Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 1

Friday August 22

Sometimes Augusten Burroughs’ memory stretches deep and wide, a vivid pool. It is due in part to an element of autism in his bloodline. This is how he remembers looking through the saltine cracker at his mother at one-and-a-half, as described in A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father.

He decided to finally write about his sadistic, sociopathic father in this book, after his father died and Augusten felt true freedom for the first time – different to the unhindered ‘freedoms’ of his unconventional late childhood/teen years. ‘I wish I could say I wrote the book for the readers… I wrote the book for me’, he told the audience last Thursday night at Melbourne’s Town Hall.

Burroughs is an endearing, energetic presence – slim and fidgety, he constantly arches forward in his seat when expressing (or confessing), and readjusts the cap on his bald head, which he refers to as his ‘toupee’. He writes about himself because he knows himself, not who the man is with the briefcase in the front row. People enjoy his memoirs, he thinks, for two reasons. Some extract the rawness, the hurt, and confusion and say ‘me too’! Others read it and say ‘thank God it’s not me’! And both of these aspects make memoir appealing. Burroughs himself reads for the ‘me too’ realisation, and the moment when this occurs, he says ‘an incredibly profound change occurs in your body on a molecular level… an understanding – I’m not alone’. He says people read because they are ‘hungry for truth and connection’, and he even relates this to the enormous popularity of social networking.

Writing came about for Burroughs in the death throes of an incredible alcoholism. One addiction (for the written word) thankfully supplanted the other. On the verge of dying; a skeletal mess living in a shithole in his own filth; Augusten dared himself to face the pebble in his shoe rather than comfortably giving up – that he had never yet tried properly to write. Seven days later he had his first novel.

‘To heal’, Burroughs says, ‘is a TV expression’. Heal is a TV word – because when we lose someone, or experience abandonment or pain, we never really ‘heal’, eventually we just overcompensate somewhere, somehow. ‘Your soul might become more muscular’. Burroughs shared on the night what was the most difficult experience to write about. The confident performer almost faltered when he told us about the makeshift doll he made of his Dad when he was a child, peppered with his scent, so he could curl up with it and be overcome with drowsiness.

Burroughs was always determined not to have the mentality of victimisation, which he witnessed in his mother. The world will not come to you. He lives now close by to some of the horrors of his early youth, in order to be near his brother and nephew. When Jennifer Byrne asked how he could be so close to these horrible memories, he answered that the ‘horrible and the beautiful coexist’.

On the way home, everyone in the tram I was on smiled at a different level of story playing out. A 70-year-old woman wouldn’t accept a seat – she was out for a few wines and a night with her husband of fifty years. She was originally from Runcorn, with a lime green bridge. In the early days of their marriage they cycled everywhere together in tune. They want to go to Hawaii for their anniversary, she told us all.

‘He’s a beautiful man’, she said with sparkling eyes as he patted the seat next to him. She went to sit and kissed him with a smile and sparkling eyes, proudly and publicly.

Everyone thanked the tram driver as they stepped off smiling into the chilly night.

Saturday August 23

Paroxysm Press Book Launch – gritty readings from a small press which has lasted ten years. A few beers in the arvo and catching up with Varuna friend Amy Jackson, who has a great piece in the book. Review to come.

Hearing diverse readings from Alexis Wright (Carpentaria), Jeff Sparrow (Communism: A Love Story), and Kevin Rabelais (Landscape of Desire). Kevin Rabelais himself too desirous to be married (pictured). Alexis Wright an absolute treat, such a beautiful writer. Jeff Sparrow very interesting – bought his edited Overland. Panel chaired by Louise Swinn, and the focus being that all have studied through RMIT, showing the success of its course.

Checked in at the Festival Club. Had bought a copy (finally) of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. Was telling everybody far and wide about it including the lovely Cate Kennedy (my interview with her forthcoming in Southerly in November), and Cate told me Helen was standing right in front of me. I felt bad catching her on her downtime but she very kindly signed my copy. I am slapping myself now because I babbled on about myself and told her of my enormous to-read list, instead of remembering to tell her how amazing I found her short story The Life of Art. How much it moved me, how much I related to the female characters, and how it’s one of the best short stories I have ever read… As time travel is currently impossible, I’ll just have to hope I have the chance to tell her again some day.

