Monday, September 03, 2012

Sunday Salon: My Melbourne Writer's Festival (part 2)

The Melbourne Writer's Festival is over for another year. While I didn't go to as many sessions this year as I did last year I did enjoy the sessions that I did attend and I got to see some authors that I have really enjoyed reading their books.

I will say now that I don't intend to write too much about the sessions, but I may be deluding myself a little.

Last weekend I mentioned The Morning Read session that I attended and enjoyed. The next session was a Fine Romance which featured Stephanie Laurens, Su Dharmapala and Rachel Treasure. The main reason for attending this session was because I wanted to support the romance sessions that were being held at the festival this year as there are many years when romance is not represented at all. Having said that, the session ended up being very interesting in it's own right. Of the authors, I had only read Rachel Treasure before, but that was many years ago and in some ways I very much see her as one of the initial examples of rural literature that has been very popular over the last couple of years that are pretty much romances written from the perspective of the female characters

What inspires you to write about love?

Rachel started with a quote from Louise Hay - you are either in a place of love or place of fear. She not only writes about love but also a love of land and food, a love of country

For Su, love is part of the human emotional landscape and the narrative binds us all together. Love is about connection. Everyone is on a quest for love in some way. It is one of most critical human quests.

For Stephanie, as a genre writer it is all about entertaining, love or the quest for love and the development of the emotional relationship between hero and heroine.

What is role of culture within their books?

Rachel said that all stories need shape and her books show search for self love and her characters live country life passionately.

Su felt that culture defines modes of courtship. Her book, The Wedding Season, explored the notion of arranged marriages within the Sri Lankan culture. She had the whole crowd laughing at her stories of her mother trying to set her up with lots of good young men. One of the advantages is that you know that your mother is not going to try and set you up with a loser and so Su treated it as a dating service where a lot of the vetting has already been done.

Stephanie explained that for her culture is something that shouldn't play too much of a role as the romance needs to work universally and she talked about some of the languages that her books have been translated into to show that her books do work universally. Culture is more the backdrop. The reason the Regency is so beloved is because before that time for the the rich marriage was a contract for rearrangement of assets but in the late 1700s the romance movement was discussed in the aristocracy so by the time of the Regency there was the choice to marry for love or money or dynasty or not at all and so there are parallels with modern life.

There are similarities between their characters, despite the very different natures of their books?

When Rachel wrote her books, she wanted to write about the women she knew - women who drank and smoked and swear, who want to be and quite often are farmers in their own right. She wanted to put some positive examples out in the world for both men and women.

Su comes from a corporate background and she met women in that world who were far scarier than the men. They were juggling life including families, yet they were strong figures in their own right. She doesn't know many princesses because they are too busy actually doing things!

Stephanie talked about the fact that her characters are archetypes because they audience recognises and wants those archetypes. For example, there is a fantasy of a strong woman bringing an alpha male to their knees but most of us wouldn't really want to be with an alpha male! Later a question from the audience came back to this point and asked if that archetype sometimes limited options in terms of individual characters in different books to which Stephanie responded that the archetypes are the framework, there is still plenty of scope for individuality once you flesh it out.

What have you learned about men in the process of writing your books.

Rachel lives and works in a very male environment. She also said that she was looking for reader response rather than great literary reviews and it makes her day to get reader feedback from male readers

Su was quite adamant that we need to get past gender divide and look more at the emotions and human needs that we have in common. Culture defines what men perceive they should be.

Stephanie said that she is an equal opportunity writer. She is better known for her hero characters but you can't have a relationship when you only focus on one side.

What about passion?

Rachel was very open about the fact that she does a lot of research! She does find herself looking at lots of situations with her author brain turned on. When things are happening, maybe even during sex, she finds herself thinking that feels nice, how do I convey that on paper.

Su's only sex scene got axed mainly because it didn't keep in context with the theme. Can reduce intimacy and sex to performance art, but she is looking for intimacy between the characters.

Stephanie indicated that spicy sex scenes are one of her hallmarks, but that you can't have a love scene without it having purpose and without it driving the story forward. It reflects part of the emotional development of the characters and shows communication through intimacy. It isn't just ever a love scene.

