Melbourne Writers Festival 2013 – What I saw.

The Moth Mainstage

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The Moth podcast is one of my absolute favourite podcasts. It was taken from the weekly radio show, which has come, in turn from the live stage show. The by-line for The Moth is “True Stories, Told Live, Without Notes”. I was totally and utterly excited by the idea of getting to attend a Moth Mainstage before I go to New York. (One day, I will go to New York, and there I will attend a Moth Mainstage. I’ve promised myself this)

The Moth Mainstage was hosted by New York comedienne Ophira Eisenberg, who was totally and utterly hilarious. Her stories tied together the whole event and had the audience roaring. The first of the local storytellers was Melissa Lucashenko, indigenous author who told of her fraught relationship with her daughter, who suffers from depression and other mental health issues. Sounds depressing? That’s the amazing thing about The Moth – the stories are structured in such a way that, while they bring  a tear to your eye, they also make you laugh. Where is the humour in this story? Let’s just hope that it gets podcast sometime so everyone can hear it. Luscashenko was followed by Tony Wheeler, founder of The Lonely Planet series of books. His story was of his various adventures travelling around the planet with his family. There were laughs and emotions, but Wheeler’s story didn’t grab me in the same way as Lucashenko’s or that of the final storyteller: Magda Szubanski. Szubanski was, by far, the major drawcard for most of the audience. Her story included much that was her father’s story – this is a man who survived World War One in Poland as a teenager, spending some time as an assassin, killing collaborators. Wow. Totally and utterly amazing. This evening was an amazing way to start the festival.

A Reading Life

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Author Michael McGirr interviewed Ramona Koval about her life as a reader. Koval is one of Australia’s most respected interviewers in the arts, having headed ABC radio’s The Book Show for many years. I’ve enjoyed several of McGirr’s books and so I was looking forward to both sides of the conversation. It was a very relaxed Sunday morning, although I find that when it is overcast, the Deakin Edge (formerly BMW Edge) can be difficult to bear with such large windows. Yes, I’m complaining about a room I love – but it was so glarey I wanted to close my eyes, and whilst I’m not that old, it’s a short step from having closed eyes to being asleep.

Romana Koval is so very, very funny. It was a real surprise – I had seen her at women of letters a while back and her story had been funny, but I had no idea she would be so consistently funny.

First Flight

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Last year, I enjoyed the session on newly published authors. I don’t think it’s just that I’m  imagining myself up there in a year or two; it is really interesting to hear how people write and how they took their work from conception to publishing. Lucy Neave’s book is called Who We Were and follows a woman through various stages of her life, but focusing on the time she and her husband spent in New York working as biologists in the Cold War. Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal follows a Punjabi family in Singapore over several decades of change both within the family and beyond. John Weldon‘s Spincycle a modern man-book (no, no-one has ever called them that. But it is a book about a man and it is modern. Could this be a new genre?) about a man in his thirties who has broken up with his girlfriend, quit his job and needs to find his place in the world anew. The session was hosted by one of my new favourite authors, Julienne van Loon, author of Road Story, Beneath the Bloodwood Tree and Harmless.

There was something about this session that didn’t flow all that well. The questions didn’t seem to lead into a conversation, and think that there was a concern that all authors got equal time, which I think was not necessary. Plenty of information came across – I was particularly interested in the courses that the authors had undertaken as they wrote. Sometimes, I think three people on a panel for one hour can be too many, also. They all have a lot to say, perhaps two would be better.

Modern Love

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Along with The Moth Mainstage, this was my favourite session by far. I started reading ‘Beyond Heaving Bossoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels’ by Sarah Wendell just before the session and had to repress my laughter in the festival hub at Beer Delux lest anyone think I was insane. The smartbitchestrashybooks.com website is marvelous – established by Sarah Wednell and Candy Tan in 2005, they are two normal (no, awesome) chicks who love romance novels but are prepared to rip apart bad romance, clichés and some of the more awful elements. Including the good and the bad and the very ugly euphemisms. You must check out this site. Marjorie M Liu is an extremely cool chick. Not only does she write romance, notably paranormal and urban fantasy; she also writes X-Men comics. If you don’t think either of those things are cool, don’t talk to me. The conversation was chaired by Stephanie van Schilt, not that she got a chance to say anything. Once Sarah and Marjorie started talking, there was no stopping them.

It was like an awesome force of nature. They clearly have a lot of respect for each other, for their readers and for the genre. It didn’t matter that the conversation was mostly between the two guest panelists, the whole audience felt totally included. It was inspiring and fun and introduced me to a concept that I need to work on to get my head around; romance is a feminist genre. Yup. I’ll be working on that for a while.

