Monday, August 26, 2013

Melbourne Writers Festival: Enquire Within (Saturday)

I came home pretty tired from my Friday at Melbourne Writers Festival, but there was no time to sleep in and recover on Saturday as I was off to another full day of books and author goodness!

Sarah Turnbull, Jesse Blackadder, Ali Cobby Eckerman and
hot chocolate in a jar
Bree and I headed into the city early so that we could attend the free Morning Read session. These sessions are hour long and feature four authors who each read a portion from their books. Before I start on the post proper I thought I would mention how much I love that there are quite a lot of free events throughout the festival. Some of them might be a bit more obscure and not always the big name authors but if you don't have a lot of money you can still pretty much fill up a day with events, particularly on the weekends.

The Morning Read session we attended featured only one author that I had read before and that was Sarah Turnbull. The other three authors who read this morning were Jesse Blackadder, Teju Cole and Ali Cobby Eckerman. It is testament to the power of listening to an author tell even just a small part of their story that I was on the library website requesting the books of all of these authors. Only one of them was not available.

The next session for me was History's Script which was hosted by Michael Cathcart from Books and Art Daily on Radio National and featured Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan, author of Little People. I really enjoyed the session I attended on Friday where Sarah Dunant spoke so well about Lucrezia Borgia so I was extremely glad that I had the foresight to book into another session with her during the Festival. This session was also recorded for the Books and Arts Daily show and will be played on Tuesday. If I remember I will post the link so that if you are interested you can listen to the session yourself.

The host started by asking each of the authors how they came to history. For Sarah, it started in childhood reading authors like Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Anya Seton amongst others. Living in post war Britain, historical fiction was a gateway to a far more colourful, more exotic and romantic past and she became obsessed with history. That romanticised view of history was beaten out of her when she went to study history at Cambridge University for three years. It was interesting at Cambridge to see how men and women come to an interest in history differently, something that is often reflected in the way male and female readers come to historical fiction.

Sarah Dunant
Sarah Dunant came to a love of Renaissance History a lot later, it not having been a part of history that she had studied previously and therefore been deromanticised from (my made up word, not hers). Her interest in Renaissance history was piqued when she found herself living in Florence in the early 2000s. Florence is a city where the history is literally everywhere, rich with the past. This had Dunant wondering exactly what it was that happened 500 years ago that turned Florence into a cauldron of change. Even at the time, Florentines were proud of the history that was happening, of the art and more.

For Jane Sullivan, her love of history came through the literature of Tennyson and  Keats, or stories like Jane Eyre rather than through history itself. In fact, the thing that she remembers most about history from school is the cartoons that were in the history books. Jane is originally from the UK. When she did come to Australia she was struck by the way the cities must have been new, particularly a city like Melbourne which benefited from the gold rush and was at one point called the Chicago of the South because of how quickly it was growing up. She sees Melbourne as a city full of stories - not unlike Florence for Sarah.

One of those stories was how she came across the characters that were to people her book, Little People. She first found reference to a travelling show of dwarf performers when she was reading a book about poet Ada Cambridge.  When the troop of performers were in town, they were feted as rock stars, causing big traffic problems wherever they went. I should also mention that as Jane Sullivan was talking about how she found these characters there were images of them flashing up on the screen which was really cool.

Sarah Dunant's book In the Company of the Courtesan also has a dwarf as one of it's main characters and she shared how she actually found her dwarf in a painting. She knew that courtesans of the day often kept little people as exotic pets and so her main character was born. The moderator noted that often looking at people on the margins help define the centre or norms of a situation. Dunant agreed that this was the case for her book as Bucino was also able to be the eyes and the ears for the courtesan and so was able to expand what the reader could see. For Jane Sullivan, her narrator was a normal sized person but still was in that role of outsider given that all the other members of the troop are little people.

