Sydney Writers Festival Highlights: Julie Koh & Zack McDermott

Last week I flew to Sydney to take part in my first ever Sydney Writers Festival. My official involvement was to speak on a panel at Writing NSW’s Forest for The Trees – a one day seminar on writing and publishing. My unofficial duties included attending inspiring sessions, occasionally live-tweeting, drinking champagne and seeing art. Nice work if you can get it.

Julie Koh

Forest for the Trees opened with a keynote from Julie Koh, who is—without fangirling too much—the coolest. She’s like your best friend’s older sister who is so much more hip than you’ll ever be but when you’re just chilling at home she talks to you about boys and periods. Maybe you think this is a weird metaphor, but let me explain. She has this badass jacket which matches her book cover, and then she shows you a picture from her vision board a few years back which has her head stuck onto a photo of some dude on stage at the Sydney Writers Festival. Her keynote was so down to earth, taking in the challenging aspects of the writing life as well as the parts she loves.

She talked about the loneliness of, in her early career, being surrounded by people who didn’t believe she could be a writer. [This is a consistent message from participants in the writing workshops I teach. Don’t worry, guys, you’ll find your people eventually]. She talked about the challenge of finding people who ‘got’ her weird stories, and the frustration of being long-listed for things but never quite making the cut.

She had lots of great advice, especially:

When trying to get your work out there, practice shamelessness but not too much

Don’t try to emulate others; find your own path

If you’ve been following my How Writers Earn Money blog series, you’ll know how much I yearn for more transparency in this area, so it was refreshing to hear her speak frankly about income. Despite being a celebrated author, prize-winner and Stella Prize judge, she only earned $4500 last year. In the future she predicts she will either be super-famous, or super-homeless or maybe both!

Finally, she urged writers not to pin too many hopes on their first book, and reminded us that the real joy of writing is in the writing – something it is strangely easy to lose sight of when you see the Emerald City of publication, awards, festivals and the like gleaming on the horizon. In short, she was fabulous.

US Publication

Later that day I saw a brilliant panel on the secret formula to getting published in the US (spoiler: there is no secret formula). Per Henningsgard, an academic from Curtin University, delivered a myth-busting presentation on all the fake news that circulates about how to get a US publisher, and which kind of books sell best stateside. I was delighted to see my novel Whiskey & Charlie pop up in his slideshow as a great Australian success story when it came to US publication. Also, when listening to the other panellists – an Australian publisher who sells books into the US market, and an American publisher—I discovered that Whiskey & Charlie breaks the mould in a number of interesting ways: it was sold to an American publisher via my Australian publisher (it’s more common to go through an agent); the rights were sold a long time after Australian publication (usually the rights sell pre-publication); and it underwent a more rigorous Americanisation process than usual.

The key takeaway from this session was: look outside bestseller lists and trends, and look for publishers who are doing the same.

Zack McDermott

The main festival takes place in a restored carriageworks, and is on a vast and mind-boggling scale. I heard Tara Westover interviewed about going from a Mormon survivalist childhood with no formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University; listened to Jennifer Egan’s closing address about the relationship between technology and writing, and had many conversations about Zinzi Clemmons calling out Junot Diaz for sexual misconduct, during a festival session. I was saddened by how many people thought she was making ‘a fuss about nothing’ and realised how incredibly far we have to go as a society.

On a more positive note, my favourite session was an interview with US author Zack McDermott, on his memoir Gorilla & the Bird, about the psychotic episodes he suffered as a result of bipolar disorder and his journey back to health. His delusions of grandeur were honestly astounding, and as well as being a writer he is also a stand-up comedian so he made these intensely scary episodes incredibly funny—but also, of course, heartbreaking. I have almost finished the book and it is a great read – funny, touching and eye-opening.

Image result for gorilla & bird mcdermott

Biennale of Sydney

No trip to Sydney is complete without gadding about on the harbour so on a gorgeous sunny morning I took a ferry to Cockatoo Island to see the Sydney Biennale exhibits there, which were all monstrously gigantic things in the atmospheric industrial buildings left over from the second world war. I was particularly moved by Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey, an enormous inflatable lifeboat which forces us to think about the refugee crisis, and the works of Yukinori Yanagi which explore the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In all, it was an inspiring weekend. Now back to working on my own book, and who knows, one day I might get to speak about it in the hallowed halls of Carriageworks.


4 thoughts on “Sydney Writers Festival Highlights: Julie Koh & Zack McDermott

  1. Thanks for this write up. It was an interesting festival this year!

  2. Wow. On my bucket list to attend the Sydney Writers Festival one day. Love your insights. Thanks x

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