The Morning Read

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I was heading in for a couple of sessions on the Friday and thought I’d get there a bit early and check out one of the free sessions. Thuy On introduced a series of authors who read their own work. One thing I have learnt about this festival is that having written a book does not automatically mean you can read it aloud to an audience with a strong sense of the book itself. But enough of this.

Fiona Capp kicked the reading off with the epilogue of her novel, Gotland. This section was of a new Prime Minister’s wife as she settled into The Lodge and tried to figure out how they would deal with her recent issues. It certainly raised my interest about what came before – and it seems that it may be a particularly apt book for the moment. Next was Jane Rawson with her book A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. This book sounds absolutely fabulous – absurd and comic. Set in a Melbourne of the future which is unlivable and following  (amongst others) a man who travels between the folded pages of a map… well, I don’t think I need to say anything more. The third reader was Zane Lovitt, an Australian crime writer who has written a book that I recall him describing as a series of stand alone chapters which, when read as a whole, paint a big picture. I hope I got that vaguely right. Finally was Tao Lin, a poet and writer from New York reading from his novel Taipei. See Generation Now below – I think he is a hugely respected and recognized author internationally, but he cannot read his own work aloud, which I find amazing.

Why I Read

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Why I Read was a session that I booked essentially to make my Paperback Pass worthwhile and didn’t really expect to get a lot out of it. After all, I’ve only heard of Maureen McCarthy and so the others were an unknown quantity, but it was extremely interesting. To hear three authors of different backgrounds and interests talking about books they have read, that have inspired them from their childhood through to what they are reading now. I kept a series of notes in my phone during the session (which made me feel very naughty, even though my phone was on airplane mode) of different inspiring books. Eventually, I may get through all the books on it. If I live to a hundred and can still read, that is.

The Politics of Sex

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What an amazing session. To listen to two inspiring women talk about their area of expertise – it was truly fascinating. This is one of the few sessions where I made a chance to read at least some of each panelists book, so I had some idea of where they were coming from. Shereen El Feki wrote Sex and the Citidel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World, which looks at sex in Egypt and other Arab countries. I found it a bit dry and academic at times, but the anecdotes were fabulous – sometime hilarious. It was especially interesting to hear what El Feki had to say after the recent events in Egypt.

Then there was local author Anna Krien whose book Night Games looks at the attitudes in elite sport, most specifically AFL and NRL. It follows one case of a girl who reported being sexually assaulted by several Collingwood players and a non-player, and it was the non-player who ended up in court. What is interesting about the book is that it talks about the overall culture of sport and the AFL, and attitudes toward women in general. It is depressing, but there is a sense of hope.

Generation Now

Generation Now was my dud session of the festival. My understanding is that Tao Lin is considered very highly in the literary world. Until The Morning Read session yesterday, I hadn’t heard of him (although that doesn’t mean a lot, I know). He read the same section from his book, Taipei, that he read yesterday, and it was just as bad. Throughout the discussion and questions, everything seemed to be very much directed toward him despite his stop-start, monotonous answers that often missed the question altogether. I wanted more from Bethanie Blanchard. She writes for Crikey and sounds fascinating, but she seemed to be all but overlooked.  The whole event was frustrating for me as I felt I was the only one not hero-worshipping Tao Lin. I wonder if they enjoyed it more than me.

A Year of Stella

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Aviva Tuffield was part of a group that came up with the concept the Stella Awards in response to the current male author domination of reviews, award nominations and awards. The Orange award for literature was started in the UK in 1996 in a similar vein. Interestingly, I found that it is now called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Ah, sponsorship.

I find the conversation about gender of authors an interesting one. If a book is good, who cares who wrote it? Over the last few years, I’ve read and heard several discussions regarding this, including an excellent episode of Romana Koval’s The Book Show that has stayed in my mind. One thing which is apparent is that women will read (and review) both male and female authors whilst men tend to read (and review) only male authors. Certainly, a majority of non-fiction tends to be written by men. Does this mean that an award should be given for ladies? If I find myself questioning this, I remind myself that any money for the arts is a good thing. And as a woman who writes, I’m certainly not complaining of the opportunity to be recognized.

At any rate, Tuffield and her group pieced together a panel with several members to judge the first award, which was presented earlier this year. Amongst those selected was Claudia Karvan, the actress and producer who was on the panel as a non-author person of note.  Karvan and Tuffield were joined on the panel by shortlisted author Cate Kennedy and winner Carrie Tiffany. Karvan read from Kennedy’s Like a House of Fire and Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds. It was a very interesting  session which had these four fascinating woman talking about their processes, the history of the prize and where to from here. Plus, I got two books. Oops. My bank account is really not very happy with this festival; my bookshelf is, though!

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