Sunday, September 09, 2012

Sunday Salon: Melbourne Writers Festival Part 3

Melbourne Writer's Festival has actually been over for a week but I haven't yet written up my last two sessions, so that is what I will be doing for today's Sunday Salon post! I actually have another author event to yesterday and had a fantastic day out, but that will have to wait for next week I guess.

You can read my first two MWF posts here and here.

Between the A Fine Romance session and my next session, Bree and I went off hunting for more Mali statues (I will put up a snapshot post of more of these in due course), then it was time for A Conversation with John Boyne!

While I own quite a few John Boyne books the only one I have actually read is The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. Before the session had even started it was one that I would remember fondly as I ran into someone I knew who lives in Sydney but had come down to Melbourne for a couple of days and had decided to attend a few MWF sessions while she was down here. It was a lovely surprise to run into her!

Like A Brief History of Montmaray (which I reviewed on Friday), The Boy in Striped Pyjamas has been  recently republished as a Vintage Classic which was quite an honour for Boyne.

The first question asked Boyne about where he started writing and he explained that he started writing contemporary fiction which really was about himself. There are a lot of Irish writers writing about contemporary Ireland and so he had to recognise his own strengths which include that he loves to research.

Boyne was asked about his book Mutiny on the Bounty, particularly because there is such a strong Australian connection to that story. He talked about how, prior to recent Hollywood portrayals, Captain Bligh had a pretty good reputation but the modern twist to the story seems to be that Christian Fletcher was the good guy which confused him.

The narrator in Mutiny is a young cabin boy. Boyne likes to have a narrator or main protagonist that is naive to the situation that they are coming to and in a way that takes the place of the reader and also puts them next to a person of authority.

He was asked about his use of young boys as main characters to which Boyne responded that there is something universal about boys who are 8 or 9. There is no interest in girls etc to take into consideration. It's a nice age.

Boyne was then asked about changing between writing for adults and for children. He admitted that it was not really part of the plan. Even Boy wasn't meant to be a children's book, but he did always feel as though teens could have read his adult books. He talked about the fact those terms, adult vs children etc, are often media or publisher terms. For example, a book like Treasure Island was written as a book, not as a crossover book! He doesn't really mind who is reading his books, whether they be adults reading his children's books or vice versa, just wants readers!

He did say that he felt that his naivety about the 'rules' or writing for children really helped his books. He likes to gradually reveal the plot and is conscious of not writing down to kids. He relies on the kids being intelligent readers and that they don't believe that the only thing that is important in books is vampires!

The discussion then moved onto The Absolutist which Boyne admits is a much darker book in direct contrast to the lighter nature of his previous book. This book was inspired by a demonstration by descendants of those soldiers who were absolutists or who were shot during WWI for deserting when they were shell shocked. He then realised that he had never read about conscientious objectors or gay soldiers.

In closing he mentioned that his favourite author is John Irving, that his new book is partially set in Australia so he came to live here for a few months while he was writing, that the parents in the new book are truly terrible. The audience asked him about writing Boy and he said he knew 3 things - that there was a boy being taken away from a place of safety, that the two boys would meet and the ending. He also touched on the movie adaptation during his talk.

To be honest, I could have listened to Boyne talk for hours longer! Not only because of the Irish accent, but also because there seemed to be so much of interest to talk about!

The final event on that day was the Twelve Planet Press event. Unfortunately my phone was nearly flat so no photos from this event. I have been a Twelve Planets books fan since the series started (you can see my reviews of the books here) and so it was great to have a chance to hear readings by the authors from the books I had already read, but also short readings from the upcoming books in the series that don't necessarily even have titles yet! Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series was the special guest and it was fun to see her in person, and Jason Nahrung, author of the book Salvage that I own but still haven't read also read!

The whole event had a really fun vibe and it was great to see a few familiar faces in the crowded room.

Originally my plan was only to attend one day of the Festival, but I knew that I was a little disappointed that in restricting my attendance in that way I wouldn't get to see Susan Johnson speak. She wrote the book My Hundred Lovers which I read and enjoyed earlier this year as part of a readalong. In the end, I went with the one more session won't hurt so I was up early again last Saturday heading into the city for the Sex and Sensibility session which also featured Emily Maguire and Chris Flynn.

The host started talking about banned books in Australia which have tended to be banned due to explicit obscenities including sex. Whilst in contemporary genre fiction sex can be explicit and detailed that doesn't necessarily seem to be the case in literary fiction.

Each of the authors then read from their books. Johnson read the scene that I have previously shared as a Weekend Cooking post, and Emily Maguire well too, but Chris Flynn stole this section of the session for me because of his coyness about reading around the juicy bits but not the actual juicy bits. He got quite embarrassed about it, and explained that by saying that he didn't really feel as though it was something that was designed to be read in public to a large group of people, but rather that it was a contract between the author and the reader directly.

Each of the authors was asked about the origins of their books.

Susan Johnson talked about being interested in writing a story from the book out. The original idea was to just encompass the lovers but it was too difficult and so it was expanded to include all different levels of sensuousness. She originally had the idea for the book in 1997/98 but it was only once she went to see AS Byatt and Doris Lessing speak and they talked about how no one has written a female Casanova that it clicked for her.

Chris Flynn talked about how the sex was actually the first scenes that he wrote. He wrote 8 different drafts of the book in third person looking back but it wasn't working. There was one paragraph in that 8th draft that ended up being the seed for the entire 9th draft which became the book. He found the sex and the scenes about books the easiest to write. While the sex is still there, a lot of the book stuff was edited out although there is still a flavour of that there.

