Friday, August 26, 2011

MWF: The Glue of Good Fiction

I was lucky enough to attend my first Melbourne Writers Festival event for this year today! I was a little bit cheeky and made the trip up to Fed Square during my lunch break, listened to the session and then rushed back to work afterwards. Then I had to leave early to pick up my car from the mechanics for the second day straight (long story) so it was a good day in terms of numbers of hours actually spent at work!

I haven't been to the Festival at all for a couple of years and the year I did go I just bought a couple of session tickets, but this year I have gone all out and bought a Paperback Pass which entitled me to 5 events and 2 free Friday events. Some time in the next couple of years I am hoping to start volunteering instead of just attending.

Here's the summary blurb of the session I attended:

As Sartre may have put it, drama is other people. Gail Jones, Elizabeth Stead, Jane Smiley and Marion Halligan discuss how relationships lie at the heart of their fiction, and how we cope with others - family, lovers, enemies, colleagues, neighbours, strangers. Chaired by Enza Gandolfo.

Jane Smiley
My main reason for wanting to attend this session was to hear something from Jane Smiley. There are other opportunities to hear her speak during the Festival, but none that suited my timetable and so when I saw her name on the list on a Friday session (that would cost me nothing) it was a no brainer. It's actually a bit weird that I wanted to hear her speak in the first place as I have only really had any exposure to one of her books and that was an abridged audio version of A Thousand Acres which I absolutely loathed. Apparently it was enough though! You will hear a similar tale when I talk about going to see Ann Patchett too. Didn't really like the book of hers that I had read, but still really wanted to see her festival session.

The other three authors on the panel are Australian authors and I haven't read any of them. I walked out of the session wanting to read something from all of them! I can see I am going to have to exercise a lot of restraint when it comes to requesting books from the library and/or buying them as a result of attending the festival. I am especially interested in picking up Marion Halligan's short story collection Shooting the Fox as one of the short stories that she talked about today sounds like a really fun read!

Marian Halligan
Each of the authors started by talking about what it is that they write about in the context of the session. For Marion Halligan this meant birth, death, love and betrayal and just about everything in between which means that she mostly writes domestic details. Jane Smiley indicated that she began by writing about children, and then that kind of grew into human/human relationship, human/animal relationship, political relations! To summarise, she said "Show me a relationship and I will write it".  Gail Jones thought that the focus of her work was time and memory and how relationships reach back into the past, especially how the dead are profoundly present in the lives of people especially during the period of grief. Finally, Elizabeth Stead indicated that she liked to write about people who are a little left of centre, a little disturbed, a little bit different. In effect she writes about loneliness which could well be interpreted as the lack of relationship.

There were a number of other questions asked including about relationships being the vehicle for exploring character and actions, and also about the title of the session itself which prompted Marion Halligan to say that she didn't see relationships as glue as such.

Another aspect of relationship that Jane Smiley touched on was a triangular relationship between the narrator and the reader as well as the author and narrator which was an interesting concept.

There was some discussion about there not only being emotional relationships, but also spatial relationships - almost like if we put this thing next to that thing and see what happens which prompted Gail Jones to comment that there is likely a lot more randomness in stories than the reader suspects.

The last point that was explored before the session was opened up to questions from the floor was that relationship between characters and place with specific examples of Marion's novel Valley of Grace which is set in Paris featuring all French people, but written wholly in English and Gail's books which feature Sydney. Elizabeth Stead also mentioned that there have been times when she started with the place and the characters grew from there whereas the reader may expect the process to be the other way around.

Elizabeth Stead
One of the interesting parts of this discussion for me specifically in the context of the book I finished reading today  was about characters who are living displaced lives and how their lives are very much charged by loss and by memories of the past. The characters also bring other places to where they currently reside through their memories and how the past shapes their current lives.

Questions from the floor touched on the difference between men and women when it comes to reading about relationship and a craft question about showing versus telling in the context of relationships. The answers to this question were quite interesting with Jane Smiley talking about how time has to pass and the question being how which will dictate whether the author shows or tells. I really liked Gail Jones answer as well which was basically she never really liked the writing rule about showing and not telling but rather prefers to look at who the narrator is and deciding what they could reasonably know when it came to deciding how to tell that particular aspect of the story.

Gail Jones
I was really impressed with Gail Jones. I had heard of her work before, especially her book Sorry which made a big splash when it came out not so long ago. She is quietly spoken, but seems to be extremely intelligent and made some really interesting points during the session.

One of the quotes that she shared came from Henry James - Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.

My next MWF session is on Sunday, and then I will be spending all day there next Saturday! Can't wait.


  1. What fun for you! But on volunteering, I hate to say it, but I volunteered once at the Tucson Book Festival, and although it was fun, I had to miss a lot of wonderful presentations because I was at the help table! After that I decided volunteering should be for civic-minded non-readers!!!!

  2. Having read lots of her books, I would love top hear Jane Smiley. I enjoyed A Thousand Acres more when I discovered its connection with King Lear. Here are a couple of links you may want to glance at:

    Character counterparts:


  3. Oh wow! What a great opportunity! I am so glad that you got the chance to attend and got the chance to hear some very premiere authors speak. I find it funny that you didn't really like Smiley's book, but were so excited to hear her speak. It sounds like something I would do! Thanks for sharing your perceptions of this event with us!

  4. Zibilee - best thing....another 6 sessions to go! Although I am going to have to write neater notes because I really struggled to read them today when I got home!

    Bonnie, it wasn't so much the story that I loathed it was the abridgement and the narration which is without the worst audio book experience I have had. I thought the correlation with King Lear was really clever.

    Rhapsodyinbooks, hmmm, good point!

  5. I've been reading a lot about this on Twitter - very envious of Melbourne and its festivals!

  6. Sounds like a great session, I really love the Perth Writer's Festival, and am always jealous of other city's events too :-)

  7. mummazappa, I always get jealous of the festivals in other cities too.

    Sam, I have been enjoying the twitter feed as well. Makes me wish I was going to more sessions.

  8. Wow it sounds like this session had some really interesting depth to it. I have not read work by any of these authors. But like you I find that often hearing an author speak and being impressed by them is the impetus for me to read their work. I saw Geraldine Brooks recently on Jennifer Byrne Presents, and was so impressed by her enthusiam and dedication to her stories, that I went out bought her first novel Year of Wonders.

    I hope you have a wonderful time at the other MWF events.



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