Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sunday Salon: Feeding my soul at MWF

Earlier this week I went to a corporate lunch where they had an inspirational speaker come in and talk whilst we ate good food (seriously good dessert!). The man that spoke to us this time was a former police pathologist who had been involved in the aftermath of lots of different tragedies around the world helping with the terrible task of trying to identify bodies - events like the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 tsunami and more. At first when we read his bio we were a bit worried about what he would talk about. It turned out to be an incredibly inspiring speech. From his work in Thailand after the tsunami, he ended up starting a charity to help orphans and that charity continues to grow and grow and grow. When he talked there was barely a dry eye in the house (and the majority of the crowd were men in suits).

There were three things that he said that really stuck with me. The first was "Hope is not a plan" meaning you actually have to do something, you can't hope it will get done. The second was "You can't change what has happened but you can change what happens next" and the third was that we need to be doing things that feed our souls. My instant reaction to this last point was to think of really big things - like travel to Europe etc.

Yesterday though, I was sitting in my first session for the day at Melbourne Writer's Festival, and I came to the realisation that just by spending the day at Melbourne Writer's Festival I was feeding my soul!

Given the length of the introduction, I am thinking that this is going to be a very long post! Here is my account of how I fed my soul!

My first session of the morning was with In Conversation with Ann Patchett, author of books like Bel Canto and most recently State of Wonder. Now like last week, I went to see Patchett even though I wasn't particularly enamoured by the one book of hers that I had read. I had however really enjoyed listening to several interviews with Patchett and knew if nothing else  I would be amused as I listened to her, and I was right!

After a bit of Aussie celebrity name dropping, Patchett started to talk about the inspiration behind her newest book, State of Wonder, a book which is about an adult meeting a former teacher who was influential in their lives, and yet often those same students are invisible in the memories of the teacher. Patchett says that the book is a mix of mystery, adventure, science and fiction (not science fiction) and loss.

Some of the interesting things that she touched on:

  • Patchett is very interested in chapter structure. She likes to have the reader wanting to read to the end of the chapter, and then just one more chapter etc.
  • She is cold-hearted about her own work (which she credits as being a legacy from her years as a journalist). You must do what is best for the work, not necessarily for you.
  • Her research trip to the Amazon including insects and snakes
  • The difference between writing a novel and a memoir and how writing the memoir about her friendship with her best friend was cathartic
  • She has known since a very early age that she wanted to be a writer - no question of doing anything else for her.
  • The bookshop that she is about to open in Nashville (She doesn't want to live in a city with no bookshops). She did say that she wasn't likely to be working in the shop. Rather, she will be at home handcrafting the merchandise.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion was the idea that as an author she has just one story to tell - the story from her heart and the further away from the heart you get the more that the author will struggle. She can dress it up with different settings and characters, but her books are mostly are about a group of strangers getting stuck in an unusual situation and forming a family. She also has common themes that she likes to explore. Two examples - race and the intersection between wealth and poverty. It was interesting to hear her talk about being able to write in the voices of different ethnicities, which she says can be done as long as you do it right, but also that she writes the individuals as individuals not as a representative of entire nationalities.

This was a fun session and Ms Patchett was really very charming and funny! I am glad I went, and now I want to give her books another go!

The second session I attended was Slow Travel

In Tom Trumble's Unholy Pilgrims he travels across Spain on foot, while Ken Haley's Europe@2.4km/h finds him traversing the continent in his wheelchair. They talk to Jane Sullivan about what you see when you take the slow road.
Once upon a time I used to read a lot of travelogues or books about starting a new life in a new country but it's not quite so common for me anymore (although not too long ago I did read Lunch in Paris).

Tom Trumble decided to walk Camino de Santiago because he was hoping for a bit of inspiration in terms of what he was going to do with his life. He walked 800km from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain with a friend, meeting up with many other pilgrims along the way, and as most Australians are reputed to do along the way spending lots of time drinking! He stayed in the alberques that line the route and that bought with it the joys and otherwise of sharing space with others - Tom talked about finding the snoring particularly difficult to deal with. Contrary to what he initially expected, the worst part of the trek was the 250km section of flat terrain, where people begin to internalise more and as a result lots of interesting things happen. He talked about some of his fellow pilgrims and their pilgrimage as everyone does it for their own reasons.

Ken Haley is a paraplegic who was piqued by curiosity to discover more about the identity of Europeans and really discovered that for most Europeans they are still predominantly French or Spanish or whatever and that being European is still a somewhat distant concept. Of course, being in a wheelchair brings its own sets of difficulties - things like not being able to find many wheelchair friendly hotels in Paris for example.

Both talked about the devastation of losing some of their source documents (journals, photos etc), the road to getting published and their next projects. Tom talked about the fact that the experience of the pilgrimage didn't change him, but writing the book about it certain did! His next book is about a trip he made to Timor, and Ken's is another traverse of Europe with different start and end points!

Have to say, I am surprised that I could read any of my notes for this session as the venue was completely blacked out and so I couldn't see what I was writing!

After a long and chatty lunch with Lisa (thanks again Lisa - getting to know you a little has been one of the highlights of my festival experience!), a wander through the art gallery and some reading time, it was time for my next session.

My one disappointment of the day was the cancellation of the In Conversation with Shaun Tan session. The Ann Patchett session and his session were the two that I had built my day around, but these things couldn't be helped. The session I chose to attend instead was In  Conversation with Arnold Zable - a Melbourne author that I have been intending to read for a long time.

