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Archive for the ‘Literary Festivals’ Category

SWF LogoThe theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was ‘have we got a story for you’. Right from an opening ‘address’ that was performance rather than talk from story-teller Daniel Morden, which you can listen to here, the tone was set.

My highlights:

1. James Wood’s finger drumming. (Oh, and his thoughts on Winton, Stead, Carey, Naipaul, Sebald, Franzen, DeLillo, Austen, Auster, Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis (winner of 2013 Man Booker International), and his love for Keith Moon’s drumming.)

2. Novelists Edward Rutherfurd and Hannah Kent ‘sparring’ with Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala on the nature of truth in history fact and fiction. I say ‘sparring’ because at times they seemed to be in agreement: Rutherfurd argued history students should be made to write a short story every term so they can visualise the past rather than recite mere facts and figures. Dabhoiwala responded by saying he has his students write the history of today or tomorrow in order to show them that writing history is indeed a matter of perspective and selection. I’ll be writing more on historical imagination soon.

3. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a literary gentleman, talking lovingly about old book stores, the art of translation, the fact his Shadow of the Wind series will never be made into films because it would be a betrayal of the books. What resonated most, though, was him urging us to resist the ‘cultural deforestation’ underway at the hands of global technology companies.

4. The annual book design panel, with design luminaries like Hall of Famer W.H. Chong from Text Publishing, which you can read more about here.

DSC03676 - Saturday sun

Saturday sun @ SWF

5. The Silent History story ‘app’ as one possible future avenue for e-books. Purely digital, its serialisation is nothing new — Dickens and others used to sell stories in the same manner. But the geo-delivered ‘field reports’, which are an adjunct to the serialised story and which you only receive to your phone or tablet if you’re standing within 10 metres of a particular point, is exciting. They can provide a sort of fictional walking tour of places you visit.

6. ‘Love and laughter’ with Graeme Simsion and William McInnes. There was plenty of both. When he was bored working on an old TV series, McInnes used to write disturbing fan letters to fellow cast members! Simision wrote the screenplay for The Rosie Project but couldn’t find funding for the project, so asked his agent if writing it is a book would help, to which the agent said, ‘Only if it’s a bestseller’. The rest as they say is history. The movie rights have been optioned, and there are two book sequels in the pipeline as well.

DSC03668 - Saturday sun at SWF

Sun-spangled waters @ SWF

7. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Novelists, and in particular Majok Tulba, a Sudanese-born Aussie, with a wonderful smile and charming nature, who spoke of how he came within an inch of becoming a child soldier, and how that experience inspired his Beneath the Darkening Sky; how a friend in a refugee camp showed Majok a book and told him there were machines you could speak into that made your voice into a book; and how, despite the struggle  to learn English, the real struggle was to get the painful images of civil war onto the page.

8. Gillian Mears discussing Foal’s Bread. Heart-rending and heroic. I’ll never forget it. For more, click here.

9. Daniel Morden’s performances, both the opening night ‘address’ and his (unbelievably free!) rendition of (most) of Homer’s Odyssey. There was good reason the likes of Cate Kennedy were in attendance to hear the epic tale retold. It was spellbinding stuff, proof of the power of story-telling and of aural story-telling in particular. If it goes up on a podcast, check it out. Also, Morden has put many stories, including The Odyssey into book form for young (and young-at-heart) readers.

DSC03688 - Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

Vivid Customs House in Circular Quay

10. Talking books against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour under clear skies (on the weekend at least!), with the amazing Vivid Festival adding even more interest for both locals and visitors after dark. In response to The Guardian’s quip that Sydney doesn’t do rain well (true) Carlos Ruiz Zafón said that Sydney was beautiful even in the wild rain we had on Saturday night. As for sunshine…well, we do that pretty well!  

Did the Sydney Writers’ Festival have a story for us? No. It had hundreds of them, enough to sustain us until next year’s festival. The 2013 edition was a resounding success for new director Jemma Birrell. Congratulations to her and her team. And a huge thank you to all those blue-shirted volunteers.