The discussion then moved onto a discussion of what writing historical fiction enables you to do that straight history or narrative non-fiction does not. The first response was around limits of information available, especially seeing as sometimes there can be constructed or controlled history, such as in the case of the travelling troop given that P T Barnum was basically a spin doctor trying to entice the crowds in to the show. It also enables you to make up stuff that is still consistent with what you know.

For Sarah, the narrative comes first from history and then there is the story. History is rich and complex and you need to get the complexities which is sometimes difficult when you are going back 500 or more years. Sometimes you can find hidden bits of history - particularly in relation to women - but not necessarily the full story. For some of her earlier books, she sees it as putting the soil in place from what you know (for example, food, religion or culture) and then build the characters from there. It was different for Blood and Beauty because she had a known person from history as her main character rather than a made up characters, and in the Borgias case we believe that we know their history. She went onto touch on a couple of the issues that I mentioned in my post yesterday about the slander of Lucrezia Borgia's reputation.

Jane Sullivan
In a discussion on truth  Jane Sullivan mentioned that there are 2 different types of truth. One is of fact - what is learned from research etc and the second is the truth of fiction where you try to create characters who are consistent, interesting and recognisable. This idea of historical truth is also embodied in the fact that historians will select from the various bits of evidence they have available to them to decide what is true, but it is just is likely that what they don't have will actually be the final truth. Novelists use this selection process when building their character but what they are aiming for is to be true to the grand narrative of history but bring them alive through characters and stories.

One of the interesting questions that was addressed during the session was the idea of history repeating itself. While the world moves forward technologically, the fundamentals remain the same. For example, when you are writing about the Renaissance you are talking about the rise of fundamental Christianity and many of today's world conflicts are born out of religious fundamentalism too. Nothing changes in the big roll of history - the hows might change but the big issues tend to be repetitive. The how is where authors needs to be careful because there are fundamental differences. The example given was about pain. Because we have easy access to pain relief our understanding of pain may well be completely different to someone from a couple of hundred years ago. While there are differences, Sarah Dunant pointed out that if you sink yourself in the past you can often find the similarities, but it doesn't necessarily work the other way around. No matter what you write though, your writing is informed by how you are now.

Throughout the rest of the conversation there were thoughts about whether fantasy is displacing historical fiction, particularly with things like Game of Thrones where it is fantasy strongly rooted in actual history, about the importance of afterwords in helping the reader understand which parts of the story were made up, about the difference between male and female gateways into historical fiction (apparently Hilary Mantel has made historical fiction something that men are more likely to read ..who knew!), about the idea of a historical fiction canon (suggested authors to include were Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Rose Tremain and Umberto Ecco with the caveat that he is more imaginative than research driven), and about choosing real people as your central characters rather than making them up.

There was so much more that was talked about. Hopefully you might be interested enough to listen to the program when I add the link to the post at some point this week. There were times where I felt that the moderator was displaying a dislike (maybe too strong a word but there was something there) of the genre, so I might give it a listen to see if that comes through in the program too, and to see what I missed as I was madly scrambling away taking notes. You can read Bree's take on this session here.

Whilst I still have at least one more session to attend it will have to be pretty special to displace the sessions I have attended with Sarah Dunant. The Lucrezia Borgia session was absolutely fascinating and this discussion with Jane Sullivan was also very interesting.

After a couple of hours break and a brief catch up with Lisa from ANZ Litlovers it was time for my next session of the day which was At Home in the World featuring Sarah Turnbull and Brendon Shanahan. Whilst I have read Almost French by Sarah Turnbull and have All Good Things out from the library at the moment, Brendon Shanahan was completely new to me. I did briefly contemplate taking the library book to get signed by the author but decided against it in the end. One of the interesting things about this session for me was the fact that Sarah and Brendon were often coming from different perspectives, which I guess is born out of the fact that we all decide to do things for different reasons. The moderator set out saying that he wanted to touch on the ideas of place, home and belonging which I think he was mostly successful in achieving.