Then there was the industry party. A wonderful night with a stream of enlightening conversations. Met some amazing people (poets, writers, publishers, editors, radio producers and speakers – all readers!) and caught up with others. Ended up talking about my own writing here and there and feeling surreal for who I was talking about it with, but not invalid. A room weighty with ideas, triangle sandwiches, and wine. A tall, glass and silver cross-haired roof in BMW Edge theatre in Federation Square. Lots of sparkling eyes of interest and enthusiasm. Really feeling like the UNESCO City of Literature.

Sunday August 24

Barry Maitland discussed crime fiction with Peter Mares, broadcast today on the ABC Book Show. Interesting for anyone interested in crime, genre in general, or writing. Maitland is an ex-architect, and Bright Air is his first novel set in Australia, and not written from a 3rd person police-procedural point of view.

A session called ‘The Honest Trader’. A sobering discussion with Heikki Patomaki, Ken Davidson and Duncan Green about free (or unregulated) trade. What came out of it for me was a more firm commitment to responsible consuming (eg. seeking out fair trade goods). The most interesting and frightening point made was about correlations between continuing population growth and the impossibility to meet emissions targets to prevent global warming. This is something that has to be looked at immediately, or in another 20 years results will be catastrophic. Great to see a packed session with both old and young.

David Rakoff (pictured) was very entertaining, as introduced by Max Barry in ‘Don’t Get Too Comfortable’, a session sharing the name of his book. Rakoff writes not out of being ‘disappointed’ with everything as such, but because he is ‘constantly vibrating with anxiety and fear’. He read out a great passage expressing the ridiculousness of an expensive restaurant and the focus on consumer-level luxuries, eg. the tastiest olive oil, or pretentious and unnecessary focuses such as ‘bruising’ a leaf for its scent, and eating one sole date for dessert (there’s no way I can adequately capture the way he writes about these things). Rakoff says he finds writing ‘astonishingly difficult’, like ‘pulling teeth from his penis’, but he does it because he does ‘like to be listened to’.

I was very excited lining up for the session with Jim Sharman (pictured) and Barrie Kosky. Not because Geoffrey Rush was casually standing about a metre away, but because (as you all know) I’ve read and adored Sharman’s Blood & Tinsel (review+interview). I ended up being a little disappointed, though, that the focus of the conversation was almost exclusively theatre. I don’t think the audience would have left knowing much about what either of the books were about (Kosky’s is On Ecstasy). I did learn a lot of the political elements of Australian theatre, and Sharman still provided wonderful insights, such as when he spoke about the tensions between extremes of profundity and a dirty, gritty vulgarity in Australian theatre and film tradition. The ‘vulgar and the sublime’, and the high/low culture mix as opposed to the middlebrow are how both directors work, and I suppose this is also evident in Blood & Tinsel. Sharman ended on an interesting and characteristically perceptive note, saying that he feels a new wave is ready to rise but it is most certainly also through a new medium, which is being ignored by the larger and older culture, and I felt proud of this blog and its growing readership. Perhaps I can ride that wave.

The new golden age of the short story is starting to be spoken about, and one writer who has certainly contributed to this internationally is Nam Le (pictured). His wonderful collection The Boat explores a variety of themes, settings, voices and even metafictional concepts in a highly accessible, engaging way. Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading it knows that the stories are each wholly absorbing worlds of their own and end on a perfectly rounded note of contemplation. Nam had a chance to speak about his endings (the ‘terminal point and point of reflection’), and various other topics not only to a Melbourne audience, but via satellite to Edinburgh, the other UNESCO city of literature. Despite the technical newness which Sophie Cunningham and Nam had to quickly become accustomed to, the session was fresh and interesting. I hadn’t yet known about the scrapped 700 page novel (‘a learning curve’), and the way Nam became besotted with the short story form relatively recently. I also loved how he spoke about writing as an act of courage, that it’s about a certain ‘push’. But I’ll let Nam explain better when I interview him on the blog soon…

Sunday evening in the Festival Club was a quiet but privileged place to be. I shared a wine with my friend Brigitte, and her friend Emily. They were there too to see Emily Zoey Baker, who gave a wonderfully entertaining poetry performance, from her sexy feminist songs to her Twin Peaks love note, she is clever and on the money with every word.