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SWF LogoI hope you’ll forgive me a little indulgence, but I want to share something special. Today I had the rare privilege of seeing Gillian Mears in discussion with Bruce Pascoe at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). I say rare because this was Mears’s first speaking event in Sydney in sixteen years. (The privilege speaks for itself.)

Introduced by Jane Palfreyman, head of Mears’s publisher Allen & Unwin, Gillian read from her critically acclaimed and much loved Foal’s Bread (my review). It was so lovely hearing her read. The tenderness in her writing was palpable in her voice and her curt laughter at our laughter as the kids played at being horses. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.

Bruce met Gillian many years ago and recounted how she was shocked by gender inequality in writing back in 1984. Mears said that growing up in Grafton, a country town in the north of New South Wales, played a big part. Grafton was her ‘fields of praise’. It was always full of horses.

Foals Bread by Gillian MearsBruce showed us a photo in an old Meanjin in which Mears was standing on the back of a horse. The horse was Bellini, ‘the last mare’ of Mears’s life. It was Bellini that diagnosed her MS first. She knew something was wrong with her before anyone else. We often hear that such-and-such a book couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Well, Foal’s Bread could not have been written by anyone else by Gillian Mears.

In the novel, Roley is struck by lightning three times. Bruce wanted to know whether this was an evocation of bad luck. Mears said that many Clarence Valley horsemen had been struck more than once and lived to tell the tale. She thought she had to use this in her story. It’s so hard for us not to equate, as I think Bruce was alluding to, the injustice of Roley’s condition and Mears’s own. The conditions they have share much in common; so too the dreadful theft of the ability to ride horses.

Pascoe brought up her eye for details, offering an example from an earlier work The Mint Lawn, in which a boy shakes spit out of a trumpet. Again referring to Grafton, Mears recounted the lovely anecdote of the moment she went to send in the manuscript, which meant going to the undertaker’s (as that’s where the photocopier was!), and dealing standing behind a desk with a man all dressed up in white shirt and bow tie who was from the waist down wearing only his ‘jocks’ because it was so hot! These details sum up Grafton, she said.

Mears worries about the state of humanity’s influence on the natural world. Aboriginal wise men have said when we begin to control the wind, that is the end of the world. She felt this acutely recently when she read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He writes such heartbreaking endings, she said. But even in the grey ending there is a sense of hope, some chink of light that Mears herself seems to reach for. And of course, McCarthy wrote of horses so well too.

The sensitivity of Mears to indigenous people is clear. She told the story of some aboriginal boys at her school (where the principal wore white shoes and a purple suit!), who got into the roof of the girls’ toilet to take a peek. It was hijinks, said Mears, but the principal had boards nailed over the roof and the boys were trapped overnight. It wouldn’t have happened to white children, she said. There is still a level of ignorance in the wider community.

When asked about the Eastern spinebill bird, Mears spoke lovingly about being enchanted by the grey butcherbirds of the Clarence River Valley. The Sydney butcherbirds, by contrast, can’t quite get their song going… it sounds more like a clattering – it must be, she said, all those jumbo jets!

Of course, MS was never far from everyone’s thoughts today. Mears has searched high and low for a cure. She spoke of the freedom of paddocks that you could put a horse in to recover from a condition. She went in search of that paddock, both figuratively and literally. What she found were so many gates in the landscape. It took her a long time to find the large paddocks. She spoke of camping in the northern coast of NSW, out in these paddocks. After a time she would be ‘moved on’ by the locals. It gave her the mere but painful inkling of how Aboriginals must have felt to be ‘moved on’ from their land in years gone by.

Returning to Foal’s Bread, she said she was given a foal’s bread by her sister, which dried into the shape of a heart, like the one in her novel. She had been gathering fragments of story for years as her body began to crumble, finally summoning the supreme effort to pull all these fragments together to form the novel.

