Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 1, Writing the precipice

A preamble

After a long pandemic-caused hiatus during which it didn’t, like many others, “pivot” to an online format, the Canberra Writers Festival is back. Unfortunately, it clashed with a time we could visit our Melbourne family, so the best I could do was reduce that trip by a day so I could at least attend some Saturday sessions. Sunday, the festival’s last day, was long ago booked – an afternoon theatre booking to see the Sheku Kaneh-Mason Musicians. Life is just too busy.

So, with just one day, what to attend out of a plethora of choices, given they are held over several venues on either side of “the lake.”(Those who know Canberra know that “the lake” is a major mental divide in Canberra, as much as a physical one. We laugh about it, because it is ridiculous, but it’s there!) The point, though, is that I didn’t want to book sessions that would involve a lot of travel.

As I have written before, the Canberra Writers Festival’s tagline is “Power Passion Politics”, but I mostly seek the more literary focused ones. I found one on Saturday morning at ANU’s new-ish Kambri Centre, so decided that would be my venue. There were still choices to be made, and you can see what I decided in this and the following posts …. though in another twist of fate, a late important appointment saw me missing my last booked session of the day, Chloe Hooper with Richard Fidler. Darn it! The choices were hard, as there were many interesting people to see and hear, but that’s Festival life.

Writing the precipice: Panel discussion with Kathryn Heyman, Chris Hammer and Diana Reid

The moderator was Nicole Abadee, a writer and podcaster about books, a literary judge, and a literary event moderator. She ran the panel more as a interview-each-author style rather than a free-flow discussion between the panelists. Both styles have their advantages, and in this case we did hear some excellent ideas from each of the writers.

The panel was titled “Writing the precipice”, which the program described as:

Our best-selling authors reveal how they tackle their characters’ pivotal moments when they stand on the precipice of life-changing disclosures and discoveries, and how they navigate the decisions beyond.

After introducing the authors and their latest works – Kathryn Heyman’s memoir Fury, Diana Reid’s campus novel Love and virtue, and Chris Hammer’s crime novel Treasure and dirt – Abadee asked them to briefly set the scene of their books, and then got into the nitty gritty!

Heyman was a little uncertain about Abadee’s suggestion that she’d actually stood on the precipice from her childhood. Heyman didn’t really see it that way, though she had, she said, grown up in poverty in a single-parent family.

She was keen to focus on the idea of “precipice” which she defined as “an edge that you can fall or leap from”. It’s a moment where everything is lost, but, paradoxically there’s everything to gain. She felt that, despite growing up in the underclass, her cleverness opened doors. Class is an issue that she and others mentioned and to which we returned later in the panel.

Abadee was keen to follow the childhood precipice point, saying that she was referring to the fact that both Heyman’s father and step-father had been violent. While agreeing with this, Heyman returned to her precipice idea. She said Fury is about making decisions that from the outside look dangerous. It is set in the context of her having faced major and minor bombardments as a female. 

Fury is not about Heyman’s assault, but about what she did after the court case. However, Abadee briefly explained that Heyman had been assaulted by a taxi driver, had reported it to the police, but the taxi driver had been acquitted. Heyman said that her experience of the social justice system had been brutal, and that she’d realised that the places where she should be safe, she was not. She returned to the precipice idea. Basically, she said, it’s about what is there to lose. There is nothing to do but leap. This she did, into something that looked dangerous – taking a job on a boat as a cook, with four strange men.

Why put herself at harm, is the question she gets frequently, but she said that she was physically, psychologically, mentally on a threshold, and decided to look at it differently, at how would it be if she were “one of the boys”?

Abadee quoted back to her her reference to a Larkin poem from which she’d taken the idea that when you are removed from the familiar, you perceive things differently, and thus perceive yourself differently. In other words, when removed from what you know you can transform yourself. Like in a story, you can rewrite yourself. She wanted, she said, to build “physical and psychological muscle”.

While at sea she was frequently in danger, but not from the men – from the bad weather and the crew’s incompetence! She came back changed.

