It’s been a week now, but I’ve finally found space and time in my schdeule to have a look at my recent annual trip into the big bad city, braving the weather and public transport to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival. This year, for the first time, I actually went in on two separate days, leaving me a little tired (but happy) by the end of the weekend – I’m not as young as I used to be… But what did I actually see? Let’s find out 🙂
First up, on the Saturday morning, was Eleanor Catton in conversation with Sian Prior in a session entitled ‘On Reading’. Catton began with a prepared talk on the joys and purpose of reading, with a call to focus on active reading – the more, and more intensely, we read, the better we get at it (I must be an expert by now…). Later, she had a stern message to her writing students: “If you’re not a reader, you’re not a writer.” (again, I must be…)
Another of her main ideas was the modern demand for reading to be of some sort of use, denying its right to be an end in itself, as shown in the questions she used to get as to why she was studying a degree in English. In an era of everything needing to be for something, a means to an economic end, “…to call reading a vocation today seems ludicrously quaint.” From this came her idea of using prize money from one of her many honours to establish a grant giving writers time to read – which sounds like a great idea to me 🙂
It was an interesting talk, and Catton seems a lovely person (I was especially fascinated by her Kiwi vowels), but it wasn’t the best session I’ve ever been to. Having just arrived from LA, Catton admitted to being a little jet-lagged (she certainly seemed a bit frazzled at times), and for me Prior was a little too keen to insert herself (and her experiences) into the conversation. Those minor issues are nothing compared to the audience question which ended the session, though, an incredibly rude assault in which a woman basically harangued Catton for not having published anything recently, accusing her of having writer’s block. Some people…
Next up was David Malouf in conversation with Kevin Rabalais, in a session (‘Being There’) celebrating the release of three volumes of memoirs. There were a few readings from the books and plenty of discussion, with a lot of time spent on Malouf’s early life and his memories of being read to as a child. This idea of hearing things read was a definite focus, something he says still affects what he writes, whether poetry or prose.
One of the other main ideas discussed involved what Kipling and Lawrence called ‘the Daemon’, the writing self trapped inside, the one who does all the real work. Malouf claims that in a way the idea of a story or text is already there inside the writer, meaning that the writing process is a matter of waiting for it to emerge by itself. Because of this: “The writer is two different people…” – the social, daily self (the one who has to attend writers’ festivals, perhaps) and the writing self (a shadowy figure locked up in the mind).
I have to say that I loved this session. Rabalais was excellent as a host, an obvious fan who was willing to keep his contributions to a minimum in order to allow the writer to expand on his ideas. Having seen two writers discuss reading and writing in one morning, I was struck by the contrast between Catton’s methods (a huge amount of research, lots of reading, a long time to actually write the novels) and those of Malouf (ideas from within, a burst of writing). Of the two, I much prefer Malouf’s style 😉
My final session of the day was something a little different. Nic Low moderated ‘North Korea Uncovered’, a discussion with two people who had been to the country and survived to tell the tale (the tale, of course, being available at your local bookshop…). Suki Kim is an American journalist and writer who was born in Seoul but left at the age of thirteen, and she actually spent a year in North Korea teaching at a school for the sons of the regime’s elite. Anna Broinowski is an Australian filmmaker who became fascinated by the idea of Kim Jong-il’s book On the Art of Cinema (this is no joke…), eventually travelling to the country to study these techniques in order to use them herself in an Australian film.
Regular readers will know of my interest in Korean fiction, and attending this session was an offshoot of that. While there was nothing, sadly, about literature, the audience was treated to some interesting facts. One was that people are always joking around in North Korea, mainly to avoid having to discuss anything more serious… For Kim, “It was a place of lies…”, and her time in a country where nobody tells the truth left her depressed (she got very emotional towards the end of the session). I asked a question about their moral obligation to those left behind – both (naturally) stressed having gone out of their way to protect those they knew.
For me, the most interesting part of this session was the obvious tension between Broinowski and Kim. I’m not sure exactly what caused it – did Kim think Broinowski was abusing the situation for her own benefit? – but there were several disagreements, all of which came to a head while Kim was answering a question from Low on the role of the western media in reporting on North Korea. You might think I’m reading too much into things, but I can tell you that Kim deliberately avoided all eye contact with Broinowski for the second half of the session…
A stormy end to the day then, but there were only smiles when I returned to the festival on the Sunday. To find out what I saw, you’ll have to come back tomorrow, though – see you then 😉