She recounted writing out in the wilds, at a mobile desk she would set up, how on one occasion she spotted a red-bellied black snake slithering along the ground nearby. It looked as though it was headed off, but when she looked down again it was beneath her chair. To much laughter, Bruce asked: How did the writing go? It was a challenge to stay still, she replied!

Aside from encounters with deadly snakes, writing outdoors wasn’t very practical. And yet, how she misses the wilderness. She spoke of how cold river water used to be an ‘elixir’ for her legs. She once had the unique experience of swimming in such a river, and being joined by a mother platypus and its young. The image is a soaring one, isn’t it? She admitted how she so misses that contact with the wild world, like that one, like grey thrush visits.

Bruce asked her about Noah’s baby and the butterbox, a harrowing event in Foals’ Bread’s opening. She said Noah had no choice, that the act of the butterbox was one of mercy in a way, more merciful at least than other options that would have achieved the same outcome. It was a ‘lamentation for her life’. Given Mears’s change of heart over euthanasia it’s hard not to sense Mears’s own life in those same hands.

I am glad I ran out of ink at the session’s end; the audience had gone to a place where words couldn’t hold our collective emotions together, and I suspect any words I’d have written would have run on the page. Our ovation was heartfelt and long-lasting. Mears was and is heroic. She has moved all of us with her words and stories; today she moved us because of who she is.

I’ll leave the last word to her. After paying tribute to her sisters toward the end of the session, she described herself as a sheoak. Like the tree, she is best after rain, she said, when reaching for the light.

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SWF LogoOne of my favourite sessions at each year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is the session on book design, which typically follows the Australian Publisher Association’s Book Design Awards night. This year was no different, with some engaging presentations from award winners as well as the added perspective of design from a publisher’s point-of-view, in this instance from Helen Boyle.

Book design is such a crucial part of getting books into the hands of readers. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ might well be true of people, but it’s certainly not true of books – as Boyle noted. I think we need to put a spotlight on the tremendously creative people who create the not just the face of our books but the entire look and feel of them, cover to cover. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner - designer Allison Colpoys

The first talk was by the charming Allison Colpoys, a freelance book designer and illustrator, whose slide on the creative process was hilarious (including one section whose name I can’t repeat and another called ‘panic’. It provided a great framework for discussing the process she went through in designing Penguin’s Australian Children’s Classic series, which won the award for Best Designed Children’s Series.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay - designer Allison ColpoysShe described the limited colour palette that was chosen to give the series a vintage look and feel, and commented that the vintage look was becoming more widespread in book design. There are ten works in the Penguin series, and she showed the rules for colour, text panels, as well as icons and section break ‘dinkuses’. She showed some of the options developed for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Allison also showed two of the new additions to the series, A Fortunate Life and The Power of One.

Sufficient Grace by Amy Espeseth - designer Allison ColpoysAllison was also the joint winner of the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for her cover for Sufficient Grace by Amy Elspeseth, with its striking shadowed trees and drips of blood. It really sets a mood for the story and wants you to pick up the book.

Things I Love by Megan Morton - by Lantern BooksOur next speaker was Daniel New from Lantern Books. He also spoke about series design, offering six categories, from brand series (such as Penguin orange classics), through figurative (think Peter Carey’s newer covers), to genre conventions, to decorative, to conceptual (such as Penguin’s blank white covers that asked readers to draw their own covers and send them into Penguin), to creative partnerships.

Evi Oetomo from Lantern won the Best Designed General illustrated Book for Things I Love. One of the elements of good one-off cover design, Daniel said, is the notion it could easily be made into a series. He offered several images of potential titles in the series that used Things I Love‘s design as the template. Very interesting.

We then heard from Helen, from Templar UK, who backed up what I’ve been hearing at these sessions for the last three years, namely that book design is increasingly important in the digital age, particularly in the thumbnail version of the cover design. She spoke about some trends in UK publishing, particularly in YA fiction, with a predominance of black covers. Ironically, she noted, the ones that have white covers stand out much more now next to their black-faced neighbours, a fact she proved with a shot of a stand of such books.

