walk in Switzerland. They never appear before you, but ‘hover at the margin of your vision’. Such a spirit-being makes two ‘appearances’ in Okri’s novel. He later said he tries to capture the extra dimensionality of life.

The Age of Magic has several premises, said Okri. One is the idea that while we live in an age of historical times, there is also a constant ‘under-river of consciousness and being’, a magical fabric to the whole of existence. He wanted to touch upon this magic that underlies our existence. The more ostensible is eight people going to Arcadia to make a film documentary. But don’t be fooled! It’s all about the secret premise.

‘Eviling’: an anti-magical activity that is used in the story. There are real characters and liminal characters. It is full of aphorisms.

The book opens with a chapter comprised of a single sentence: ‘Some things only become clear much later.’ This began as a three page chapter, and he compressed and compressed it into one sentence which has ‘all the power of everything that has been removed’. Okri playfully admonished Cathcart for reading out this sentence too quickly, and then read it out ‘as it should be read’, which was very slowly!

One character says ‘it’s easier to be clever than to listen’. Listening, said Okri, is ‘quite close to suffering’. Learning to write is about ‘very, very deep listening’. There are three levels of listening: ordinary, deep, and ‘shockingly profound’! You have to listen. Not just to what is said, but also to what is not said. Listening stands in for ‘profound attentiveness’. Okri said ‘I’m a world listener’.

One character, Jim, believes, as we believe, that will is the key thing in life. And yes, civilisations can’t be built without will. But will alone is madness. We need something higher than will/ego.

Okri is fascinated by the making of language. ‘Live’ turned around is ‘evil’. Live is an active presence of life. Evil is the opposite of anti-growing aspect of life.

Cathcart noted there are several references to Faust in the novel. Okri said: that which we go towards compels us to change. If we are on a quest for money, money changes us. The same is true for any journey. That’s why all quest novels are about the inward journey as much as the outward journey. In the middle of Faust, there is a play about Arcadia, so it cohered with the story.

Cathcart asked about radiance, which seems an important element in Okri’s body of work. Radiance is a very difficult thing to write about, but is the necessary flip slip to the darkness. Every writer should write the other side of the coin to their principal theme. We are very focussed on suffering. There was great happiness in his childhood even when there was great suffering. There’s something about childhood afternoons that make them feel like twenty years, the glow of them in Nigeria. There is something enchanting about being life, but enchantment must come through very briefly in writing.

Okri was asked about yoga and meditation. He meditates, if meditation means to think. In the East, Zen masters talk about emptiness. In the West, we think too much, fill our heads with thoughts. We must empty our minds. Emptiness is the place from which creation comes.

One childhood experience he related was about telling stories. He grew up in a story-telling universe. Everything at that age oozed stories. A tree, a dog, even a car can drip stories. In the village, the children sat in a circle and told stories but each child had to invent a story. If you couldn’t tell some original you were kicked out of the group!

His period of homelessness in the UK, where his university founding ran dry all of a sudden and he became poor and destitute very quickly. He still managed to read and have books close to him. Reading keeps hunger at bay. You could just fall through the net in this world and nothing would catch you. This period seeded in him an understanding of need, which fuelled his Booker Prize win ten years later. ‘I wrote my way back into life’.

He was asked about Nigerian and English story-telling, whether he was synthesising both. Yes, but Nigeria needs a new kind of language to capture it. He spent years trying to find the right tone and language. He went right back to basic A-B-C, so he could use words to ‘touch’ the world. It is the weakness of the 19th century novel that it cannot capture the non-linearity of modern life.

Asked about the pressure African writers are under, he said they should not be bound to write solely the troubled African stories, of suffering, famine, bad government and so on. The writer’s primary domain is freedom, the ability to write about what they want. France has a great literary tradition, as does the UK, where there is joy as well as suffering. Publishers also constrain African writers, he said, pigeon-holing them as ‘cause’ or ‘issue’ writers, which he finds deeply unfair.

He was also asked about winning the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’, which he explained away quite beautifully by saying the English are too uptight about sex!

