Last weekend the inaugural Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts was held at King's College in London.
I didn't go to the opening on Thursday night (Tim Winton, who launched the festival, was apparently excellent entertainment judging by the comments I heard at every single other panel session I attended) and I couldn't go on Friday either because of work commitments. This meant the event didn't really kick off for me until 1pm on Saturday, when I trundled in to town on my bike, parked up, got my press pass and then attended High Noon with Clive James, which I've already written about.
That session raised the bar pretty high, and I was a little worried that everything else I attended would pale into insignificance by comparison. But while Clive was certainly the highlight of my weekend, it was by no means the only excellent session in a schedule jam-packed with so much great stuff it was hard to decide what to see.
Here's a brief rundown of what I attended.
CRIME WRITING: At the edge of the world
This session, chaired by Stella Duffy (centre), featured Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (left) and Australian crime writer Helen Fitzgerald (right), who has lived in Glasgow since 1991. I've read several of Helen's novels and enjoyed them hugely. They're fast-paced, often about people living on the margins of society, and have a dark noirish / chick-lit feel to them.
The session explored the notion that place is an important element in crime fiction. Val said she loved reading Peter Temple's work because it made her "feel like I'm back in Melbourne". She added that it was vital to get the landscape and the setting right because if the reader believes in those elements they will also believe the rest of what you tell them as a writer.
Helen suggested that it was good to write about crime from a distance because it allows you to see places more clearly. "Being an outsider feeds my writing," she said. "It's also easier to turn a critical eye if you don't live there."
Both authors agreed that crime fiction was a kind of social history and focused on a broad spectrum of characters spanning all walks of life — the victim, the perpetrator, the police, the forensics people, the media and so on — which made it an exciting genre to work in. And they both took issue with the notion that thrillers lack heart. "The only reason that suspense works is that you care about the characters," said Val.
Why write crime? For Helen, who is a part-time criminal justice social worker, it is to "make myself uncomfortable", adding: "Perhaps I've read something that's made me sick to the stomach — that will give me a story and plenty of things to chew over and think about." For Val it is simply to "write a good story".
TO TELL THE TRUTH: Helen Garner in conversation with Helen Simpson, chaired by Carmen Callil
I was really keen to see this event because I love Helen Garner's work, especially her journalism / narrative non-fiction. I was surprised to see her in the flesh: she's tiny, has the most expressive face (in all my photos she's got her nose screwed up or her eyes closed) and moves around nervously in her seat like a jerky little blackbird. To be honest, I could have watched her all day.
But it was her words I wanted to hear. She was introduced to a packed audience in the anatomy theatre at King's College (no dead bodies, I'm afraid) by another Australian legend: publisher Carmen Callil, who set up Virago Press. British writer — and a new name to me — Helen Simpson was also on the panel.
Once each writer had done a reading — Simpson from her short-story collection In-Flight Entertainment and Garner from her novel The Spare Room — they were left to interrogate each other about "truth" in writing.
Now this is where I butt in and say as a journalist, this is a subject close to my heart, but I don't think this session came anywhere near to discussing it properly. With hindsight, I think it would have been much better to have a proper working news journalist interview Garner to tease out the issues; instead it all felt a bit woolly and Garner struggled to get a word in edgewise because Simpson seemed to dominate the session.
That said, the two writers did talk about the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction, which I thought was interesting.
Garner said "people were weird about it", that they wanted things to be true or not true, or to have a "guarantee of authenticity". But when she writes fiction she often takes real events (or people) and fictionalises aspects. For instance, The Spare Room was based on a friend of hers, dying from cancer, who stayed with her for three weeks and "fallen in with a quack". When the novel was legalled she had to change certain details — the name of the medical clinic, for instance, and its address — so that she wouldn't be sued.
"Morally, it was a novel," she said, "because whole chunks of it never happened."
She said many male reviewers took issue with the amount of anger in the novel, but female reviewers identified with it. She thought that was due to men thinking women should be nurturers: "When the chips are down, they expect women to be caring, not angry. [It's like] a Florence Nightingale fantasy," she said.
Despite the success of that novel, she thinks non-fiction is her natural form. (She has a dual career as a journalist.) She has a keen notebook habit — "although I burnt lots of them in the 1980s" — and loves "the act of writing with a pen, because I'm on a computer all day".
"Is it useful?" asked Simpson.
"It's wonderful for practice, for fluency," said Garner. "It's actually really good practice to write about dreams, to write about the strangeness of them."
LOST CLASSICS: A discussion about classic literature from Down Under
Having made a conscious effort over the past couple of years to start reading more Australian classics, I was keen to see this session featuring Carmen Callil (again), Australian academic and chick lit writer Anita Heiss, New Zealand author Stephanie Johnson and The Australian's literary editor Stephen Romei. It was chaired by Jill Eddington, who is director of literature at the Australian Council for Arts.
It began by addressing the age old question: what is a classic?
The common consensus seemed to be whatever publishers decided. Romei said that the whole concept of a "classics list" was a commercial proposition.
But Callil added that classics should be books "that illuminate the history of society in which it is based" and that they are generally fiction.
Johnson highlighted the tricky problem of publishing novels from the past that were politically incorrect. But she stressed that we couldn't rewrite the past. "It's a sign of cultural maturity to accept something as a classic when it contains racism in it," she said.
After a wide-ranging discussion each panellist was asked to name a trio of must-read classics. Here's what they named:
- Painted Clay by Capel Boake
- Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land by Rosa Praed
- Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead
- The Glass Canoe by David Ireland
- The Unknown Industrial Prisoner by David Ireland
- A Woman of the Future by David Ireland
- The Witch's Thorn by Ruth Park
- Maori Girl by Noel Hilliard
- Mackenzie by James McNeish
- We are Going by Kath Walker (poetry)
- The Cherry Pickers by Kevin Gilbert (play)
- Benang: From the Heart by Kim Scott
EXTREME COUNTRY: How the landscape shapes Australian and New Zealand literature
This session featured (the witty and oh-so dry) New Zealand journalist Steve Braunias, and Australian novelists Ashley Hay and Karen Foxlee, who all discussed how important place was to their writing. What became quite apparent listening to them was just how diverse the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand are. In Britain, it's generally urban or bucolic countryside; in Aus and NZ, it could be urban, outback, rainforest, coastal, mountains, rural, wilderness and so on.
I was particularly taken by Foxlee's descriptions of her childhood in Mount Isa, a big mining town in the Queensland outback, and the annual trip to the coast her family would make each school holidays driving from the desert, through the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and then heading to the coastal rainforests of Far North Queensland. To be honest, it made me feel a little bit homesick listening to her.
But I've now added her novels — The Anatomy of Wings and The Midnight Dress — to my must-read list.
It was also lovely to hear Ashley Hay talk about the place that inspired her novel, The Railwayman's Wife, which I reviewed earlier in the year.
And then we came to the end — and I was exhausted
Finally — and god bless you if you've made it this far, I realise this post is very long and I've really only scraped the surface of things — it was wonderful to spend so much time surrounded by antipodean writerly people and those interested in Australia and New Zealand culture.
I met lots of fab people — including a few blog readers — and caught up with others. I also spent a small fortune in the pop-up book shop and tuck shop.
Congratulations to festival director Jon Slack, publicist Rina Gill and everyone else who organised, volunteered and "performed" at the festival.
Despite a few hiccups, such as confusing last-minute room changes, it was a terrific success — and I can't wait for next year's event. The big issue will be how to find guests to match the calibre of Winton and James, among others, and to promote it more actively, both in the mainstream press and social media/online platforms, to build on this year's wonderful showcase of the very best literature and arts the antipodes has to offer.