Thursday, 21 May 2015

Sydney Writers' Festival - Day 1

The Sydney Writers Festival (SWF) is an event that I have always wanted to attend, but never quite got around to. This year, however, I have taken some time off work to attend the festival with my mum. Over four days we will attend sessions with some of our favourite writers, learn about their motivations and be introduced to new authors and works. 

We have deliberately chosen sessions that reflect our interests in Australian history, genealogy, politics and literature.  We will see Richard Flanagan, Helen Garner, Annabel Crabb, Kate Grenville, Anna Bligh, and many more. I will be tweeting and blogging throughout, so stay tuned...

Day 1 of our SWF, Thursday 21 May 2015, is action packed with a fantastic program. Here's what we got up to:

Signings, sightings and socialising
We picked up our tickets at the Roslyn Packer Theatre and then wandered down to the piers. We got waylaid at Gleebooks and after browsing for a while we realised a session had just come out and a whole bunch of authors were coming for signings. So I quickly bought Joan London's The Golden Age and had a great chat with her when she signed it. Likewise Mum had a lovely chat with Kate Grenville when she signed a copy of One Life. We also spotted Emily Bitto, Ross Gittings, Mike Carlton and others.

We then grabbed a perch at a cafe and enjoyed the sunshine and a latte while we caught up with some of mum's friends, comparing notes about what we were planning to see at the festival. It was all enjoyably social until we had to bolt down the road to catch our first session.
We begin our SWF with Australian author Kate Grenville who has recently written a memoir of her mother, One Life (2015). Grenville's mother Nance had been compiling snippets of her own history and Grenville lovingly pulled them together into this book.

Nance was born in 1912 and lived an extraordinary life in amazing times. She went to Sydney University, became a pharmacist, owned her own business, raised a family, and built a house - all against the backdrop of the changing twentieth century.

I have not yet read this book, but have read some of Grenville's fiction, like The Secret River (2007). But I was keen to hear Grenville talk about this book and her approach to her mother's story.

Grenville started with a reading about her grandmother Dolly, who led a fairly frustrated life in an unhappy marriage, unable to have the career she wanted, instead serving as a disinterested mother to three young children. During the session Grenville spoke lovingly of her mother and how her mother wanted to publish a memoir because the stories of the lives of ordinary women are never told. Nance also understood her place in history, as the first generation of women in her family that was literate and could have a career, and felt her story would be akin to A B Facey's A Fortunate Life

Grenville talked about the difficulty of finding the right narrative voice for the book. She said that the book is "as much a social history as a biography of a person" and that it "took 27 drafts to find the voice which now seems so effortless".  In those drafts, which she called "an unpublishable mess", she tried to write a conventional biography, interspersed with her mother's words but that didn't work. She then got some great advice from a friend that told her to "throw out the cautious biographical voice". 

While Nance was alive, Grenville recorded her mother telling stories which helped immensely in the writing. But she said she could never have written the book when Nance was alive, as "she was my mother and I was her daughter. But after she died I was getting to know her woman to woman."

I am really looking forward to reading this book and Kate Grenville was a great way to kick off our Festival.

Every Sunday I tune in to see journalist Barrie Cassidy host Insiders on ABC. Last year he took some time off to write Private Bill: In Love and War (2014), the story of his parents. Bill Cassidy was a prisoner or war for four years during WW2. While he was away, his wife was a prisoner herself in many ways.

Like Grenville, Cassidy has written his parents' story, so it is interesting to compare and contrast the two books and the way in which the authors wrote about such personal subjects.

Cassidy had an interesting conversation with Group Captain Catherine McGregor, AM, about his father's military experience starting in Crete in 1941. There were a number of fascinating parts to the story including how his father was convalescing in a hospital that was jointly operated by the Germans and the Allies, the way in which the prisoners got news of the war (from covert notices to a smuggled radio), and the way they learned the war ended.

They then talked a lot about cricket, which is a particular passion for McGregor. Not being a cricket fan, I got a bit lost in the stories of bowls and not outs, but could get the gist of what they were talking about. 