Sarah Turnbull
Both Sarah and Brendan have lived, or do live, in iconic places. For Sarah, she went from Sydney to Paris and then to Tahiti. Sarah started off by saying that no one moves countries for no reason. There were reasons for moving to paradise to do with her husbands work, but no place - no matter how beautiful - transcends real life because life is always complicated. The idea of living in picture perfect places is an illusion because it doesn't always have much of an impact after a while. Her books reflect the idea of being outsiders in these glamorous locations, although Paris is often more gritty than people expect. In Almost French, she was writing about the experience of being the outsider as she moves to the city to be with her husband, but in her second book, All Good Things, both of them are the outsiders as they move to the island and have to try and fit in and make friends with the locals, knowing that they would be leaving again in a couple of years. Later in the session talked about one of the motivations that people often have for moving from place to place is the idea of rejuvenation and fresh starts which I found interesting.

Brendan then proceeded to say that he moved to Las Vegas for no reason - he basically bought a house in Las Vegas on the internet without even seeing it and then moved there two weeks later. He moved there with no romantic notions of Las Vegas because it too can be pretty gritty but it was great to discover that there was a cool core community there particularly over the last couple of years when the housing downturn has caused the population to be less transient that the people who come and go from Las Vegas normally are. Where Sarah talked about trying to be part of a community, Brendan loves the fact that in Las Vegas if you want to escape from your past you can, and if you want to keep to yourself that's okay too.

There was a discussion about developing super senses when you travel, particularly in relation to the behaviour of Australians, particularly as you come back home, our over regulation whether it be in relation to formal or informal rules of behaviour was one thing that was discussed. At one point the phrase the Swiss of the Pacific was used to label us as a country

You can become immune to the things around you particularly when you see the bizarre all the time as you do in Las Vegas. Brendan sometimes has to remind himself to look for the unusual, but for Sarah she never took Paris for granted and grew to appreciate the beauty of the island the longer that she stayed, mainly because her initial reaction to arriving was along the lines of "what on earth have we done!"

Brendan Shanahan
The differences between the two authors continued to be explored when talking about their types of books. Both are journalists by trade but Sarah's books, especially All Good Things,  are more personal stories. She certainly wasn't setting out to debunk the paradise myth but there were things that she found very difficult about living there. Brendan's style is more observational in style.

Both agreed that you learned to appreciate Australia more through travel and that you notice changes. It is sometimes difficult to tell if there really have been large changes or if you have just noticed things now because of how travelling has broadened your horizons.

In the closing part of the session, the two authors talked about the idea of writing down a true story, touching on things like the changing of names and about how it is impossible to write a memoir with the intention of not offending anyone. It was also interesting to hear them talk about how trying to write down truth with the aim of creating a story is quite difficult because it is quite an artificial process, but by going through that process you can often discern quite powerful truths.

One of the reasons I chose this session is because I have done the travelling and coming home thing myself, dealing with all the pros and cons that are on both sides of that equation. There was one thing that was said right at the end of the session which really resonated for me. To paraphrase:

Sooner or later, you long for that one place that you don't have to explain yourself.

For Sarah, the place which she is describing is here but for her husband it is France. For me, it is definitely a feeling that I related to, that desire for home and belonging no matter how much I enjoyed my time in the UK.

I still have Sunday's sessions to write up, which I will probably do later in the week!


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this up in such detail. I will listen to Michael Cathcart this a.m. when it is on. The session re: travelling, living in other places and returning home sounds fascinating. I can relate to that very much. Really enjoyed reading your post this morning.

  2. Thanks Pam! It was something I could relate to as well.

  3. Oh, what fantastic sessions! I'm quite pea green. I was planning to go to MWF this year, but had a last minute change of plans. I heard part of the Borgia session on RN this week- how wonderful that you were there. I saw Sarah Turnbull recently in Mudgee- it was a wonderful session too.

    1. I am glad you got to hear the session on RN. I haven't yet listened to it again

  4. It sounds like you had a fantastic time Marg. I'm really bummed I was away for the Syd festival- will have to plan that better next year!

    1. It was fantastic. I am already planning to attend MWF next year!