She ended on an interesting point. She’d come to realise, she said, the value of naming the mess, naming the trauma. Stay with me here … she said books had taught her to name seabirds by learning to see their differences. And so, she learnt “to put language to the precise trauma”. If you can name it, she said, you become bigger than it.

Reid was asked to start by talking about the friendship between the two women protagonists in her book. Michaela is from a single parent family in Canberra, and finds herself in a Sydney university residential college where most of the residents are well-to-do, with private school backgrounds. One of these is Eve, who is self-confident, articulate, and a model for Michaela.

There are, she said, some fundamental philosophical questions behind the novel, one being the idea expressed by Gore Vidal which is that is it not enough to succeed, that to succeed, others must fail. Michaela comes to see this. So the book is about a rivalry more than a friendship.

Reid said much contemporary literature is about women being supportive but there are toxic relationships too. She clarified, though, that this book has a very particular context – a competitive academic environment, in the male-dominated subject of philosophy. Unfortunately, Michaela equates success with male attention, and thinks getting an older man to love her would endorse her as a person.

Abadee asked her about the prologue which, Reid explained, is written in third person. It’s a sex scene in which the woman is so drunk she remembers nothing. That woman, it turns out, is Michaela, who is the first person narrator of the rest of the novel. This incident becomes a critical point between the two women. Here is a precipice. Eve tells her she should report it.

This situation said Reid, goes to the power of storytelling as process of invention: I don’t remember it so it’s not in my story. When Michaela is encouraged to report, she’s being asked to put it in her narrative. The tension exists in her being deprived of her autonomy, her ability to control her narrative. What is the impact for her versus for feminism of telling the story. Who has the right to tell the story?

Regarding Eve, the question is whether she’s a good person or just looks like one. Is it ok to betray a friend for social good? Reid saw Eve in terms os performative activism. She ultimately leaves the place better, but there is tension between being morally correct and feeling superior, about not using “morals as sticks to beat other people down”. Although Eve does good work, she does it for herself.

Another philosophical question Reid explores then concerns the definition of goodness. Does it reside in your impact on the world or your reasons for doing so. Is it less “good” if you do it for yourself?

Later, Reid commented that her book came partly out of self-criticism (with Eve being an exaggerated her) and out of observation.

When we got to Hammer, Abadee noted that each of his novels starts with a hook. His latest, Treasure & dirt, opens with a miner being found dead, crucified. All his protagonists, she suggested, are on a precipice.

Hammer said that his openings are typical of crime books: you need to capture people as quickly as you can. The discussion then focused on the detectives, Ivan and Nell, who are both flawed, both on a precipice.

They are not hands-off detectives. He said there are plenty of crime books where the detective mechanistically solve crime, with much violence and sex involved. And there are those cosy crime novels where you know nothing about detective. However, he is interested in how characters change. Both his detectives find their careers at risk, are unsure about their status in police force. Will they throw the other under bus to save themselves?

Hammer described the different issues confronting each of the detectives – creating the precipice each is on – and said that solving the crime is important to both their careers. Each is on a career precipice, but also important is how they see themselves. They have choices. Hammer said that as a reader he likes to immerse himself in the characters, to think what he’d do. He likes to write such characters.

Heyman then said that all the books deal with class and shame, and asked the writers to talk about class. Heyman simply said, class plays a huge role, and that in addition to “class” and “shame”, the three books are all about “characters in extremis”.

Reid made two points about class. One is that moral judgements depend on context. Eve finds it easy to judge but finds it hard to acknowledge her power over Michaela because of her class. The other is that universities are places of privileged people who go on into privileged roles. What they see as culturally normal thus becomes the norm affecting everyone. Great point. Heyman added that people from the underclass and billionaires have a freedom because they are outside the middle class which establishes the norms.

Hammer said that his novel is set in a hardscrabble place, but that there are two powerful, rich men in it. Will they get away with massive illegality? Will Ivan and Nell, who are there for a homicide, do anything about it?

