Category Archives: Writers Festivals

At my local library: Women Write History

From left: Wendy J. Dunn, Keren Heenan, Christine Bell, Leah Kaminsky, Kate Murdoch, Anne Connor

I felt a frisson of imposter syndrome at Eltham Library on Saturday, as they held their annual Women Write History day. I rather foolishly thought that it was women writing History/History (with a capital H), but instead it focussed on local women historical fiction writers. “But I read historical fiction too!” I reassured myself, although I do find it hard to take off my historian’s hat when I do so.

Eltham Library is a beautiful mud-brick, octagonal building designed by Greg Burgess and it received the RAIA Institutional Architecture Award 1995. There’s a statue of Alan Marshall, who lived in the area, by local Eltham sculptor. It has a huge wrap-around verandah, and it’s very pleasant sitting there in the shade on a warm afternoon having coffee, overlooking Alistair Knox park opposite and the old trestle railway bridge.. But Saturday was more than warm – although not as hot as expected- and it was equally pleasant to enjoy the airconditioning inside.

The speakers were Kate Murdoch, Christine Bell, Leah Kaminsky, Keren Heenan (short story writer) and Anne Connor. The seminar was organized by Wendy J. Dunn. Unfortunately Eleanor Limprecht and Glenice Whitting were scheduled, but could not attend.

The day was divided into four sessions, one of which ran concurrently with a workshop. Feeling somewhat out of place amongst all these aspiring writers, as I did, I stuck to the sessions. The sessions dealt with Character, Setting, Plot and Conflict and Resolution, and each panel had three or four of the guest speakers. Each session started with a reading from one of the author’s works. As you might expect with four such closely related topics and a relatively small panel of guests, there was quite a bit of overlap.

In the Character session, they discussed issues of appropriating and whitewashing, the responsibility owed to real-life characters and the idea of giving voice to the dead. Most of the writers enjoyed the research process, even though much of it was discarded. They spoke here of the distinction between ‘plotters’ who have everything worked out ahead of time and ‘pantsers’ who fly by the seat of their pants. (I misheard this as ‘panthers’ and assumed it meant writers who just prowled around hunting. Oops.) They noted that much of the research was in order to give a flavour, and to weed out what was possible from impossible. They spoke of the danger of writing what-if history. Given that most of these women writers were writing about other women, there was a question about depicting agency as a character at a time when women didn’t generally have agency. Both Christine Bell and Anne Connor answered that their female characters displayed agency as a series of small decisions.

In the Setting session, several of them revealed that they started off with a visual image. Ann Connor recommended actually visiting the places written about, but as Kate Murdoch noted, this was not possible during COVID so she relied on Google maps and virtual tours. Keren Heenen only writes about places she knows, although in her novella Cleave she lifted her knowledge of one country town to create a fictional one. They were asked which was the last historical fiction they read with a strong setting? Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was mentioned by Anne Connor; Kate Murdoch nominated Where the Crawdads Sing, and Keren Heenan named Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire (which I had never heard of).

It seemed, in terms of Plot, that several of these authors are Pantsers (they could be panthers too- who knows!). Some used dialogue as a starting point, while others used a visual image or an event. Some knew what the book was going to be ‘about’ in a wider sense.

By the time we reached the final session Conflict and Resolution, it had already been pretty much discussed under the other sessions. The panel were asked whether, as readers and writers, they needed a clear ending. Keren Heenan liked endings that reflect the beginning, without necessarily tying everything up neatly. Leah Kaminsky and Anne Connor were more concerned about the language in the novel, than the actual ending; Kate Murdoch didn’t like abrupt endings, although she didn’t need everything tied up either. The discussion then moved to AI-generated writing, especially within genre fiction. There was a reluctance over reading a book written by someone with no lived experience, but they acknowledged that perhaps this is a generational resistance, and that perhaps we need to see how it works. (Having seen multiple-hundreds output of Nora Roberts, writing also under the names of J.D. Robb and Jill March, I wonder if she is AI)

So, all in all, a very pleasant way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon

Yarra Valley Writers Festival – Sunday 18 July 2021

Back again for the second day of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival that very presciently selected ‘Resilience’ as the theme. The current lockdown, announced on Thursday night, meant that the organizers had to pivot to the curated Zoom stream which they had fortuitously prepared in advance- that’s resilience for you!

The day started off with Kathryn Heyman’s Fury. I have heard her interviewed before: she has a beautiful speaking voice, and now I see is a really engaging screen presence as well. This book is a memoir of both her childhood, a sexual assault, and her time on a fishing trawler which helped her reclaim her own body and pre-assault identity. She had always been ‘a reader’, reminding me of the SRA reading cards (I loved SRA although I suspect that poorer readers did not). She raises the question of whether there is today a class dimension to unwanted sexual attention as a child. (Interesting question.) She talks about the title (Fury) which she chose, and had to fight for. I don’t know- I think I’m on her British publisher’s side here. The book is not written from a position of anger – she had worked that out of her system through the fishing trawler experience – something that is not suggested from the title. On the other hand, I haven’t read it, so what would I know. Interesting to see the authors who are present through the chat box: Robyn Cadwallader, Eleanor Limprecht and the historian Marguerita Stephens.

The next session ‘Believe It To Be True’ is about belief and faith, but I was about to engage with my own belief and feeble faith with my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, so I attended the service and will watch this one later. I also missed the session on Motherhood.