Book Design, or ‘Architects of Reading’

Kudos to festival organisers for including a session on book design once again, one of my personal favourites, although it was a vastly different topic than previous years, which usually focussed on the winning designs in the annual Book Design Awards. The session was entitled ‘Architects of Reading’, and focussed on the future form of books. Poor Zoë Sadokierski spent much of the session keeping the book design institution that is WH Chong (Text Publishing) from warring with Google’s Tom Uglow about physical books versus books that might, in future, become more like apps. And not just apps, because Uglow foresees the technology allowing the story to change based on the reader’s activity. He also gave the example of a story about deception, in which every time you went back to the ‘novel’ it would change on you, or deceive you, allowing the story’s form to mirror theme. Chong said this verged on becoming a ‘video game’. Not surprisingly, Chong championed the physical book, with its ‘perfect technology’. It’s a hugely interesting area for discussion, and I would have liked more on it, but was happy to see an example of Chong’s vast marginalia!

Saturday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: an unnamed writer on one panel session whose reading went on, and on, and on… I mean the writing was good, but as an audience member you just want a little taste, particularly if there are other writers on a panel you want to hear from.

Thumbs up for: Ashely Hay. What a gem she is, a fabulous writer in her own right and a great chair of a rather large panel. She got the best out of four people in under an hour, and also fielded a rather curly question from a young girl in the audience who asked her, much to everyone’s amusement, which of the four novels was her favourite and which she would recommend to a girl of her age! Cue much squirming from Hay under the mock stare of intensity from all four writers waiting to see which of them she would select, but after much sighing she somehow managed to pick one (Mandel’s book) without upsetting anyone!

Next up, Sunday at the festival…

Don Watson: The Bush

The Bush by Don WatsonIt was a wild and rugged start to Friday weather-wise, with rain and a bit of wind. But such barriers only make us more determined, don’t they? It was in a way a perfect stage for the first session of the day, and perhaps the most entertaining of the week: Don Watson in conversation with Eleanor Hall about his ‘poetic yarn’ The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia. I’ve read part of The Bush and enjoyed every page, and am dying to get back to finish it off after hearing the very wry and very wise Watson. I must admit, I was so entertained, my notes leave a little to be desired…

He opened by acknowledging some of the magic of the Australian bush, the place that gave songbirds and parrots to the world (referencing Tim Low’s wonderful book Where Song Began: more on that below). He spoke about the mountain ash, the tallest hardwoods in the world. And he marvelled at the majesty and mimicry of the lyrebird. He rattled off species after species. Later, he said that 40% of Australian flora is not identified, (which made me wonder how anyone could put a figure on it). The point being, that when the first European settlers arrived, here was a wealth of flora and fauna that was both of the world in ways that were only understood recently, and not of it in ways that made it alien and in want of ‘improvement’ in the eyes of newcomers.

How did the idea for the book take hold? Why did he write it? It grew out of an anthology idea that his publishers thought he could edit. He preferred the idea of doing it himself! It took him eight long years, during which time he ‘wondered why I had been fool enough to agree to write it’! And we were off, with Watson riffing on all sorts of topics, both within the book and not.

On the topic of writing, he said a good writing day is one in which you find yourself in a place you weren’t in the morning.

As for the bush itself, he feels it’s forced onto new arrivals to Australia rather like the idea of ‘mateship’. He skewered mateship, saying it suggests friendship in other countries isn’t held in very high regard! (He also recounted an anecdote on the aftermath of Paul Keating questioning the British flag in the top corner of our flag, how this spawned a furious reaction from conservatives (and still would by the look of things). It also spawned a minor industry of school children drawing the flag they wanted, for which teachers were probably thankful because it gave the kids something to do for a few periods. These flag designs were duly sent to Keating’s office, and, rather like some of the suggestions submitted in New Zealand’s current call for alternative designs for their national flag, created some rather odd-ball efforts, including one that featured Bob Hawke up a gum tree, which was rather well received by Keating!)

But of course, part of The Bush’s purpose is to document the tragedy of the clearing done by the selectors and settlers. ‘We made an incredible mess of the landscape’ Watson said. Watson charted the scale of the disaster, the ring-barking, how much could be cleared in how many hours, the horrible mathematics of it, including his forebears’ role in it. You had to ‘improve’ the land, and that improvement meant destruction. It created a silence in the mind, and is a source of great melancholy. He recounted the story of, if memory serves, Lyle Courtney, whose father never got over destroying a great forest.