Abadee, picking up the shame thread, referred to Heyman’s title, Fury, and her idea that the best antidote to shame is anger. Heyman said that shame breeds in silence, in buying into others’ stories of who you are. It doesn’t do well when out in the open. By contrast, fury has energy, so the idea is to convert shame to anger (and energy).

Reid said shame involves lack of control; it arises when others judge you by facets of yourself you can’t control.

Hammer said that Nell is found in a compromising situation. She feels she’s been duped, but as a young woman in male-dominate police force, she has to decide whether she will fold or stand up.

An insightful session, which found some fascinating coherence between three very different books.

Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Writing the precipice
Saturday 13 August 2022, 10-11 am

10 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 1, Writing the precipice

  1. I really enjoyed reading this and found your coverage of the event very informative and insightful. I haven’t read any of these books. I have been rather into Ethel Turner over the last year and reflecting back on the death of Judy in “Seven Little Australians” that Turner herself played God and killed off Judy. That she didn’t need to die. That was an interesting shift for me. I mostly write non-fiction so I don’t get to make those decisions.
    I look forward to reading more about the festival and was interested to read about the psychological impact of the lake in Canberra. In Sydney, the Harbour forms the big divide. I live at Umina Beach on the Central Coast and like many people living on a peninsula, we become a bit sheltered unless it involves catching the train or driving elsewhere to work.
    Hope you have a great weekend.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

    • Thanks so much Rowena. Writing up these posts takes quite a bit of time and energy – taking the notes and then writing them up – so it’s always great to hear that they are useful to others.

      I liked your point about Ethel Turner. It only occurred to me recently – I must be slow or something! – that in Seven little Australians, Turner kills off the lively one, whereas in Little women, Alcott kills off the sweet one! I had always thought of these novels as American-Australian parallels in a way but that difference made me sit up. I haven’t thought more upon’t but …

      You are right of course about Sydney – I used to live on the North Shore. I wonder if Melbourne is quite the same re the Yarra. I’m not sure it is. The thing about Canberra is that we are such a small city but that impact is still there. It’s something about crossing bridges, isn’t it.

      • I know what you mean about research. I’ve been researching WWI soldiers’ bios for the last almost 3 years and it’s a massive effort. I also got started on a blog about Ethel Turner called “Tea With Ethel Turner” https://teawithethelturner.com/
        I haven’t done anything on it for awhile, although I’ve just finished reading the last of her WWI trilogy about Brigid and the Cub and intend to write that up.
        I started on Yarwood’s biography of Ethel Turner: From A Chair In The Sun and found a lot of inaccuracies and had to really work hard to get her early biographical details nutted out.
        I became quite enchanted by Ethel Turner’s writings in her Sunbeams columns and her heart for suffering children in particular. She was very well read and wrote something like 40 novels, which makes it hard to really get her under your belt unless she’s all you’re going to read for some time.
        It appears she killed Judy off because she was a non-conformist and she was never going to fit into this world. That came out the third book in the Woolcott series: “Little Mother Meg”.
        I agree with what you say about that hesitation to cross bridges. You’d think we were afraid of getting our feet wet.
        Best wishes,
        Rowena

        • Ah thanks Rowena. I did read Little Mother Meg but many decades ago so I don’t remember that. Interesting. I will check out your blog. Sounds like you are doing some important work on Turner. the WWI soldiers project sounds interesting too.

  2. Great write up, Sue, of what sounded like a fascinating discussion. I’ve only read Love and Virtue on this list and I found it compelling and very true to my experience at Melbourne University during the 1980s.

    • Thanks Angela. lt was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed Heyman on the idea of precipice and Reid on class. I gave the Reid to my daughter and she really enjoyed it but haven’t read it myself. I’d like to though.

  3. I’m interested to see your choice of session here. I had vague plans to come to Canberra for the festival, but, well, covid…
    But if I had come, I would have chosen this one, so thank you!

  4. This was an interesting read, thank you. Of course, North and South London is a similar thing – esp North of the river folk not wanting to come South (I would say that, though, as an ex-South Londoner!).

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