Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): Fire, Climate and the Natural World

What I hate about writers festivals is that I end up wanting to read every book discussed. But this is impossible, so my next best option is to give the writers a little heads up, at least.

I have written posts on two sessions from last weekend’s Yarra Valley Writers Festival (see this linked tag). Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also written up several sessions. Given she has covered the other sessions I attended at some depth, I’m going to just do a couple of posts on them, and try to keep it to a few points that appealed particularly to me. This post covers:

  • Fire and climate: Tony Birch (The white girl), Tom Griffiths (The art of time travel), Alice Bishop (A constant hum), with the ABC’s Michael Cathcart (which I only managed to join partway, and haven’t managed to catch up yet on the link I’ve received.)
  • Writing About The Natural World: Chris Flynn (Mammoth), Vicki Hastrich (Night fishing), Lia Hills (The crying place), with author Robert Gott.

(Links on author’s names will take you to my posts on them.)

Fire and climate

Book coverI loved that this session, which followed forest ecologist David Lindenmeyer’s keynote address, included an historian, Tom Griffiths, as well as fiction writers, Tony Birch and Alice Bishop.

Griffiths and Birch both responded to questions about fire management in Australia. Griffiths made the point that fires are part of the fabric of Australia, that we will always lose “things” but we need to hang on to what’s important – community, human life, our values.

I liked that Cathcart asked the critical question regarding indigenous fire practices, which is how to apply them in the modern landscape, because it is clearly a more complex issue than simply doing controlled burning. Birch said that the approach needs to be collaborative, that we need to respect both indigenous knowledge and science, and that the decisions need to be local. You can’t, he said, talk fire technology on a national scale. Yes! Griffiths concurred, but added that it needs political action to hand the relevant controls to indigenous people in their country.

Book coverRegarding optimism for the future, Birch said he is concerned about our lack of foresight, about the fact that thinking does not extent beyond the next election cycle. Griffiths said the recent school protests give him hope but, like Birch, he is pessimistic about federal leadership. Bishop said she had hope in stories, but not much in leadership!

Asked about why she wrote short stories (A constant hum) rather than a novel, Bishop said that she has always loved short stories, likes how they can “get to who ordinary people are”. Birch concurred here on the power of fiction, but also said that different genres or forms work for different needs.

Griffiths had the final – and apposite – word, which I hope I have got right. It regarded the idea of reading fiction and nonfiction. We need to know the difference. What is the genre? Are we reading history or fiction? Again, yes! One of the most important things a reader needs to ask, I believe, is “what” am I reading? What is the form, and what are the conventions and expectations of that form? You can, for example, look for truths in fiction, but you can’t demand to find facts in it (though they may be there).

Writing about the natural world

Book coverMost readers, and I am one of them, love hearing about the writing process. Hastrich said that she was “not a fluid writer”. She finds “a few good sentences and images and writes around that”. She is obsessed with her 1964 Roget’s thesaurus, because the way it groups meanings under words helps you find the exact word you need. (I still remember when I fell in love with my 1962 edition.)

Convener Gott shared a favourite sentence from Hills’ book, “the fatigue inherent to being the one who always came back”. Hills talked about returning to the sense of narrative in our lives. Her character returns to his origins, bringing back what he’s learned, bringing back knowledge. We always have to return to where we came from to know ourselves, she said. Gott then asked about what he saw as a melancholic tone in her book. Hills replied that “land is political’, and that non-indigenous people carry an awareness of past wrongs.

Gott also asked her about why she likes deserts (“the landscape of the mind”). A desert-lover too, I was interested in her answer. She said it was a western tradition (or, biblical, I’d say?) to go to the desert and come back with knowledge. It is also one of the great tropes of Australia that the desert is empty. Going there thus challenged her western perception. It is both a place of the mind and a physical place.

Book coverI won’t talk a lot about Mammoth – it is on my TBR, so I’ll get to it soon-ish – but in terms of his inspiration for the story, Flynn said he thought about these massive creatures observing what was going on around them and how all of that was lost when they died. He loved the idea that all that information could be retained in the fossil.

Around here the idea of historical fiction was raised. Flynn commented that “As soon as you delve into historical fiction you open yourself up to a hiding”! I’m sure most historical fiction writers know the pain!