Children’s author Jackie French was coaxed into Aphrodite’s tent for LoveTV, where she basically opened up about sex, love, passion, and wombats. It was so enlightening to hear her talk about her husband who is incredibly different to her and yet they share something indescribable. Her obvious passion for him was beautiful, and with only about twenty people in the room I felt pretty lucky to see it – I can see where the joy in her books springs from. John Marsden was also present, quietly, in the room, and I caught up with Festival Director Rosemary Cameron for a quick word on how it was going. She was quite glad to have the satellite feed over, but otherwise still looked excited and sprightly, happy to be in the presence of who are obviously some of her favourite people.

Jackie French really struck a chord with me when she expressed the need to ‘live life with fullness of heart or there really isn’t much point’.

I’m looking forward to next weekend including Matthew Condon, Remix My Lit, Emily Maguire, Static poetry performance, Robert Dessaix, Toni Jordan, Delia Falconer, Antony Loewenstein and more!

18 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 1

  1. we really must have passed each other about 17 times. the festival club sounds intriguing–i really will try to poke my head in and catch a lovetv session. looking forward to your interview with nam for sure. i’d love to know if he reads or is influenced by any critical theorists or philosophers in his writing.

  2. We would have! I think I’ll be wearing my blog shirt next week for Antony Loewenstein’s session – so if you see it, say hi!I haven’t finalised the qs for Nam yet so I’ll see if I can ask something along those lines 🙂

  3. Angela, if that is a shirt with a tag cloud, I will say hello as well. Great posting and coverage, I will send people over.

  4. P – Well I don’t get paid for blogging but I get like-minded (or should I say literary-minded) readers! Hello :-)But I do love my job as I do get paid to write about books and events like this anyway, albeit in a less personal fashion.Thanks.Geneveive – do say hi – it’s not a tag cloud but a very obvious ‘’ across the front and ‘Miss LiteraryMinded’ across the back. I think I will wear it because I actually met a few people who had come across the blog through googling various things and links, so that was nice.I’ll be in the Festival Club whenever I’m not at sessions.And cheers for passing me on too.

  5. just checking in to see how my 2nd fav blogger’s doing (it goes: Me, then you). am enjoying coming on every so often and spending a solid 15 mins reading 🙂

  6. Aw shucks WK ;-)I haven’t read your book yet – my GOD the pile is growing this week, but it’s second from the top, I cross my heart on that. Hope I like it or you won’t read my blog anymore…!

  7. i’ll still read it, promise 🙂 just keep the criticism constructive and i’ll be happy. and think of it this way, you can’t possibly say the worst: ‘publishers must be held accountable for printing on novelty rather than talent.’ that one hurt, but then again, that guy thought i was unAustralian :)… i’m not expecting you to hate it, mind you. 😛

  8. That said, most teenagers I’ve heard back from loved it, so have been older readers… those in their 20s haven’t been my biggest supporters, let’s hope you buck the trend, eh?

  9. Hi Angela! Nice to meet you on the weekend. I thought I’d left a comment saying how much I liked this post, but obv I must have imagined it (or written it in my head). Anyway, look forward to reading your update on the Loewenstein session, which I think I’m going to miss. If you’re hanging in the Fest Club, are you enjoying Josh Earl?

  10. Hey! Nice to meet you too! If you’re interested in Loewenstein, I have an interview coming up with him too :-)I am enjoying Josh – and he seems to mix it up a bit – it’d be hard doing it each night! But he’s hilarious. I’ll have to mention him next post… 🙂

  11. I am interested in Loewenstein, yes! He is fascinating. Will look out for your interview. I was so impressed with Josh Earl – I would have paid to listen to him!

  12. Pingback: LiteraryMinded’s List for 2008 « ElephantBlog

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