The Voyage by Murray Bail - designer WH ChongThis sense of trends in cover design was picked up by our final speaker, WH Chong, who has been working for Text Publishing for ‘twenty years’, and is responsible for many of the covers we all know, such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and all seventy(!) covers for the Text Classic series. Chong was the other joint winner of the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book, for his cover for Murray Bail’s critically acclaimed The Voyage. He was also inducted into the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame last night. That there are only seven others who have received such an honour speaks volumes for Chong’s work over many years. A hearty congratulations, Chong!

Sarah Thornhill By Kate GrenvilleChong spoke about Stephen Romei’s recent piece in The Australian on the prevalence of the backs of women in current fiction covers, and the debate over softening of books marketed toward women.

I was expecting him to go on to explore his cover for Sarah Thornhill but he went instead to other covers, exploring the question of publishers not wanting to show a face because it potentially creates an image in the mind of the reader as to what the heroine (or hero) looks like.

Stasiland by Anna Funder - designer WH ChongOne fabulously striking cover that slipped through this filtering was Stasiland by Anna Funder. Chong also mused about covers for Kate Holden, Madeleine St John, and one that we’ve all seen recently: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, throwing up some international (Canadian and Taiwanese) versions to show how the local design has been translated overseas.

The Spare Room by Helen GarnerHe also mentioned Helen Garner’s quote at the recent Stella Prize award night, where she pined for a day when book “designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman’s book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder”.

Her most recent book is The Spare Room (my review), about a cancer sufferer and her carer friend – which Chong designed. It was an interesting discussion, and Chong at times questioned himself in an admirable way, believing it was not a reflexive image, but that it might have been trying to soften the theme for the audience (he offered up some mocked alternatives of possible covers showing angst and suffering which provided a stark alternative from a marketing/aesthetic point-of-view. It’s not easy selling a book whose front image is one of suffering.

And of course selling is want authors want, what publishers want, want the marketing departments want, and what is front and centre in all design briefs given to our book designers. No pressure then!

The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleI was going to ask Chong about the different briefs he received for Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (a perfect cover in my view) and sequel Sarah Thornhill, books tied together by story and theme but receiving such different cover treatments. Alas, time was called before I had a chance to ask.

There is a huge amount of thought that goes into good book design. It is, of course, much more than just cover designs. But for a work of fiction the cover is the most important aspect of design. A successful cover is more than reflective of the book’s content or theme. It is a marketing tool, requiring careful positioning, focus groups, and the ability to turn heads. Our panel of talkers had this ability in spades. If you ever get a chance to attend this session at future SWFs then I’d highly recommend it.

Congratulations to all the book design award winners, which you can have a look at here.

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SWF LogoIt was a grey, cold and wet start to the 2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) today, but I kicked it off in great style with ‘The Uncommon Reader’. Tegan Bennett Daylight chaired an engaging panel discussion with respected critics James Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White on what books have inspired them, from their formative years through to their predictions on the classics of tomorrow. I’ll just pick out a few talking points…

There was a discussion about the moment they began to feel like they wanted or needed to reply to books. James said it wasn’t until university that he was taught to read better, at which point he began to be a better reader, or observer, of the world as well. I think this is true of all us readers.

Both Geordie and Jane spoke of the enthusiasm that works such as Wood’s The Broken Estate allowed them to have. Jane said she still reads with a child’s enthusiasm now, something that was evident when she spoke about her favourites.

For James, he wanted to be able to write about things that made him DSC03665 - Harbour Bridge in Mistwant to burst out and say ‘this is bloody good!’. He writes not for academics, but for other readers.

Tegan asked a great question about what are the books that these avid readers return to, time and again. For Geordie, it is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. From Naipaul, post-colonial literature emerges. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a most ‘writerly’ book, something he leafs through when he feels a little stale.