Gott talked about how Hastrich riffs, in her book, on frames in art, on the idea that frames exert a tyranny over art, which rock art, for example, doesn’t face. Hastrich replied how in writing you can set and move the frame, have a roving frame. Like a camera, writing can move from place to place. Gott wondered whether this was “to contain the chaos” to which Hastrich seemed a little bemused, saying it’s more that she wants to call attention to one thing. Writing puts a frame around that thing.

Given the session topic was “the natural world”, Gott did ask Hastrich about the importance of fishing to her and its role in the book. Fishing, she said, involves “intense engagement with the world”. He also asked Hills about her sentence “A story is like a river, it has its source, it has its tributaries …”. She sees stories being connected with water in Australia, and discussed the influence of Indigenous values and attitudes to water in her work.

But then, and this was not only fascinating but spot on in terms of the session’s topic, he asked her the seemingly innocent question about how she wrote the book. Great, I thought, more on the writing process. Well, the answer was not what I expected …

Book coverHills talked about how she wrote quickly on the road. Typing in the car, though, was not easy, so she used voice recognition software, party because it also enabled her to capture a storytelling tone. However, this software had unexpected benefits. Firstly, it would sometimes guess her words, and that guess was sometimes more poetic than her own language. Most fascinating though was that the software would pick up other sounds – birds, the wind – and turn them into words too. Not only did this help her – teach her to – listen to country, but it added another layer to the writing, resulting, for example, in wind sounds and a talking bird featuring in her story. The process, then, became part of the content of the book. Writing this way has given her new ways of relating to the natural world, so she no longer feels separate from it.

Gott then asked her about having indigenous characters in her novel. Hills admitted that people told her she was mad, that it was a minefield, but for her it was about respect, and mutual interest. The time she spent with Indigenous people proved an amazing opportunity. To learn, she said, you need to be open, and to accept that what you might want to do may not work. The always-engaging Gott said at this point, “You make me feel like a lazy writer!”

Flynn said about writing Mammoth that he decided to be led by historical events, but that as he wound down that path he gave up trying to direct the narrative and let it take him. So many writers, it seems, follow their writing rather than plan it out from the start.

There were more questions, but I’ll end on Gott’s final “off-piste” question about what they think is the most over-rated virtue. Hastrich said “modesty, especially for women”; Hills said “consistency”; and Flynn said “detachment”.

What would you have answered?

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM

19 thoughts on “Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): Fire, Climate and the Natural World

  1. ‘What is the genre? Are we reading history or fiction? Again, yes! One of the most important things a reader needs to ask, I believe, is “what” am I reading? What is the form, and what are the conventions and expectations of that form? You can, for example, look for truths in fiction, but you can’t demand to find facts in it (though they may be there).’
    This!! I love this.

    • I think I’ll let this through to the keeper Bill! I’ll just say that I think there is a place for fact in fiction, and I didn’t intend to suggest there isn’t., but that facts are not what fiction is essentially about so are not why you go to fiction. I go to fiction for imagination and to nonfiction for facts. (Though that’s also a broad statement that can be explored too!)

  2. Great write up of the Fire & Climate session, Sue, which I also loved; Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum is a stunning read and Tony Birch’s The White Girl is on my TBR. I caught the start of Writing About The Natural World so also valued your write up on the rest of the session. I’m several chapters into Lia Hills’s The Crying Place and Chris Flynn’s Mammoth is another on my TBR.

  3. Great write-up WG. I ‘attended’ both sessions too, and thought they were wonderful. I’d hazard a guess that historian Tom Griffiths was part of the Fire & Climate session partly because many of his published works are about the environment, and also because he jointly wrote a community history about the Yarra Valley Steels Creek community, called Living with Fire (https://www.publish.csiro.au/book/6835/). “This deeply moving book examines how one community rebuilt and redefined itself following the Black Saturday fires.”

    • Thanks Michelle. Yes, I missed the first few minutes of the session due to family responsibilities (which have also stopped me listening to the link I was sent) but I did wonder whether those older works of his were the main reason he was involved. Thanks for the link to Living with fire.

  4. This is a great theme for a post. As I think about it, nurses play a big part in a lot of fictional works. On an international stage, their portrayal has not always been positive. This is obviously unfair.

    • Absolutely, Brian. You can see why they are a good profession for negative portrayals – the control they have over defenceless people – but it’s not fair because the majority choose the profession because they want to help defenceless people.

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