A concurrent theme of frontier destruction centres on the plight of Aboriginal peoples. There have been other books on this, as Watson noted himself, such as ‘anything’ by Henry Reynolds (his latest is Forgotten War and is a must read). There were, said Watson, ‘depraved, deliberate and appalling’ things done, such as one settler who had 40-50 sets of Aboriginal ears pinned up to the wall of his cabin. Watson was astonished by the regression of the mid-1990s debate in Australian politics, lamenting the attack on what conservatives derogatively called the ‘black armband’ history. I couldn’t help but think back to his earlier ‘silence of the mind’ observation. Watson asked, why can’t confront the facts? Why indeed.

With regard to land use, there are some positive signs. Farmers are listening to the land, but there is a great national effort required to regenerate the land, something a national government should be involved in, said Watson, for farmers are too indebted to achieve it in any holistic sense. We love the bush, but we don’t understand it, not really. It is full of complexity and contradictions: and these things are good because we need to see them. But the National Party seem to be the farmer’s ‘worst enemy’. We need to support science, and allow it to form our approach. He is hopeful because the land’s powers of renewal are phenomenal, noting the example of platypus returning to once-dead rivers, and trees reclaiming riverbanks. It can be done.

He admitted there were gaps in the book. He didn’t get to the Kimberley, much though he wanted to. But there are lovely humorous things. He spoke about the names us colonials have written onto the landscape (and over Aboriginal names), how some of these names are suggestive of things, such as Wallaby Creek. But there were some strange ones, like Mt Aunty, which had Watson wondering why the person responsible for naming it couldn’t recall their poor aunt’s name. You’d think if someone was going to rename something that had had a name for millennia they could at least remember their aunt’s name!

It was the perfect session: informative, reflective, humorous and entertaining. It probed an author’s book but allowed them freedom to roam over other matters too. I highly recommend you listen to the podcast of it, or better yet, read Watson’s book and go bush.

 

Books of the Year: the Australian Book Industry’s Awards

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba ClarkeThe Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIAs) were on the Thursday night, and three of the category winners were summarily hooked into this Friday morning session. Good on them for making themselves available at such short notice. Maxine Beneba Clarke, author of Foreign Soil, a collection of short stories set all around the world, won the Literary Fiction Book of the Year, (this after being shortlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize too).

These ten stories focus on people ‘trying to find their place in the world’. It is her first work of fiction, with her previous three works all poetry. She found a natural progression from writing poetry into longer narrative forms.

When asked by chair Jill Edington about the path to publication, she said it was winning the Victorian Premiers Award for best unpublished manuscript that got her noticed and the publishers interested in a book of short stories. (There has been a renaissance in short story collections, even by debut authors in recent times. Abigail Ulman’s very good Hot Little Hands springs to mind.) Clarke humbly suggested she won because the issue of refugees and home is a hot topic at the moment.

Where Song Began by Tim LowTim Low’s acclaimed Where Song Began won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year, beating a stellar list of nominees including Don Watson, Helen Garner and Annabel Crabb. He spoke about his desire to write something for general readers (his earlier work on identifying a new lizard species ‘probably only interested around 20 people worldwide’, he admitted rather wryly). The book took him ten years to write.

Always a committed naturalist, his research showed the songbirds that the English champion, such as larks and so on, are in fact descendants of Australian songbirds. All parrot species, too, can be traced back to Australian parrots. When the first European settlers arrived, something I’ve noted in reading early settler accounts, they didn’t comment much on birdsong, and it is true that Australian birds are good ‘fighters’ over territory. Watkin Tench was in the minority when observing both nature and the Aboriginal people.

Withering-by-Sea by Judith RossellWithering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell, which I’ve seen in every book shop lately, won Book of the Year for Older Children. Judith spoke about her transition from book illustrator to author, and the joy of having creative control of the story from the outset rather than ‘just’ interpreting story into pictures.

Her ‘Victorian fantasy adventure’ is targeted towards girls of around ten, but she is hopeful of picking up a few boy readers too. There could be more prizes coming, because this is the first in a series.

(Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found (my review here) won General Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer.)

Congratulations to all the winners.

 

David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks by David MitchellDavid Mitchell is always, if nothing else, entertaining. He has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. If you want to see what I thought of the novel, you can read my musings here. The podcast of this session is already available on Radio National here.

