Posts Tagged ‘Steven Amsterdam’

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!



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Well, day three down and four more interesting sessions to muse on:

1. Marie Munkara: in conversation with Irina Dunn – A very entertaining chat.  Irina had done her homework and Marie was very engaging.  She also read a few sections from her award winning book Every Secret Thing.  The book recently won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award and also won the David Unaipon (the first published indigenous author and the man on the $50 Australian note) Award for unpublished indigenous authors.  The story centres on the Catholic missionaries in aboriginal communities, and is laced with vibrant humour.  Marie was born on a riverbank of mixed parentage.  She told us how her mother had been “promised” from birth to an aboriginal man (who had multiple wives), but refused to marry her and was sent away with the newborn Marie in shame to Tiwi Islands.  But Marie was separated from her mother when aged three and was raised a Catholic.  Needless to say, the mission clergy don’t get an easy ride in her book!  The book’s second half becomes a lot darker, tracing the demise of the aboriginal community as alcohol is introduced.  Marie talked of how she was then reunited with her mother at the age of 25 – at which point she had to learn all her culture from scratch (and almost re-learn her languages too).  Marie knows many aboriginals who still struggle to find their own place after being raised in the missions.  Fortunately for her, and us, she has found her place, and I went straight to Gleebooks to purchase Every Secret Thing.  Stay tuned for a review. 

2. Peter Carey in Conversation with John Freeman (editor of Granta).  It always interesting hearing Peter Carey talk – as well as read from his novels.  Here he was talking of his recent work Parrot and Olivier in America.  He said he had been asked many times when he was going to write an ‘American’ novel, and had one on the go which he wasn’t enjoying when the idea for True History of the Kelly Gang came to him.  So he dropped the former and went with Kelly – to much success and acclaim of course, winning the Booker Prize for the second time.  It was after this that he began to return to the American theme and what better theme to tackle than Democracy.  The book is based on Alexis De Tocqueville’s travels to America where he wrote Democracy in America amongst two other works.  Carey talked of his horror of the Bush-Chaney Presidency and noted that whilst De Tocqueville’s more affirming viewpoints on democracy are well-known in the US, he was actually quite ambivalent about democracy and saw its ills, noting his worries about the position of the President itself.  Said Carey: “De Tocqueville saw [Sarah] Palin coming.”(!)  There followed a discussion on the relationship between ‘free will’ & ‘free markets’, Carey seeing the ills of the capitalist machine – including its vice-like grip on government.  In writing Parrot and Olivier in America, Carey said he was most concerned with getting the voice of Olivier right – the voice of an aristocratic Frenchman – but in the end he said it was a matter of class, and here he drew on his own experience of the differences between Geelong Grammar – perhaps the finest private school in the country, and certainly home to many of the Australian ‘elite’ (though I shudder to use such a term) – and his upbringing in Bacchus Marsh, an interesting insight into how an author draws on their experience, no matter how oblique, and renders their story from both memory and imagination.  In the end, Carey quite enjoyed writing Olivier.  (The voice of Parrot, he said, was ‘less of a stretch’.)  John Freeman opened the session by stating that he thought the book Carey’s best.  Well, it’s good, but it’s not that good.  Illywhacker, Oscar & Lucinda, and True History are better books in my opinion, and I quite enjoyed Jack Maggs and even his first novel Bliss too.  That said, Parrot and Olivier is a far better book than his recent work, so it was a welcome enjoyment.  Today’s session was interesting, but it lacked something, perhaps John could have done a better job – having enjoyed Irina and Marie’s conversation (see above), this seemed slightly inferior.   

3.  ‘Writing Short’ – Pasha Malla & Steve Amsterdam with Mandy Sayer – a nice session with both authors reading a short story from their collected stories books and discussing with Mandy the short form – though as Pasha noted, it seems difficult to talk about the short story without talking about its big brother – the novel – too!  Mandy made one of the more interesting observations when she posited that people prefer the long stories because they ‘don’t like endings’ – readers love to invest themselves in the company of characters for a time.  That said, with everyone’s attention spans shortening seemingly by the day, perhaps the short story will be the preferred format (until, of course, we can’t cope with that and poetry usurps it!). 

4. ‘A Wombat at My Table’ – Jackie French talking with Geoffrey Lehmann.  Okay, so every now and then I like to go to something completely left-field!  And one thing’s for sure, you cannot come into contact with Jackie French and not be in any doubt as to her passion for wombats.  She has written stories for children, as well as her adult memoir A Year in the Valley.  Geoffrey also read a lovely poem featuring wombats that was published in New Yorker. I came out knowing a lot more about something and had quite a few laughs in the process.  Good fun.

I had wanted to get into ‘Still the Lucky Country’ but you have to line up pretty early for the free events, particularly on the weekend, although I had the same issue on Thursday with one session too.  Oh well, you can’t get to everything.  If anyone was there, let me know how you found it.

What are your SWF highlights?  Let me know!

More to come tomorrow, the final day of SWF2010, including a session on Roberto Bolano which I’m quite looking forward to. 

The D!

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