Monday, May 25, 2009

Letter from Sydney (Writers' Festival)

Greetings from Sydney!

I’ve been here to attend the Sydney Writers’ Festival. In between getting horribly lost, catching cabs in the wrong direction, having my hostel room flooded (torrential rain flushing leaves, mud and 2cm of water across my floor) and sweltering in my Melbourne winter clothes ... it’s been fun.

This morning I discovered that former model and crime writer Tara Moss has been blogging the festival for the local ABC (702) and really done a pretty terrific job. The last time I read something of Tara’s at length was an article she wrote in a now-defunct magazine (The Eye, I think) about preparing for a book launch, in which she described picking out the perfect LBD and borrowing diamond jewellery. As a young publishing apparatchik at the time, I snorted and eye-rolled at the ridiculousness of it, and the distance from most authors’ reality, and vowed never to pay attention to anything she did again. (Though later, when I was working at a bookshop, Tara once again gave me cause for amusement when she dropped in for a signing and the male staff and owners all flocked to have their photo taken with her, unsuccessfully trying not to openly drool.)

It’s a good, engaging blog that gives you a good overview of the festival and has some nice short, snappy interviews. Hooray for a novelist who knows how to blog! (And no, she’s not the only one, but many don’t.) For the first time, I am prepared to admit that Tara is not just a pretty face.

My festival highlights were:

Being part of the large crowd for Christos Tsiolkas’s discussion of The Slap. There was a real warmth in the room, a definite sense of community, thanks in no small part to the graciousness of the author, in particular his dignified and admirably modest response to criticism (which, in turn, was quite politely put) and his seeming enthusiasm for engaging with his readers. It was like one big book club. And the extended, vigorous applause at the end was wonderful to hear and see – it felt like a kind of ‘thank you’, and I think Christos felt it as such. His face glowed with pleasure as the clapping rolled on. "I wanted to write a book about the middle-class. What we saw as the middle-class in Australia had changed dramatically over the past 20 years. I wasn't seeing that in the books we were writing or the films I was seeing and that was what fired me to write the book."

Not that I’m measuring my experience by ecstatic applause, but ... Richard Flanagan’s closing address on the dangers to our book industry, and Australian culture as a whole (not to mention jobs during an economic crisis) posed by the proposed changes to the parallel importation rules. He was so eloquent, so passionate, so engaging, so lyrical and breathtakingly logical in his argument. And the packed audience in the Sydney Theatre Company applauded so hard and so long that he left the stage and came back, and people began stamping their feet in approval. Of course, he was playing to a captive audience ... (the publishing industry’s version of ‘true believers’). “There will be a dying back of Australian literature as sad in its way as the dying of the Murray or the Great Barrier Reef.” You can download the speech in full here. (And, while we're on the subject ... YA author and Penni Russon also gives an excellent, logical, passionate argument against the so-called Coalition for Cheaper Books (Dymocks, Big W & Coles) here.)

The charismatic, deeply talented Philipp Meyer talking about his novel American Rust, growing up in Baltimore (and yes, this prompted questions about The Wire from both the interviewer and the audience), being a Wall Street trader and dropping out to write a novel, going to New Orleans to help out following Hurricane Katrina (he has worked as an emergency medical technician) and the writing process. The Australian’s chief literary critic Geordie Williamson officiated beautifully, though he gave away too much of the plot. Note to all chairs: DON’T GIVE AWAY THE PLOT! Of the impetus for American Rust, set in a former steel town in Pennsylvania devastated by the collapse of American manufacturing, he says, “I wanted to show what life was like in those places, good and bad.”

Some fascinating industry sessions with visiting international publishers.

Seeing Bob Ellis wander about the place, pillow in a plastic bag, looking suitably dishevelled, as befits his 'sad clown' persona, and as if he might lay down and take a kip in a corner at any moment. He did seem to slip out rather mournfully from Richard Flanagan's session in which he took a knife to Ellis's mate "Macquarie banker" Bob Carr (who famously told the crowd at last year's SWF that he doesn't read Australian fiction). I dearly wanted to stop him and ask what he thought of Carr's behaviour, but resisted the temptation.

Walking in the descending darkness along Sydney Harbour, between venues, watching the Opera House lights come on and listening to Fleet Foxes on my headphones.

UPDATE: You can read about Meanjin's (aka Sophie Cunningham's) SWF experience here. Includes excellent gossipy anecdote about Good Weekend journalist Mark Dapin (who I think writes always-interesting feature articles) inviting a publicist to punch him and ending up with a black eye.