There are great existential questions in the novel, which focusses on deep time and the Faustian pact some people enter in order to claim immortality. In doing so, Mitchell wanted to ask the question what these people gave up, whether they gave away their very humanity. The name ‘bone clocks’ is a pejorative term used by the ‘bad’ immortals for us humans. It’s a lovely description of the time-bound nature of our bones. They dehumanise us, said Mitchell, as we ourselves dehumanise the underclass.

Like Cloud Atlas (my review here) and the superlative Ghostwritten (my review here), his two most successful works prior to TBCs, Mitchell uses a structure of linked novellas here. He in fact said (admitted?) that ‘I’m not a novelist. I am a novella writer.’ I think this was a fascinating thing to say. Of his more ‘traditional’ novels, I’ve only read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review here), but even that felt like two stories (and genres) bolted together, and in my view wasn’t all that satisfying because of it. Whereas in Cloud Atlas he ‘went for broke’, asking himself ‘could the structure hold itself together?’, in The Bone Clocks he used Holly Sykes as ‘the glue’ that bound the different novellas together, almost as an antidote or solution to his ‘promiscuity’ in the things he wanted to have in the book. In the six genre-busting ‘episodes’, we encounter her roughly every ten years through to the 2040s in a very dystopian, post-oil Ireland. The benefit is ‘diversity’ but the cost is ‘how do you glue it together?’ The answer was Holly Sykes.

I was wanting to ask him why on earth he had chosen to feature the Perth Writers’ Festival rather than the Sydney Writers’ Festival in his most recent novel The Bone Clocks, a point raised by Kate Evans in her questioning. He reuses Marinus, who appeared in The Thousand Autumns and is one of his favourite characters, as one of his good immortals. Also on the side of good is the oldest ‘reincarnatee’, Esther Little. When he wanted to create a character who possessed such ‘deep time’, there was only one place to go: Australia, and to the Aboriginal people, specifically in this case the Noongar people of south Western Australia. Mitchell acknowledged the debt he owed to celebrated Noongar author Kim Scott and That Deadman Dance (my review here). He met Scott in 2011 at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and spent an entertaining day travelling around the suburbs of Sydney in a minivan with a bunch of authors including Scott. He said as a writer it is incumbent on you to interrogate people you meet in order to learn things you knew nothing about.

When asked about whether creating an aboriginal character gave him ‘pause’, he replied, ‘I’m a white European, of course it did.’ While he was at pains to point out that he didn’t use an Aboriginal point-of-view character, I think he feels that it’s a case of I’m an author, it’s my job to create characters and to put voices in their mouths.

He spoke about the dastardly Crispin Hersey, the bad boy of English letters. Asked if Crispin was a kind of cipher for himself, he lifted his cup of tea and said words to the effect of ‘Trust me, I’m no bad boy.’ He did, however, admit to adding some sparkling mineral water by mistake which made it the most interesting cup of tea he’d had in a while. Other food diversions discussed included Vegemite and some New Zealand sweet treat whose name escapes me. But back to Crispin: who is based on a kind of Scrooge, where vanity and ego rule the roost.

He was asked about his ‘uber’ book, the interlinking of all his books through the reuse of characters from one to another. He said there was no master plan as such; it was more akin to a large piece of paper he was slowly inking-in, like a map.

He spoke about the stammering he suffered growing up, and the short cuts he has devised for coping with this, including scanning a sentence almost visually before it is spoken and the ability to see difficult words in advance and seek a way around them. These solutions are ‘largely built-in now’, although you notice in his speaking where he has come from.

He was also asked about whether having an autistic son has changed his writing in any way. His son, he said, is forced to build from scratch the ability and wiring for language that we all come ‘pre-loaded’ with. Watching him had given Mitchell a new appreciation for the mechanics of words and language.

As I left, the queue for the signing table stretched out of the theatre’s foyer and into the sodden street. I don’t think anyone was complaining.

More from David Mitchell on SWF Saturday.

 

Friday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: um, the weather? I guess we can’t have perfect festival weather every day…

Thumbs up for: Terry Hayes announcing he has sketched out two sequels to I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayeshis blockbuster thriller I Am Pilgrim. He’s also almost finished the screenplay for the novel, which is to be made by MGM and directed by ‘a well-known and hugely respected international director’. Here’s hoping it’s as good as the book!

