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Telling and writing the story: Richard Fidler’s Seymour Biography Lecture

September 29, 2018
Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler, NLA, 2018

On Friday night I went to my fourth consecutive Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. A highlight on the Library’s calendar, it’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005.

This year’s speaker, Richard Fidler, was, at first glance, a surprising pick – but a very popular one. He is well known to Australians, for several reasons, but particularly for hosting, since 2005, ABC Radio’s hour-long interview program, Conversations. He has also recently written two historical books, Ghost empire (2016) and Saga land (co-written with Kári Gíslason) (2017). These books, the lecture promo said, contain short biographies of historical figures from, respectively, Byzantium and mediaeval Iceland. So, he has not written a biography or memoir or autobiography, per se, but these books contain small biographies. Moreover, his Conversations program, it was suggested, comprises mini-autobiographies of the interviewees. Fidler then, as it turned out, was well able to talk about life-writing or, more broadly, telling life stories.

After being introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres, Fidler commenced by telling us that he’d titled his lecture, “Telling and writing the story”. The event’s promotion explained that this meant

outlining some of the tensions that come into play when bringing someone’s life story to a listening audience and comparing it to the freedoms and constraints involved in writing biography for a reader.

Fidler commenced with a little anecdote exemplifying the dangers of biography. Back in 1988, he had read, he said, Robert Caro’s The years of Lyndon Johnson: The path to power (1982). It’s volume 1 of a larger work. Caro has now published three more volumes (in 1990, 1992 and 2012) and has apparently announced that he will conclude with a fifth volume which, he said this year, could take from two to ten years. Caro is now 82. Fidler proposed that this story provides a warning for the biographer – as you go in, he said, have an eye on the exit! This issue has not – to date, anyhow – been a problem for Fidler whose biographical work has taken a very different, and much shorter path.

Radio versus print

As the lecture’s promotion promised, Fidler talked about both his written and radio work, reflecting as he went on the difference between the two. I love this sort of discussion, this exploration of different media, of different forms of writing and presentation, in order to tease out what is inherent to each. As a consumer and reviewer of media, I believe that knowing and understanding the form in hand is a critical starting point. I’m therefore going (to try) to marshal my report on this lecture to focus on these issues, rather than be a blow-by-blow summary.

Print

Early in the lecture, Fidler said that written stories can take more liberties – the story can sprawl, for example, diving off on tangents at will. Radio, on the other hand, is more linear, it must keep moving forward in a direct path (though it does have the voice to guile you!) He likened radio to a shark driving ever forwards, while print is like a Portuguese man-of-war which can drag all sorts of bits-and-pieces along with it.

Richard Fidler, Kari Gislason, Saga LandHe exemplified this through the Saga land project, first explaining, for those of us who didn’t know, that Icelandic sagas – Saga land’s subject – are stories of real Vikings. Icelanders read these sagas, he said, the way we read Shakespeare. He also explained that in Old Norse, the word “saga” means “telling. He then read the beginning of the first saga about Gunnar, showing us how the narrative tension builds. (We’ll leave, here, the side issue of how much of the actual stories about these real people is fact, and how much fiction or hyperbole, as it’s irrelevant to my main thread. It’s an issue, he suggested, best left to saga scholars who still argue about it.)

He realised, he said, that these sagas would translate well to audio (to radio and podcast). Their first two chosen stories translated pretty easily to the audio form, but then he got to the story of Gisli which turned out to be much harder to transform into a linear form. How could he pour this sprawling story into the narrow form needed for a spoken narrative – a paradoxical problem, given the sagas originated in oral form. The “crush of family”, the multiple but confusing relationships, he said, are important to Gisli’s story. Eventually, though, he identified its core, and developed the narrative from there.

Fidler went on to talk about more stories from Saga Land, and talked a little about Ghost empire which he described as, essentially, the biography of a city, Constantinople. It reminded me of another “biography” of Constantinople, Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising Istanbul: Memories of a city. Anyhow, regarding writing Ghost empire, he mentioned in particular the mini-biography of Constantine XI and how writing about him involved “a strange act of sympathy.” In fact, he described biography as “a profound act of sympathy”, which means, for him, “sitting beside his subject” as he writes rather than observing from a distance.

