Canberra Writers Festival 2017, Day 1: A panel and a conversation

It’s on again – the newly revamped Canberra Writers Festival, I mean. Due to a family commitment in Melbourne, from which I only returned at midday today, I didn’t get to some of the first day’s prime events. I missed, for example, a conversation with Graeme Simsion. I also missed a wonderful sounding panel titled Women in the Media, featuring Kathy Lette, Katherine Murphy, Virginia Haussegger.

The Festival’s theme – fitting for the nation’s capital – is Power, Politics, Passion, but my sessions today were more traditional writers festival fare.

Grasping the past: Tracy Chevalier, Amy Gottlieb and Rachel Seiffert in conversation with Gillian Polack

CWF, Polcak, Gottleib, Chevalier, Seiffert

From left: Polack, Gottleib, Chevalier, Seiffert

I chose this session because these writers interest me, as did the topic, historical fiction, which was one of the themes running through last year’s festival.

For those of you who don’t know the panelists, they were:

  • Gillian Polack (convenor): an historian and speculative fiction writer.
  • Amy Gottlieb: novelist and poet, whose debut novel, The beautiful possible, was published in February 2016.
  • Tracy Chevalier: novelist, most famous for The girl with the pearl earring but who has written 9 novels including Remarkable creatures which I’ve reviewed.
  • Rachel Seiffert: novelist, the daughter of an Australian-born father and German mother. She’s published three novels, of which the first, The dark room, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

What was excellent about this session is that it didn’t traverse the common issue of plausibility and authenticity. Instead, our jetlagged convenor wanted them to talk about how they transform their research into fiction. She was interested more in the process. It took a little while to get there but the discussion along the way was enjoyable anyhow!

A couple of issues were toyed with as the panelists grappled with the question. One of these related to the label itself. Gottleib, for example, said she didn’t see herself as an historical fiction novelist. It was the marketing people who labelled her book as such – because of its historical setting. Chevalier raised the issue of definition. When is a setting historical, she asked? Is her novel set in the mid 1970s historical? Seiffert agreed with Gottleib regarding the marketers applying the label, and suggested that historical fiction is seen as “more serious”. That intrigued my friend and me – and was immediately picked up by Chevalier who said that in England historical fiction tends to be seen as genre, and in opposition to serious literary fiction!

What came though strongly throughout the discussion is that these writers do not necessarily see themselves as historical fiction writers but simply as writers!

Meanwhile, Polack returned to her question regarding transforming historical research to fiction, by asking a more specific question regarding how they get their food research into their novels. This resulted in a detailed response from Chevalier who talked about her research process. She said that she can’t write about a period until she knows what people eat, how they eat, when they eat, what they sat on to eat, and so on. In other words, she needs to know what her characters would do on a day-to-day basis. And, here’s the challenge! She has to know this detail to create her period but she can’t tell it all in her novel. This is, as she clearly knows, one of the major criticisms levelled at historical fiction writers, i.e., that they can’t resist including their research, whether or not it’s not critical to the story.

Gottleib, though, starts with character. She knows the story – for example her character was going to leave Nazi Germany, travel to India, and then move to America. Once she knows this, she has to apply the scaffolding – to find out how he made this journey. This requires research. Seiffert, on the other hand, starts with the story first, being inspired, for example, by case studies and essays of people who resisted the Nazis.

Polack then asked the panel how they can do that thing that historians can’t, namely they can bring back erased people from past (such as women or servants), they can right wrongs or address flaws in past. How do they do this she asked?

Gottleib reiterated her interest in character, in their motivations, dreams, and longings. The history for her comes later. Chevalier referred to the book she made her name on – The girl with a pearl earring. She said she likes making things up, so she goes for the gaps – in the “real” story – and tries to fill them in. She likes to give voice to others, to their interior or emotional life. She is not about truth and facts, she said but about the emotional truth of the times. Seiffert referred to Kate Grenville’s The secret river and her feeling the need to write Searching for The secret river. It was as though she’d felt she’d “committed the sin of writing historical fiction” which is clearly something Seiffert felt she didn’t need to do.

Chevalier commented at this point that she has a huge respect for historians; she relies on them.

Polack then moved onto the thorny issue of avoiding cultural and historical bias when writing about a time different from their own. Chevalier said she was always on the look out for 21st century attitudes in her characters. She had to remember in Girl that a 17th century maid would have no feelings of social or economic empowerment.

Seiffert, who has written two books about the Third Reich, took this a bit further explaining that her character in A boy in winter doesn’t know the Holocaust is proceeding but the readers do. She had to fight that, showing that he had to make choices not knowing the full story, while the readers do know. You need, in other words, not to give characters foreknowledge.

Gottleib said that she handles this issue by having a narrator. She said that Latin-American fiction and Gabriel Garcia Marquez  got her into writing fiction, because she loved his multiple layering of stories. The narrator is her “out” of this mire.

This led Polack to raise the issue of their narratorial choices – past versus present tense, and 1st, 2nd or 3rd person. These are the most important things a writer must choose, said Chevalier. If they get it right, readers don’t notice. She started writing in first person, because she found it easier, but she said that the ability to handle third person is the sign of a more mature writer!

Seiffert said she wrote two historical novels using the present tense, because she wanted to situate reader in the time of the novel. The most interesting thing, she said, is that even when you don’t act there is a consequence.

Polack asked then about how fiction writers set up a conversation with history. Gottleib said her novel revealed a conversation, and that it turned out to be different to the one she thought she was having. Chevalier said that writing historical fiction can set up “an alchemy or magic that is hard to explain”.