This was truly a very interesting session, and I came out wanting to read Su's book The Wedding  Season sooner rather than later. I have heard Stephanie Laurens speak before and she is very interesting to listen to as she has the romance genre pegged with an analysts mind (she was a scientist before she started writing). At one point an audience member talked about romance covers and being seen in public with them, and she pointed out that the romance covers are designed for the American market, not for the Australian market which is so small, and that often is designed for the big chains like Walmart. They want readers to be able to know exactly what kind of book that they are getting as they walk through stores like Walmart and just grab books off the shelf without necessarily even reading the blurbs, hence the proliferation of very similar looking covers.

After a brief gap where we got to meet Michelle from Book to the Future and author Kylie Ladd, the next session that we (being Bree and myself) attended was In Conversation with Gillian Mears, hosted by Ramona Koval.

Whilst I didn't particularly enjoy her book Foal's Bread, I was interested to find out more about Mears herself.

I will just some dot point about her session.

- The origin of the book Foal's Bread was actually a pencil sketch that her sister did at her request. Mears also mentioned that she actually still writes in pencil.

- She explained what a foal's bread is - sometimes found in the placenta after a horse gives birth, it looks like liver. People thought they were lucky and would dry them out and keep them.

- Gillian Mears sees this as a book about love.

- Her previous books seem to be sketches towards Foal's Bread.

- She went to old cemeteries to find names that were representative of the period.

- Mears admits that she has something of a love affair with the 1930s. She sees it as a more gracious era but also tough. She loves the language of the time - phrases like cracking tough. Part of the appeal of this period is the old horseman that she has personally known and loved. She sometimes feels like an impostor in the modern world. For example, she hasn't made the leap into the Ipod world!

- The author talked a lot about horses saying that for a girl, a horse is between father and lover emotionally. I never really was a horsey girl so this isn't something that I necessarily empathise with but still. The last words in the book are the names of her childhood horses. If she was blindfolded she would know them by the feel of each individual horse. Horses are living teachers. They teach how to be courageous through their generosity to the rider.

- Now that she is wheelchair bound, she feels a real grief at the thought of never being able to ride again. She can't even smell the coat of a horse as she knows that she would get emotional.

- Mears touched on the incest theme in the book, which I must admit is something that I really struggled with when I read the book, and I don't feel as though the conversation helped me at all with that sense of uncomfortableness. It is however a trigger topic for me and I know this.

- She was worried about publishing the book because her sister had also written a book about showjumping. She felt as though she might be her territory but she also felt that she needed to honour the characters who just wanted to burst into life.

- When asked about her sister's reaction to her success, Gillian suggested that there was familial pride but also a feeling that Gillian was luckier than her sister, which links into old hurts.

- She is now working on a book called The Cat with a Coloured Tale which will be published by Walker Books. She feels that it may be her greatest book. It is very simple and light whilst being not unrelated to Foal's Bread.

- When asked has her way of writing changed she admitted that she hasn't actually started the process of writing from scratch since she had to start using a wheelchair and she is worried about it. She relied on walking as part of her writing process. Now her rituals of writing will need to change.

I still have a couple of sessions to write about but that will have to wait as it is very late here now and Monday morning is nearly here already.I will write them up during the week.

I thought I would finish with some other photos I took while at MWF last week.

The book market and official bookstore

Festival Banner

In the queue for Gillian Mears

It was a very literate queue

Inside the Edge theatre where the Gillian Mears event was held

The Fed Square architecture

You can read Bree's recap of the A Fine Romance session and the Gillian Mears session by clicking on the links.

Currently Reading

A History of Love by Nicole Krauss, A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper, and I am listening to Taking a Shot by Jaci Burton.

Up Next

Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan and The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.


  1. What a great post. I love how an event like a writers festival is a different experience for absolutely everyone who attends as we all go to differing sessions. But I think there really is something for everyone. I haven't read Foal's Bread as yet, but would have been interested in that session. I was disappointed not to get to a session with Ramona Koval too- she's fantastic. I hadn't been in BMW Edge before, it was an amazing space, although I found it a bit distracting as I would watch the lorikeets in the trees at times instead of concentrating.

  2. I have enjoyed the different sessions for differing reason. BMW Edge is amazing isn't it! I do remember being distracted the first time I was there.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Marg: reading your impressions about Gillian Mears' session was the next best thing to being there.

    1. Almost as good as being there...but not quite! lol

  4. The romance session sounds like it was really interesting! I too haven't read Rachael Treasure for some time, though I do have about 2-3 of her books sitting on my TBR shelf. Great post Marg!

    1. I didn't particularly like her books when I read them way back when, but she was fun to listen to.