Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 3

Saturday August 30

I’ve known for years I have to do something about the fact I’ve only read three of John Marsden’s books. And now he’s gone and adapted my favourite Shakespeare tragedy Hamlet. Unmissable. Especially when he talked with such genuine passion about his influences in the session ‘Old Wine in New Bottles’ on Saturday morning. ‘To be derivative is to be human’ he said, and accidents of intertextuality are inevitable. He doesn’t believe in the great dread of imitating others, or fear of embracing a ‘universal’ theme, such as ‘boy meets girl’. He says countless people will continue to create works carrying this theme in surprising and relevant ways. He spoke with fond memory about such writers as Enid Blyton, the eroticism of Ian Fleming as a teenage boy, Neville Schute, Tolstoy and Dickens. In regard to Shakespeare and Dickens he spoke of how they handled a great cast of characters and how many novels don’t attempt to do so nowadays. Marsden related this to extraordinary writing from the unconscious, providing a profound reading experience.


Thankfully, John Marsden not only still writes, but teaches – and if only there were a world of teachers like him. At the time of posting I was also very inspired by his speech on Indigenous Literacy Day at the State Library of Victoria – but more on that soon.

Also on this panel was Lloyd Jones, who gave a delightful reading from Mister Pip and was very adamant that the lines between fiction and truth, history and literature, are and should be blurred, much to one audience member’s disapproval! ‘A poorly constructed sentence is a crime’ he said. A most interesting point in an age of convergence. I found his honesty refreshing.

Fiona Capp spoke again on Musk & Byrne, and the session was chaired by ol’ chocolate-eyed Kevin Rabelais (and no I didn’t go just for him…).

Following this, I partook in remixing stories live on the big screen in Fed Square. My dodgy SMSs came up over funky visuals, music and voice readings by Michela Ledwidge, a real multimedia talent.

My friend and colleague Amy Barker (the soon-to-be published novelist Amy Vought Barker – but more on that later!), who was running the remix, was excited to see a kid getting enthusiastically involved, and his Mum’s encouragement.

There were a few other remixers and lots of glassy-eyed tourists wondering what was going on. Sarah L’Estrange from ABC Radio National’s The Book Show interviewed a few of us to find out about the project and how we were getting involved. I’ll let you know when the story is on the radio and website. Overall, Amy thought it was a success. The remixes are available on the website, and there is another month to play with the stories and perhaps even get into the anthology.

I was supposed to go to more Saturday sessions, but by this stage I was quite happy to just relax and have a few drinks with new friends. I met some more great people, one of whom was really freaked out by seagulls – ‘There’s no f**king ocean – what are they doing here?’. We worked out our star signs, talked about what ‘shoes’ we fit into, and why you would put ‘yes’ on a wall. We also bought some armbands from a very scary little girl who was taking advantage of all the drunk writers in the square with her 3-for-1 deals (to buy a fishtank). I should have just given her a book.

Sunday August 31

I’m not sure what I was thinking, getting up so early after all those vodkas (and the further drinks with my flatmate upon returning home) but I got into Fed Square by 10am, all set for another session, and found myself instead in a fast food restaurant (shame!). It did, however, do the trick and I proceeded to the next session ‘Liars Make the Best Writers’ which became a jovial battle of wits between Mark Billingham, Michael Robotham and Matt Condon.

The audience got a great cackle out of Billingham’s admission that when the guy in his novel performs incredibly in bed it’s a kind of wish-fulfillment, and Robotham returned with the way his wife questions him on such sex scenes:

‘who did you do that with?’

‘no one honey’

‘well who do you fantasise about doing that with?’

‘only you honey’

‘you’re not doing that buddy!’

Billingham revealed a scary research moment when he posted a question to a forensic society forum, all very professional, and got some very helpful emails – but then he opened one that simply said ‘I bury them naked’. Uh-oh! Billingham also hilariously ripped into writers who said they ‘channel the voice’ of their characters. He said he just ‘makes shit up’. But Robotham protested, interjecting that in his first-person narratives, there is an element of the character taking over and helping to guide the narrative. Billingham was adamant that Robotham was at least partly full of crap.

Matt Condon shared how he had a character in his head for a really long time – a sort-of fat, gambling, aging guy – and the only problem was that it was based on a friend of his. Well, he eventually wrote a novel with this character in it and his friend called him up:

‘Matt, I’ve just read your book.’

‘Yep.’ Oh shit.

‘I’ve just gotta talk to you about something in it, can we meet for a drink?’

‘Yeah, okay’. Crap.

And Matt got to the pub. His friend greeted him and then said

‘That’s the best character you’ve ever created!’

