My Writers Week experience was, as noted previously, my first but it certainly won’t be my last. What I saw of it I loved. Regrettably I only managed four sessions out of a huge array of many more, but the heat defeated me and of course I couldn’t resist the siren song of Literary Theory, the subject I’m currently studying (my penance, as I like to think of it).
The Women’s Memorial Gardens is a wonderful venue and assailed though it was in blazing heat for the whole week, albeit mitigated by shade trees and gaudy blue shade sails, it was appropriately festive with refreshment and book buying marquees and plenty of chairs. There were big attendances for each of the sessions I was at, lots of middle aged types like me, as I’d expected, but also a broad cross-section of other age groups. Had to laugh at one dedicated grey haired couple who were planted decisively in the front row of one session, obviously devotees from way back. She was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with the name of every famous writer who’s ever graced the festival and he was wearing one that said “Outside of a Dog, a Book is Man’s Best Friend”. Credited to Groucho Marx, the rest of the saying goes, “… and inside of a dog it’s too dark too read.” Can’t argue with either sentiment.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the sessions I attended.
Peter Robb – “Lives”
Billed as one of Australia’s finest nonfiction writers, Peter Robb is the author most recently of “Lives” and previously “Midnight in Sicily“, “M” (a biography of the painter Caravaggio, “A Death in Brazil” and “Street Fight in Naples”. As a budding nonfiction writer myself, I was naturally keen to pick up any pearls of wisdom on offer.
“Lives”, a collection of essays or portraits, mostly previously published, of various famous and infamous people, including Julian Assange, is described by Robb as composed of piece work, but on a global scale.
His secret to getting at the heart of these characters is to look firstly at their origins, their childhood, their backgrounds, to pick up a life when it is in flux, uncertain of its direction and follow it as it unfolds … a sort of David Attenborough dissection, but of souls in this case, rather than animals. It can be difficult, he explained, once someone has reached their forties (“the age when we start to die”) to penetrate the “carapace of eminence”. People as they grow older and further away from their origins develop what he described as “a rigidity of identity” which can prove difficult to strip away. While he’s fascinated by the genesis and back story of the personality, one of his main themes also is its disintegration and decline.
A fascination, almost obsession with Italy is a foundation of much of his work, having lived there for many years from an early age. In explaining what motivated him to explore Italian culture and that of other countries from the perspective of an ex-pat Australian, he explained he was born in the late 1940s at a time when immigration to Australia from European countries was transforming our culture from Anglo-centrism to something vastly more cosmopolitan. His response to this was to pack his bags and go and explore the world filtering through to our doorstep, rather than sit at home in a state of affronted xenophobia and for that you can only admire him. I haven’t yet read any of his work, but will definitely be putting “Lives” on the reading list.
Steven Poole – “You Aren’t What You Eat“
While I wouldn’t describe myself as a foodie, or as Steven Poole terms it, a “foodist” , the savouring, experimenting with and cooking of food, has been an abiding passion of mine for many years. So I was keen to hear what he had to say about it, although the title of his book is somewhat of a spoiler in that regard.
Contrary to what seems to have become an invasion of contemporary culture by Food, to the extent it’s become elevated to the lofty heights of celebrity status, Poole believes food, in today’s world, is suffering from giant delusions of grandeur. He is scornful (in a nice way) about our current obsession with food and his book “You Aren’t What You Eat” is a witty and engaging attempt to deflate some of the nonsense, masquerading as entertainment, fad, fashion, nutritional “facts” and even science that assails us wherever we turn.
Targets that come in for particular opprobrium are farmers’ markets, organic produce, the Locavore movement and the current craze for foraging, little different in his view from “dumpster diving”. Gastroporn and gastrotourism are equally absurd in his view. As for the ritual of the degustation dining experience, he describes it as nothing more than a special effects show reel for the chef (or cook as he prefers) and a tedious drawn out ordeal for the diner.
While he hasn’t renounced food and in fact enjoys a bit of fairly basic cooking himself, Poole is scathing about the ridiculous heights of fetishism to which food and cooking has been elevated in recent years. Celebrity chefs, in particular Heston Blumenthal, who has of course taken food on a rocket fuelled foray into cyberspace and into a whole other futuristic and explosive dimension, are lampooned and exposed as the rather silly exploiters of a far too gullible public that they are.
His presentation was irreverent, funny and his argument persuasive. It certainly struck a chord with me. While I’ve nothing against the idea of promoting the best, most nutritious and tasty food available, (indeed remembering my mothers’ fifties generation offerings of soggy cabbage and leathery chops , I’m hugely relieved we’ve moved on from that), I too lament the self-indulgent faddishness of the current foodie revolution. Bits of artfully sculptured foam don’t constitute a great advance in my view over the dreaded Deb mashed potato (another staple of Mum’s table). So I didn’t hesitate to purchase Steven Poole’s book and look forward to consuming it.
