Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 3: In our backyard

Suddenly it was my last session! How quickly the two days went. The reason I chose In Our Backyard is obvious. It was described as “Get up close and personal with four of Canberra’s literary gems”, and was moderated by ABC journalist, Emma Alberici.

It was a warm-hearted session, characterised by a sense of respect between the writers made most evident in their friendly banter and genuine interest in each other.

Alberici introduced the four writers:

  • Nigel Featherstone, novelist, Bodies of men (my review)
  • Karen Viggers, novelist, The orchardist’s daughter (my review)
  • Kathryn Hind, novelist, Hitch
  • Patrick Mullins, political biographer, Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon.

Four very different books, said Alberici, so she suggested they start with their book’s genesis.


Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterKaren Viggers: Is passionate about Tasmania, wilderness, freedom, empowerment, forests, and friendship. Her novel is about three outsiders in a small timber town, and explores how people create bonds and belonging in such places.

Patrick Mullins: Did his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon was there for the taking (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) Further, his unpublished autobiography indicated he had a divorced-from-reality view of himself, which suggested themes about the myths we can create about the past.

Kathryn Hind: Enrolled in a creative writing masters in the UK. She had to write something. She looked to her  experience of travelling around the world alone for a year, during which she found that she needed, as a young woman, to be hypervigilant, always. Suddenly, Amelia and her dog by the side of the road appeared to her. Neither she, Amelia, nor she, the author, knew what would happen to her!

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone: Wanted “to piss off Tony Abbott”. Seriously though (or, also seriously), the book resulted from a “strange decision” to apply for an ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy) residency in 2013, despite having no interest in war. Of course, the residency did come with $10K! Featherstone’s overriding interest was to explore different expressions of masculinity under military pressure. Eventually, he found two books in the ADFA Library: Deserter, by American Charles Glass, which explored desertion as an act of courage, and Bad characters, by Australian Peter Stanley, which included the story of a soldier who, during World War 1, had been caught in a homosexual act, been found guilty, and never turned up to board the ship to take him home to prison! There’s my novel, he decided. Had he had any reaction from ADFA to the book, Alberici asked. No.


Given the narrow “backyard” framing of the panel, Alberici took it upon herself to broaden the theme to “place” in general. Suited me. I love hearing authors discuss place.

Karen Viggers: All her stories come from a spiritual connection to place. (I follow Karen on Instagram and can attest her love of place!) She gives her place a fictional name, because she, like Tara June Winch said in the morning, didn’t want to impose her views on real towns (but it is set in the Geeveston/Huonville/Hartz Mountain region of southern Tasmania). She wanted to focus on different types of violence, besides physical, including psychological and economic control. In small towns people know this is going on and can’t pretend they didn’t know. She also wanted to bring back park ranger Leon from a previous book. And, most of all, she wants people to visit, love, and support Australia’s places.

Book coverKathryn Hind: Believes her senses were heightened because she started writing in England, when she was missing Australia. She couldn’t do physical research so would “drop a pin on map”. She named real places. She didn’t feel she had to capture exact their reality, but the timings of Amelia’s journey had to be right. I love that she used online traveller reviews to inform herself. For example, a review of a hotel in a little town mentioned being kept awake by trains shaking the walls at night. She used that! She wanted to truly test Amelia to bring out her strength.

Nigel Featherstone: Hadn’t been to Egypt, so had some initial creative concerns. Then he realised that 1940s Alexandria no longer exists, which that freed him to rely on research. He knows very well the other main place in the book, Mt Wilson. He also talked about writing by hand (which astonished journalist Emma Alberici!) He has gradually learnt that writing is a whole of body activity.

Book coverThen it was Patrick Mullins. He was tricky in terms of “place”, so Alberici asked him about the title. Mullins admitted that his publisher chose it – using Gough Whitlam’s description of McMahon’s scheming by telephone. Mullins’ own title is the subtitle. Alberici asked if he had any cooperation from the family. None, said Mullins, though he sent messages and did have coffee with one member. So, he couldn’t access the 70 boxes of McMahon’s papers at the Archives. He understood, he said. Children of politicians have crappy lives, and, anyhow, it freed him from feeling beholden to the family. Silly family, eh? Fortunately, he had access to one of McMahon’s autobiography ghostwriters who had seen the papers. The most startling revelation, he said, responding to another question from Alberici, was that McMahon was “more admirable than we would have thought”. He racked up several significant achievements, including taking us to the OECD, and showed impressive persistence/resilience.


It was a quality Q&A. The first questioner asked the writers to share the best part for them about writing:

  • Viggers loves the first draft, the joy of going on the ride, and taking the tangents. She also loves those rare moments when the words start to sing!
  • Featherstone found it a hard question, but said one part is when you feel you have written a good sentence, one that feels alive. (One that sings, perhaps?) This happens about once a month, he said. He quoted novelist Roger McDonald, who says that writing is putting sentence after sentence after sentence.
  • Hind’s favourite moments were making discoveries in her own work, the moments when you forget to eat and drink, the moments when you feel “this is what I’ve done”, and when you know your novel so well you can defend it against an editor (albeit her editor was great, she hastened to say.)
  • Mullins gave a non-fiction writer’s answer: It’s when you get access to material, when you find that special piece of information, the little details.

Another question concerned characters “taking over”. Does this happen, and how did they feel about it? Viggers said that for her it’s less that the characters dictate and more that the publishers want her to go deeper, while Hind said that there were times when she wished Amelia would tell her more! Amelia divulging much, even to her author! Featherstone gave the answer of the session. He said that around draft 20 (of the 40 he wrote), he pretended he was a journalist and interviewed his main characters. He asked them to give him an object that represented them, and to tell him a secret about themselves, which he promised not to put in the book. They did, and he didn’t!

