What a glorious day Sydney put on for the first full day of events at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). If there’s a better advert for those of you who are further afield to swing into Sydney mid-May then I’ll eat my hat!
A brief muse on today’s sessions…
Due to overwhelming popularity of the session, I was unable to get into ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’ – a discussion of indigenous land use practices before white settlement of Australia. Here’s hoping there’s a podcast I can download at some stage via the SWF website.
I did get to ‘The Second Time’: where critically acclaimed authors Kirsten Tranter (The Legacy & A Common Loss), Deborah Forster (The Book of Emmett & The Meaning of Grace), and Steven Amsterdam (Things We Didn’t See Coming & What the Family Needed) were chaired by Angela Meyer (Literary Minded) through an engaging and entertaining discussion about the so-called “Second Book Syndrome”.
Part of what’s fascinating about panel discussions like this is the different approaches and experiences that each author has to impart. Steven Amsterdam spoke about his participation in two writing groups, something Forster and Tranter couldn’t imagine doing! In writing his second he found a freedom in moving away from writing in the present tense exhibited in his first and found he had more control in writing his second novel, though it needed a lot more editing to get right.
Forster spoke about her stories ‘sneaking up on her’ and how she ‘opened the door to see if they wanted to come in’ – a delightful way of explaining how stories come to life – though she also said that stories were a result of a lot of hard work. When asked if the response to her first novel influenced the writing of her second, she said she had started it before the first came out so was already on her way; the second story came out of the first one. She also spoke of her love for The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.
Tranter relayed her experience of working with the time pressure that her two-book deal imposed on her second book. She also explained how after writing her first she recognised that books exist differently for each reader and so there’ll always be different reactions to her work, something us bloggers no doubt prove!
A good session – see if you can find a recording of it.
I sat in on ‘Standing on the Outside, Looking In’: another panel on three very different history books, each a category winner in the 2011 NSW Premier’s History Awards: Shane White’s (et al) Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars (winner: General History); Stephen Gapps’ Cabrogal to Fairfield: A History of a Multicultural City (winner: Regional and Community History); and Penny Russell’s Savaged or Civilised? Manners in Colonial Australia (winner Australian History). Despite the wide subject matters, what was clear was the way in which each had found those characters and specific moments and social interactions which helped to drive the narratives of their works. There were many interesting facts and people, typified by White’s explanation of so-called ‘Dream Books’ which were bought for 5c in Harlem to help people pick their number for the ‘Numbers’ gambling (essentially pick a number between 1-1000, with odds of 600-1 if you got it right). These dream books had a number for an event or object that appeared in a dream. If you had a dream about a murder, then that was number such-and-such; a fire engine, got another number, and so on. Apparently you can buy these books on e-Bay for between $50-150.
Last, but not least, ‘Spirit of Progress’ with 2008 Miles Franklin winner Steven Carroll, talking with The Age and First Tuesday Book Club’s Jason Steger, about not just his most recent novel Spirit of Progress – a prequel to his ‘Glenroy sequence’ (as he now describes it, as opposed to ‘trilogy’ – but about all his work. Steger had very thoughtfully handed out a print-out of Sidney Nolan’s painting ‘Woman and Tent’, which features Carroll’s great aunt and also features in his latest novel. Described as an ‘indomitable’ woman, there’s a sense of something very personal about both the woman in the painting and the one transferred into his fiction. I could go into a lot of detail about this session, but I’ll just pick out two points: first the book that got Carroll into reading as a young adult: The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, a book he reads every two years or so, and one that has not lost its impact on him. Part of the influence was the sense of key moments in people’s lives, how he likes to slow down the present and show these moments as they occur, and how characters ‘miss the moment’, that is, how they don’t recognise the importance of the present. The second point is that his next novel will be about TS Eliot – a poet he said he greatly admired, not just for his poetry but for his essays on literary criticism. One final observation is how important rhythm is in Carroll’s writing – and all good writing for that matter. (Carroll is running a fiction ‘masterclass’ full day workshop on Friday – how lucky are those aspiring writers?!). Lisa Hill loved Progress – see her review here.
That’s it for Day 1. FYI: Radio National has SWF highlight programmes on both Saturday and Sunday at 1pm, plus additional programming across the next three days.
Join the SWF discussion on twitter @ #SWF2012.
Bring on Day 2!