Saturday, 11 May 2019

Sydney Writers' Festival - My Big Weekend (part 2)

My weekend at the Sydney Writers' Festival continues with another action packed day. Here's a run-down of the final day of my weekend at the Festival.

Sunday 5 May 2019

Kerry O'Brien - A Memoir

Legendary journalist Kerry O'Brien has released a new memoir about his magnificent career. I last heard him speak at the 2016 Festival when he had published his book about Paul Keating.

O'Brien spoke with Philip Clark about his life in journalism. They began with his childhood at a repressive Catholic school, moving on to his early career as a reporter and later to his television career. O'Brien talked about interviewing Mandela, Thatcher, Springsteen and others as well as his time working as press secretary for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. O'Brien spearheaded some incredible programs like Lateline, The 7:30 Report and Four Corners. 

I was interested in this session because my father was a journalist, and listening to O'Brien speak about his career reminded me of my dad. When O'Brien described how he loved the 'ambience of the newsroom, the thrill of the chase, the competition' for bylines, I thought of my dad's early days in print journalism and his later career in television. O'Brien's tale made me nostalgic; wishing I could talk with my dad more about his work. Unfortunately my dad passed away far too young. Had he lived he would have been O'Brien's vintage and would perhaps have written a memoir of his own remarkable life and career.

Trial By Fire

This is the session I was most been looking forward to - Chloe Hooper (The Arsonist) and Susan Orlean (The Library Book) in conversation about their works. In both books, the authors try to get to the bottom of why someone would commit the crime of arson.

Orlean and Hooper spoke to Matthew Condon, who posed really insightful questions, drawing out the parallels and differences of the two books.  Orlean's work is about the fire in the Law Angeles Central Library in 1986 which resulted in over 400,000 books being destroyed by fire and another 700,000 being damaged by smoke and water.  Handsome and charming, Harry Peak was arrested for the arson, but never indicted, leaving the crime technically still unsolved.  Orlean spoke about how the conditions were perfect for a fire of this magnitude with the layout of the building, the ready fuel in the form of books.

The Black Saturday fires of Hooper's book were wildfires, but again the conditions were perfect with the high heat, dryness, and the change in wind. Unlike Peak, Brendan Sokaluk was a simple loner who was convicted of starting the Churchill Fires and is currently imprisoned. What I particularly enjoyed about Hooper's discussion during this session was her sophisticated linking of social issues with arson - she spoke of the connection between unemployment, discontent and fire setters. 

Both women provide incredible descriptions of the fire and its movements in their books. They spoke in the session about how they learned about fire and its movements, and the animalistic qualities we ascribe to fire. 

I completed Hooper's book late last year and I am currently enjoying Orlean's work. After the session I had the great pleasure of meeting both authors and they kindly signed their books for me. I really enjoyed this session and, for me, it was the best session of the festival: a perfect mix of wonderful books, great speakers, and an excellent facilitator.

Daisy Johnson - Everything Under

Last year Johnson became the youngest person to ever be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her book Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth set in the Oxfordshire canals. She spoke with Nada Bailey. I chose this session as I haven't read the book and don't know the author, so I was eager to learn.

Johnson is an articulate, funny and interesting woman. She began with a reading of the first page of her book, and her prose was so beautiful that I was immediately entranced. Johnson spoke about her interest in fragments of memory and how they come to you out of sequence, unexplained and it is up to you to make connections and determine what is real. In this novel the characters have experienced trauma, and this has had an impact on the way her memory unfolds.

Everything Under is a retelling of the Oedipus myth and so Bailey asked about the rise of feminist retelling of ancient tales. Recent revisions include Madeline Miller's Circe and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Johnson said that she recalls reading Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, revisions of fairy tales, and she enjoyed the idea of destroying and rebuilding things.

Johnson always wanted to be a writer, admiring the works of Keri Hulme, Roald Dahl, Stephen King and others - trying to understand how they crafted their works. She began writing short stories, and has a collection available called Fen. She said that she rewrote Everything Under from scratch seven times before the final, published version.

After the session I met Daisy Johnson and she has signed a copy of her book for me. Looking forward to reading this when I return from overseas.

Gabbie Stroud - Teacher

My festival friend alerted me to this session featuring an ex-teacher who has written a memoir about her time in the school system. She spoke with Education professor Nicole Mockler about the current education system and how it needs to be improved.

Stroud was a kindergarden teacher who was passionate about supporting children to learn. She began by reading a heartbreaking passage from her book about a morning at the school, where the key won't work, her impatient charges don't give her a second to think, there is that one child who will do the opposite of everyone else, and the teacher is faced with the sheer exhaustion of trying to meet everyone's needs.

Stroud took time off for parental leave and after a few short months she returned to find the teaching landscape had changed with a new national curriculum, standardised testing, professional teaching standards and more. She said she felt morally and ethically conflicted in her work, while she agrees with quality and accountability, she feels that trust has been eroded and teachers have lost their professional standing.

I found this session quite interesting, but didn't necessarily agree with all of Stroud's views.  I work in education, and have an understanding of and respect for quality standards and accountability. But I share Stroud's concerns about implementation of regulations and the lack of resourcing and respect. I liked her straight-talking manner. Her book sounds interesting and I may seek it out once I have whittled down my existing pile of reading. She has also written about this subject in the Griffith Review.

'I Do Not Want To See This In Print'

With an election only weeks away, it was great to attend this session about the relationships between sources and the media. Annabel Crabb spoke with Samantha Maiden, Niki Savva, and Shari Markson.

This powerhouse panel shared all sorts of wonderful insight about confidential sources, 'off the record' comments, the challenges of chasing down a lead, the disappointment when politicians publicly say the exact opposite of what they told you, and the competition for scoops.

Much of the commentary was about Barnaby Joyce. Markson broke the story last year about his lovechild, when in fact she was investigating potential travel rorts. Maiden shared a funny story about Peter Dutton accidentally texting her. Savva spoke about Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin and how she is now writing a book called Highway to Hell, about the undermining of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership.

There were a lot of laughs in this segment and it was a fun way to finish off my Festival for the year.

Final Thoughts

I always enjoy my time at the Sydney Writers' Festival. The biggest problem for me this year was that many of the sessions I wanted to attend were at times I could not go (weekdays) or were in conflict. So I had to make some difficult decisions as to what I would see and had to forego seeing a few authors I wanted to see like Jane Caro, Anna Funder, Sean Greer, Meg Wolitzer and Jane Harper. Fortunately I was able to meet Jane Harper and Meg Wolitzer at the festival in the breaks between sessions.

I really like the Carriageworks as a venue - it is close to home, compact and accessible. But the acoustics were shocking in a few of the rooms. I found the noise from other sessions distracting and disrespectful to both the authors and audience. I note that the Festival organisers were working hard over the course of the event to improve the sound and have since apologised. Hopefully they will rectify this before the 2020 event.

For the most part I am pleased with my choice of sessions. The ones I liked best were largely the ones of authors I was unfamiliar with, and part of the joy of the festival is in hearing new voices and being exposed to new ideas.

I was fortunate to have books signed by the following authors at Sydney Writer's Festival 2019:
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer
  • Jane Harper - The Dry
  • Chloe Hooper - The Arsonist 
  • Daisy Johnson - Everything Under
  • Susan Orlean - The Library Book
  • Meg Wolitzer - The Female Persuasion
  • Clare Wright - You Daughters of Freedom
I am looking forward to reading the ones I haven't already explored.

I have written about my 2019 Sydney Writers' Festival experiences in three parts. You can access them at the following links: