Monday, 23 May 2016

Sydney Writers' Festival 2016 - Day 3

On Saturday 21 May 2016 I didn't have any sessions booked until midday, expecting I would be tired after the events of the previous day. But instead I woke up enthusiastic for another day at the festival so I headed in to the venue early to see what I could see.

Writing Live Subjects

This was a free session I stumbled upon and it was a great find. Margot Saville moderated the panel, talking with journalists and authors Kerry O'Brien, Catharine Lumby and Martin Flanagan about the challenges and delights of writing biographies of people who are alive.

Kerry O'Brien has recently published his book on former Prime Minister Paul Keating, simply titled Keating (2016).  He spoke of how he has known Keating for 40 years  and the parallel universes in which he and Keating operated - from their similar backgrounds as growing up, to both arriving in Canberra around the same time. Keating gave O'Brien terrific access and his only caveat was around limiting the amount of content related to his family.

Martin Flanagan has written a book,  The Short Long Story (2015), about Aboriginal footballer Michael Long. He spoke of the difficulty in writing a book about a sportsman who doesn't like to talk about himself or about sports. Flanagan's style is to write collaboratively, to make sure the subject is happy with the book in the end. Flanagan's brother Richard was sitting behind me in the audience, but unfortunately I did not bring a copy of his Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) with me to sign.

Catharine Lumby is currently writing a biography of Australian author Frank Moorhouse. She spoke of 'grappling with the ethics' of writing the biography, as while Moorhouse is extremely open, Lumby does want to ensure she causes no harm to those around Moorhouse (e.g. past lovers). Lumby believes you need to have an intense like of a subject in order to spend so much time on that subject.

Flanagan, Lumby, O'Brien and Saville
This was a really interesting session and I may one day read O'Brien's book on Keating as it sounds very good, and Lumby's will be fascinating once it is published.

Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Having seen Marlon James the night before talking about Toni Morrison's Sula, I was really looking forward to hearing him speak about his own novel, the Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings (2015).

Marlon James and Michael Cathcart
Michael Cathcart from Radio National spoke with Marlon James in a recording for RN which was peppered with brief samples from Bob Marley's songs 'No Woman No Cry', 'Get Up Stand Up' and Clapton's cover of 'I Shot The Sheriff'.

James spoke of the setting for his book, 1970s Jamaica, and what was happening in the country at the time. He described the racism that persisted in the colonies, where there was a clear line between white and black, and how many young people ended up in gangs.

The book is centred on an assassination attempt on Bob Marley and so James was asked about the singer. James said "Marley for me was never a person, just a series of news reports" as he heard about Marley in the third person through the media. James said "when I write I kind of turn into a journalist, I have no emotional stake in what I write." But still, he was intrigued by the attack on Marley and said "I write novels to try and solve the mysteries."

James was asked about the violence in the book and read out several passages. He was also asked about the patois dialogue and the non-linear structure of the book. On the latter, James said "I started with weird branches and only later I realised I had a tree."

James spoke about growing up in Jamaica, the son of a police detective mother and lawyer father ('She put them in to jail and he got them out'), his involvement in the church and his love of Prince.

After the session I met James and he signed a copy of his book for me. I have started reading the book on my ereader, and had to purchase a hard copy so he could sign it - a problem I have had a few times this festival.

Elizabeth Harrower: A Celebration

I was extremely excited to attend this session with one of Australia's greatest writers. Eighty-eight year old Elizabeth Harrower rarely gives interviews, so it was a genuine privilege to sit in a room with her and hear her talk about her brilliant career.

Joined by her publisher, Michael Heyward from Text, Harrower has had an interesting career. She wrote several books in the 1950s and then disappeared from the literary landscape until just a few years ago when she was rediscovered and republished by Text. Her latest collection of stories, A Few Days in the Country (2015), was recently shortlisted for the Stella Prize.
Michael Heyward and Elizabeth Harrower
Harrower was born in Newcastle in 1928 to a Scottish mother who didn't have money for books. But when she could she read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the works of Kipling. Even as a young girl Harrower would write letters, compositions at school and other works. Her mother was very encouraging and 'she deserved a better daughter than the one she got'.

In the 1950s she left Australia by sea to travel to England. 'I was extremely pleased to leave Australia. I realised Australia was like another planet, the moon. The world was out there waiting for you to discover it.' she said. Harrower described the voyage, the scents and sights of Ceylon, Bombay and other stops on the voyage and said 'my journey convinced me more and more that life was ahead.'

She spoke of how she started to write and published four novels in ten years: Down in the City (1957), The Long Prospect (1958), The Catherine Wheel (1960) and The Watch Tower (1966). She returned to Australia and wrote In Certain Circles which she withdrew from publication following a disagreement with her publisher, until it was redisovered and published by Text in 2014.

Harrower spoke of her books, her characters, her friendship with Patrick White and the pleasure she has had in the last four years since her work was brought back into print.

It was such a delight to spend an hour with this wonderfully witty, articulate woman. After the session she signed a copy of A Few Days In The Country for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet her.

Ferrante Fever

My last session of the day was with 2000 Elena Ferrante fans at Sydney's Town Hall. Susan Wyndham (Sydney Morning Herald) chaired this session, featuring journalist Emma Alberici, authors Drusilla Modjeska and Benjamin Law, and Ferrante's English translator Ann Goldstein.

Alberici, Goldstein, Wyndham, Modjeska and Law
I was keen to attend this session as I wanted to hear about why Ferrante's Neapolitan novels had become such a must-read series. Admittedly, I have struggled to get into the series and am only about a third of the way into the first book, My Brilliant Friend (2012). Of the 2000 attendees most had read at least one Ferrante, while about a third had read all of her works.

The panelists spoke about how they approached Ferrante - some read one and took a gap before reading the others, some binge-read all in one go, and another read via audio book to fit it into her busy lifestyle.

They spoke about recurring themes - the dolls, domestic violence, and choosing the wrong man - and about the enduring relationship of the two central characters. They acknowledged the talents of Ferrante to write books that were, as Benjamin Law described, 'structurally moreish' with short chapters, cliff hangers and an almost soap opera quality to it.

Modjeski described the books like Box Sets DVDs and how she binge read the books like you would binge watch a compelling TV program.

There was a lot of discussion about patriarchal Naples and the underbelly of violence, limited choices for women and the complexity of relationships.  They also spoke of the characters they loved and hated.

Goldstein talked about her translation process, how she does not know the mysterious Ferrante (only corresponding with her via the publisher) and how she only learned Italian in her late thirties so she could read Dante in the original language.

I got what I wanted with this session, coming away with a desire to binge read the books. It is clear that my reading method - few pages here and there - will not cut it and I just need to invest some time to kick off my reading in a more serious way.

So, that is day three done. During the day I also caught up with a few other authors and got some books signed. Books signed by authors today include:

  • Elizabeth Harrower -  A Few Days In The Country 
  • Marlon James - A Brief History of Seven Killings 
  • Tegan Bennett Daylight - Six Bedrooms