I tuned back in for the panel discussion led by Hilary Harper (from Life Matters). I hadn’t read any of the books A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan, Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason and My Year of Living Vulnerably by Rick Morton. I know that you’re encouraged to attend sessions at Writers Festivals where you know nothing about the books, but I found this session a bit hard to follow. There was discussion about neurodiversity and labelling, autism and fear of touch and the interesting comment from Meg Mason that she toyed with making one of her main characters imaginary. The session did finish off with some lovely advice about long-term relationships: feeling adored to the point that you wonder about your partner’s sanity.

I’ve heard several interviews with Helen Garner, and each time she has been thoughtful, respectful of the question and you can just see her thoughts whirling as she responds . In her interview with Sean O’Beirne, she starts off with reading entries from her second volume of her diaries One Day I’ll Remember This (something that I wish they would do in each panel, to give a taste of the writing for those who haven’t read the book). In relation to the discipline of writing a diary each day, she quotes the AA aphorism “a fearless and searching moral inventory”. In this volume of her diaries, she writes about the breakup of her relationship with ‘V’ (whom she did not consult before publishing her diary, although she did for many other people) which she saw as a cautionary tale for women. He certainly doesn’t come out of this very well. I could listen to Helen Garner for hours and hours.

And then some bird watching!! I’m a frustrated birdwatcher, and I am determined to turn all my grandchildren into bird nerds too. Both my granddaughters are co-operating, with the older one very aware of rainbow lorikeets and the younger one able to recognize kookaburras. I wish I was walking along that path with Sean Dooley.

The final session featured Kate Mildenhall and Sally Hepworth, speaking about Hepworth’s book The Good Sister. I haven’t read books written by either of these bubbly young women. It seems that it’s yet another book about a neurodiverse character, which fits in with the Ryan/Mason/Morton interview with Hilary Harper. My ukulele strumalong is calling me- think I’ll call it a day.

And so, for me, ends the Yarra Valley Writers Festival. They did such a good in rescuing what could have been a disaster. Perhaps NEXT year.

Yarra Valley Writers Festival – Saturday 17 July 2021

I realized the other day that I am missing two things in particular under COVID restrictions: writers’ festivals and conferences. I miss the lining up, the bookshop to browse in, the ‘housekeeping’, the stewed coffee, the nametags, the plenaries and the person standing up at the end to say “this is a comment more than a question” before rambling on while everyone shuffles their feet.

So when I saw that the Yarra Valley Writers’ Festival was going to be on in Warburton this weekend, I thought – right, I’ll go on the Saturday! But then on Thursday night the lockdown descended again, and that was the end of that. But not quite, because forced online last year, the YVWF already had a ‘curated’ Zoom stream set up as well as their face-to-face offering. With this fifth lockdown (I can’t believe I’m writing ‘fifth‘) the focus shifted to the online program instead. When I learned that the links would be available for 7 days after, I decided that I was still ‘in’. I wouldn’t watch everything: I really wanted to go for a walk because I haven’t been outside for 2 days, and the thought of sitting staring at a screen all day didn’t fill me with joy.

The morning started with Don Watson, who has released a collection of his writing called Watsonia. I’ve read many of his books over the years, and even though I find his public persona rather dry and prickly, I do enjoy his writing. Either he has mellowed, or I am getting dry and prickly myself, but I enjoyed this wide-ranging session. He displayed his usual diffidence about the act of writing, and his dislike of managerial sludge. He spoke about the influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on his history writing, and his regret that Recollections of a Bleeding Heart fractured his relationship with Paul Keating, while rebutting the charges of ‘betrayal’ that were levelled against him. He talked about the press gallery then and now, and the way that Trump has upended the idea that if a politician attacked the interviewer, the political argument was lost. He finished by noting that liberating ideas always have their dark side: the scientific revolution led to Hiroshima; Christianity led to the Inquisition, the dream of a neoliberal society with a strong safety net destroyed the ALP. I realized again how much I enjoy his writing, and I’m tempted to buy the book.

I hadn’t read either of the books for the next session (Kokomo and A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing). It was time for a walk while the rain held off, and by the time I returned the poetry session with Ellen Araluen and Tony Birch was half-way through. I’ll catch it up later.

By the time I finished lunch, the next session was underway. ‘Putting Music into Words: Music Industry Writings, Murmurings and Generation Change’ featured Stuart Coupe, Brian Nankervis and Phillip Frazer (who I had never heard of, but I learn that he was involved with Go-Set, my teenage bible). It was a bit ‘old blokes sitting round yarning’ and name-dropping- although both Stuart Coupe and Brian Nankervis had enviable bookshelves.

I caught half of ‘ Can I Pay for Dinner with my Postcode’ with Dennis Glover (Factory 19), Glyn Davis (On Life’s Lottery) and Rick Morton (On Money). I’ve often seen Rick Morton on ‘The Drum’ and I like his writing in the Saturday Paper. This will be another one to catch up on, because I had to leave to talk with my Spanish-speaking friend Diego for our regular Saturday one-hour 1/2 Spanish 1/2 English conversation.

Finally Louise Milligan spoke with Kerrie (as distinct from Kerry) O’Brien about her recent book Witness which explores the effect of our justice system on those who appear as victims and witnesses in our courts. As a Four Corners reporter, she has broken several big stories over recent years about Cardinal George Pell, and more recently against the Attorney-General Christian Porter. She is fearless in her reporting, but I fear for her as reporter.

All in all, a pleasant way to spend a cold, wet, locked-down Saturday. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I’ve signed up for tomorrow again, for another day’s viewing that will be punctuated by my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a Spanish movie that is only available tomorrow and a ukulele strumalong.