My day at home with the Yarra Valley Writers Festival


On a cold and showery day, I’m rather glad that I’m not in the even colder Healesville for the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, which is being held online instead. I’ve decided that it’s very strenuous attending an online writers festival, even though I’ve barely moved from my desk all day. Perhaps that’s what makes it so tiring: there are no little breaks moving from one venue to another, no distractions of the book displays, no-one to chat with between sessions.  I am absolutely in awe of fellow-blogger Lisa at ANZLitLovers who has not only managed to pay attention far more assiduously than I have but she has even managed to blog the sessions as they are occurring.  Brava Lisa!

The day started with David Lindenmeyer Saving the Environment: It’s Not Fire & Brimstone, It’s Science. Using a Powerpoint slide-based format, which felt a bit too lecture-y for me (especially when he was in effect just reading the slide), he mounted a strong argument that the major fire threat  to Australia lies in its logged forests,rather than in old growth forests. An old growth forest regenerates better and more quickly than a logged forest, is less likely to have canopy fire in the future, and by their very nature, logging plantations are likely to be closer to houses and infrastructure. Salvage logging in already-burnt fires is the most damaging act of all – and one which is championed by the timber industry. And, as he points out, despite continual demands for access to old growth forest, 92% of forestry employment is in logging plantations.  But check out Lisa’s report for a much more coherent summary of his presentation than mine!

Leading on from David Lindenmeyer’s talk, the next session was called Fire and Climate. The focus on fire was a deliberate choice in planning the writers festival, first because the Yarra Valley is often wreathed in smoke from hazard reduction burning, and second because the 2009 fires surrounded Healesville (where the festival is held) devastating towns in the surroundings, but leaving Healesville untouched- for now. Tony Birch wrote an essay for Meanjin in 2017 (Two Fires – you can read it here) describing accompanying a friend to Christmas Hills after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. The daughter of that friend was Alice Bishop, who was one of Tony Birch’s creative writing students and here on the panel, having written her own book of short stories A Constant Hum, which explores the psychological consequences of bushfire- something that she experienced herself. The last speaker on the panel was Prof. Tom Griffiths, who has written on bushfire with Forests of Ash: An Environmental History (2001) and Living with Fire (co-authored with Christine Hansen, 2012) which emerged from a community history project in the wake of Black Saturday.  Griffiths in particular warned that because of the engulfing media response to coronavirus, we have not yet worked through the emotional and environmental consequences of a fire season – not a specific day that can be identified with a capital letter- that affected the whole continent. There was an interesting interaction near the end of the session where Alice Bishop rather defensively rebutted the question of whether people should rebuild in fire-prone areas, arguing that power lines should be put underground and that it’s a simplistic response. Somehow, I don’t know if Tom Griffiths would agree. Again, Lisa on her blog has done a much better job of this than I.

HastrichContinuing with the environmental theme, Writing About the Natural World featured Chris Flynn whose recent book Mammoth has been receiving quite a bit of coverage, Vicki Hastrich whose Night Fishing I reviewed here and Lia Hills who wrote The Crying Place, which I hadn’t heard of. The session was chaired by Robert Gott, who is almost intimidatingly articulate and intelligent. Apparently there is a huge amount of research in Mammoth, and although Flynn was guided by some historical facts, he gave up trying to direct the narrative along factual lines. Very different types of environments were dealt with by Hastrich (the sea) and Hills (the desert). Hastrich spoke about the landscape of the imagination, while Hills talked about the process of recording her narrative quickly and using voice recognition software that also picked up the sounds of the leaves, wind and birdsong, which she wrote into the book.  And here’s Lisa….

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-RobinsonI’d actually read books two of the three authors featured in the next session Place in the New World Order, although it has probably turned out to be a very unexpected “new world order” than when they were originally planning this festival. The moderator, Elizabeth McCarthy asked them how they were responding to the pandemic, which perhaps was not the best use of the time available, as I’m not sure that any one person’s experience of this strange time is any more momentous than any one else’s. Alice Robinson wrote The Glad Shout  (reviewed here) which is set in the middle of a climate change emergency.  Meg Mundell writer of Black Glass (review), released her 2019 book The Trespassers  which has a pandemic as its premise. I’m not familiar with the four books released by Karen Viggers. Only Meg Mundell starts with ‘place’ when she is writing (in her case, prompted by the Point Nepean Quarantine Station for her most recent book), whereas both Viggers and Robinson used ‘place’ more as an influence on ‘character’. All agreed about the danger of avoiding becoming didactic over social justice issues- Viggers referred to “hovering above”, using the perspective of different characters to explore issues. And again,the indefatigable Lisa….  (How does she have the energy??)

