Posts tagged varuna

“Hell is a half-filled auditorium”: Richard Flanagan at Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival
Richard Flanagan + Geordie Williamson, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Richard Flanagan started his session quoting Robert Frost, while peering out to see the Carrington packed to the rafters. After watching him again down Sydney Theatre-way, I doubt he’ll ever have to worry about empty seats again.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is my favourite book of recent years. Its scope, its compassion, its use of poetry, its melding of the Australian/Japanese view, its horror and love, its strange and cyclical stucture: I have it by my bed to dip into, trying to learn its secrets, as it helps me start on my second novel.

Taking part in writer sessions recently has helped me realise the importance of choosing a good interviewer. Geordie Williamson is always sensitive and assured, and I love how he challenges Flanagan with wordy flights and interpretations. Flanagan begins with a reading, and I’m surprised to find it’s the passage that some might say is the spoiler. I like the daring of this: bringing up the novel’s central dilemma — as Dorrigo Evans walks, he sees his lover after a lifetime without her: will he stop (will she?) or will he walk on by (will she?).

The beauty of the novel comes from the bringing together of hope and horror, inflicting us with obscenities, and then asking us to rise above them. Flanagan laughs when he says he was terrified to write a love story and that he put it off for five novels: that ‘everyone recognises a bad note’. In my own writing I know this to be the case; the ugly, the disturbing, the conflict, is much more seductive, but I’m hoping to move on too.

My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North
My favourite novel of recent years: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North

In many ways, Flanagan’s power comes from the personal. A ‘child of the death railway’, the impact on him was all-encompassing. Many audience members who stood up to ask questions echoed this. The young men who returned with severe trauma didn’t heal in their own lives, while their wounds were passed on to following generations. Many of us with tight-lipped grandfathers, the ones who would only loosen up after sinking a dozen on ANZAC day, understand this well, the ‘gaps between the silence of men’. Flanagan questioned the current infatuation with the ANZAC legend as based on contested ground, leading towards a ‘perverted and dangerous national festival … an insult to those who died … a vindication of chauvinism’.

He sees writing a novel as a ‘journey into your own soul’, his latest book an attempt to translate ‘the small acts of extraordinary kindness we show each other’, along with the gore and the filth of POW camps. Most clear is his sympathy for those caught up in the machinery of war. He met Japanese and Korean guards (The Lizard) in Japan, and ultimately sees war as demanding evil of innocent people.

When Geordie asked him about the ethical dilemmas of taking fictional liberties with the ‘literature of witness’ (he includes Levi here), Flanagan says that ‘writing can’t have ethics … it’s beyond morality’. He sees the role of the writer as ‘an idea of someone whose task it is to communicate the incommunicable’. What was most important to Flanagan was not to cause offence to his father, his dad’s mates, and the people who stumbled and fell along the line.

The novel took over a decade to write. He finished the book on the day his father died.

And through it all is Flanagan’s wicked humour. After humbling himself — ‘the things that are the best of me are in each book’ — he adds, ‘the rest of me is an added disappointment’.

 

 

 

Tough love: Sally Piper & Annah Faulkner – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sally Piper + Annah Faulkner, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.
Sally Piper + Annah Faulkner, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Annah Faulkner has the kind of eyes so sharp they seem to penetrate you to the bone. When talking about her novel The Beloved, you can imagine she is as gusty as the characters she speaks of. Sally Piper, a former nurse, has just released her debut novel Grace’s Table, and this is her first appearance at a festival.

Annah talks about how love seems to have changed over the generations, how in the past love could be fierce, so fierce it was like fighting for survival. There can be a point for mothers where they want something so badly (for their child), they’re so fearful about what’s going to happen (to their child), that their love tips at a point into something else, into desperate control. This reminds me of Jeanette Winterson’s adopted mother — evangelical, deranged — in her memoir, who asks: why be happy when you could be normal?

A small comment from a parent to a small child can influence how they see the world, and their place in it, for a long time. Annah tells of drawing at the table and her mother leaning over and saying, just casually, ‘Art is definitely not your strength.’ Creativity needs to be nurtured not strangled. It was only when she reached 41, that she saw a man in the park, and thought, ‘I’d like to paint that’. In a way, she sees writing a small girl character with a talent for art as a way of healing.

Annah Faulkner, BelovedAnnah reveals that her mother was a journo and photographer in Papua New Guinea. I was born in PNG and returned there for a short time when I was a child. It’s more and more on the radar with Australian writers. I look forward to reading The Beloved.