Something else that was talked about was genre vs literary fiction, an old conflict that many writers find quite tired, but then publishing and bookselling relies on categorisation. Billingham and Robotham are obviously crime writers, Billingham professing a love for economy, but Robotham saying he loves to make his prose more beautiful and descriptive. I felt Matt Condon was left aside a little in this discussion. I wanted to tell the room how a literary novel can be incredibly compelling through the mysteries and drives of its characters. Also, The Trout Opera does have elements of many genres – including grit, crime and mystery. I could have stuck up my hand but then it wouldn’t have been a question, I would have just been another one of those statement-making festival guests who don’t wait for the microphone but think everyone will (and should) hear them. Oh how many of these guests there were at MWF 08 – perhaps worse than any festival I’ve ever been to!

At 2:30 I was treated to a unique and moving reading of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry in St Paul’s Cathedral. The poems were read (and often in both Russian and English) bu Robert Dessaix, Anya Ulinich, David Francis, Helen Garner, Sophie Cunningham and Orlando Figes. The church was packed. My favourite reader was Dessaix, whose articulate, almost Shakespearean tones carried me away, even in Russian, where his voice became a soothing instrument. The great contrast of voices – old and young, male and female, and with varying accents (Australian, European, North American) also made it interesting, as well as the different ways the authors had come across her poetry. Some had written about her or her time and the struggles of similar Russians, others had been moved or inspired by just one piece, such as Helen Garner, who read ‘Everything is Plundered, Betrayed, Sold’.

My final event of the festival was also my first time in the Capitol Theatre. I had deja vu of a dream I’ve had as soon as I saw the Walter Burleigh Griffin ceiling. I get this a lot actually when I travel, and it is always to do with places (therefore I guess it’s mostly deja visite). Whether it’s a memory vomit or somehow I have been there before, I find this comforting.

The session was ‘From Freidan to Feministas’ with Catherine Lumby, Emily Maguire, Susan Maushart and Monica Dux. A few points that came out of it were – that it was a shame women were depicted often as being victims of feminism rather than beneficiaries of it; that one happy 20-something woman can be used by the mainstream media as evidence or a barometer that feminism need not exist, or is irrelevant and over; and that there is a focus in mainstream media on three or four supposed feminist-inspired crises (eg. women being single too long and missing out on babies). It was raised that for many young women the word ‘feminist’ isn’t embraced because they imagine radical hairy-legged lesbian stereotypes and shy away from labeling, even if they do subscribe to the basic notions of choice, fairness and equality. It was also raised that class, race, sexual and gender prejudice were far from being over, and that it’s not about ‘tolerance’ at all but a true ‘respect’ for difference.


Lumby, who is actively involved in education on gender issues, with sporting groups and other organisations, says ‘bugger the mainstream media’ and ‘put wheels on the ideas’. She says that on many levels there is far too much focus on image in society.

Emily Maguire discussed the cliche that there aren’t any young feminists – it is apalling that evidence she has provided again and again has been ignored by the mainstream media – that there are not just young feminists (embracing the ideas) but active young feminists (who are indeed putting wheels on ideas). She ended with ‘where are the young feminists? Pay attention people, they’re everywhere!’ and got a great cheer.

Susan Maushart defined a feminist as ‘someone who listens to women’, and I thought that was a really apt descrition. It could most definitely be a man as well. She stated that the problem with feminism and its appearance is that it has no clear antagonists, unlike in its early days, and that is why in the public consciousness it can appear to be confused. She ended with ‘Barbie is my sister too’ – a great statement on the importance of avoiding judgement.

After a last flight into the Festival Club for the hilarious comedy stylings of librarian Josh Earl, and a final festival club glass of wine, I was off. I think Festival Director Rosemary Cameron did a great job with the program and I really look forward to next year.

4 thoughts on “Melbourne Writers Festival 2008 Diary – Part 3

  1. Angela, what superb posts all three of these on MWF are (and what a crappy sentence I just wrote). I have blogged a bit scattily this week (is scattily a real word?) but I will link to all your coverage for the Monday feedreaders, it’s truly terrific. Mr Billingham sounds great. I must read Trout Opera soon, I’ve had it since last Christmas! i iz evil.Thanks for filling me in on the things I was too stuffed to get to πŸ™‚

  2. Thanks Genevieve! And ah – I feel terrible for neglecting to mention that I met you πŸ™‚ You know why I didn’t? I didn’t write it down. I so rely on my notepad scribblings. I do apologise. Hopefully people will follow my blogroll over to you :-)Get to the Trout Opera!!!And I’m not surprised you were too stuffed to get to things – I’m still stuffed from it all – but it was well worth it. Billingham was hilarious, but I found Robotham more appealing – I hope I get a chance to read him one day too.I think scattily is a good word πŸ™‚

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