Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 1)

This is the third year I’ve attended Sydney Writers Festival’s Live and Local live-streamed events at the National Library of Australia.

More often than not, I attend these events alone, but I was lucky to find that one of our wonderful local authors, Karen Viggers, was also attending alone, so I had company in my note-taking and we did manage a little debrief after each session too. We had both booked two sessions – the same two. Karen has appeared a few times on my blog.

Sarah Krasnostein and Maria Tumarkin: Conversation, Saturday 1 May, 2pm

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

This session was to be Sarah Krasnostein with Helen Garner. However, on Friday, an email announced that Garner was unable to attend and would be replaced by Maria Tumarkin. I was a little disappointed, of course, but I was very happy with Maria Tumarkin as replacement. I’ve read and reviewed her impressive book, Axiomatic, which won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Best Writing Award and was shortlisted for several other awards.

Writers festival conversations are interesting beasts. They are, formally, interviews, with one person’s role being to talk to the other about their latest work, in this case, Sarah Krasnostein and her book, The believer. But, what often happens, and what happened here, is that although it was clear that the focus was Krasnostein’s book, the session did feel more like a conversation with Tumarkin actively engaged in sharing ideas. Some of her questions were almost as long as Krasnostein’s answers. Indeed, at one point she admitted that she was taking a long time to ask her question and that “Helen would never do this”! She got a friendly laugh.

Here is how the Festival program described the session:

Sarah spent time in Australia and the US talking to six extraordinary people who held fast to a belief even though it rubbed against the grain of conventional wisdom. Her research culminated in The Believer: Encounters with Love, Death & Faith, a deeply humane and deftly drawn enquiry into the power of belief.

The program continued:

Sarah is joined by Maria Tumarkin to explore what we believe in and why – from ghosts and UFOs to God and the devil, dying with autonomy and beyond.

This is not, in fact, how it came out but, I’m not sorry, because what we got was something far more interesting. No, let me rephrase that. I don’t know how interesting the suggested topics might have been but I loved what they did talk about – because they spoke to matters that interest me.

With a nod to Helen Garner, Tumarkin started by quoting Garner who has apparently said that her first lines “come as music from some other place”. She wondered if that’s how Krasnostein’s books start.

“Not anything like that!” said Krasnostein, and she talked about her research and writing processes which topics interest me. She basically, as Tumarkin reframed it, “squirrels material without having a particular idea” about where it’s going. With The believer, Krasnostein “stumbled across the Mennonites” and went from there. She holds her material close, she said, “until it tells you what it is”. (A bit like Michelangelo finding the sculpture that’s already in the block of marble?)

Tumarkin asked what inspires Krasnostein. She replied that it’s the wonder of what she finds in a day, and telling story of that. In other words, she’s driven by curiosity, and finding the story under the surface.

Tumarkin then asked how Krasnostein fixes or anchors her stories. How she finds their core, I guess she meant. Krasnostein said it’s not about what she likes but what is “interesting”, about finding different versions of the world. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted to know about belief when she started.

However, she knew she didn’t want to write magazine pieces or a book of essays. She wanted to “articulate the commonality”, to know the stories we tell about our “interior vulnerabilities”. She talked about her book comprising a “house of unlike things”. Tumarkin liked this – because it mirrors her own way of thinking – and asked her to explain further. Krasnostein paraphrased German sociologist-philosopher-critic, Theodor Adorno, saying “that harmony in art is not achieved by forcing components into resolution but making space for dissonance”. [I hope I got that down right, Karen!]

Then she said something that interested me. She wanted to come up with a structure that would demonstrate (mirror? reflect?) what she wanted to express philosophically. I love writing in which the structure informs or reflects or enhances the meaning.

This clearly also interests Tumarkin, who feels that much Australian non-fiction is formulaic in argument and structure. This is paradoxical, perverse, she said, because books are where “very different things can live together”, where you can practise dissonance and find unlike things.

This led to voice. Krasnostein said she prefers first person but you have to balance being in there too little against too much. She argues that third person is the most narcissistic because it means acting like God. All non-fiction is subjective, involves selection; a first person voice recognises this. Regarding how and where you put yourself in, she said that sometimes it’s for ethical reasons (to provide context, say), sometimes practical (such as reporting conversations), and sometime technical (such as to move the narrative along). However, while Krasnostein prefers first person, she is “never comfortable” about putting herself in!

Krasnostein mentioned Tumarkin’s writing about memoir vs confession (such as here), saying she doesn’t like memoir so much. She thinks it’s hard to see out of one’s own life.

Tumarkin asked about her approach to developing relationships during her research, suggesting that you can’t really see or know another person’s world, but you can connect on, say, an axis of fear or wonder. (I’m reminded of EM Forster’s Howard’s End theme, “Only connect”)

Krasnostein talked about doing the research to find the “right” people. Then it’s case-by-case, and depends on each person’s physical and emotional availability. For her, duration is a dimension of the story, as people change over time. Consequently, some relationships take 2-3 years to develop. In factual writing, it’s not about friendship. She said that Janet Malcom (whom I know Garner also admires) writes about this. Her ultimate contract is with the reader.

Tumarkin teased this out, suggesting there are other ethical responsilbilities besides to the reader, including to the subject matter. She commented that people are unreliable narrators of their own lives, and asked how Krasnostein balances responsibility to the person (the subject) and the reader (who needs the truth). You know the person in front of you is an unreliable narrator but you cannot undercut them.