A Writer’s Lot: 50 years but who’s counting was a discussion between two playwrights of different generations, David Williamson and Hannie Rayson. It was a retrospective look at Williamson’s career, where he emphasized the importance of hearing Australian voices on the stage – something that rarely happened up until the 70s and 80s.  At this point, Lisa went for a walk….

I really enjoyed the session How Weird Does Your Family Have to Be? It was moderated by ABCRN presenter Michael Mackenzie, who has his own fascinating life story with a Jewish father who escaped Germany and died just after he was born. The panel comprised Alice Pung (Polished Gem –read before I started this blog ), Richard Glover who wrote Flesh Wounds (which I haven’t read and now want to) and journalist Rick Morton One Hundred Years of Dirt (also unread).  Alice Pung’s family was not ‘weird’ but as Cambodian/Vietnamese refugees, they were traumatized. Glover has emphasized the ‘weirdness’ of his family with a laugh, but his story of an alcoholic father and an absent mother who completely invented a false identity to her family actually reveals sadness and deception. Rick Morton’s father was a brutal man, but his father in turn was abused by Rick’s grandfather who seems a truly malevolent man.  Lisa is back from her walk, so here’s her much better summary.

_tsiolkas_ damascusI’m flagging now- and I’m not even writing lengthy blog posts. Where’s afternoon tea? I’m bailing out after Christos Tsiolkas’ Road to Damascus (my not very favourable review here). Tsiolkas wrote the book to answer his question “How did this religion come to change the world?” He talks about his determination to write something “heretical but not blasphemous” and describes his own story of how he came to write this story about Paul. He also talks about the importance he places on structure when he writes, something which he displays with this book and The Slap with the point of view alternating between chapters. Actually, I liked him much more in this interview than I imagined I would. And Lisa? She has skipped this session and is coming back for Charlotte Wood and The Weekend, which I haven’t read.

I don’t have to drive home, but I think that I’ve had enough for one day. Ooooff. The technology worked well enough in this brave foray into online writers festivals. There was only really a problem with David Williamson, whose broadcast was delayed ironically just after Hannie Rayson admitted that the technology was going well and hoping that she hadn’t “put the mockers on it”. (She did.)  Along with many who were following it on Twitter, I quite enjoyed seeing everybody’s book-lined  studies in varying degrees of tidiness (David Williamson wins the prize for most untidy). I wish that there had been a break between sessions for people who were in for the long haul, rather than back to back sessions with barely a 3 minute break between them. In fact, a short lunch break wouldn’t have gone astray.

But well done, YVWF for being brave enough to forge ahead, and for putting together a rewarding day’s watching and listening. And Lisa? you’re a legend.


2 responses to “My day at home with the Yarra Valley Writers Festival

  1. LOL Janine you make me feel as if I were part of the festival. (And I love the way you included my walk!)
    Yes, I agree about the lack of breaks, and as you say, part of the pleasure in a festival is about mooching into the bookshop, meeting up with friends for lunch, and even hanging around in the queue to get into the session. OTOH it *was* nice to see the writers at home, and admire their paintings and so on.
    On the issue of building in fire prone areas… as always, it’s more complex than it seems. The Spouse did a review of the issue when he was working in the Department of Conservation and Environment. There’s a particular street in the Dandenongs, where one of my son’s friends and his wife died in the fires, where the topography of the street meant that there’s was a windrush up the narrow road to their house at the top from which there was no escape. He recommended buybacks because there is no way anyone could survive that a fire in that place nor get out in time, but nothing has been done and we can only assume that it’s political pressure because the science is clear.
    But that is not the same as someone wanting to live in a bush block in an area that can be made safe, or at least safer, or at least possible to evacuate from.
    And I thought it was a bit ingenuous of him to say that people could insure against losing their homes in a bushfire, because we know that even if insurance is available, the cost of it would be prohibitive for many people. It’s the same the world over, people who don’t have much money go and live in places that are cheap because of the risk of natural disasters.

  2. Pingback: Yarra Valley Writers Festival | Angela Savage

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