Thumbs up also go to festival organisers for live-streaming some events to regional NSW.

Next up, Saturday at the festival…

SWF LogoAnother year, another fabulous Sydney Writers’ Festival SWF in the sun(SWF). Over the coming few days I’ll post some thoughts on each of the main days’ highlights, beginning with Thursday. You can already catch some sessions on podcasts on Radio National’s Books and Arts website, and the festival’s podcast site will have podcasts up at some stage (not sure when).

 

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanWell done to the festival organisers for scheduling an additional session with Zia Haider Rahman, which enabled me to see him on Thursday morning. The session was well marshalled by Aussie expat David Francis, a human rights lawyer based in New York. I wished I had have taken a photo of them, because they walked onto the stage wearing basically the same outfit of brown boots, blue jeans, red check shirts, and similarly styled and coloured jackets. They had only met in person just before the session but Rahman joked they had been separated at birth!

Rahman is the author of In the Light of What We Know, a sprawling epistemological novel that I’m reading now and which has garnered lavish praise from critics around the world. A ‘big’ book, its themes are myriad, including class, friendship, belonging/home/exile, religion and the East-West divide, knowledge and the ‘reliability of what we know’. It owes a debt to WG Sebald’s Austerlitz in terms of structure, a point Rahman made himself, with an unnamed narrator relating the story of his long-lost friend Zafar, whom he met at Oxford University where they studied mathematics.

Zafar is a true outsider, and his rage increases throughout his life at this unmoored life. He arrives at Oxford knowing the mathematics but not how to correctly pronounce the names of the serious mathematicians like Gödel, who devised the ‘Incompleteness Theorem’, which serves as a thematic touchstone for the story. His naivety over pronunciation reminded me of Laura Rambotham in Henry Handell Richardson’s delicious The Getting of Wisdom when she arrives at the posh city school knowing the French language but not how to pronounce it.

The novel features many narrative deviations, which one audience member in a question described as ‘slippings away’. This extends to the occasional footnote. Rahman said he knew when he sat down what the story would be about and where it was going. The ending changed a little after discussion with his publisher, reducing the number of ‘possibilities’. (He later said getting published was an ‘accident’. He sent it to a friend who sent it on to someone in the publishing world.)

He said his fiction is ‘grounded in reality’, which seems a bit of an understatement as it draws heavily on his own life experience. Rahman is a serial over-achiever. Born in Bangladesh (like Zafar), he was educated in Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, studying mathematics (like our protagonists), worked as an investment banker on Wall Street (like our protagonists) and then as a human rights lawyer.

Rahman said he wanted to explore the universal through the specific. He was concerned with this notion of ‘belonging’, how we all romanticise and yearn for ‘home’, and how class clashes or fulfils this need. Zafar, he said, ‘makes a home in the world of ideas.’ Rahman made an interesting point about there being not enough contemporary political writing, and how memoir has been so popular in the last two decades it has crowded out such writing.

I was a touch sceptical of the theme for this year’s festival, which asked the question of ‘how we should live’—sceptical because, to my mind, that is what literature always explores. Couldn’t any literature festival be said to ponder this? Nevertheless, one of the best things I heard said all week was Rahman talking about empathy. He said ‘we can do nothing more valuable than widen our empathy for others’. What a great mantra for how to live.

It was clear from my reading and also from the session that Rahman is a very thoughtful writer. Francis drew out Rahman on questions of masculinity in the book, the bond of male friendship that exists between the narrator and Zafar; and the very Englishness of the name for Zafar’s old girlfriend, Emily Hampton-Wyvern.

Francis also noted that the book reflects well on America. Rahman said this was because Zafar lives in that world of ideas, and the US is that kind of place. It’s a place of optimism and hope. Britain is about ‘muddling through’, a place where pragmatism trumps idealism. In the US, words matter, those founding documents matter.

However, Rahman himself, when asked about his life’s meteoric trajectory, said that he was the anomaly. The notion fed to us that ‘we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps is rubbish’, that so many of us fall through the cracks and needed lifting up.

Knowledge can’t answer every question. The irony is not lost on Rahman: it took a book about knowledge to show us this.

Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldThis was another very well chaired session, with Caroline Baum asking the questions of Helen Macdonald on her bestselling and multiple award-winning memoir H is for Hawk. I read Macdonald’s book (not reviewed here) long before the SWF program was announced, so was thrilled to see her. She also gave the closing address, so do check that out on the SWF website when it becomes available. I know I will. As it turns out, Jane Gleeson-White was also in attendance and wrote up the session brilliantly over at her blog here. It’s a great read.

So rather than cover the same ground, I’ll simply say that one of the most fascinating things about the book and Macdonald’s answers was the way she described becoming one with the bird, almost teetering on the edge of sanity in the wake of her grief. The world became ‘tessellated’, and her senses were so ramped up she could feel ‘intuitions’ in the landscape as she took Mabel out to hunt, the sorts of things Mabel herself was sensing and reacting to. As Baum noted at the beginning, H is also for Helen.

Macdonald, as a poet, writes beautifully. She read out one passage in which she describes Mabel’s appearance, and it is achingly beautiful. I highly recommend reading H is for Hawk. In the meantime, read Jane’s blog post!

These two sessions were the pick of Thursday at the festival.

 

Thursday ‘Thumbs’

Thumbs down for: the ridiculously long twitter hashtag preferred by the festival organisers: #SydneyWritersFestival – it was way too many characters. Why not use #swf, #swf15, or even #swf2015 … ? (Ashley Hay beautifully skewered the hashtag on the weekend when she said it’s ‘apparently okay’ for it to not have an apostrophe!); thumbs down also to the change to red shirts for the (wonderful) volunteers from the usual and more distinctive orange. I think I’ll start a hashtag of my own(!): #Bringbackorange

Thumbs up for: the ‘Book of Days’ collaborative project. Over the course ofBook of Days project the four days of the festival, Zoë Sadokierski, together with Astrid Lorange and Monica Monin, was tasked with creating an illustrated anthology—or ‘living index’—of the whole festival, based on the theme ‘how to live’. This included pieces of writing and art from selected presenters, as well as the ability for festival attendees to contribute through tweets or typewriters at Pier 2/3. Zoë is an award-winning book designer who also found time to chair and participate in a book design session on Saturday. The anthology will be available on a print-on-demand basis sometime after the festival, here.

Next up: Festival Friday…

 

SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is ‘how to live’, and this question came up in an unexpected way in Evie Wyld’s conversation with Clementine Ford about All the Birds, Singing (my review here), winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. It is the story of Jake, who lives on an island off the coast of the UK. Jake has a herd of sheep and something (or someone), some monster, is eviscerating her flock. It’s a powerful book, and I admired the craft Wyld displays throughout, from the opening scene of another dead sheep right through to the gripping and wonderful final pages.

The structure of the novel is a split narrative, with one arc of chapters moving forward while the other arc moves backward to a cataclysmic event in Jake’s childhood. Wyld was asked how she devised this structure. She said she works in a ‘messy way’, and didn’t plan the structure from the start. Rather, she wrote about 60,000 words, looked at what she had, and, in an organic process, rearranged things as the idea for the structure took hold. It was the best form to tell the story she had. In this way, form meets and matches the needs of the story.

For her, writing is about what you decide to leave out, (which has been on my mind after my recent reading of Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes), and also what the reader brings to the table. She likes writing ‘echoes’ that the reader doesn’t pick up right away. She said she receives some rather pointed emails from readers asking for exact clarification of the ending of the novel, but even with these emails, which she quite welcomes, she is of a mind to trust the reader to complete the story in their own mind. As for her, there are some days she thinks ‘X’ happens at the end, while other days she sees something else. For her, the best monster or ghost stories are the ones in which you don’t find out the absolute full story about the monster. Not surprisingly, she is a ‘big fan of open endings’, preferring a story to trail after you when you’ve finished it, leaving you with that after-taste you can’t shake.

Ford raised the topic of the misogyny in the book, with the ‘suffocation of being a woman’ captured well. Wyld said she is quite angry about the objectification of young girls, their sexualisation, and the ‘apologetic’ female experience. However, the cruel men in the story were not born monsters, they were damaged at some point and became monsters. Of course, sometimes this damage is self-inflicted,  and as one audience member noted, the story for her was about Jake’s guilt, a point I agreed with.