After beginning with the acknowledgement to the traditional land owners and the acknowledgement of the empty chair for PEN (which I mention because it didn't happen in all of the session I went to) the session started with Arnold Zable talking a little about his own background as a second generation Australian -  a child of Polish Jewish immigrants. His mother was often left distraught by the past and it affected her whole life. She left home not realising that she would never see her family again and Zable's father lost his entire family. Zable's background often informs his characters and stories, particularly in the composite characters that people his stories.

Zable's stories are often of the dislocated either emotionally like his mother who was broken by her past and his father who became something other than he was in order to support his family and only went back to his Yiddish poetry at the age of 70, or physically as in the case of refugees. 

Both Zable and the chair of the session , Julian Burnside QC, are passionate advocates for refugees and this was clear, especially when they talked about one of the survivors of the Siev X which was a people smuggling boat which sank back in 2001 with the loss of more than 350 lives - an event which became politicised in a shameful way in my opinion.

I loved the language that was used during this session  - Burnside talked of eloquent and elegant episodes and emotional truths and Zable talked of the joy of storytelling, the art of weaving different threads together to create stories, about scene construction, about story telling being a very sensual experience, the role of music for the author and reader and more.

The final session of the day for me was The Connected Book:

Now that we've accepted the ereader, it's time to look at some of the creative possibilities afforded by digital texts. Publisher Kassia Krozser (US), author of digital fiction Inanimate Alice, Kate Pullinger (Canada), and founder of online digital library LibriVox Hugh McGuire (Canada) discuss what multilayered media, text enriched with images, sound and interactive features might soon do to revolutionise a bookshelf near you. Chaired by if:book's Simon Groth.
I wasn't 100% sure of what to really expect from this session - maybe more discussion of digital reading than there was, but as the blurb said it was really starting from the point that ereading is here, so where to from here. The auditorium was actually pretty full and there was an interesting mix of ages in the crowd.

A lot of the discussion was about reading whilst connected online. For example, Kate Pullinger talked about her online projects including Inanimate Alice, where the text lies at the heart of the project but then there is also music, animation, games etc as well as the inevitable hyperlinks to follow. The author is still telling a story and values language, good writing and the power of text, but also takes advantage of the very visual nature of current culture.

One of the guests, Hugh McGuire, runs a press that creates books from blogs, and so there was an interesting discussion held about what is a book. How does a blog compare to a book with suggestions including that a book tends to be complete whereas a blog is more of a living thing that can change direction and focus very quickly, at one point being compared more to a magazine.

I think the overall thing that I got from this session is that really there are so many possibilities for where the future of the connected book is going including:

  • the role of social media in not only sharing stories but also building relationships between readers and authors, between readers and other readers (that sense of community that is so often talked about online)
  • picking and choosing what works best out of the technology available. For example, do apps work for books - depends on the book and the app. It won't work for every book out there.
  • books have always been a collaborative effort. The future will offer the potential for different collaborations.
  • authors may have to rethink how it is that they are compensated for their work. It may be that the traditional royalties system is not what works in an increasingly connected world. One advantage that we have for connected books happening now is that consumers are used to paying for purchases online thanks to the music industry having gone through a lot of pain a few years ago as it went digital.

Some of the questions from the floor included

  • is it readers who are driving the demand for connectedness or is it the technology?
  • is fan fiction a type of connectedness?
  • will this connectedness change the way that we think in future generations (deep thinking compared to new hyperlinked fed thinking)?
  • while a story will remain at the heart of literature should there be other terms used to describe this type of work other than a book.

One of the things that the speakers touched on was that the reason we have a vibrant literary environment is that writing is accessible to the vast majority of people. At the very least all you need is a pencil and some paper, and that accessibility is not going to change in the immediate future!

So there you have it! I am already looking forward to next year's festival!


  1. Awesome summaries, made me feel like I got to go! The Anne Patchett one sounded particularly interesting.

  2. This sounds wonderful & inspirational. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Wow talk about feeding your head! Looks like an incredible event.

  5. Wow, really thought provoking! Sounds so interesting, I would have loved to have attended.

  6. What an amazing event! Whenever I read posts like this, I get a little jealous, because I live in such a rural area and have very little opportunity to attend author events. Lots of authors come to Seattle, WA - but that's 8 hours away. I wish they would add Spokane to their itinerary!

  7. I agree, it does sound like you were feeding your soul over there! I would have loved the chance to hear Patchett speak, and am thrilled for you that you not only got a chance to hear her, but others as well. We have very little literary culture in our area, and it always makes me a little envious to see what other places have going on in terms of events like this. I guess I am just going to have to come crash on your couch the next time this festival comes to town, Marg! That way I won't miss anything!

  8. This sounds like it was such a great experience for you! I love the idea that "Hope is not a plan" -- I might post that outside my office door!

  9. It sounds like you had a great time at this event and each session gave you something new to think about.

    I've never read Ann Patchett but now am curious.

    The three quotes from the motivational speaker luncheon are words to live by.

    Great post!

  10. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  11. So sorry the Tan session was cancelled but -- wow -- what an event. So much to think about it. What an awesome way to feed your soul.

  12. Beth, I am hoping that they will reschedule Tan for a later date.

    Peaceful Reader - the speaker definitely was very motivational!

    Col, it certainly made me think.

    Zibilee, it is on every year! You would be more than welcome to come and stay. Might even be able to find you a bed!

    Carrie, I get jealous when I read other people's posts about events like this even though I know that I do get to attend this time.

    Thanks to everyone for stopping by.