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Archive for May 20th, 2011

Session #99: ‘The Fascinator’: Gail Jones, Ashley Hall, and Delia Falconer in Conversation on Sydney:

Another great panel discussion marshalled by Jill Eddington, this time on Sydney and how it speaks to three authors whose latest books are set in or are about the harbour city.  I must confess I have not read any of these books yet (sigh), which, for a Sydney-sider like my good self is a bit poor, and after hearing each talk about their work it seems like even more of a shortcoming. 

Gail Jones has been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award three times.  Her latest is Five Bells is a story of four adults and a child whose lives converge on a single Saturday on Sydney Harbour – specifically around the Quay area. 

Ashley Hay has written several non-fiction books, (I have Gum on my shelf, one that I like particularly).  Her first novel is The Body in the Clouds, which has three different people in Sydney in different time periods (one of whom is William Dawes) witness the same amazing thing: a man falling out of the sky.  It sounds like a great premise for a novel! 

Delia Falconer needs no introduction, but whereas Ashley has gone from non-fiction to fiction, Delia’s latest, Sydney , sees her go the other way.  (I must admit to thinking of Peter Carey’s wonderful little book on Sydney, called Thirty Days in Sydney, which I highly recommend.)

One of the interesting points that Jill Eddington made at the start is how the three books speak to the others, and how they might be read as a triumvirate (I feel a possible reading task for the Dilettante coming on!).  Jill asked them were they aware of each other’s work.  Ashley had read a proof copy of Gail’s story.  Gail knew of Delia’s book after exchanging emails with her about Kenneth Slessor’s famous Sydney harbour poem Five Bells, which they both love.  Delia was delighted in writing a non-fiction book not to have the anxieties that a fiction author might have when they know another author is writing about the same thing.  Ashley said that she had the unnerving reality of knowing Kate Grenville was writing about Dawes too, and indeed Kate made contact with her and they discussed their projects, which she was glad about as she could see that while William Dawes features in both their novels – being the focal point of Kate Grenville’s excellent The Lieutenant (see my review here) – she also saw that they were writing vastly different stories. 

The authors then spoke about the haunting that seems to live within Sydney, the sense of time slip, an obvious influence for Ashley’s book.  Gail said the origins of Five Bells were in the haunting Sydney harbour ferry crossing the harbour in darkness (which made me think of another well known poem, Late Ferry by Robert Grey).  For Gail, there is this sense of the brash light and modern structures but there are dark underpinnings, there are always currents moving beneath the city.  There is this sense of slippage. 

Ashley loves the harbour just beneath the harbour bridge and the bridge itself becomes a character in her book.  Ironically, it was in moving to Brisbane that allowed her to enter into her own imagination more which gave her the freedom to finish the story. 

Delia spoke of the sense of loss that underpins the city, the loss of Eora in the 1789 smallpox epidemic.  She too pointed to the layers in the harbour and spoke of how the ‘fascinator’ of the session’s title spoke to her not just of the brash hat worn by ladies at the races but of a bewitching character she had read in a story that was known by such a name. 

Ashley thought that Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow which she read in formative years (didn’t we all?!) is to blame for all this time slippage, saying that to her that Park’s story was real.   There is a sense in some Sydney streets that you could look down them and not only see, say, the 1800’s, but actually feel like you are in the 1800s, so powerful is the undercurrent. 

The Rocks is one such place – the setting, of course, of Playing Beatie Bow

Gail said there is a wonderful record, I believe she said in the State Library, of photographs of buildings before they were demolished – ny building that was demolished was recorded in a lot of detail.  The photos stretch back to 1890’s – a boon for novelists seeking a streetscape of a by-gone era. 

There were research gems for each author.  Delia spoke of Reverend Franck Cash of Christ Church North Sydney who wrote an ‘insane’ book about the demolition of Milson’s Point to make way for the bridge when it was being built.  He had photos of ‘ghost’ buildings in the act of falling down as they were being demolished. 

For Ashley, going to London and being able to flick through William Dawes’s original notebooks was thrilling.  They are now online too. 

Gail said that she had a dinner with Kate Grenville in London when Kate was reading those same books at another time – a small world!  Gail spoke about her Chinese research – one of her characters in Five Bells is a Chinese woman.  Gail spoke to survivors of the Cultural Revolution when she was in Shanghai, as well as reading many accounts of that time.  Her character comes to Sydney with that weight and shows strength to carry it forward. 

Of course, the harbour is the focal point of Sydney and is that way in these books too (no matter how hard Delia might have tried to avoid it at first!). 

Delia thinks the harbour is so suggestive.  There is a ‘wateriness’ about Sydney.  It’s there in the tides too.  She feels the harbour is a mirror for us. 