The gender discussion delved further into the sort of pressure and resistance female authors have when writing male characters as opposed to when male authors write female characters, and also about the average male response to finding Wyld’s book in her London bookstore: ‘I’ll buy it for my wife/girlfriend’, rather than ‘I’ll buy it for myself’. I don’t doubt all these problems, but as a male reader who bought the book for myself, I felt a bit lost. But I guess that (hopefully) makes be, um, not average? (Sadly, by the standards set by the men in this story and with violence against women such a problem in society generally, it seems this isn’t too difficult.)

Interestingly, when Ford said it was a ‘lingering’ book, and wanted to know whether it lingered for Wyld herself, Wyld said ‘I absolutely hated it when I finished. I was embarrassed by it.’ She said you ‘feel a disappointment when you finish a book’ because you wanted it to be X and it turned out to be Y. She thought it was so bad she had trouble giving it to her editor to read, and thought it wouldn’t amount to anything(!).

One audience member asked her how to go about writing strong female characters, and she made the point that you wouldn’t set out to write strong male characters, you would just write a male character, a real person. That in essence is what a writer should do when creating a female character, ‘simply’ create a person, write them as neither good nor evil, strong or weak, but merely human.

Wyld said she is a huge fan of Tim Winton and, like him, found it easier to write about Australia when overseas (she lives in London). Australia, a place she spent many years in as a child, is a place of nostalgia for her, something that clearly comes through in her writing.

Right at the end of the session, Wyld said she started the story after reading about the infamous Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand, committed in 1954 by two girls aged 15 and 16, which the movie Heavenly Creatures is based on. Because they were so young, when found guilty the girls ‘went to juvi’, basically a slap on the wrist, and then moved separately to the UK. One lives on an island with some cattle, and has become religious. The other also moved to the UK, changed her name and is now a very successful novelist(!) and is also now very religious. The question came to Wyld: what happens if you’re an atheist and do something unforgivable? Who can forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? How do you live? This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the talk, as the question of where authors get the germ of an idea for a book always interests me. And it very aptly dovetailed with the theme of this year’s festival.

On that note, bring on the rest of the festival!

SWF LogoMy favourite week of the (literary) year has arrived, with the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolling into town. The program is online at swf.org.au. As usual, it’s a case of wall-to-wall sessions for me later this week and into the weekend, but I’m easing myself into things with a one-off session at the University of New South Wales today featuring Evie Wyld, winner of last year’s Miles Franklin Award for All the birds, singing (my review here).

Authors I’m seeing later include: Brooke Davis, author of Lost and Found (my review here); Zia Haider Rahman, author of the acclaimed In the Light of What We Know, which I’m reading now and quite enjoying; Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, which I read earlier in the year and thought absolutely fabulous (I miss Mabel!); Don Watson, The Bush, another read from earlier in the year, and another stand out non fiction title from last year; Aussies Steven Carroll & John Marsden talking about creating historical fiction alongside Amy Bloom; another Aussie in Terry Hayes talking about his epic (and fabulous) thriller I Am Pilgrim; David Mitchell, discussing his genre bending The Bone Clocks (my review here), and in another session with James Bradley and others talking about dystopian futures; Ben Okri, talking about The Age of Magic; Brooke Davis (again!) and Steve Toltz (A Fraction of the Whole; Quicksand) on sentimentality in fiction; a session on book design with the inimitable WH Chong from Text Publishing and other book designers (it’s great to see a book design panel session return to SWF); Malcom Knox, Sonya Hartnett and Kari Gislason discussing the things people hide, which, having read and enjoyed Hartnett’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Golden Boys, with its menacing underbelly, should be a fascinating session.

Phew, I’m tired just typing that! Should be great fun… and if you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the shelves at your local book store, then you can catch Evie Wyld, Brooke Davis and Krissy Kneen dish all, (what a shame this session is sandwiched between the normal times of other sessions, making it difficult to get to!).

I’ll get around to giving some round-ups of the pick of the sessions in the coming days.

All the birds singing by Evie WyldH is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldIn the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider RahmanThe Bone Clocks by David MitchellLost and Found by Brooke Davis

The Bush by Don WatsonI am Pilgrim by Terry HayesQuicksand by Steve ToltzGolden Boys by Sonya HartnettThe Age of Magic by Ben Okri


When the Night Comes by Favel ParrettWhen the Night Comes
is Favel Parrett’s anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed Miles Franklin Award shortlisted debut, Past the Shallows (my review here). Written in what can now be considered her signature sparse prose and ultra-short chapters, it is the story of a relationship between a young girl, Isla, and Bo, a Danish cook on the Antarctic exploration and supply ship Nella Dan. Laced with nostalgia and melancholy, Parrett takes us back into familiar territory: Tasmania in the mid to late 1980s, a broken family, an exploration of how young children are influenced by the adults in—or absent from—their lives. It is a much ‘quieter’ story than her debut; there is far less narrative drive.

