Lab coats, lit journals & marrying frogs: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011 diary, part one

It’s that time of the year again, where authors, poets, thinkers and drinkers congregate in Melbourne, and we go along to hear their thoughts about work and life. As I was away in the lead-up, I’m not doing any chairing or official duties this year. I get to go along and enjoy the talks, readings, performances and panels.

I missed the Franzen opener as I was still feeling wretched (and I hear I missed a pretty inspiring evening) but yesterday I set out to a few sessions:

First was Writing in Lab Coats. Jo Chandler’s book Feeling the Heat grew out of a journalistic assignment documenting field research in Antarctica. She was ‘absolutely beguiled by field science’ and in the book she travels back to the Antarctic, but also to other areas – hot, cold, wet, dry – where she knew active field research was going on. The focus of the book is climate change, and what’s going on at the forefront – in these delicate and necessary environments and ecosystems. As a non-scientist, she said she could ask all kinds of questions, and then she had to find ways of communicating the science, and also the experience, to the reader. And it sounds like she had some amazing and confronting experiences. Chandler told us about hanging out the back of a Hercules, her tears turning to ice at the aching beauty of the Antarctic landscape. The rainforests were more claustrophobic, with leeches that could even get behind your eyeballs.

Jane McCredie was always interested in the area of gender, and then a court case in Melbourne four years ago – where a young girl wanted to become a boy and halt female puberty – set her on the path to write her book Making Girls and Boys. ‘We like to think we have these nice categories we can put people into’, she said, and ‘people get upset when it’s not that simple’. McCredie spoke about working through her own reactions when she was meeting up with all manner of transsexual and intersex people. It sounds like a fascinating read. McCredie sees herself as ‘a friend of science’ who, like any friend, has to at times be critical. ‘There are very few people who completely fit the stereotypes of male and female’, she said. I agree wholeheartedly, and her book may be a great step toward making people more open-minded about the idea of an in between.

Elizabeth Finkel had been wanting to write about the genome since the completion of the $3 billion human genome project in 2001. She is an ex-scientist, a geneticist, and now a journalist. At first she had a ‘wall of facts and figures’ and couldn’t see the stories in them. ‘The valid way to communicate science is to tell the stories’, she said. She eventually found the stories, and found her voice for the book, The Genome Generation. One challenge was giving a visual sense to the minuscule, but from her reading yesterday, I’d say she has managed it very well.

In The State of the Literary Nation four editors of Australian literary journals spoke about where they are at (and more generally, where the scene is at) in this extended transitional period between old and new technologies. And new and new technologies (let’s face it: we’re in a constant state of flux and will continue to be). Ivor Indyk has of course ended the ‘book’ version of HEAT, but is keen on a reinvigorated magazine. There is a balance to be struck between older, dedicated members of the HEAT reading community, and newer audiences, including international readers. Indyk is interested in the idea of a digital presence, but possibly along with a different print presence. I spoke with Indyk a bit later and while I can’t reveal any particulars, I’ll just say that there are some very exciting ideas going around the table for this. It’ll be something you want to read in ways you’ll want to read it.

Griffith REVIEW, as founding editor Julianne Schultz told us, has been going strong with its print edition, but also provides some content online, and some in ebook format. Island, edited by Sarah Kanowski did an epub version of their last issue, too. But both Kanowski and Dominique Wilson from Wet Ink, a magazine-style journal also sold at newsagents (including internationally) said they still preferred, personally, to read in print. I think a lot of people feel the same, young and old, and I think it’s interesting (though quite natural, I guess) that these conversations do always turn into a discussion of formats. I would have liked to hear a bit more about content, ie. what kind of exciting things are they publishing? Where are the stories and essays coming from? What is their editing process like? I’ll admit that I’m just getting a bit over the whole digital vs print debate (you may have noticed I haven’t written about it much lately) and have settled into a calm acceptance that most of us who read will read on both screen and page. Of course, I’m not a publisher or a bookseller and can sit back and say that – I don’t have to make any difficult decisions. But talking about the ‘casing’ all the time seems, well, like talking about surfaces. I love stories, no matter what form or format (or even medium) they come in.

In the afternoon I was introduced to Eliot Weinberger, by Ramona Koval. Weinberger is an American writer, translator and literary critic. He is known for his essays, on a huge range of topics, which have an ‘avant-garde’ or poetic form. He was wonderful. I adore curious people and, as Koval described him, Weinberger is the ‘embodiment of infectious curiosity’. He says he doesn’t make anything up, in his pieces –  ‘I think it’s because I basically have no imagination’. Instead, they are made up of verifiable things, or things people believe to be true. He comes to some of these ‘facts’ and ‘strange things’ via books. ‘One of the traditional uses of literature is talking about strange things.’ He might condense a huge book into a two-page essay. He also comes to them from news stories. He read us three pieces set in India, one of which (about a young girl being married to a frog each year in an Indian village) he got from the local press while over there.

As literature began with ‘strange stories and going to other lands’ he finds the tendency for realism ‘very curious’. He’s not sure realist fiction really provides Melville’s ‘shock of recognition’. Perhaps a ‘slight throb of recognition’, he said. He also doesn’t like when middle-class American authors talk about ‘risk’. There’s a kind of ‘risk fetishism’ going on, but there’s a real risk going on with people writing in countries where they could be prosecuted.

He said the essay is still largely unexplored territory and there are huge possibilities for writers. He was amazed at the reception of his ‘What I Heard About Iraq’ in the London Review of Books, a ‘collage of soundbites’ from the lead-up to and beginnings of the war in Iraq. He said that perhaps it was so successful because there ‘was almost nothing else’, compared to in the Vietnam War where songs and poetry were being written about it all the way through. He said perhaps his essays also work because they are not over-explanatory; he leaves gaps, the way one would with poetry. There is also a musicality to them.

Weinberger was very prescient about the internet, predicting its influence many years ago in a talk and being booed off by people (‘yuppies with laptops aren’t going to change the world!’). He also said he couldn’t imagine the Bush years without the internet, as the mainstream media in America were truly only reporting what the government wanted them to. ‘The internet is a great place for minority interests’, he also said, such as poetry.

Weinberger started translating Mexican writer Octavio Paz in high-school. When he was a hippie (‘with beads and stuff’) university drop-out someone sent Paz his translations. They were then to work together for 30 years. He dropped out of Yale because ‘everyone there was a brand name’ like Bob Colgate or Bill Schick. There around the same time was George W. Bush, and you must read Weinberger’s review of the Bush autobiography. (He invokes Foucault’s ‘death of the author’ in relation to the ghostwriting team who actually wrote the memoir.)

I’ve heard that An Elemental Thing is a great book of his to start with.

2 thoughts on “Lab coats, lit journals & marrying frogs: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011 diary, part one

  1. We’re also SUPER EXCITED about the plans for Heat at this end – it’s killing me to not be able to shout it from rooftops just yet….it’s going to be great.

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