For Emily, her book started very differently to where it ended up. Emily had a moment of peace in Temple of Literature in Hanoi and that is when the character came to her. She did think about writing a book where the character found her own peace but realised that had been done before, so instead she takes a character who has already found her peace and then disturbs that peace.

The authors then moved on to talk about the power of sex which is still evident in the news headlines of today. Susan Johnson talked about sex being a powerful, instinctual force. There is still potential for sex to overthrow everything and it makes us uncomfortable (examples include Bill Clinton and Dominic Strauss-Kahn.)

Chris talked about the power of sex to heal his character. His main character had come from a very violent place and sex enabled the character to explore a very different side of himself.

The next question talked about the sense of place in the novels.

Chris talked about Thailand being known for sex tourism and being shocked by it when he was there.

Emily's book is set in Vietnam where there are sex tourists, but only for certain groups of people. For example, it is no good for a Western woman over 30 and so it was a very safe place for her character, Misha to be in, until the main male character turns up.

Susan talked about France being important as a setting because sensual life is very much integrated into life there, and it is classless. Chris jumped in here and agreed with this having spent a couple of years living there as a young Irishman.

The questions then moved onto the bad sex in fiction awards (about which a comment was made about the high profile names which appear on the list - almost a Booker shortlist!)

Emily Maguire talked about the fact that there is some confusion between writing about sex and erotica writing and that it is not by accident that this award came out of England.

The authors were then asked about whether there is a fear of tipping into pornography

Emily talked about writing in a way that is deeply empathetic, compassionate and human. She takes stuff that would be easy to laugh at or call freaks but then show the deepest need to be seen. With every sex scene, there needs to be a reason to be there, not just sex for sex sake. It is a way to get to the core of a person.

Susan talked about female authors writing to take apart the patriarchal notion of what pornography is.

The conversation then moved into a discussion of how readers often assume that the characters must be telling the author's personal stories. Emily talked about being sent explicit photos after her first book and being congratulated by readers for getting herself out of that terrible relationship (that she was never in but her character was). After several books people realise that she can't be all of those characters so she mustn't be any of them!

Chris had had people assume that his book must be a diary of his own time in Thailand and that the sex must be based in reality and had people make judgements to his face about that.

Susan talked about how she has quite a direct style but most of what is in the book is nowhere near personal. She is looking more for an authentic emotional truth rather than an actual truth!

We then moved onto audience questions. The first was about how much pressure there was from publishers to include sex scenes. Emily and Susan said there was none, but Chris talked about how he had shortened a scene and when the editor realised it they asked for that additional orgasm to be put back in.

The conversation moved on, almost inevitably, to Fifty Shades and there were several comments made (the term erotic nonsense may have been uttered). Susan Johnson talked about how sex sells, but the fact of the matter is that no publisher really knows what is going to make a bestseller until it has already happened. Emily also talked about the fact that there is lots of interesting stuff happening in fan fiction.

There was then a question about sexual freedoms and repression (at least that's what I think the question as about) which led to a discussion about how the Pill is one of the biggest achievements in humanity as for the first time in history it gave women control of their own reproduction. Whilst we can see immediate impacts we may be too close to be able to see long term impacts.

There is no taboos about what you can write about but rather sex is really important base to show characters and development.

Emily Maguire then talked about Jane Eyre being one of the hottest books but it is about the repression of the times. One of the difficulties in writing contemporary is that the characters don't have those restrictions.

Chris talked about how he notices if the real deal of life is absent from contemporary novels and he becomes suspicious of the reading experience. By the real deal he gave the examples of sex and also boredom.

The final question talked about the language used for sex and how to make it original. In other words how to avoid the cliches and the over the top euphemisms.

Chris talked about sometimes having to use euphemisms but it does depend on the character. His character in this book is very frank but whatever language is chosen it should be for shock value. He did try to temper the scenes by including humour.

Susan talked about it being difficult to write about sex well and it will be better if it comes up organically rather than trying really hard.

In closing Emily said that it has to come from the character. If you are trying to be pornographic or turn the read on it can be too cliched. It needs to be rotted that character's sense of what turns them on.

Overall, this was a fantastic session - it was fun, informative, great discussion! And it was a thrill to get to talk to the authors afterwards and to get my copy of One Hundred Lovers signed. I came out of the session wanting to read both Chris and Emily's books!

Bring on the next Melbourne Writers Festival!

After this session, Bree and I walked for what felt like hours finding yet more Malis!

Just Finished

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan and Strong and Sexy by Jill Shalvis.

Currently reading

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Mr Chen's Emporium by Deborah O'Brien and The Lady Slipper by Deborah Swift

Next up

The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick and The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift


  1. Thanks Marg, reading about John Boyne is the next best thing to being there:)

  2. Glad you had such a rich experience. All this talking about sex sounds like fun! :)

  3. I'm not always sure what should be defined as a child's book and what should be defined as a grownup book either.

  4. What fascinating sessions you went to. I would have loved the John Boyne one, but it was sold out by the time I tried to get a ticket. I've only read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas too, but loved it. I'm very keen to read more Boyne- both his adult and kids books. I love how Chris Flynn called sex and boredom the real deal of life! I saw him at the Big Issue event, he had a lovely Irish accent too of course. I wasn't aware that he was an author too. Now I have another book to pile on top of my teetering TBR! Glad you could get your book signed- that is always wonderful. And good luck with the rest of your elephant hunting.

  5. Writers' fests are such fun. Getting ready for ours in Canada here in October. Enjoy!