James also admires Naipaul, noting A House for Mr Biswas as a very funny and poignant work. But for him, ‘the one’ is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a favourite of mine too. It has, he said, the thing so many works of fiction lack: the ideal ending.

Jane gets excited about any new translations of works by Homer and Tolstoy. But the two works she picked out are F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its ‘flawless prose’ (she read a passage of this out, endearingly trying not to cry!), and a favourite of mine: Emily Bronte’s  Wuthering Heights (my review).

Thoughts then turned to books and writers of today that will last. Tegan offered Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro. Geordie split the discussion into local and international contexts. For his local, he gave Tim Winton, admiring Winton’s ability to pull off writing that appeals to a wide audience and is also ‘pregnant with intelligence’. He had a smile when saying Stephen Romei had rung him to say the new Winton has just been delivered (expect it on your nearest bookshelf soon! – no title was given). For a global context, he offered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a ‘generational shift’, and praised the first page of Wallace’s unfinished work The Pale King.

James echoed Geordie’s praise of the opening to The Pale King, and agreed with Tim Winton. To that he added his admiration for Peter Carey, saying that while he liked his more recent works, he is eagerly hoping for the next ‘great novel’ from him, something to rival Illywhacker (my review) and Oscar and Lucinda (my review). (Given they are two of my favourite novels, I couldn’t agree more!) He also noted Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel. For his international, he picked out W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (which is featured in Wood’s most recent work of criticism The Fun Stuff and Other Essays). 

For Jane, it is Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But the one that ‘knocked her socks off’ recently was Atomised by French author Michel Houellebecq, which had James Wood nodding too. Jane was positively gushing in her praise, and has blogged about Atomised at Bookish Girl.

For all that, the one author not mentioned, but mentioned by an audience member in a question was Jane Austen. Geordie swung this to Tegan, who re-reads every Austen each year, (and is an admirer of Northanger Abbey, whereas Jane Gleeson-White said she’s more a Persuasion fan (as am I).

I left with the feeling that if I had only attended one session at this years’ festival, then this would have been a great one to choose. The reading list alone would keep me going with great reads for a good while. The panel spoke with intelligence, wit, and above all, enthusiasm about the thing that brings us all together: books.

I’ll have more SWF musings over the coming days and weeks.

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The Sydney Writers’ Festival program was launched on Friday. To be held in the third week of May, you can review the program here.

Big name international authors include Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Anita Desai. I’m looking forward to hearing the thoughts of James Wood, famous literary critic at The New Yorker magazine, and attending sessions on reading the classics, with Wood, Geordie Williamson and Jane Gleeson-White. There’s plenty of strong Aussie authors appearing, including Michelle de Krester, Gillian Mears, and Graeme Simsion amongst many others. There’s also a session on Pride and Prejudice, marking the 200-year anniversary of its publication.  

As always, there’s much on offer and many clashes! Looks like being a great few days.

I hope to see you in the crowd!

John

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A muse on tonight’s talk at the State Library of NSW entitled ‘Sleeping Beauties’, featuring Jane Gleeson-White and Geordie Williamson. Presented in conjunction with the Stella Literary Prize, there was a lively discussion of several Australian women authors who deserve a wider audience for their work. There couldn’t be two better-placed people to discuss the topic than Jane, blogger at Bookish Girl and author of the very accessible Australian Classics (see my review here), and Geordie, chief literary critic at The Australian and author of the recently published The Burning Library.