The story opens with Isla moving from Victoria to Hobart, Tasmania, with her depressed mum and her unnamed younger brother, sailing across Bass Strait on a passenger ship in a storm. They are moving because her mother’s marriage with Isla’s father has broken down. Her mum is aloof and ‘absent’ from the story almost as much as her father is. The fact she never names her brother is a sign of just how disconnected Isla is.

The Hobart she finds herself in is all grey, but Isla’s spirits lift when she sees a red ship docked:

RED. Nothing but red. A bright red wall of steel. … A patch of sunlight broke through the clouds, hit the red bow, just a tiny beam. For a second there was nothing else but the words written clear, white against red: Nella Dan. I said the words over and over in my head. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. Nella Dan. They made my heart beat out faster.

She certainly stands out against the grey rain and the black River Derwent. And there is more here, for a man is waving to her from the deck of the ship. ‘Someone could see me.’ It is a simple, almost throwaway line, but it contains multitudes, and we begin to understand Isla’s fragile state of mind. The adults in her life have largely abandoned her, and here is someone seeing her. It’s deft and subtle characterisation. Isla’s mum befriends Bo, and the ship becomes a place of safety for Isla. Afraid of the dark, she finds on the Nella Dan, ‘it was never night’.

Isla’s chapters are told in first person, past tense. She is a woman in her forties, looking back at her childhood. Strangely, she narrates these slight vignette-style chapters as a child would rather than an adult. Bo’s chapters, meanwhile, are told in first person, present tense, and largely work well. Both are very reserved characters, even wary in the case of Isla. When Bo returns to Denmark in the southern winters, he finds himself lonely and wanting to return to Hobart.

There are thoughtfully constructed parallels between Isla and Bo’s two narratives throughout. Both narratives see characters suffer losses at similar points, and as a storm at sea frames Isla’s opening, so too does a storm at sea frame Bo’s opening:

The water hits hard again and we pitch over. I tense my core but I’m back against the bulkhead, sliding up towards the ceiling. I feel Nella shudder, grind her metal teeth. My bones vibrate against her. I try to relax, keep calm – it’s fine – but there’s this creaking, this screeching, like every bolt that holds her together is coming loose. Coming apart.

There is also a lovely and subtle symmetry between the opening and ending, with two voyages being made to islands. Indeed, islands, both physical and metaphorical, permeate the story. Although close to her unnamed brother, the aptly named Isla cannot bring herself to name him, and she is cut off from her mum, whose relationship difficulties she is too young to understand. Bo comes from an island in Denmark, and is drawn to both Tasmania and Macquarie Island; he is also drawn to Isla’s mum, who sits by herself at night, but most of their relationship is withheld from us. There’s an underlying hint that islands can be dangerous. One of her school teachers asks Isla’s class what the most dangerous thing at sea is: the answer is land, running aground, on a reef or rocks. You get the feeling not only ships that might run aground but people do, too.

And what of Nella Dan herself? Parrett holds a clear love for the little red ship, and this love permeates the story. When she is due to depart on the final voyage, she doesn’t want to leave Hobart, as if she senses a dire fate awaits her in the Southern Ocean. (There is a section of pages after the story with recollections of the ship by those who sailed on her.)

When the Night Comes is a bit like an iceberg: so much of it is underwater and unseen. For all the lovely characterisation, it feels like there’s something missing. Some of Isla’s chapters did not feel connected to the whole. Is this a clever play on the theme of islands, I wonder, or a lack of cohesion? I suppose that’s the risk in writing a story about disconnection. That said, I had the feeling the whole was more than the sum of the parts. There is a lovely resolution, quietly moving, and there is much to ponder about the unseen, untold story. It will be interesting to see where Parrett goes from here.

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett

2014

Hachette

245 pages (plus pages on Nella Dan)

ISBN: 9780733626586

Source: purchased

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