Sunday, 22 May 2016

Sydney Writers' Festival 2016 - Day 2

Day two of my festival is my most action-packed, with back-to-back sold out sessions.  This was the day I have been waiting for, as I would be seeing the legendary Gloria Steinem today.

Here's what I got up to on a sunny Friday 20 May 2016 in Sydney.

History and Fiction: William Boyd and Julian Barnes

The program asks "Can fiction go where history fears to tread?" - a provocative question about where fiction and fact coincide. The session was chaired by Amelia Lester.

I was looking forward to this session as I really like Julian Barnes as a writer. He writes short novels which are crisp, sharp and literary. I enjoyed his Booker Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011), and want to read his latest novel The Noise of Time (2016) about composer Shostakovich in Stalinist Russia. Barnes admitted he has had a great 2016 so far. His book was published, he turned 70 and his beloved Leicester City FC won the Premier League.

William Boyd is a screenwriter and author. His most recent novel is Sweet Caress (2015). I have not read his work, but following this session I am intrigued. Sweet Caress is what he calls a 'whole of life novel, from cradle to grave'. Boyd said that most 'orthodox novels' give you a snapshot into someone's life but you may not know what happened before or after the events in the tale. He wanted to explore the whole of a character's life so the reader feels an intense familiarity.

Boyd spoke of the writer's craft and capturing the mundane aspects of life. He said that 'lives are not continually exciting, so if it is to be true, there needs to be boring bits. The challenge for the writer is how to write the boring bits in an interesting way.'

Lester, Boyd and Barnes
In terms of history and fiction, Boyd said that 'we can go as a novelist, where biographer's can not go' in that novelists can take facts and creatively expand upon them. Barnes relayed a funny story about his grandparents who kept diaries in their retirement. Each day they would read conflicting accounts from their diaries about what happened one year ago. He said that 'diaries are partial and unreliable' and as such can be a great device for fiction writers.

This was a humorous, erudite session which covered topics like photography, copyright, and technical devices in fiction such as lists. After the session I met Barnes and he signed a copy of The Sense of an Ending for me.

My Reading Life: Jonathan Franzen

International best seller Jonathan Franzen is speaking a couple of times at the Festival, mostly about his latest novel Purity (2015). I chose this session as I am keen to hear what writers inspire his works.

I have not yet read Purity but admire his earlier works, particularly The Corrections (2001). As a bonus, he was speaking with Tegan Bennett Daylight, author of Six Bedrooms, an author I enjoy.

This discussion was a meandering journey through Franzen's reading life. He explained that his parents were not readers, but new books were important despite their absence in the house. His earliest memory is of reading Dr Doolittle and, perhaps because he had no pets, he loved any book with animals (especially talking animals).

In his childhood he enjoyed the Narnia series, Peanuts and Harriet the Spy. As he reached high school he moved into Sci-Fi reading golden age authors like Azimov, Heinlein, Bradbury and Clarke.

Tegan Bennett Daylight and Jonathan Franzen

He said that his parents didn't want him to major in English, so he studied German and was introduced to the German moderates - Thomas Mann, Rilke, Kafka, Nietzcshe and the like. He read Gravity's Rainbow by Pynchon and other books that were rather bleak.

The books he read during the writing of The Corrections include the works of Christina Stead, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Paula Fox. The books he has enjoyed most recently are the works of Edward St Auben, Elena Ferrante and Murakami's Wind Up Bird Chronicle.

After the session I met Franzen and he signed a book for me.

How to Change the World

I met my festival friend at this session to hear from three incredible Australians whom I greatly admire. Catherine Keenan moderated the panel.

Keenan, Brown, Batty and Garrett

Rosie Batty was Australian of the Year in 2015 for her work on countering domestic violence. I have not read her memoir, about how her son Luke was killed by his father and how she then became the voice against domestic violence in A Mother's Story (2015). 

Batty is such an admirable woman:  generous, articulate, empathetic and passionate. She spoke about how 'I've always had a desire to make my life count for something' and that Luke's death was a catalyst forher calling. She was asked whether she would be interested in a career in politics and responded that she may at some point but feels she 'can achieve more when I am independent and not aligned'.

Peter Garrett has released a memoir, Big Blue Sky (2015) covering his life from Midnight Oil lead singer to Labor Minister. I have always admired Garrett for his commitment to public and early childhood education as well as the environment. 

Garrett spoke of his lifetime of activism and the achievements stemming from his decade in politics: Gonski education reforms, national disability insurance scheme, the carbon price. He spoke of his optimism and the mistaken public perception of politics, not understanding the hard work involved.

The final panelist was former Greens leader Bob Brown, a tireless conservationist and author of his memoir Optimism (2014).

Brown was perhaps the most outspoken of the bunch and pledges he 'will campaign for the environment until I die!' He spoke of the 'rampant age of materialism' and the need for grass roots activism.  He said it is not enough to like something, post a meme or sign a petition - that we need to get active. He also said we should not vote for ourselves but for our grandchildren as the decisions we make today have a lasting impact. 

This was a wonderfully optimistic panel and I left feeling heartened by the words.

Leadership: Then and Now

Our next session featured three journalists talking about the changing nature of Australian Politics. Margot Saville chaired this session, the author of Battle for Bennelong (2007) about Maxine McKew's victory over John Howard.

