wet feet and a head filled with ideas ~ things I took away with me from the sydney writers’ festival

swflogoIt’s been just over a week since the Sydney Writers’ Festival. My feet have stopped aching, my boots have finally dried out and the post-festival buzz has regrettably worn off.

The few notes I took are mostly illegible, and my iPhone photos are all blurry, but regardless, I left the Writers’ Festival with a head absolutely filled with ideas. It’s only now that I’m beginning to unpack all the thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind and put them into words.

Other things I’ve taken away from the Sydney Writers’ Festival include a sense of the staggering amount of work in front of me, as well as a reading list that might take me years to plough my way through.

As well as (ahem) a bit of a crush on Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Here are just a few of my many Sydney Writers’ Festival highlights…

The Uncommon Reader

Stopping by to see Christina Stead's Writers' Walk plaque on the way to Walsh Way
Stopping by to see Christina Stead’s Writers’ Walk plaque on the way to Walsh Way

Is there anything more heart-swelling than listening to other bookish people talk about the books they love?

Critics Jane Gleeson-White, Geordie Williamson and James Wood spoke with moderator Tegan Bennett Daylight about the books that changed their lives and how they found their way to literature.

I was especially taken by the way Geordie Williamson described the experience of growing up in a dusty country town, and literature filled him with the notion of escape. Jane Gleeson-White read from her favourite book, The Great Gatsby, while struggling not to cry.

There was a real sense of the emotion behind reading; the way a good book makes you feel, which I found totally refreshing. Like James Wood, I felt frustrated in university literature tutorials and longed to stand up and yell “This is bloody good!”.

But for me, what really made this panel stand out Tegan Bennett Daylight’s point that literature fills the reader with the longing to respond, and that need to “write back to books” is the driving force behind not just criticism, but writing in general. It was a theme that, for me, underlined the entire festival.

You can listen to The Uncommon Reader for yourself here, or go and read John Boland’s brilliant summary over at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.

Daniel Morden’s The Empty Hand

I’d heard so many good things about Daniel Morden’s performance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Address that I made sure I went and to see The Empty Hand.

Just the tiniest hint of blue sky...
Just the tiniest hint of blue sky…

It’s difficult to describe Morden’s performance, so instead, I’ll just say that for one hour, Daniel Morden had an entire room under his spell. There were no whispered conversations amongst the audience, no checking of mobile phones and no gazing out the window. He was utterly compelling – and it wasn’t just his words, it was also the way he moved fluidly from one position to the next. He seemed to pronounce every word as if it were written in italics.

One recurring theme of The Empty Hand was the space between our world and the fairy realm and the consequences of crossing the boundaries between the two worlds. Once he’d finished speaking, Morden took a deep bow as we applauded at length. And as the audience stood to make our way out of the room, he stepped forward into the audience and made his way out of the room with us. He crossed the space from performer to become one of us. Just like that.

I wish I’d had the chance to see him again at the Festival.

A Prize of One’s Own

I first heard Carrie Tiffany speak about her brilliant novel, Mateship with Birds at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.

It’s odd how much things can change in a year. Mateship has gone on to take out the Stella Prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize…and the Miles Franklin could well be next. Here’s hoping…

Stella Prize chair, Aviva Tuffield, spoke with Carrie Tiffany, as well as Stella Prize judge and actor, Claudia Karvan, and author and co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Kate Mosse about why a prize for women’s writing is necessary, the bridgejudging process – and what it feels like to actually win the Stella Prize.

There were so many fascinating insights into the creation of both prizes, one with a two-decade history and other only in its first year.

One anecdote in particular has stayed with me. After winning the Stella Prize, a Melbourne newspaper ran a story about Carrie Tiffany with a headline that read along the lines of “Mitcham Mum Wins Book Award”. We all laughed ironically. Tiffany said this was the moment that, for her, cemented the need for the Stella Prize.

