Perth Writers Festival 2014 (Part III)

This will be my final post on PWF, I promise! There was just too much good stuff being said to squish it all into one blog post.

Eleanor Catton, Margaret Drabble & Jeet Thayil

One of the most thought-provoking sessions I saw at the festival was Eleanor Catton, Margaret Drabble and Jeet Thayil talking about the design of their novels with Geraldine Mellett. I love getting an insight from authors about the ideas behind their novels, and decisions they make on aspects such as structure, narrative voice etc so this session was fascinating for me.

Mellett opened the session with a quote about writing from EL Doctorow which is a particular favourite of mine:

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Thayil said for him, writing is more like getting into a boat at night and heading out into the open seas, with no idea where you’re going. Echoing David Vann’s sentiment, he believes there is much to be said for gut instinct in writing, and said it took several years before the right structure for his novel became clear to him.

Drabble shared a similar story, of arriving at her point of view for The Pure Gold Baby simply through trial and error – trying out a few perspectives before settling on the right narrator.

I felt instantly warm towards Thayil when he revealed that his novel took five and a half years to write. I feel like I’m always hearing about people who write books in a year, whereas I’m a very slow writer and it gave me comfort to know I’m not the only one who takes years to finish a book.

One of the things I love about writers festivals is the opportunity to be exposed to people who are more intelligent than me, and though I have not yet read The Luminaries, the depth of thought that went into it astounded me – Eleanor Catton is nothing short of a brainiac – like an eighty year old mind in a twenty-something year old body. She described how she began The Luminaries with two years of reading, following what interested her from book to book, in particular, reading the writers of the nineteenth century ‘with the intent to steal from them’. She said when she begins writing she tries to keep the ‘what if…?’ part of her mind open for as long as possible.

Catton quoted Aristotle, who apparently said that everything in a novel must be both probable and necessary. Drabble said she loves unnecessary bits and Thayil said he often writes pieces that seem to be unnecessary but turn out otherwise. I’ve been pondering this aspect of the conversation quite a lot in relation to the book I’m reading: Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex. Eugenides is fond of the totally unnecessary, or seemingly unnecessary tangent. These are ‘diverting’ in both sense of the word i.e. interesting but pulling my attention away from the main story.

Small and Perfectly Formed

My second chairing opportunity for the festival came in the form of a panel on short fiction. I talked novellas with Julienne Van Loon, flash fiction and editing a short story collection with Angela Meyer and the differences between writing short fiction and writing for film with Ron Elliott. We briefly touched on style, structure, genre and plotting in our conversation and there was a wide range of approaches to these aspects of writing from the panel, followed by some excellent audience questions.


A Good Death

Though I usually stick firmly to fiction-based sessions, at this year’s festival I was attracted to two sessions on topical issues. The first of these was on euthanasia or assisted suicide. Chair Anne Summers brought just the right amount of levity to a panel which touched on some raw and challenging topics. The discussion was well-received by what seemed to be a mostly in-favour audience although failed to adequately cover the problematic aspect of the risks posed by assisted suicide for the mentally ill.

A Country Too Far

My festival weekend finished with a sobering and deeply-moving session about asylum seekers. Editors Rosie Scott and Tomas Keneally explained their thinking behind putting together an anthology of fictional and non-fictional pieces which address the asylum seekers issue. Keneally spoke of how the legal and ethical argument – that people are entitled to seek asylum – doesn’t seem to sway people in the slightest, and they hope that by telling stories, by putting a human face on this issue, they might get people to see it differently.

The panel featured Debra Adelaide, who made a fictional contribution to the collection, as well as two ‘reformed refugees’ – Carina Hoang and Young Australian of the Year Akram Azimi. All spoke eloquently and with great compassion about the plight of current refugees in Australia but the speaker who most affected me was Azimi.

Having travelled extensively around Australia and met many people who were openly hostile towards refugees, Azimi held no bitterness towards them. He simple believes we need to find new ways of helping those people to understand the complexities of asylum seeking, and seemed hopeful that there was the possibility of change. I hope very much that the anthology A country Too Far will be a positive step in the right direction.

Your turn: I’d love to hear your thoughts about the issues discussed in these sessions, whether fictionally-focused or otherwise. There is always much to process after a writers festival and it’s great to be able to bounce ideas off others.

Want more?

Perth Writers Festival 2014 (Part II)

My Year in Writing 2013

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Perth Writers Festival 2014  Part III    ANNABEL SMITH

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