Krasnostein said it’s partly about context. If you unpack the context – if you show the situation the person is in, and you honour their truth – you can respect everyone’s humanity and meet your ethical obligations. (This made sense to me. I would probably use the word “respect” too: you respect their story, their truth, which writers can do, at least partly, with tone.) She referred to Dorothea Lange, and the Frances Bacon quote on her darkroom door:

The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention. 

Krasnostein said she is interested in “bearing witness”, in seeing different views of same world rather than in making judgements.

The conversation continued, with Tumarkin asking Krasnostein about whether her legal training helps her work. Krasnostein identified the positives as being the story (context, character, evidence) and the training in writing directly, boldly. It taught her to “be frank on the page”. Somehow, this led to a discussion about resolutions – about how “resolution” is for fiction and the law, but not for non-fiction. Resolution is unsatisfying, they agreed.

Interestingly, Krasnostein described herself as a “pointillist”, as someone who only sees detail, which, she said, was “good for a writer, terrifying for a person”! However, I’d say that to write what she does, she is also able to see the forest.

There was a little more, but I’ll close by sharing Tumarkin’s essay on “wildness” that Krasnostein referenced, because it shows their mutual interest in “not following formula”. Tumarkin writes that

the essay moves by sway and swagger, not always but often enough. What it never does is march toward a preordained horizon. You can never give an essay its marching orders.

I love the way these women think, so it was a real pleasure to see them both in action.

12 thoughts on “Sydney Writers Festival 2021, Live and Local (Session 1)

  1. What a brilliant summation WG. My wife and I sat through four of the sessions yesterday – Barrie Cassidy with Scott Ludlum (his book Fill Circle), Sally McManus and Linda Burney, then. Isabel Wilkerson re her award-winning book Caste (The Lies that Divide Us) – interviewed by Sintilla (technical issues plaguing the start of the session – though at the Rathmines Lake Macquarie Libraries setting – no problems were apparent) – the third was Sarah Krasnostein (The Believer) whom we last saw several years ago at the Adelaide Festival speaking of her book The Trauma Cleaner – with – and exactly as you described – not only the dramatic and engaged Maria Tumarking – but shadowed by those signing the session – the one signing for Maria could almost have been her sister. We were all doing our best NOT to read the the almost simultaneous subtitles provided (by a computerised system) variously gympro finally by degrees became Jim Crow – but various names, book titles, other historical references caused occasional snorts or giggles of disbelief – and the Tumarkin style came in for some vigorous attention after the session was over from women around us…I threw in that perhaps Maria was in some way nervous – a last minute replacement for Helen Garner – though as Maria had herself stated at the start – she and Sarah had shared a similar conversation/interview only some weeks ago – which made the shared back-and-forth understandable. And then the final session Laura Tingle interviewing Richard Flanagan re his Rachel Carson-like Silent Spring book examining the Salmon Industry and its tentacles around the government and bureaucracy which is destroying whatever was pristine in the bays and coastal regions of Tasmania – all kinds of pollution. I’ve already started reading my downloaded copy. Powerful as any writing from Flanagan – and the interview allowing him to speak in his measured compassionate intelligent way to all the questions.

    • Thanks Jim, I plan to post my report on Flanagan-Tingle later today. You are right about the signers in the Krasnostein – Tumarkin session. They were perfect matches. And the subtitles did provide many laughs, though I was so busy writing I didn’t see them all, and didn’t take down, which I should have, a couple of them.

      I’m interested in the vigorous discussion about Tumarkin. As Karen and I commented, it started a bit like a conversation between friends which would have been disastrous if it continued that way because it would exclude the audience, but, I think they pulled it back, and it resulted something lively and engaging, at least for me. There were some technical issues with that session, for us, with, for a while, the camera making some very weird decisions and/or the visual mixing getting mixed!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful summary Sue – I would have loved to be have been at this session. In the past, my envy over the Sydney Writers Festival has been soothed by the fact that many of the authors then pop down to Melbourne as part of the Wheeler Centre’s ‘Mayhem’ program (which isn’t happening this year, as far as I can tell).

  3. A great summary of the session, Sue. I’m amazed you managed to record so much while we were sitting there. I only penned down a few quotes. Well done, you! And wasn’t it an interesting discussion? It certainly made me think about my writing process and the thinking behind it.

    • And I love that you can listen and just pick out the apposite points for you, Karen! I’d love to be able to do that.

      I was aware to that you seemed to be jotting down points to think about re your writing, while I’m thinking about reading. The difference is subtle, probably, but it’s there , isn’t it.

      PS It was truly lovely having your company.

      • We should make sure we do more sessions together. It was fun to discuss with you afterwards.

        • We should. I enjoyed our discussions too. I thought again later yesterday about the “resolution” issue from the first session and our discussion.

  4. Wow – this session (and the next one with Tingle) sounds like it was fabulous. Love that phrase to describe an essay, as a ‘house of unlike things’. Perfect! I’m thinking about (and reading) essays a great deal, lately. However, have just finished The Believer and enjoyed it very much.

    • Thanks Michelle. I think this, The believer I mean, might be good for my reading group. We didn’t do The trauma cleaner, so maybe we’ll do this. I’m going to try to get it scheduled anyhow. I do like essays, but don’t read as many as I’d like.

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