Saville, Kelly, Savva and Van Onselen

Peter van Onselen is a regular presenter on Sky News, an editor at The Australian and author of Battleground. He spoke of how it is both the system and the leaders that need fixing. He feels that 'Rudd and Abbott were ready made failures... But Gillard had potential'. He expressed disappointment that she was not able to succeed but admits that the way she came to power meant she was never going to stand a chance.

Niki Savva is the author of The Road to Ruin (2016) which I have literally just finished. Much of what Savva had to say I knew from her book. She feels that Abbott was lacking in self belief and that he never looked comfortable in the role of Prime Minister. She said one of the main problems was that in the eight months before the fatal budget, they never laid the groundwork to explain what they were doing and why.

Paul Kelly is the author of may books on Australian politics. He disagreed with Savva and believes the political system is flawed, making governing difficult.  He said there are too many challenges resulting in government being unable to produce the public policy we need.  

They discussed past PM/Treasurer partnerships that worked well together, the importance of the Cabinet process and the challenges with the Senate. Unfortunately we did not spend too much time talking about current election.

After the session Savva signed a copy of her book for me. 

Life on the Road: Gloria Steinem

This was the session I have been waiting for. Gloria Steinem headlines this year's festival and this particular session sold out early on. I attended this session with two good friends. 

Steinem has recently published her memoir, My Life on the Road (2016). She spoke with Jennifer Byrne about her life. As a young girl she travelled with her parents from their home in the mid-west to Florida or California in search of the sun each winter. She described the loving home she grew up in, never feeling insecure.

Steinem's mother was a journalist who was quite a pioneer for her time, but her 'mother lost her journey because my father had his journey'. Her mother was unable to follow her passions because of her marriage and, her spirit broken, ended up having a nervous breakdown. She wrote about her mother in an essay "Ruth's Song Because She Could Not Sing It" in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983). She spoke of how we are 'living out the unlived lives of our parents' and how mother's should be able to live their own lives.

Steinem was asked how she found feminism and she said 'feminism found me'. She spoke about her early days as the 'girl reporter' unable to get a decent assignment, how she was dismissed by the men around her, how she was concerned about her reproductive freedom ('controlling reproduction is what patriarchy does'), and how the failure of feminism is that we have been 'too nice'.

In her book she documents her journey, and Steinem has been at many key moments in history (like attending the Martin Luther King  'I have a dream' speech in Washington in 1963). Steinem says 'when history's being made, you don't know it is being made'.

She spoke about American politics, her admiration of Obama, her hope for Clinton, and her disgust at Trump ('a candidate of resentment'). She also spoke of the issues she cares about and has produced a new documentary series on - domestic violence, child marriage, etc.

Along the way we learned that she was horse crazy as a girl, she tap dances ('only when nobody's looking') and, at 82 she remains a 'hopeaholic' - ever optimistic about the future. She also is totally groovy in her unique style.

Steinem did not disappoint. She was articulate, warm, and inspiring. I particularly admired the way she handled audience questions, supporting young girls or those who had been in bad situations. She is a truly phenomenal woman.

After the session I was able to meet her, and she signed a copy of My Life On The Road for me. Although we only spoke briefly, she has the kind of presence that makes you feel like you are the only person in the room. I feel so privileged for having had this moment with her.

SWF Gala: The Book that Changed Me

This session brings out many authors to discussed the books that shaped them. Hosted by Richard Glover, panelist were Jeanette Winterson, Kate Tempest, Vivian Gornick, Herman Koch, Marlon James and Andrew Denton.  Each took turns to talk about their chosen book.

Glover, Denton, Winterson, Gornick, James, Tempest and Koch 

Herman Koch spoke about James Joyce's Dubliners. He was struggling as a young writer, had just lost his girlfriend to another writer and so this book, especially the story 'A Little Cloud' inspired him to write his first published story. Koch was very witty, talking about how his writing improved with whisky.

Vivian Gornick's chosen book was The Odd Women by George Gissing, saying 'his book struck me to the nerve'. Gornick feels that 'you read the book you need at the time you need it' and that this book came along when she was feeling like an outsider, struggling to pull it all together.

Marlon James chose Sula by Toni Morrison. He spoke of a time when he wasn't happy with himself and he was struggling to meet the imagined expectations of those around him. There is a line in Sula which was a 'fall of the chair moment' for him where Sula says 'Show to who?" as she did not need to meet anyone's approval. It was at that moment that he realised he was only responsible to himself.

Kate Tempest selected a book of poetry called War Music by Christopher Logue. She described it as an account of Homer's Iliad. She then read a section of it and I was blown away by her talents, just as I was blown away by her poetry at the end of QnA last week. I look forward to reading her Brand New Ancients.

Andrew Denton joked that he was the 'eye candy' on the panel as he is not an author. Bt he spoke about Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which he read when he was 19. He was already questioning 'the mass insanity of organised religion' and this book helped him to understand that 'improbability' was part of the 'vast unknowable.'

Finally Jeanette Winterson spoke about her chosen book Orlando by Virginia Woolf. She spoke about how her mother never encouraged her to read because 'the trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late'. She read Orlando and realised that gender is fluid. It was also a perfect counter to Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness which Winterson describes as the 'worst book ever'.

Well, that is day two over and I am now at the half way point of my festival. The absolute highlight for me today was meeting Gloria Steinem. She has always been a hero of mine and to meet her and speak with her was wonderful.

Books signed by authors today include:

  • Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (2011)
  • Jonathan Franzen - The Corrections (2001)
  • Niki Savva - The Road to Ruin (2016) 
  • Gloria Steinem - Life on the Road (2016)