I don’t usually get books signed. This is because I don’t cope well with situations in which I have to speak to people I admire. I invariably make an idiot of myself.

However, sometimes, the temptation to meet and exchange a few words with an author I really appreciate outweighs the fear of looking stupid.

After the panel, I lined up and asked Carrie Tiffany to sign my battered copy of Mateship with Birds. But I did that thing where I started to talk (“I just wanted to let you know how much I loved your book and did I tell you I really loved your book and I mean it was reallyreally good“) and I couldn’t stop talking and I’m sure I must have sounded like a complete lunatic.

So while I have no idea what I actually said, I met Carrie Tiffany, and she was charming! This was not only a highlight of my Writers’ Festival, but my reading life.


Karl Ove Knausgaard

As Knausgaard read for us a passage from the second volume of his six volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, he shifted his weight constantly from one foot to the other, unable to remain still. It reminded me of way a boxer ducks and weaves between punches. He seemed to me both defensive and vulnerable at the same time.

Admittedly, I went to see Karl Ove Knausgaard out of sheer curiosity. I haven’t read either of the first two volumes of My Struggle yet, but I’d read an interview somewhere that left me intrigued.

In discussion with Steven Gale, Knausgaard spoke about what happens when you begin to sit down and write about your life without reservation. His “autobiographical novel” has more going for it than just a provocative title – it’s written in six volumes (only the first two are available in English at present) and has been compared to both Proust and reality television. Knausgaard’s books lay every detail of his family life bare. His life, and the people in it, suddenly became a Nordic obsession.

I was completely entranced by the way Knausgaard described his dedication to art. He sees art as an unstoppable force – greater than the law, greater even than the individual artist. Art obliterates the artist.

I heard a lot of people discussing him around the Festival that day, using words like “selfish” and “banal”. I think he’s truly admirable.

Waiting for The Fun Stuff. A long-distance relationship.
Waiting for The Fun Stuff. A long-distance relationship.

The Fun Stuff

Okay, I’ll admit it, I think I pretty much followed James Wood around the Sydney Writers’ Festival and heard him speak at every possible opportunity. But as a wannabe critic, can you really blame me?

In discussion with Susan Wyndham, Wood spoke in detail about growing up in a very strict, religious family and his growing obsession with books other than the Bible – and Keith Moon, drummer from The Who.

Then, something unexpected. Using a pair of borrowed tambourines, a table, a glass and a plastic container, Wood gave a demonstration of finger drumming to a captivated audience. The fun stuff indeed.

Love and Laughter

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on my blog yet, but I adored Graeme Simsion’s debut The Rosie Project, so I was very interested in hearing him talk. I know The Rosie Project has been touted as an overnight success; written in four weeks, so it was fascinating to hear Simsion describe the years of hard work that went into writing and rewriting his incredible novel.

Even the chairs were smiling
Even the chairs were smiling

The first incarnation of The Rosie Project was a drama, and had the decidedly unfunny title THE FACE OF GOD. I type it in all-caps because that’s exactly how Simsion pronounced the words, cupping his hands around his microphone. I repeat: THE FACE. OF. GOD.

Excellent news for fans of Rosie and Don – Simsion mentioned that he’s planning not one, but two sequels to The Rosie Project. And with a little luck, we’ll be seeing The Rosie Project on the big screen soon, with Sony recently optioning the rights to the film. Fingers crossed…

William McInnes was also hilarious. In his Blue Heelers days, he’d write crazed fan letters to his fellow cast members out of sheer boredom. Whenever he was asked a question about his book, The Laughing Clowns, he’d do his best to avoid actually talking about it, instead telling long, riotously funny stories.

Definitely the most fun I’ve had at a writers’ festival.

5 x 15

5 x 15 was something special – the Sydney debut of a storytelling event that’s been wildly successful overseas. Normally, anything that brings to mind primary school multiplication tables scares the living shit out of me, but unlike maths, 5 x 15 is really simple: five people speak for fifteen minutes, with no notes and no script to save them.