Gail said the harbour is a stage – a ‘place for art’.  She tried in her novel to recreate the novelty of those iconic things such as the Opera House and the bridge which many Sydney-siders take for granted (not me!).  Ashley rounded off proceedings by saying an apt tribute to Sydney Harbour is the fact that it is used as an (international?) measure for an amount of water.  In the recent Brisbane floods, she became very aware of ‘Syd Harbs’ – how many Syd Harbs were flowing down the Brisbane River. 

I think it might be a nice future project to read all three and see if Jill was right – whether these three books, two novels, one non-fiction, do indeed speak to each other…

The D!

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Friday at the Festival: Another glorious autumn day in Sydney:

Session #86: ‘Bright Sparks’: Markus Zusak & Sonya Hartnett in Conversation:

What a fascinating session with two of our best Aussie talents, very well chaired by Jill Eddington.  Jill first asked the authors about how they came to writing.  Sonya started early!  She was 9 years old when she started and 13 when she had her first novel.  She was published when still in high school.  She told a delightful story of how she was too young to be intimidated like so many first-time authors are today – all she did was pick up the yellow pages and look under ‘P’ for ‘Publisher’, picked one, sent it in and they published it!  She said she never really wanted to be an ‘writer’ and still has trouble with that label.  She was just an ordinary suburban kid growing up in a large family.  She thought only special people could be writers.  (She calls herself a journalist on the forms you have to fill in in airports for her  job title!)

She spoke of how she has trouble going back to look at a book, something Markus spoke of too. 

Markus turned to writing early on as well: he was 16 when he decided he was going to be a writer, and ‘nothing was going to stop me.’  His first ‘novel’ was only 8 pages – he couldn’t get past there.  Writing for him was the thing that makes him happy, and also miserable, but he finds happiness in that misery(!)  He spoke of how even though he has been successful fairly young, his early work was rejected.  At first he wondered why as he saw others getting published that were about the same level, but he now thinks those rejections were good for him because it made him determined to be better. 

As to why their novels have had such large overseas readerships, Sonya said that good books travel.  There are publishers overseas who will be interested, though some books naturally settle in some places better than others: she said she has had a lot of success in Scandinavian countries, and books that do well there might not do so well in the USA. 

Markus relayed a telling story from his childhood: he said he was in a running race at school and thought he had won it, but he was placed 6th.  When he complained to his father, his dad said, ‘one, stop whingeing, two: I thought you won too, but it proves that when you win you have to really win.’  Equating this lesson into his writing, Markus said that ‘you’ve got to write something that only you could write, that nobody else could do.’  That is part of his measure of success.  He said he didn’t feel brave in his choices made in The Book Thief (see my review here) – the ‘dark’ things were necessary to write that story. 

For him, writing The Book Thief was not a great leap – he just scratched the surface of his parents stories (they are both great storytellers), and reach in and pull out the world.  He did some research, but the bulk of it came after he had finished the manuscript. 

Sonya said you need to write what interests you.  Dark subjects, like death, which feature in her work, interest her, and she thinks interests most of us too.  She said she can see other writers who get to a point in their story and need to be brave but cop out – that annoys her.  In terms of her own work, she said using animals and children to explore dark themes seems to work really well as those characters have a ‘cleanliness’ about them, they see the truth in dark things. 

Markus was asked whether the books in The Book Thief were a deliberate prop he developed, but he said ‘you just stumble upon these things’.  He was doing some writing with some school kids when teaching and wrote some stories in that time, one of which had Death as the narrator, and another of which featured a girl in Sydney who goes around stealing books.  He gave the analogy of a painter in art class who paints something and then has paint dribbling down the canvas, and the art teacher tells them they must leave the dribble in.  Accidents are not really accidents.  They might seem so at first, but when he looks back he sees that those things were the only way to tell the story.  This also extends to plot: he said his favourite character in the book is Rudi, but although it might have been nice to keep him alive, there was never any consideration to do so: his death was necessary for the book. 

Sonya echoed this, saying that a book chooses its own focus.  Things like the narrator, their point of view, and so on, choose themselves. 

Markus spoke about how he came to have Death as the narrator.  He said people often say to him that he must have a great imagination, but he always responds by saying, ‘No, I just have a lot of problems’!  Necessity is the mother of invention.  He tried Death as narrator but didn’t have the right voice for him.   He then tried Leisel as narrator but that didn’t work either – he just ended up with the most Australian sounding German girl!  He returned to Death as narrator and eventually found the right balance in his character and from that the right voice.  This gave him a route to the end and the impetus to finish. 

The two authors then spoke about the process of writing which was very interesting and quite funny.  Sonya spoke about her storyboard approach.  She studied film after school but the ‘cards’ storyboarding method took her years to develop.  She used to start a story and make a lot of mistakes – this is the best way to learn, she says.  She calls it the ‘Ride the Wild Pony’ approach.  Now she does ‘Dressage’! – starting with what she calls ‘clouds’ – characters, setting, plot issues, ideas, (etc), and organises them visually before she writes a thing.  These clouds are colour coded so she can see when there is an imbalance in the structure, and see where she might need to add/subtract a scene. 