Radio

Of course, many in the audience were keen to hear about Fidler’s hugely popular radio program, Conversations, and Fidler did spend some of his 45 minutes on it too. He started by saying that the program’s aim was to present the stories of unknown people although, as listeners know, he also interviews better known people like “astronauts, authors and scientists.”

Fidler talked about the challenge of creating coherent narratives out of his subjects’ lives, many of whom, unused to the media, struggle to tell their stories coherently. His producers spend a long time talking – often on the phone – with selected interviewees, teasing out a narrative. Life is messy, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom he said!

Moreover, how reliable is memory, he asked – and then told a pertinent personal story to prove just how unreliable it is! He quoted British poet, Lemn Sissay’s definition of a family:

“Family is memory disputed between a group of people over a lifetime.”

Love it. Anyhow, he said that, consequently, he asks his interviewees “What do you remember?” rather than “What happened?” This question can often result in wonderful reveries, ones that make him almost stop breathing in order to not break the momentum. He gave an example from his interview with Angela Lansbury who gave an evocative description of the London of her childhood. Fidler said that he could see that a movie of that time was playing before her eyes.

Overall, he said, producing Conversations required artful deception in order to create the narrative arc of an hour.

Why read or listen to biography?

This subject wasn’t – really – specifically addressed, but Fidler did say a few relevant things. Regarding the value of reading Icelandic sagas, he said our interest springs from a deep-seated human need to understand our own lives through those of our ancestors. The sagas, he says, may fall short in terms of biographical rigour but they do tell larger truths. They were enjoyed as escapism but they also offered a different way of being human. Apparently, the poets Auden and Borges loved Iceland’s sagas.

Somewhat related to this issue was his discussion about the overall value of radio. It’s more intimate than television. It’s also more “profoundly democratic because you can’t be seen” and therefore not judged by the markers of appearance. He saw this as “a noble nakedness.”  In addition, radio has, he believes, an “enormous didactic momentum”, one which can create a “commonwealth of shared sympathies”, a sense of shared humanity.

There was more, including a Q&A during which questions included how subjects are found for Conversations, what he would ask Constantine XI if given the chance, and his tips for new interviewers.

But, I’ll leave it here and conclude with Fidler’s impassioned concluding statement, made in the context of the week’s astonishing events in which the ABC lost both its Managing Director and Chairman of the Board. He said that the public trusts that the Board will support the ABC, and that it’s not the government which funds the ABC, but you (that is, us), the audience. That of course brought him resounding applause – and so, sadly, ended another excellent Seymour lecture.

Further reading and listening: Saga Land: The Book and Radio Series

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016) and Raimond Gaita (2017)

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
28 September 2018

23 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2018 9:53 pm

    Well, I agree with him> I much prefer radio for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because it’s not so slavishly dependent on ‘vision’.
    I bet Nathan Hobby would have loved this lecture:)

    • September 29, 2018 11:02 pm

      Yes, I love radio too, Lisa. I hadn’t really though about dependence on vision. I enjoy TV (we are just watching P&P for the umpteenth time) but I love that because radio is only aural, you can do other things while consuming it – housework, gardening, driving etc. A big plus isn’t it? Not to mention the variety of content. I learn so much …

      • September 30, 2018 6:30 am

        I was thinking mainly of the news. When I was commuting, I would listen to the RN news on the way home, and gradually came to realise that I actually heard much more detail in the radio news than I did on the TV news.

        • September 30, 2018 9:09 am

          Oh yes, certainly the news… I loved listening to the ABC when I was commuting. As you say, you get more depth – less focus on tragedies (accidents, house fires, etc) and more on political issues.

  2. September 30, 2018 1:08 am

    This sounds like such an interesting lecture. I tend to read a fair amount of biographies of historical characters. I agree with the part about understanding one’s own life, and I would add one’s own times, through the stories of others. The Sagaland Project sounds so interesting. I need to delve into Icelandic Saga.

    • September 30, 2018 8:45 am

      Thanks Brian. All these lectures are great. Such a treat to be able to hear such thoughtful speakers. You are right about adding one’s times.

      Saga land sounds great, but so many books on my plate… Both my children have been to Iceland in the last two years. It’s the travel destination du hour it seems!