In Grace’s Table, Sally’s intent was to flout the expected conventions when writing about a 70-year-old woman. She wanted to write an older woman character who had lived (as we all have lived). Sally wrote her novel as part of a degree, and said she had always been fascinated with the 50s, women in the kitchen, the post-war period where after women had the chance to work, their opportunities were then stripped right back.

Sally talked about how the way we share food defines us, and her novel revolves around how food in a domestic setting is not just about loving and caring, but can be manipulative and taunting too. Her university exegesis was about how disempowered 50s women became empowered in the home by becoming guerilla tacticians. I have a vision of someone in a demure apron and a gorilla mask, but I’ll read Grace’s Table to find out more.

Sally Piper, Grace's TableIn response to an audience question about characters becoming part of their lives and buzzing around in their brains, Sally admitted to being a ‘bloody idiot’ when writing and driving (the two don’t mix; I can attest to this). I don’t mean literally. But having characters talk to you when you’re at the wheel can be really distracting.

While Annah, who has set an event in her new novel at a particular block of land that she drives past regularly, always thinks ‘There’s Fred’s place!’ as she sails on by…

For more on the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, see Emma Donoghue chatting about motherhood and cross-dressing, and a roundup of my Here and Now session with Felicity Castagna.

Here and Now: Felicity Castagna and me – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo:
Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

When you go up on a stage to talk about your book, the harsh spotlight and the mics and the intense concentration and the nerves means the event can fly past you even as you’re experiencing it. Something like smoking too much pot.

I was going to dredge up my disconnected and whimsical memories but — thank God — I discovered Lisa Fleetwood’s Welcome to My Library blog, which covers it so much more eloquently than I could. She’s kindly agreed to do the work for me, and let me reproduce it here…

HERE AND NOW: DEBUT FICTION AT THE VARUNA/SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL: FELICITY CASTAGNA AND KIRSTEN KRAUTH

BY LISA FLEETWOOD

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Wow, what a great start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival! I love the day up at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba — its such a great setting for a writers’ fest! For this blog post I will just concentrate on the first session as it featured two amazing Australian women writers. I took so many notes, it’s too much for even one blog post.

Two debut writers (but both are by no means new to the world of writing and editing) Kirsten Krauth and Felicity Castagna featured in conversation with Irina Dunn. Both authors have written fiction centred around the suburbs of Western Sydney [Felicity’s is YA; Kirsten’s was published as adult but crosses over into YA], and have explored the lives of teenage protagonists that are forced into maturity early. The discussion was informative and interesting (as a writer and a reader), and chaired brilliantly by Irina.

just_a_girlKirsten Krauth’s novel just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Layla is isolated and searching for a sense of connection, faith, friendship and healing. The author explores the teenage world of what it’s like to grow up negotiating the digital world of Facebook, webcams, internet porn, mobile phones and cyber-bullying — a world where the line between public and private is increasingly being eroded.

Felicity CastagnaFelicity Castagna’s novel (which has been short-listed for a NSW Premiers Literary Award & the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Older Readers) tells the story of Michael, whose older brother dies at the beginning of the summer he turns 15, but as its title suggests, The Incredible Here and Now is a tale of wonder, not of tragedy. It tells of Michael’s coming of age in a year which brings him grief and romance; and of the place he lives in Western Sydney and its mix of cultures. Through his perceptions, the reader becomes familiar with Michael’s community and its surroundings, the unsettled life of his family, the girl he meets at the local pool, the friends that gather in the McDonald’s parking lot at night, the white Pontiac Trans Am that lights up his life like a magical talisman.


 Irina began the discussion about the environment of the novels. How did the authors create the sense of place?

→For Felicity, Parramatta was a place she knew well, had walked and worked and lived in, and was fascinated by the mix of cultures and the small spaces where people gather — the Macca’s carpark, the Westfield food court, the local shops and the intricacies that make up a bustling city and how a teenager might inhabit that space.

→For Kirsten, her former commute from Springwood to Sydney was a plethora of research fodder for a self-proclaimed semi-stalker of people. She found that a train is a place somewhere in between public and private, a place where not all, but many people, reveal private information in a very public place, especially teenage girls. From the discussion today, I sense that the environment inside and outside the train (regular or irregular passengers, gigantic moths, the beautiful landscape passing by) will feature, but upon reading the book I am sure a further sense of Layla’s space, her inner thoughts and her online world will be revealed.

Both authors talked of wanting to elaborate more with the setting and place.

→Felicity is particularly interested in place-driven novels, but both commented on the need to strip back the description to write a character study rather than setting.

