After a packed day, and an early rise, on the Saturday, Sunday at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival got off to a much more relaxed start. I only had two sessions to attend, both in the afternoon, so I was able to sleep in, breakfast well, then head back to the city for the last day of the whole thing. And a good day it was too 🙂
The day kicked off for me with Sophie Cunningham in conversation with Sarah Waters about her latest novel The Paying Guests. However, although this latest book was meant to be the focus of the session, in truth it was more of a summary of all Waters’ books. Cunningham was very eager to discuss the writer’s other works, looking at the connections between them in terms of style and themes.
Waters read a short extract from the The Paying Guests, a scene introducing the two main characters, and then it was on to a discussion of some of the themes of the book. Waters is fascinated by history, especially the way class is expressed in different periods, and her latest novel is set in a period (the 1920s) when this was particularly interesting. At this time, the after-effects of World War One and the burden of death taxes and duties weighed heavily on the upper-middle class, and their descent was in stark contrast to the rise of the lower-middle and working classes in an age requiring more white-collar workers (as an Englishman, I can confirm that class is a topic we’re all painfully aware of…).
Like Eleanor Catton, Waters is another writer who loves research, immersing herself in her reading before making the time her own by fictionalising it. She said it’s important for her to capture the real atmosphere of an age, rather than merely imitating it; one way she does this is to spend a lot of time reading texts from the era in question, whether they be novels, newspapers or letters. The more she reads, the closer her end product is likely to be to the original era.
No fan of Waters’ work would be surprised to hear that the central relationship in The Paying Guests is a lesbian one, and Cunningham elicited more about how the writer developed that facet of the novel. The writer later responded to an audience question by explaining how (in fiction, at least) a gay flirtation needs to be more prolongued and subtle than a straight one. In fact, one of the parts of the novel which caused her most work and stress was the pivotal scene where the relationship tipped over the edge.
Understandably, the lesbian angle was emphasised towards the end of the session, and Cunningham asked whether Waters felt she had a mission to uncover the Queer Culture of the past. The writer replied that it wasn’t a deliberate action, but a consequence of following her interests. What she found was that rather than rewriting history through a Queer lens, she was merely filling in gaps where history has kept silent…
Just one more session, then, to end my stint at the festival, but this one involved some exercise. You see, the next talk began half-an-hour after the end of the Waters session, but at The Wheeler Centre, a fair walk from Federation Square where most events were held (don’t worry, I made it in time!). This was where the television strand events were taking place, and while telly’s not really my thing, my wife and I have been catching up with the excellent Australian series Love My Way on DVD – hence my attendance at an event with the show’s producer, John Edwards, and award-winning actress Claudia Karvan.
Hosted by Rochelle Siemienowicz, this was a homage to a wonderful show, one in which Edwards and Karvan worked together again after the success of The Secret Life of Us. As we heard, Love My Way was rejected by Channel Ten, a commercial station, ending up instead on Foxtel (pay TV), a first for a major drama series in Australia. In the end, the pair said that despite the smaller audience, this was a move which paid off because of the freedom afforded by the station.
But what does ‘freedom’ entail? Well, both mentioned executives of the station urging them to push the envelope (which certainly happened very early in the show…), and there was no obligation to cast within the network stable (a habit rife in Australian television). They were also allowed to get away with dim lighting, giving the show a grungy feel, and everything was shot using cinematic filming techniques with no studio set.
This was a great talk between two people who are obviously good friends, and apart from what I’ve mentioned above, a large focus of the session was on the writing process for the show. Both Karvan and Edwards talked about the chemistry of the writing team and the importance of collaboration while keeping the distinct voices and styles of the writers (and also avoiding the clichéd language they described as ‘telly talk’). My question about whether the show was intentionally made to make viewers uncomfortable threw them at first, but eventually they agreed that the characters were meant to be (in Edwards’ words) ‘spiky’. I can assure them that they certainly managed that…
And that’s it – almost… You see, my participation in this year’s festival wasn’t limited to my attendance over one weekend – I actually had a little more to do with what was going on through attendance at some meetings earlier in the year. That’s a story for another day, though, one in which I’ll reveal more about my role and say what I thought about the festival as a whole – and what could be done to make it better (for me, at least!). I hope you can join me then…