Cassidy shared stories of his family, and how they felt about the writing of this book. The questions from the audience were largely centred around post traumatic stress disorder and became a bit repetitive. But then someone asked about gendered responses to war, and whether war ever solves anything. McGregor gave a compelling reply, referencing her Masters thesis on Robert E Lee, and talking about some of the positive interventions - what would the world be like if the Yankees hadn't challenged the Confederates, if the two world wars hadn't taken place, or the interventions in Timor. But she and Barrie both questioned the usefulness of the conflicts in the Middle East. 

This was a really interesting session, but I am not sure that I want to read the book. It was great to see Cassidy in person after watching him on TV for so long, and I particularly enjoyed hearing from McGregor, who is such a fascinating, articulate woman.

I missed Annabel at the All About Women Festival in March as her session conflicted with another. So I was delighted to have the chance to hear her at SWF talking about her book The Wife Drought (2014). Mum and I are huge fans of Annabel's writing and her show Kitchen Cabinet, so it was terrific to see her in person.

During her sold-out session, Crabb shared her tale of how this book came into being, starting as a rant she had written for International Women's Day about why there were so few women in federal politics. The response from readers was to alert her to the gender segregation in other professions.

Crabb shared some stunning statistics about gender and work, housework and wages. In her inimitable style, she talked about how society needs to change its view on gendered work. She spoke about the disservice that comes from questioning whether a man can cope with child rearing and considering it "an incredible erotic treat, this man who can make a pasta bake". She asked why we have a phrase for "working mother but not working father". 

She was asked about parental leave and Crabb said "it is a bit like waiting for a bus in Adelaide... Nothing and then two turn up." She said that as long as we view parental leave as a woman's problem, we miss the point. Everyone gains from having men more involved in child rearing, and as a society we all need to challenge the casual dismissal of gender in the domestic sphere. 

An interesting, thought provoking session from Ms Crabb. 

Our last session for today was to head to Sydney Town Hall to hear Richard Flanagan discuss his Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). I was thrilled to get tickets for this session and to hear Flanagan speak, as his amazing novel is one of the best books I have ever read.

At the Celebration, Flanagan spoke to Jennifer Byrne who gave him a wonderful welcome, likening his journey to that of an astronaut. Flanagan began by reading a passage about love. He said that the book, which is often thought of as a book about war, "was a book about love from the beginning".

He said that Narrow Road was a "book so easy to do badly and so hard to do well" and that he wrote it five times before landing on the version now published. He said "a good writer needs a good garbage bin". It turns out that Flanagan has a lot of unpublished writings and he made it clear that the work published "should be the best of you.  When it is not it is for the bin. You shouldn't just publish ceaselessly".

Flanagan showed photos of his childhood in Tasmania, and said that he had "a beautiful childhood because we were free and loved". He spoke of coming from a storytelling family and said "the novel isn't just an entertainment, it is one of the great inventions of the human soul." He said the "novel is the purest form of storytelling". 

Flanagan read two more segments of his magnificent novel, and spoke about his love of Tasmania, his family, and about some of his favourite writers (Chekhov, Faulkner, Kafka, Camus etc). 

The session ended with Byrne asking Flanagan what winning the Booker meant to him. His response was quite interesting. He said "I dragged many burdens as inevitably, if you live by your own lights, you will.To be a writer in this country is hard as we are a conformist country and writing is non-conformist. With the Booker I realised I was free and I could leave my burdens behind."

Flanagan was lauded with a deserving standing ovation. I am so thrilled to have seen him live. His book  is marvellous and even now, months after reading it, I still get emotional thinking about the characters and the storytelling. It is a masterpiece.

So that was Day One of our SWF. There were some common themes that came out through the discussions. Both Grenville and Cassidy were initially writing their books as family stories to be shared only with relations, before realising there was a wider audience that might be interested in the lives of these extraordinarily ordinary people. Flanagan and Grenville spoke about the trials of writing novels and the drafts that they rejected before landing on the final one. Converesely, journalists Crabb and Cassidy wrote much more quickly finishing their books in months. I have so much food for thought, and many books to read now!

There were many other sessions we would have liked to have attended but were unable to, including:

Stay tuned for stories from Day Two of SWF.

A few weeks ago I also heard Julia Gillard speak as part of the Sydney Writers' Festival. You can read my post about her session on this blog as well.