→Kirsten realised that her characters wouldn’t notice the environment as much as she would. Kirsten’s comment struck a chord with me — why hadn’t I thought about that before? I have sometimes used description in my novel as merely a need to get something across to the reader, but would a teenage boy (my protagonist) notice the lines of a building, what it was made of, or the sunlight sparkling on the cascade of a waterfall? Maybe not. Time for yet another edit maybe.

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Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna and Irina Dunn, Here and Now session, The Carrington, Katoomba, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

The discussion moved on to how the authors captured the teenage voice. How did they do it so well?

→Felicity, as a former teacher in a boys’ high school, had seven years’ experience observing teenage boys and how they speak and react, but within that she wanted to create a poetic, lyrical voice with a teenage usage of similes and metaphors.

→Kirsten was fascinated with what she would sometimes hear on the train, the ease at which teenage girls would freely talk about their escapades (sometimes sexual) in a public space, but she was also interested in the private/public space of the internet and how much could be gleaned about people without their knowledge.

When researching her book (which actually began as a character study), Krauth found that talking to teenage girls didn’t reveal to her the information she was looking for, but all she had to do was sit back and listen — on the train, but also online. Her book also explored the digital medium of lonely people who can’t connect in everyday life but connect online privately on a public medium, or so they think. Krauth found that it didn’t take much to find out where someone lived, what they liked and who their friends were. She found it easy to get inside the minds of teenage girls, so how easy would it be for a sexual predator? Something to think about for me with a teenage daughter. We have had a ‘internet is turned off when Mum goes to bed’ rule for a long time. This rule won’t be changing anytime soon!

What were their influences for these novels?

→Felicity’s childhood YA reading (while living abroad) introduced her to a form of writing called ‘vignettes’ and she used this style to write her novel. A vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives a trenchant impression about a character, idea, setting, or object, or in Felicity’s words — a series of ‘short short stories’. She then puts her stories into linear fashion and fills in the gaps.

→Kirsten’s quotes Room by Emma Donoghue, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer as influences for their clarity and fresh voice, as well as the naive voice (of a child) and a terrible sense of dread.

Plotter or Pantser?

Definition: Plotter –  Outlines novel before sitting down to write it. Pantser – Sits down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants.

→Kirsten — definitely a Pantser. She wrote the first draft without planning or plotting and without re-reads or editing. As soon as she mentioned doing her Masters with Sue Woolfe, I knew what she meant! (I will do a blog post about Sue Woolfe soon). I did a fascinating day course with her last year. Her view is that over-planning and plotting limits the imagination, reins it in. Where would our imaginative brains have taken us if we weren’t corralled by a firm plot? Kirsten talked of writing scenes in fragments and moving the scenes around to where they fit best. What voice appears in the story after first draft? What emerges as the heart of the story, the main theme?

→Felicity wasn’t quite as definite. I recall her nodding to the question of being a Pantser. Perhaps she may have been combination of the two, but her form of writing — the Vignettes — leans towards a Panster. These vignettes may have been her first ‘pantser’ draft, then upon second draft spent some time plotting and, as she said, ‘fills in the gaps’. If she reads this post, perhaps she can confirm! It was hard for both authors to answer all of the questions fully with the limited time of the session, or maybe I simply missed her response while scribbling notes.

In closing

There was further discussion regarding multiculturalism and how children perceive it, internet research and the dangers of connecting online, the world of self-marketing as an author, and comparisons between growing up in the 80s compared to teenagers in the digital age. A question from the audience touched on the perception of adults about teenagers, and the discussion led to the intelligence and sensitivity of children and teenagers, and how there is a big gap between their inner thoughts and feelings, and how they present themselves to the world, which could lead to an incorrect perception by adults.

Both authors read short excerpts from their books which gave me a real sense of the characters and the place setting. I am really looking forward to reading and reviewing them.

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To read more about Kirsten Krauth click here for her website and Wild Colonial Girl Blog.

To read more about Felicity Castgana click here for her personal website go tohttp://www.incrediblestories.net.au for a teaching guide for her book.

Book images and synopsis from Goodreads.

Read my related articles about Notable Australian Children’s Fiction and the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

A room with a view + Emma Donoghue: Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Varuna: a room with a (gothic) view
Varuna: a room with a (gothic) view

Walking into Varuna (a residence for writers in Katoomba) from the road is like entering some kind of wonderland. It seems to be a place where you leave your baggage at the gate. I sleep in the Sewing Room, in a small wooden single bed with a patchwork quilt, and read and write here in the Green Room, with wall to wall library shelves, a huge desk, window views and a comfy chair to sit.

Whenever I’m struggling for a metaphor to grab when describing writing and editing, I tend to go with the handicrafts. I do find my own method of putting a manuscript together works much like a hand-made patchwork quilt, writing the fragments and then piecing them together according to colour, texture, style. Editing too has often been described as a kind of tearing apart and stitching back together, hopefully with the stitches seamless and invisible to the reader.

