Melbourne Writers Festival 2009 diary part two: Grenville, Michaels and the 'engine of curiosity'

Stories everywhere: The guy in the ACMI cafe shares my love of David Bowie, and they make a mean ham toastie.

The title of the session Oranges are the Only Fruit alludes the the Orange Prize, which guests Anne Michaels and Kate Grenville have both won. Peter Clarke was a generous and intelligent chair, steering the conversation mainly in the relation of ‘process’, and how one gets to such a level of ‘literary art’, as he put it. For Kate Grenville, there is really ‘no such thing as a fact’, only interpretations. We are left with the ‘energy’ of history, and in that, something that asks questions about the present. When Anne Michaels is writing she may start with a collection of facts, but its the ‘meaning between the facts’ which is important. And this may take time to emerge.

Did you know? Kate Grenville has two early manuscripts in her bottom drawer. The reason they were unsuccessful was that she was trying to write to a plan, and wasn’t letting herself be taken down the roads of curiosity. Also, she did 30 drafts of The Lieutenant. And despite having written many novels, each time she feels a fear – one specifically related to being true to the imaginative potential of the material and the characters. ‘If you go honestly asking questions … something opens up in a meaningful way.’ So go forth, writers, with your ‘engine of curiosity’!

Anne Michaels spoke with sensitivity and insight about the ‘perilous’ journey of a book in formation. As human beings we naturally want to simplify or reach a conclusion about a difficult and complex issue or situation. Michaels says we should ‘respect the complexity of what we’re writing about’. Go there! Go ‘beyond what you think you can do’, she told an emerging writer in the audience.

Grenville and Michaels will be appearing at further sessions. I highly recommend seeing them – engaging and articulate speakers, who also read beautifully from their own works.

AND LiteraryMinded will feature an interview by Matthia Dempsey, with Michaels, after the festival. Stay tuned (or ‘clicked in’ as the term probably should be).