There were a couple of questions from the audience but I’ll just share the one concerning whether they have start with ideas they want to explore or whether the themes appear more serendipitously. Gottleib said that yes, hers is a novel of ideas but that she had to work to ensure the ideas didn’t overwhelm the characters. Seiffert said she has done this, as has Chevalier, but she said you have to avoid preaching.

Overall, this was an interesting discussion which explored historical fiction more from the practitioner’s end than from the reader’s response aspect, as I’ve often seen.

COMMENT: My friend and I did discuss the “cultural and historical bias” issue a little. We believe that there have always been iconoclastic thinkers. The challenge for the author, when creating these, is to know they are doing so and be able to justify it.

Authors and agents: Linda Tate and Valerie Parv

Linda Tate and Valerie Parv

From left: Linda Tate and Valerie Parv

I’m not a professional writer, and so don’t plan to employ an agent, but I chose this session – a conversation between author Valerie Parv and her agent Linda Tate – because I am interested in the business of writing, in how writers manage the bigger picture.

It was a very nicely presented session. Tate and Parv clearly know each other well and work well together, but beyond that, it was clear that they’d work-shopped their session so it flowed easily, and informatively without feeling artificial.

I’m not going to summarise it in depth, but will say that they focused on the role of an agent, arguing that the point is not how you publish – indie or traditional, through apps like Radish, or by repackaging older works, and so on  – but that you publish. Agents can help with the publishing aspect of writing. They can help with other business aspects too, such as managing the writer’s diary, ensuring s/he isn’t taken advantage of. They can also free up the writer’s time to do what writers do best – which is write.

One thing writers do need to do, though, they argued is to have a social media presence, and to have such a presence BEFORE they offer a manuscript for publication. Publishers want to know what the writer can offer, above the actual work, because it is these extras which can often sway a publisher. A writer needs a brand, needs to know what s/he wants to be known for, what his or her niche is.

They also warned about contracts, including the importance of IP. Their advice regarding contracts was always consider the worst case, and not to sign anything they can’t live with in the worst case.

This was all teased out with examples, but in the end this was the message – the writer writes, the manager handles the business. As was the point that, no matter how well agent and writer get on, it is a business relationship. The agent can only work for a writer if it’s commercially worthwhile for the agent (obviously!)

Oh, and they gave a lovely plug to the ACT Writers Centre which they described as one of the most pro-active in the country! Nice eh.

A worthwhile session – even for amateur me – although I did notice that there was no discussion of the payment aspect of the relationship.

19 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2017, Day 1: A panel and a conversation

  1. Thanks for these interesting comments for those of us who couldn’t be there. I particularly like the point: ‘one of the major criticisms levelled at historical fiction writers, i.e., that they can’t resist including their research, whether or not it’s not critical to the story.’ Sometimes it’s hard for an author to see that!
    And it’s true that ‘Publishers want to know what the writer can offer, above the actual work, because it is these extras which can often sway a publisher.’ Gone are the days when an author could submit a ms and sit back and wait for success!

  2. Ah, to have an Agent or to not have an Agent. I have been discussing this very issue lately with a number of my writer friends and it seems there are agents . . . and then there are Agents. Apparently, some of them work on getting a good deal for the author and that’s where the interaction ends. Others work with the author on media, promotional events, etc. So it is difficult to work out which type of agent a writer needs and who is available for what. Three authors, all with the same publisher, told me that they have an assigned publicist who does all business management and diary maintenance, etc. and say that an agent is not necessary, but I wonder if there is a conflict of interest there? So many details, just in the consideration of looking for an agent. It is a wonder we writers ever get any writing done!

    • That was the main point Karenlee… That the agent should free up time for the writer to write. It sounded to me that Tate did the lot, ie doesn’t have publicists etc, but I don’t know for a fact. I’ve spoken to a couple of authors re agents and generally the feeling was positive, though one doesn’t have her book out yet so it’s early days.

  3. Interesting the comments re historical fiction being seen as a genre. I have always shied away from it as the covers alone have put me off. Perhaps I am missing out on some good writing but I find it hard to embrace it anymore with the pictures of women fleeing down staircases in flowing gowns. I will keep a more open mind in future.

    • Ah, Pam, I think you are probably referring to what a bookgroup friend of ours calls “historical fiction lite”! (Like Philippa Gregory she says.) Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series, say, or Grenville The secret river, aren’t of that ilk.

    • Oh, did I imply she complained Bill? She just laughed at Seiffert’s comment that in her world historical fiction is seen as serious, and said not in hers. I agree that Chevalier is at the lighter end of the scale.

  4. Thanks for this, Sue. I would have gone to this session if I’d been willing to brave the arctic chill! I read Seiffert’s The Dark Room when it was nominated for the Booker, and it was amazing: I think it was the first book I’d ever read from a German PoV about the Nazis, and yes, Bill, it is in a different league to Chevalier’s books, interesting as they are.

  5. I enjoy historical fiction, and both Chevalier and Seiffert writings appeal to me. I just read A Boy in Winter by Seiffert – a great read. I have recommended it to a few of my Ukrainan friends.

  6. What a great recap – thanks. The ACT Writers Festival sounds more interesting than the Melbourne one, this year’s program for which seemed to me a bit, well, meh.

    • Thanks Michelle, but that’s a shame. Are you attending any of it? I was thinking that I haven’t seen much promotion for it this year as I have in recent years. Is it just my imagination or is it being less promoted.

      • No, I won’t be going to any MWF sessions this year although that’s more to do with being too busy than anything else. But, in speaking with Melbourne friends, I’m not the only one to feel underwhelmed. Not to mention totally confused by the website. Interesting to see how it goes next year under its new artistic director Marieke Hardy. I’m not holding my breath…

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