I wake at Varuna to gothic bare trees after a night of red wine and grand talk around a fire with Djon Mundine and Felicity Castagna. I’m here at Varuna not to write this time, but for my first session as part of the Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival, and they’ve also asked me to guest blog.

In Emma Donoghue’s gut-churningly tense novel, Room, there are no windows, no view. Jack is a five-year-old who has been locked up with his mother since birth; Ma was kidnapped. His voice is precise and strikes at your heart, clear as a bell. When I was reading books featuring young characters as research for just_a_girl it was Jack’s voice, and Christopher’s in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, that remained with me.

 

Kate Fagan + Emma Donoghue at Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.
Kate Fagan + Emma Donoghue at Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

Emma Donoghue’s session at the Carrington unfolds in her warm and hearty Irish accent. She talks of the ideas behind her latest book, Frog Music, set in the late 1800s about a cross-dresser, a frog-catcher and an erotic dancer. I’m already in love with the sound of it. The women in her novel are rebelling against the rules, refusing to be ‘good girls’. She talks about the joys of delving into the archives, uncovering things odd and excessive. She spends a day researching men’s jewellery, ‘trousers so tight it left nothing to the imagination’.

She also talks of the centrality of the theme of motherhood to her novels, sometimes capturing her by surprise: the pressures of family/work reflecting all our lives and that moment when as a parent you have to consider: ‘Will I keep them safe or will I let them live?’ She then goes onto describe her own creative processes, and how she achieves balance: ‘I weaned my daughter to go on a book tour … I feel so shallow saying that’, she says, laughing.

Donoghue’s passion for writers and writing shines through in every word. The youngest of eight, she loved the indulgence of being able to read books while her older siblings worked around her. She’s only just starting to feel like a grown up (now she has kids). I know how she feels  …

Heading off to another day in the mountains…

For more Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival coverage, see here and now fiction with me and Felicity Castagna, and tough love with Annah Faulkner and Sally Piper.

 

 

Festivals: Clunes Booktown, Sydney Writers’ Festival + how to approach them

Alex Miller, Castlemaine-based author and winner of Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Coal Creek, will feature at Clunes Booktown
Alex Miller, Castlemaine-based author and winner of Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Coal Creek, will feature at Clunes Booktown

Before I head into a general ramble about festivals, I’ll get the topical bit out of the way to say: yes, I am in! May is festival time so if you live in Sydney, Melbourne, or the regions surrounding me (Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, etc), please come and see my fest debuts; it’s always nice to have bums on seats. And I always like to get audience questions from people I already know.

CLUNES BOOKTOWN, 3-4 MAY

This is one of my favourite festivals, where the beautiful old streets are taken over by second hand booksellers; a literary paradise. It’s a nice day trip from Melb or a fun weekender.

I’m excited to be including on the program, doing a session with graphic novelist Nicki Greenberg (where we push the boundaries of the novel), plus I’ll be pushing things even further when I head up on stage for the first time with my dad, Nigel Krauth, also an author (well, he did win the Vogel Award for his first novel Matilda My Darling and the NSW Premiers Literary Award for JF Was Here). We’ll be duelling light sabres and talking about how to write fathers and daughters and how we both get caught up in our own and shared fictions.

My sessions at Clunes:

Sat 3 May: 11.15-12.15, Pushing the Boundaries of the Novel, with Nicki Greenberg, Venue: Warehouse

Sun 4 May: 12.30-1.30, Writing the father Writing the daughter, with Nigel Krauth, Venue: Warehouse

The highly esteemed Alex Miller and Henry Reynolds will also be in attendance. Full programme is available here.

SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL, 19 + 22 MAY

Felicity Castagna, Friday Night Fictions author, will be doing a session with me about first novels at Sydney Writers' Festival
Felicity Castagna, Friday Night Fictions author, will be doing a session with me about first novels at Sydney Writers’ Festival

One of the things I love about writers’ festivals these days is that they’re spreading like a virus out of the inner-urban into regional areas. I’m very excited to be appearing in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains (where just_a_girl is set) alongside another debut author Felicity Castagna (whose work appeared in Friday Night Fictions).

Again, city-dwellers could do a great day trip or locals will probably already have their tickets. Apparently they are selling well.

What I’m really keen on is that two of my favourite writers of the moment (Richard Flanagan – YES! – and Emma Donoghue) will also be in Katoomba. I’ll be staying at Varuna, the famous retreat for writers, so I’ll be able to suss it out before returning to hopefully work on the second novel at some point this year.