Another asked for the best piece of advice they’ve received. Featherstone said it was “to write about what makes you blush”, while Viggers said it was “to get it down, then get it right.” Her husband also says that writing is not about inspiration but getting “bum on seat” and doing it. Hind said her tutor told her that she writes very plainly, which upset her – until he added, “a bit like Tim Winton”! That’s ok then! Mullins said he’d been told that a book about McMahon would be short. It’s not, it’s nearly 800 pages. So, his response was, don’t follow advice!

A good place to end my report of my Canberra Writers Festival. Phew. To those still with me, thanks for following along!

19 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 3: In our backyard

  1. I love your unfettered enthusiam, ST. 🙂 It’s kind of … I dunno, warming.
    Your two days have been shared with us in typical Gums fashion – excellently.
    “Had he had any reaction from ADFA to the book, Alberici asked. No.”
    Of course not: ADFA’s sexually aggressive activities are not in the gay field, are they ?! :\

    • No, they’re not. Though I sensed that another reason might be that the residence was in 2013, and the book came out in 2019, so they may feel somewhat divorced from the process?

      Thanks for reading along. You encouraged me – for good or ill – to keep going!

  2. I like Emma Alberici, so I would have gone to this session too.
    Love Featherstone’s story genesis but Hind’s response to the same question, especially by contrast with Viggers’ passion for her themes, is a bit lame, : ‘had to write something’. It doesn’t make me want a read a book that comes from nothing much in the way of inspiration. LOL She needs to think of a better answer than that one if she ever gets asked the question again.
    Whereas Mullins story is interesting. I mean, everyone knows that political biography with very rare exceptions, doesn’t sell. So someone doing a PhD on it is motivated by curiosity, I suspect. I wonder what his initial impulse was, before he latched onto McMahon?
    Tiberius with a Telephone is an enticing title, making the book into one that’s been vaguely on my radar for a while when otherwise it certainly wouldn’t have been. You could easily slot me into the derisive camp… though truth be told I just regard him as a placeholder in the prime ministerial pantheon. I’m probably the audience that Mullins had in mind!

    • Yes, Lisa, it was lovely seeing her in person, and she did a good job of moderating the panel.

      I wouldn’t be so tough on Hind. Making the decision to go to the UK from here to do the course suggests a big commitment and a real interest in writing. It was more, I felt, that she suddenly had an assignment to do, and had to come up with an idea and a hook? Hitch, is her debut novel and is getting a lot of buzz, and I like the sound of “writing plainly”. (But, perhaps she’ll read this and think about a different way of answering it!)

      I had never heard of a PhD in political biography before, but what an interesting topic, and how interesting that it wasn’t one of those -write-a book-yourself PhDs. I always felt sorry for McMahon, as I always do for slightly odd characters (even if he didn’t need my sympathy!), particularly those ridiculed for their looks as he was. That makes me bridle. All that said, he’s not one of those prime ministers you remember for his achievements (though even there, Mullins said he had quite a few though his political career.) The title is great isn’t it. Good question about what Mullins might also have considered.

  3. WG: Your review is easily as good for the reader (me) as having been there in person (which I could not)! You have an amazing talent for positively dissecting from the conversations between writers and the moderator and then reassembling into their relevant sections. So easy to read and enjoy. And yes to Featherstone’s familiarity with Mt Wilson – that was the section I immediately recognised in his book.

    • Thanks Jim. One of my goals in these sorts of event reports is not to write a beautiful essay, but something that’s easy for people to read, and to quickly pick out info of interest to them if they don’t want to read it all! I’m very glad it worked – and I thank you for taking the time not only to read but to comment.

  4. I find it interesting when writers get together and talk. That is why I tend to really like such panels.

    Featherstone‘s answer about interviewing his characters is insightful. I wonder if other writers might benefit if they tried this.

  5. Thanks Brian. I got the sense that the other writers on the panel liked the idea. I can imagine it would force them a little more into their character’s psychology. I wonder if he asked a question again if he didn’t like the answer.

  6. BTW I meant to say (apropos Featherston and that 1940s Alexandria no longer exists) that the travel writer H V Morton (1892-1979) wrote some wonderful books about his travels in the Middle East. He was in Egypt reporting on the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923, and in 1934 he wrote In The Steps of the Master and In The Steps of St. Paul in 1936 (about Palestine as it then was and about Turkey after its independence.) There were three more: Women of the Bible (1940) and Middle East (1941) followed by Travels in Palestine and Syria in 1944 but I don’t have those ones so I don’t know what they were like. He wrote as an Englishman abroad does, but his strength was in talking with the locals and discovering what the features of a place were, so if there’s anyone out there writing an historical novel set in those countries, these books would be very useful. I imagine the one about Syria would make poignant reading now.
    I read his travel books about Italy and Spain before I went there and although they were 5 decades out of date, they still provided me with a lot of background info about the places I was seeing.
    See for more info.

    • You won’t know this, Lisa (though you will now!) but you are the reason I hang onto a little book Mr Gums and I bought in Ireland in 1980. Every time I go through the shelves and think I must put this in the Lifeline pile, I remember your love of HV Morton. Unfortunately the book is just selections from his In search of Ireland, but it’s all I have of his work. I don’t think I read it when I bought it, so I should read it to get a sense of the man.

  7. Hello guys,this is useful information for me.i love this blog.It’s not easy to get such quality information online nowadays. I look forward to staying here for a long time

  8. I was booked into Fullers book shop to hear Kathryn Hind a couple weeks ago but her flight was cancelled when we had the bad weather in the east so it was cancelled. Enjoying your write ups from festival.

    • What a shame, Pam. She was a lovely, thoughtful panel member. Still learning the ropes, but clearly developing confidence in herself because she has done the work and knows her novel.

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