Jane aptly started off proceedings by declaring 2012 the year of the woman writer in Australia, with so many awards won by the likes of Anna Funder and Gillian Mears (see my review of Foal’s Bread here). The subsequent discussion touched on the issues of the imbalance of women-to-men in publication and reviewing statistics, and how even some of the published women’s stories in the twentieth century were edited by men for a particular assumed audience, during which the essence or flow had been excised and the story sadly depleted. As a bit of an idealist, I just find this sort of bias mind-bending and terribly sad. Anyway, we soon dived into a discussion of the following authors and their works:

  • Barbara Baynton: short stories, particularly, as Jane noted, the ‘chilling’ The Broken Vessel.
  • Judith Wright: how her second intimate poetry collection ‘Woman to Man’ was not published because it was considered ‘too obstetric’.
  • M Barnard Eldershaw: this was one of Geordie’s picks… or should I say two? -for, as Geordie explained, MBE was actually two women: Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. Both highly intelligent, Geordie explained the cruel curtailing of Barnard’s dreams of taking up a place she won at Oxford by her father. She said, ‘Life is backed up in me for miles and miles’, such a heart-rending expression. Their novel A House is Built was discussed. Set in 1830s Sydney, it is the story of a successful early merchant – and sounds just up my street – expect a review of this soon(ish!). Other works include Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Geordie described how these women authors worked within the masculine rule book of publication, but did so with a very feminine focus as well as a subversive (and therefore much more interesting) streak. They were hugely influential on a certain Patrick White, too. And it wasn’t just their fiction, for they also wrote a lot of critical work, including reviews of the young Christina Stead. Marjorie Barnard went on to write solo; her works include The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories.
  • Henry Handel Richardson: Jane commented that HHR’s Maurice Guest is perhaps her favourite novel by an Australian author (to which she quickly added Voss and Carpentaria!). Her debut novel, it is, in Jane’s words, an ‘overblown, passionate, Wagnerian story. Set in Leipzig, it centres on a love triangle, with poor Maurice the hapless dupe who’s in love with the gifted music student, Louise Dufrayer. For Jane, it shines every bit if not more than HHR’s more recognised ‘Australian’ works The Getting of Wisdom and The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.
  • Christina Stead: Geordie said the neglect shown to HHR’s Maurice Guest applies to all of Christina Stead’s work – cue much nodding of knowledgeable heads in the audience! Jonathan Franzen is not the first to acknowledge Stead as one of the great twentieth century novelists, said Geordie. Many other critics and authors have said much the same thing. Yet still Stead sits in the shadows: she sold 199-odd books in 2008 and was only taught in one Australian University. Why? Is it because of her ‘intelligent ferocity’ an approach she had to life and to writing? Is it because ‘we like our modernism light and our Booker Prize novels well edited? Jane agreed that Stead can be difficult, admitting it had taken her a few attempts to get through The Man who Loved Children, but now adores her. Other titles of Stead’s mentioned included For Love Alone and The Salzburg Tales, a book of short stories.
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry, and how the Indigenous voices are starting to pick up the stories written in our landscape, by writers such as Alexis Wright (see my review of Carpentaria here) and Kim Scott (see my review of That Deadman Dance here).
  • Amy Witting: the first Aussie to sell two stories to The New Yorker, a writer whom Barry Oakley called ‘the Australian Chekhov’, and yet she is not even mentioned in the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian authors and her works are all out of print. Her works include I for Isobel, which Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers has reviewed here.
  • Exiles at Home by Drusilla Modjeska was also mentioned as a great way into this world of neglected Australian female authors.

An hour well spent!

It was a shame there weren’t more literature lovers in the audience this evening. I hope there’s a similar session at next year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, as the topic deserves as wide an audience as the female writers discussed.

In the meantime, there’s so many Australian women authors demanding my attention, it’s hard to know where to start…

Happy reading…

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Thomas Cromwell is back – in Mantel’s new book, Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to the hugely successful Wolf Hall (see my review).  In Bring Up the Bodies, we find Henry VIII ‘seeing’ Jane Seymour for the first time.  Of course, he knew her from her life about the court, but this was the time he saw in her something else.  Cromwell, the master strategist and tactician, has to work out what this means, for Henry, for Anne Boleyn, for himself, for England.