I never would have dreamed when I was about to launch my book that down the track I would be talking about marketing, but there you go. At Forest for the Trees, an all-day NSW Writers’ Centre seminar on the state of publishing, I’ll be hanging out with Kate Forsyth and discussing how you go about marketing novels, and how social media (and blogging) can help. I like to target these sessions to the modern introvert (like me) who can go a long way to promote their work without moving from their bedroom (except to get the occasional cup of tea).

My sessions at Sydney Writers’ Festival:

Here and Now: Debut Fiction, Monday 19 May, 10–11.10am, Carrington Hotel, Katoomba. (More info – tickets for session at venue or day passes available.)

Forest for the Trees: Writing and Publishing in 2014, how to publish and market a debut novel, Thursday 22 May, State Library of NSW, 10am–4.30pm. (More info – tickets available from SWF website.)

THE GENTLE ART OF APPROACHING WRITERS’ FESTIVALS

Richard Flanager, author of my fave book from last year, will also be appearing in Katoomba as part of the SWF
Richard Flanagan, author of my fave book from last year, will also be appearing in Katoomba as part of the SWF

I don’t tend to think of myself as naive, but if I’m being completely honest, perhaps I’m a bit more like my character Layla than I tend to admit.

Along the marketing ride (I mean gallop)  for just_a_girl, some things have taken me by surprise. One has been the notion of the writers’ festival.

Now I have been going to writers’ festivals since I was a child. My dad Nigel Krauth (see Clunes above) sometimes took me along to his sessions (I remember CUB Malthouse in Melbourne) and I’d watch with pride and awe as he read filthy passages that made me blush and roll my eyes, and fielded questions from the audience as if he was very important. In my twenties and thirties I attended many festivals as a reader, never in quite as much awe, but keen to glean as much know-how as I could, for the day when I would be a famous writer.

But back to earth. Writers’ festivals are quite hard to get into. I didn’t know this. I never did the maths (ie 10,000 aspiring writers does not equal 400 writers in festival program). I thought that once I had a novel published, there it was. I was a WRITER now. I wasn’t emerging any more. I was OUT. THERE. There’s this book in your hand. Anyone can see it. Feel free to programme me.

But no. Like anything else these days, it is no longer just about the book. It’s about the writer. And you have to sell your soul! I mean, your self. This is all about strategy. It’s taken me nearly a year to break into the festival circuit (since just_a_girl was published). Here are a few things that I’ve learnt so far that could help:

Tim Ferguson, author and DAAS (see earlier blog post), will be teaching comic writing at Sydney Writers' Festival
Tim Ferguson, author and DAAS (see earlier blog post), will be teaching comic writing at Sydney Writers’ Festival

1. You need to get in early. It’s good to think about approaching festivals pretty soon after the last one has finished. Not too soon … but.

2. The personal touch works. Don’t just send a media release with a review copy of your book. Write about you, what you’re about, why you wrote your book, how your angle differs from everyone else’s.

3. Offer to do extra stuff. Look you’ll get taken advantage of, but that’s the fucking industry all over, isn’t it! Offer to convene other sessions (if you’re the extroverted type) or blog about other sessions (more my style).

4. Try the regional angle. Of course everyone wants to get into Sydney and Melbourne and they have wonderful prestige and the chance to hobknob but in terms of promoting your books, you might get lost in the crowd…Look for festivals in your area (see Clunes Booktown again!) or check out online databases of literary festivals and try a smaller one that concentrates on your genre.

My good mate Walter Mason (Destination Cambodia) will be appearing with Stephanie Dowrick at Sydney Writers Festival
My good mate Walter Mason (Destination Cambodia) will be appearing with Stephanie Dowrick at Sydney Writers Festival

5. Rejection is hard. The difficult thing about being knocked back from festivals is if you focus on point 2 above, as you need to, it can start to feel personal. Not only does the festival not want the book, they can’t place you as a person either. But each festival director is different, looking for a new angle on old topics. Look at the program and see where you slot in. Try again next time. Try and find another writer working in a similar vein. Are they sexier than you? Good. Use them. Pitch as a team.

6. Look to the experts. I commissioned Angela Meyer, of LiteraryMinded fame, to write a terrific sum-up of how to appear at writers festivals for Newswrite magazine (NSW Writers’ Centre) because she’s been to loads. Her article has since been reproduced at ArtsHub so it’s a great starting point…

AND WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU GO TO WRITERS FESTIVALS? WHICH ARE YOUR FAVOURITES — AS READERS OR WRITERS?

Wild Colonial Girl has a Facebook page too! If you could LIKE I would really LOVE.