Our staff member Katherine kindly took notes for me on the panels she visited and discussions she saw. She’s got some great snapshots, so enjoy!
Blue skies and sunshine – hurrah! The festival is on and everyone is trying to cram as much as possible into these two days. I did a bit of tent hopping, trying to catch as much as possible.
9.30am – listened to Susan Wyndham talking about writing the book A Life in His Hands – it’s a moving story and she discusses the implications of writing about real people. How, when it became apparent the story wouldn’t have a happy ending, she considered discarding the book.
10.15am – Poets with Punch. A great session chaired by Peter Bishop with Morganics, Cyril Wong and Yvette Holt. The poets first read their work and then discussed it. Wonderful to see such different styles. Morganics is a hip-hop poet and his energy and strong social commentary are uplifting. Cyril Wong’s poems about being gay, about HIV and about love in general were lyrically beautiful and his reading was gentle and moving. Yvette Holt was earthy and present and audiences instantly warmed to her.
11.00 – All in the Family. A strange session and I didn’t get to see all of it. The panellists were encouraged to give lengthy readings and discussions of their work, which made it feel a little disjointed. I was able to hear Debra Adelaide and Deborah Robertson and was sad to miss Julia Leigh and Charlotte Wood.
11.30am – The Porn Report. Interesting discussion on the ethics of pornography and Alan McKee’s survey of porn users. Emily Maguire was passionate in her feminist stance and, although she said she was porn-neutral, she hated the derogatory tag lines that accompany images on porn sites, where women seem to always be referred to as bitches, sluts and whores. There didn’t seem to be a meeting place for Emily and Alan, with Alan stating that mainstream pornography doesn’t belittle or degrade women and Emily being adamant that the readily available, free porn on the internet does.
12.30 – Talking the Talk: Getting the Dialogue Right. Panel with Michael Gow, Max Barry, Judy Nunn and Virginia Duigan. Basic message – if you know your characters well enough and they are individual enough, then the dialogue will come. Judy Nunn found writing dialogue easy, as did Michael Gow. The theory was that this came from their time spent as actors. Max Barry hates writing dialogue and finds it the hardest part of writing. Virginia Duigan felt that the characters did it for her, when she got to that stage. All panellists admitted to being eavesdroppers!
3.15pm – Special Session. Chloe Hooper in conversation with Kerry O’Brien. Fascinating talk about Chloe’s experience writing The Tall Man and her time on Palm Island and how it has changed her. Chloe said that she hoped there would be some benefit to her bearing witness. She found it hard to talk about Senior Sergeant Henley. With regard to Australian politics and reconciliation, she spoke out about the evils in the thinking ‘we’ll deny you a past while we expect you to take full responsibility for your present’. The story got under her skin and consumed her – she couldn’t put it aside. She was almost finished writing her second novel when she was compelled to leave it on side and write The Tall Man instead. "Going back to the novel will be like getting into a warm bath after being in the sea," she said. Chloe seemed awkward on stage, uncomfortable being interviewed, but the story she told was gripping and her conviction was impressive. She said she felt fortunate to have been able to write The Tall Man – it had stretched her in all sort of ways.
[Note: Another person I spoke to about this panel said Kerry O’Brien tried to get Chloe to polarise the argument, to make a black-and-white statement about who was right and who was wrong, and she admirably refused to simplify the situation and demonise anyone.]
4.00pm – Special Session. Nam Le and Cate Kennedy on short stories. (This interview will hopefully be available to listen to on the Byron Bay Writers Festival website.)
Nam Le gave a wonderful car analogy for writing stories. He said it was like driving at night time – you can’t see your destination, you can only see 20 metres ahead, whatever is illuminated by your headlights. He said he has to grope around to find his story – he can tell if he’s gone off track by the way the voltage leaves it – but he doesn’t know what he has to do to go back on track. He has to pull over and muddle around and try different things and take different tracks, until he’s back on the road again.
Both Nam and Cate read from their stories and they were mind-blowingly brilliant. Cate mentioned that, although almost all the stories in ‘Dark Roots’ had won prizes, every one of them was rejected two or three times before winning something. She said it’s all about placement. Keep sending out. The timing might not be right when you first send it. Nam and Cate have both been judges and they said that judging is very subjective (as we all know) and that there tends to be a zeitgeist of subject matter. And if your story is the eighth story on a certain theme, then they are likely to dismiss it – because of the ‘oh no, not another story about xyz’ reaction.
Cate said that the lessons she’s learnt from rejection are ‘Perseverance, Humility and Perspective’. (The perspective being that this is a creation of yours that has been rejected – it’s not a personal rejection – it’s just something you’ve created. And, in a whole world view, it’s tiny. Don’t stress about it, keep writing and keep submitting.)