There is no personal record of Cromwell’s life, perhaps because he erased it as he went, perhaps because he was determined to live in the shadows.  But as an author, Mantel was able to read between the lines.  His private life was like ‘the dark side of the moon’ – we know it’s there but we can’t see it.  This is ‘where the novelist operates’, in the world that the historian cannot.  Cathcart quoted  historian Simon Schama who had said he often arrives into a scene only to find his subject disappearing around a corner.  When asked whether she was following Cromwell around the corner, she replied: ‘I’m already around it’!

She spoke about other sources, such as his relationship with Thomas More.  More’s death was not a victory for Cromwell.  More wrote a record of all their conversations, sent to family members from The Tower to be keep safe, and these provide an accurate picture of the relationship and the sort of man Cromwell was.  More thought of Cromwell as a ‘tender friend’, a relationship that is often thought of in a different light.

Mantel described the great modernising that Cromwell undertook, the innovation in public management, such as his introduction of the Births, Deaths and Marriages register, the taking of the bible out of scholar’s hands and putting it into the church, as well as the failed attempt to introduce a job creation scheme which would be funded by income tax.  It is in this sense, the time when England begins to become a nation.  When asked whether she liked him, she grinned and said, ‘Yes, I like him very much.’  Even at his worst.  She marvels at how he gets into situations and is ‘chortling’ as he then slips out of them.  He used ‘empathy as a weapon’, not just a shield.

When asked about how it was that she could bridge the five hundred year gap and get inside the minds of her characters, she said that the past is both strange and familiar.  It was strange in that there ‘were no atheists in those days – everyone was keeping a tally of their sins to judge whether they were destined for heaven or the other place’.  In a very funny line, she said that in those days it was an apt question as to whether the pope was catholic!  There was a sense that if you said or did the wrong thing then that was it – your life was over, which added poignancy to every moment.  On the other hand, the desires of people were the same as ours, their manoeuvrings similar to the ones we see today.  The other thing she made note of which was interesting, was the fact that Wolf Hall had been translated into 30 languages; someone in Korea is making the same cultural leap to read the book, so it’s something that us humans do naturally to some degree.

Mantel expanded on her point about those key moments when she discussed the use of present tense.  She saw scenes unrolling like a film, and wanted to show the possible turning points in conversations as they occurred, those moments in which history could have been different if something else had been said or decided.  In Bring Up the Bodies, one such moment is when Henry is knocked unconscious in a joust.  He was out cold for some time, perhaps two hours.  Cromwell is summoned and on his way to the prone body of the king he is playing in his mind all the ramifications, of who the next monarch might be, of how to engineer outcomes.  When he arrives, the moment is played out in a debate over the future of England.  Anne Boleyn is told the news that the king is dead (another moment) and blames this news for the subsequent miscarriage of a possible heir.

There was an interesting discussion about the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in Wolf Hall.  ‘He’ is always Cromwell unless Mantel notifies the reader otherwise.  Most readers, myself included, ‘got’ this in the first couple of paragraphs, but there was confusion in the minds of some readers.  The reason for the choice was her ultra close third person.  Because we see everything through his eyes, she found it hard to have him as narrator refer to himself in the third person.  In Bring Up the Bodies, she makes more use of ‘he, Cromwell’, to reduce confusion, but she noted that now some readers have said that the ‘Cromwell’ addition isn’t necessary – so you can’t please everyone.

In describing her writing process, Mantel said she writes in a ‘collage’, writing out different parts of the story, before taking a step back and seeing what she has and what the structure should be.

Has the winning the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall changed her?  ‘Less than you’d think’ was her reply.  She has increased confidence as a writer, but she still has to face the blank screen at the start of each day and those same insecurities are there – ‘you’re only as good as your next sentence’.  Stephen Romei, in another SWF2012 session ‘But is it a Good Read?’, pointed to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as being archetypes of great literature.  I’m very much looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies to experience what will surely be another cracking read, so I can test and savour all those beautiful ‘next sentences’…

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Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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