Scottish writer and poet Jackie Kay was first, with a series of charming, witty and poignant tales about the kindness and conversation of taxi drivers she’s experienced over the world. For instance, when she mentioned to a Glasgow taxi driver that she was adopted, he took her to the orphanage where she spent her first months of life. Another taxi driver drove her to the airport when she went to Nigeria to meet her biological father, then picked her up from the airport when she returned, having been rejected. I adored Jackie Kay and now want to read everything she’s ever written. Immediately.

Following Jackie was Australia’s own Amelia Lester. When I tell people stories from my work, their eyes tend to glaze over. I bet that never happens to Amelia Lester. As a fact checker for The New Yorker, it was her job to make sure every piece of information that goes to print is verified. Even if it means having to call George Clooney yourself. I wonder if Amelia needs an assistant…

Tim Levinson, more commonly known as Urthboy, was next, and spoke brilliantly about coming to terms with the awkwardness of growing up as a cricket-playing white kid in the Blue Mountains, obsessed with hip-hop and rap – a culture far removed from his own.

Then the amazing Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, took to the stage to talk about the adventure stories she shared with her father as a little girl. Stories where women were treated with disdain, or as token love interest…or completely missing altogether. Kate made it her mission to write adventure stories about girls, to show her father that girls could be heroes too – and he couldn’t have been prouder.

The final speaker was physicist, cosmologist and Trekkie, Lawrence Krauss who showed us How Star Trek Saved the World.

Being a bit of a Trekkie myself, I got a little bit annoyed when Lawrence said a few rather mean things about Captain Janeway. While she’s not my favourite Star Trek captain, I think Lawrence Krauss owes her an apology…

janeway or no wayOh, and as for how Star Trek saved the world, well, it’s kind of a complicated story. It starts with Captain Kirk in his underwear and ends with President Obama. Here’s a little sample.

5 x 15 was my last event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and really, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion.

A few other Sydney Writers’ Festival highlights…

  • Being in the same small room as Deborah Levy, Cate Kennedy and Anita Desai as they discussed short stories with Tegan Bennett Daylight. Just being there to hear them felt like such a privilege.
  • The people in the queue ahead of me at one event getting Courtney Collins’ The Burial mixed up with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
  • Realising that I will never, ever be anywhere near as interesting as Ramona Koval.
  • Shivering in the Viewing Lounge as the rain poured down outside. I’d spent too long at the session before and had missed out on the chance to see booksellers John Purcell (from Booktopia, also bestselling author!), Morgan Smith (from Gleebooks) and Barbara Horgan (from Shearer’s Books) chatting with author Walter Mason about their favourite books, as well as the changing face of the book industry. It was a fascinating session – I wish I’d been able to make it in person rather than on the screen. They definitely convinced me to add a few titles to my already out-of-control To Read list. Damn booksellers, making me broke…
  • Random, odd conversations with strangers about reincarnation, selfish bloggers and much more.
  • Squelching around in waterlogged boots all day, while trying to avoid poking strangers in the eye with my umbrella. Hoping that no one can notice I smell like a wet dog.
  • Kate Mosse’s shoes. Amazing.
  • Walking back to Circular Quay last Saturday through the Vivid Festival crowds and listening to stoners talking openly about the kind of drugs they want to try in the same way I’d discuss my To Read list

Before VividBut of the many things I loved about this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, my favourite would have to be the many, many conversations I shared with friends. Three years ago, when I’d only just started writing about books and attended my very first festival, I didn’t know anyone. This year, there were so many friendly faces. I had the pleasure of making a few new friends, too.

To everyone I ran into at the Writers’ Festival, thank you for making this Festival such an amazing experience. I hope I don’t have to wait until next year’s Writers’ Festival to see you all again.

Next year’s Festival? Yes, I’m already counting down.

Congratulations to everyone who made the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year such a success!