The story behind the phenomenal success of M.L. Stedman’s debut novel, “The Light Between Oceans”, is one that will either inspire the aspiring novelist or put them in a funk of disgruntled envy.
A lawyer by profession, M.L. Stedman apparently had a light bulb moment one day while sorting through the briefs and decided it might be fun to write. Clearly not one to do things by halves, she hired herself a writing tutor and applied herself to the task of learning the craft with vigour, at first through short story writing and then by entering the NaNoWrMo (National Novel Writing Month) competition, in which writers are challenged to write a novel of 50,000 words in a month. Requiring stern self-discipline to meet the daily word count required to achieve this, Stedman not only recommends it as a great way to make the transition from short story to novel, but says it gave her confidence in her ability to hang in there for the long haul that writing a book demands. “The Light Between Oceans” was not the fruits of this labour, but a conception that came later.
Once written, the book not only found a publisher but indeed became the centre of a multi-publisher wrangle both in the UK and the US, finally being sold for a six-figure sum. Just knowing that a bidding war was raging over your creation, would be enough you would think to send a first-time writer into paroxysms of delight. However Stedman is clearly a cool customer and rather than sitting back mentally counting the lucre, she interviewed each publisher to ensure they were in sympathy with and fully appreciated the concept of her book and the deeper questions it raises.
Within a very short time, it raced to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And now just to cap things off, the film rights have been bought by Stephen Spielberg’s Dreamworks.
Blockbuster seems too crass a word to describe this phenomenon, especially as Stedman herself is a modest, self-deprecating and quietly reflective personality, seemingly worlds away from the brightly lit world of celebrity author. However , that is now what she has become and it will be fascinating to follow this amazing story as it unfolds.
As for the book itself, I haven’t yet read it but bought a copy after the presentation and had it signed by the author. According to the reviews, there are a number of interwoven themes or dichotomies of darkness and light, isolation and sanctuary, safety and danger, all symbolised by the lighthouse. These themes are underlined also by questions of morality, what motivates us to choose one option over another, and the dramas that unfold within the human psyche set against a remote and elemental landscape of an island off the coast of Western Australia.
I am looking forward to reading it and discovering what all the fanfare has been about. Although undoubtedly a little green with envy, I’m heartened to know that in this day and age a writer can come out of nowhere with a great book and take the world by storm.
Tom Holland and Tom Keneally – The Art of History
This session featuring two great writers who are equally great historians packed a powerful punch. It was practically standing room only, despite the heat, which by this time had become fierce. Tom Keneally of course needs no introduction, with his prolific output of best-sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, and his famous novel “Schindler’s Ark” subsequently made into the celebrated Spielberg film “Schindler’s List, which elevated him to international celebrity status. British novelist and historian Tom Holland is perhaps lesser known, but is also a prodigious author, of books such as “Millennium”, “Rubicon” and “In the Shadow of the Sword”, focusing on ancient history and also in a lighter vein some vampire novels.
It was fascinating to hear what motivates these two very different writers and what it is about history in particular that engages their imaginations. Keneally of course has written largely on the history of Australia and considers that it is a highly fertile field, providing huge scope for a writer with sufficient energy and enthusiasm, with much of our history being so far “under-dramatised” . He admits it’s the “vulgar gossip” of history that initially draws him in, but once started finds the process of taking a sometimes obscure person and focusing on their life immensely rewarding, providing as it does a canvas on which to paint a portrait of a country and a whole people.
They touched on the ever-intriguing question of truth in history and to what extent the writer should conform to truth as he knows it, or take some poetic licence in an attempt to “jazz things up”. Holland said it was difficult with ancient history to find enough material and detail to improvise to any great extent, and that he tended to prioritise historical accuracy. They both agreed however, that history is a form of fiction in as much as it’s inevitably shaped by who perceives it, who relates it and how close or how far away they may be from their subjects.
In terms of how they made the momentous decision to embark on an epic historical project, Keneally explained it as getting to the stage where “you feel pregnant with the material”, it begins to burgeon inside you and you just have to get down to the business of writing it. Holland on the other hand described it as “sinking into a huge warm bath”, immersing himself totally in the experience and the story, to the extent he said where he probably bored everyone around him.
Neither of them have any difficulty in finding inspiration for the next project. Holland is well developed in the planning stage for his next book which is to be about ancient Rome, after the death of Julius Caesar and is obviously looking forward to the challenge with relish.
Keneally, conscious of the fact that “the long box beckons” fears he has too many plans and too little time, but this doesn’t seem to faze him.
They both agreed we are shaped by our past as much as by our present and that there is perhaps more fascination to be found in life as it’s actually been lived as there is in story. The multiplicity of voices that are there to be exploited in history adds to the resonance of stories that may be old, but when resurrected with a fine eye for craft and an inspired imagination as these two writers do, continue to delight and educate readers well on into the future.