Melbourne Writers Festival 2013

Two days spent at the festival and any ONE of the following sessions would have been amazing. I’ve taken notes and will regurgitate later, but for now, let me tell you about what I’ve seen.

Yesterday I went to:

1. An In Conversation with Laurent Binet. His first novel HHhH (which I just started reading the day before, so am only a few pages in) has been hugely successful. It’s an historical novel about the assassination of Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, who was called – as a joke amongst Germans – Himmler’s brain, which is the meaning behind the title Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (HHhH) – ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.’

Binet is young and spunky and said that his imagination was sparked by his father telling him about the two young Czech soldiers who were sent to kill the brain, Heydrich. This was the seed for the story.

He said that his next novel is about the recent French federal election, as he’s a big West Wing fan and was curious whether it (politics in his country) was ‘like’ the show. So he researched his novel, and found out yes, it was quite the same.

Later when I bought his book and raced to get it signed, I wished that instead of saying to him ‘Bonjour, you must be really tired after talking for an hour in English’ I had said to him ‘who is your favourite character in West Wing?’ I tweeted about this as a regret, and today received the reply from him: ‘It’s Toby.’

Makes sense. Who doesn’t love Toby the most?

2. Next session was called Ned Kelly’s Bones with two historians and Jeff Sparrow from Overland chairing the panel. Here we had more history, some gore and darkness including repeated mentions of ‘posthumous punishment’ and it was bloody marvellous, and very relevant to my work in progress. It’s interesting, you can read a lot yourself, and do your research, pore through the documents yet there might be one little detail, quite a simple thing, that’s important that you miss or don’t find yourself. In yesterday’s session I found out that Ned Kelly’s still-missing skull is not intact because of the autopsy. The skull has a piece missing at the back of it (I think). The theory is that a pushy phrenologist nicked it. As historian Jill Dimond said: He had the motive (a skull collection), the opportunity (he was there when a man called Kreitmeyer made the death mask) and he had ‘form’ (meaning he had gone outside protocol before to acquire skulls of criminals, including paying church sextons to gain access to graves and so on.)

3. Session number 3 was called Style versus Content and the chair was Francesca Rendle-Short, and the speakers were novelists Kirsty Gunn and Margo Lanagan. I was incredibly struck by Gunn’s talking about form. She said form sits behind style and generates it. That if you think of the content as ‘the what’ and style as ‘the way’ then form is ‘the how… the mother of style and content.’ It’s about asking questions like ‘How am I going to create a world for this story to live in?’ and without it, style ‘rattles’ in emptiness, and character and content become boring.

Form is the beginning.

I bought Kirsty’s book The Big Music and told her I was impressed by the talk about form. Inspired even. That it resonated for me and it’s something I’ve been struggling to put a name to. She inscribed ‘For Jenny, with best wishes – onwards with Form.’

She also told me which books to read, to study, to see how form is important.

4. This session was on the question Can Literature Affect Political Change? and this was my introduction to Junot Diaz. Alison Croggon read a keynote address from Amanda Lohrey (who was absent) and Lohrey’s position was: No, literature cannot affect political change, that it can only ever be reactive, written after the fact. Diaz proceeded to smash that standpoint and while it was unfortunate that Lohrey wasn’t there to answer and defend, and despite a couple of audience members trying to defend her, or her position given via the keynote, Junot Diaz made a convincing point that we have no data (no ‘metric’ is how he put it) to be able to say whether art interfaces, or how art interfaces, with the inner psyche of people and how that might influence political activity or thought. That change can happen on the granular, molecular level, and this can include individuals responding to literature.

5. The final session yesterday was a panel moderated by Peter Goldsworthy and featuring novelists Tony Birch and MJ Hyland. The topic was port-national literature in Australia, and the themes covered were identity, ownership of narratives. MJ Hyland said that in London, no one asks where you’re from, that they don’t care. But here they do. The implication is that we are still young in that way. The English aren’t having these conversations about post-colonial/post-national literature. ‘They’re over that.’

Day 2 – today

6. Session six for me was an In Convo with Junot Diaz, with Jennifer Byrne as questioner. He talked about his personal beginnings and influences on his work, about family and about the motivations for writing fiction:
‘For some people, applause goes a long way.’

He talked about intimacy and particularly male perspectives on and reactions to the threat of intimacy, and about ‘love rattery’ and cheating in relationships. He said that find true intimacy, we have to all take off all of our masks and show ourselves to people. Another thing, that Byrne quoted Diaz wrote in his book This Is How You Lose Her: ‘the half-life of love is forever.’


He said the first part of writing is the craft, and the second part is more difficult. It’s how to expand your humanity to become the person to do the work. That you have to grow the heart to write certain books. That if you’re a short story writer, the stories you’ve read become your ‘parliament, the wise women who whisper to you.’ If you’ve only read ten stories, the whisper is weak. If you’ve read 4,000, you develop a sense, a writer’s intuition, to know when it’s done.

There’s more, much more but not for now.

7. My seventh session was a workshop with MJ Hyland. She asked good questions at the beginning. She got people to put their hands up. Who was a beginner writer, who had done workshops etc. It was a real privilege to be able to ask her questions, about her novels, how she works, what she’s working on now. We read and commented on each other’s pieces and Maria also gave a hard copy marked-up version back, with her comments. She recommended a book that is the ‘best how to’ writing craft book – Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. I thought I had all the ‘good books’ but this is a new one to me. ‘If you read it carefully and do what she says it’ll speed up your apprenticeship by a couple of years.’

Maria talked about apprenticeships frequently, and I get it. It’s a training, but most of the true work is done outside of classes and workshops and courses. It’s in the 10,000 hours you put in. It’s in the reading and re-reading. The cogitating. The writing.

No sessions tomorrow unfortunately because I have to go to a family thing. Damn family things… I had booked some events but this DFT came up afterwards. But next Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I’m back there. I’m glad for a bit of time to catch up my thinking because there’s really been so much stimulation in the last 48 hours.

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