Markus says he rides the wild pony!  He organises by chapter headings.  He has a mathematical mind and so sees the structure in the number and order of chapters.  He will only start a book if he knows he can finish it.  He has plenty of bad days, getting thrown off the pony, but he gets back on always having a sense of where he’s going.  You need tenacity as a writer. 

When asked by an audience member about ‘contentment’, Markus said he is content with the success in material terms but never content with his writing.  He said, ‘you’re never going forward unless you’re unhappy’! 

Sonya answered this same question by talking about her Astrid Lindgren Prize win by saying it was nice to win, but it was already in the past – she was already wondering about what was next.  Also, to make the next book better, you need to ‘hate’ the last one! 

Markus said he thought The Book Thief would be his least-read book.  He didn’t try to please the audience.  He considered his first four novels his ‘first’ novel, The Book Thief his second, and his next, titled (The) Clay Bridge, the third: due ‘soon’.  He said he regrets the end of Messenger, he didn’t get it right, but the risk he took gave him the ability to write The Book Thief.   

Sonya says as a writer there are countless decisions you have to make and you need to stand by the ones you made at the time.  Her own regret is killing off Adrian in Of a Boy.

A fascinating insight into the minds of two of our best.  The similarities in determination, in never settling, in always looking to improve all stood out.  And the differing ways they go about the process of writing were very interesting.  A great session.

More to come from Friday…

The D!

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(#69): The Finkler Question: Howard Jacobson in discussion with Rick Gekoski

Well, confession time: although I managed to read a few of the authors’ books that I went to sessions on today, such as Tea Obreht and Kim Scott, I haven’t yet got to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question.  As Darren Hinch might have said: “Shame, Dilettante, Shame!”  And it seems that it is a shame as this session was so entertaining.  Jacobson seemed more comedian than author, but of course, one would expect that as that is his thing: comic fiction.  It will be very difficult for me to convey the humour in static, bland, black on white text.  I thoroughly recommend you all hunt down the audio (possibly video too?) recordings on the SWF website when they get them up, you’ll have great fun. 

Given Finkler’s Man Booker Prize win Jacobson was asked by Rick Gekoski what his views on literary prizes were.  He replied by saying that he has two views: one when he hasn’t won (they are the worst things, an abomination), and one when he does win (literary life is healthy and all is right with the world)!  He said he could never be a judge.  He is a writer not a reader.  He couldn’t read that many books, he said.  When he was shortlisted, he thought for moment, ‘I’ve won’ – as it meant the judges had read his book at least twice and for some just getting past the first page of his books is a problem!  He had many funny tales of his mother.  She told him he wouldn’t win, it was too Jewsih – he said that as a Jewish mother she couldn’t stand her son being in a state of hope!  (Apparently when he was accepted into Oxford he got his acceptance letter and told his mother he was in – she said, ‘let’s just check the envelope was addressed correctly!)  So he went to the Booker presentation dinner not feeling nervous as by then he had calmed down and wasn’t nervous, unlike everyone else.  As Andrew Motion, the chair of judges last year, summarised the winner, he was using words that Jacobson thought described Peter Carey’s book, then others’ books, until there was one word that caught his ear and he thought, I’m going to win this.  But then came the announcement that the winner was the Finkler Qu- and he thought, Damn, some guy called Finkler has won!  (But he did have an acceptance speech ready, he says he always has one ready, even on Oscars night he has one ready!). 

When he was asked why his books are so polarising, he said it was because laughter is divisive – comedy is harder to get people to agree on.  One look at people’s reviews on Amazon or the blogosphere will tell you that.  But when all is said and done Finkler will have outsold all his other novels combined.  He mentioned a very curious fact: that he has been #1 in Pakistan.  When asked why that might be so, he said that he always saw the flip side of questions and said, I don’t know why I’m number one, but the flip side is this: why haven’t I always been #1 in Pakistan?!  Still he thought it wonderful that Osama Bin Laden might have been captured because he was so deeply engrossed in the stories of Jewish men in London!

Jacobson has a long history with Australia and with Sydney in particular – he lectured at Sydney University for three years ‘way back’ and said of his time that he loved it, that he was having too much fun, that to work, to become a success, he needed to get back to dreary old England.  Too much fun can be a bad thing. 

When it was said that he is often compared to Philip Roth, he said he prefered to be thought of as the Jewish Jane Austen.  He spoke lovingly about Persuasion.  He said both he and Austen both write about social comedy.  Other influences include all the English titans: Dickens and Austen particularly, and all the big names, as well as ‘the Russians’: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. 

He did one reading from The Finkler Question.  He said of the book it is a tragedy, but one that should, he hopes, make us laugh out loud. 

I don’t think anyone in the audience left without a smile on their face.  Really great fun.  And Finkler is going straight to the top of the To Be Read Tower!

That’s it for Thursday.  Bring on Friday! 

The D!  🙂

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