  3. September 30, 2018 6:32 am

    I love the quotation re families. So true. What a wonderful evening. I enjoyed Richard a few years ago when he was here for the Writer/Readers festival. His interviews and public speaking are so excellent. Informative would be a better word. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful evening.

    • September 30, 2018 9:12 am

      It’s a wonderful quote, isn’t it Pam. I’ve never heard of the poet but Fidler apparently saw/met him at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. I was going to add to my post that he was such a consummate communicator… Natural, articulate… But of course he would be, wouldn’t he, given his career.

  4. September 30, 2018 1:02 pm

    I was never a fan of the Doug Anthony All Stars and it has been interesting to see where each of them is currently. I do enjoy listening to some “Conversations” and Fidler’s focused attention to the various guest interviewees covering a broad range of situations. Interesting to see “the lads” growing up. 🙂

    • September 30, 2018 1:54 pm

      Interestingly that part of his life wasn’t mentioned in the intro. I nearly mentioned it in mine because older Aussies would know that, but decided on the end not to and let people find out from link. I was never fully aware of them beyond that this group existed in their heyday because I was either living overseas or mired in young children.

      It’s interesting though as you say to see what each of them has gone on to do though poor Tim Ferguson now has health issues doesn’t he?

  5. September 30, 2018 6:50 pm

    Great summary, thanks. From memory, the Seymour lecture is subsequently published in ABR, isn’t it? Not the same as listening to it live, though! Lucky you.

    • September 30, 2018 7:48 pm

      I don’t know Michelle, but the Audio and a Transcript will appear online at the NLA site in a couple of weeks. And no, not the same as being there!

  6. September 30, 2018 11:29 pm

    How interesting WG: Last Saturday evening my wife and I attended a literary evening in Wyong – James VALENTINE (ABC Local Radio in Sydney) interviewing Richard FIDLER. Nearly two hours – and – naturally – covering many of the things you have mentioned in this post. We also saw him and his Saga Land mate Kári Gíslason at the Adelaide Writers Festival back in early March this year. I admire Richard’s radio interviews immensely – apart from you and Jonathan Shaw – Richard’s interviews and those of Phillip Adams provide me with the writers and their books which keep me constantly reading! I’ve been house-sitting the past month or so in Sydney – my constant companion when not out – in the garden – or out taking coffees with old students or colleagues – is Radio National!

    • September 30, 2018 11:48 pm

      Thanks Jim … he’s clearly getting out and about a bit with two books being published in two years. Two hours with him would have been wonderful. And yes, Radio National is my companion when I’m at home. I always take it with me when I’m outside gardening. And I too hear about so many books that I’d love to read.

      I love having the Listen App on my devices – and never use a radio anymore (except in the car, where I also always listen to RN.)

  7. October 3, 2018 9:53 am

    I was a DAAS fan back in the day and saw them perform a number of times, at the Universal Theatre in Fitzroy. Ah, those were the days … nurse wipes dribble from corner of old man’s mouth. I listen to RN rather than “Local” Radio which is increasingly Sydney radio – and when I say Sydney I mean that narrow band of suburbs around the Harbour, all else is ‘West’ – when is the last time you heard a vox pop from anywhere other than the Sydney CBD? I’m sure after all that that Fidler made lots of good points, but like most ABC people he’s so WORTHY and I can take that only in increasingly small doses, mostly have my car radio tuned to community stations these days, RRR, RTR, Indigenous Radio etc.

    • October 3, 2018 5:03 pm

      Haha, Bill. I was barely sear of them in their heyday… I think because I was overseas much of the mid 80s to mid 90s. I knew more about them after they disbanded.

      I don’t listen to local ABC either though ours is Canberra …. At least during the day. I think outside that there’s a lot of syndication.

      I should listen to more community radio but I guess I like RN’s worthiness well enough. I only listen a couple of hours on weekdays, so it doesnt get too much.

  8. viggerskarengmailcom permalink
    October 3, 2018 3:46 pm

    Thanks for this summary Sue. I was really keen to go but it booked out so quickly, I missed out.

    • October 3, 2018 4:47 pm

      Thanks Karen, it did, didn’t it. I nearly missed out too. Glad my write up is of value…

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