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Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Canberra Writers Festival Recap

September 2, 2019

Just when you thought it was safe to return to my blog, I’m at it again, talking about this year’s Canberra Writers Festival. However, if you are like me you are intrigued about what other readers and festival goers like, so I thought I’d share what the Canberra Writers Festival sent us subscribers.

But, I’ll start with my 7 posts, and their popularity (by number of hits):

Interesting. The two which specifically featured local authors and/or local subject matter were the most popular, despite my international readership. Maybe some local authors shared the link and a lot of hits were local? Anyhow, these were followed by the two most literary sessions I attended – Tara June Winch and Brian Castro. This doesn’t surprise me, given my “brand” here. And then the last three, which had about two-thirds the hits of the top post, are a mixed bag of, generally, more popular subjects.

Before moving to the Canberra Writers Festival’s report, I’d like to point you to a post written by one of this year’s New Territory bloggers, Shelley Burr. She wrote on the Wonder Women panel (which featured Australian historical fiction novelists.) You’ll have to read her post to find out who they were!

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Now, were my most popular posts reflected in the most popular sessions attended? Sort of. The Canberra Writers Festival wrote that the “Top Ten” sessions “include”:

  • Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler
  • Capital Culture
  • Never Never
  • Defining Moments – True Crime Panel
  • For Whom the Pell Tolls
  • You Daughters of Freedom
  • Best of the Best: Book Club Favourites
  • Women, Men and the Whole Damn Thing
  • Is Hate Our New Normal?
  • David & Margaret

I’m not sure how to interpret this, because they say “the top ten include“, but there are ten here, so I’m presuming these are the top ten? Let’s presume they are, and that they are in order (though I’m surprised that the session featuring Behrouz Boochani from Manus Island is not in the list.)

Anyhow, certainly Simon Winchester was in a 300-seat theatre and was sold out. Capital Culture was sold out too, but in a smaller space. I’m intrigued that three of the sessions I chose were in the top four of the Top Ten, though what that says, I’ll leave to you. It’s interesting, though, that the most popular session, by this list, was not my most popular post. A couple of other sessions listed here – such as Never Never, about “the role that the bush plays in our collective imagination” – were ones I had to miss because of clashes. I didn’t mind missing You daughters of freedom because I had heard Clare Wright speak about her book last year.

It’s clear that the Festival’s “political” slant works well for the organising committee, with sessions on George Pell (including David Marr), Gender (including Gillian Triggs), and Hate (also including Gillian Triggs) all being popular.

The Canberra Writers Festival email also told us the best-selling books at the festival:

  • Capital culture (ed. by Suzanne Kiraly) (I bought this)
  • On disruption (Katharine Murphy) (I have given this as a gift)
  • Cardinal: The rise and fall of George Pell (Louise Milligan)
  • On patriotism (Paul Daley)
  • Brain changer (Felice Jacka)
  • Unbreakable threads (Emma Adams)
  • Just add love (Irris Makler)
  • On indignation (Don Watson)
  • Plots and prayers (Niki Savva)
  • Leading lines (Lucinda Holdforth)
  • You daughters of freedom (Clare Wright) (I have reviewed)

Hmmm … I haven’t heard of some of these, but it’s interesting, given the signing line I saw, that Exactly isn’t listed here. Given there were different booksellers at different sites – including, the NLA bookshop, Harry Hartog and Dymocks – it’s possible that this list does not concatenate across all the booksellers? Anyhow, it’s also interesting that the little “On…” books published by Melbourne University Press are doing well. I recently posted on Stan Grant’s On identity, from the same series.

As for my purchases, I am way out of step. Besides Capital culture, I bought Brian Castro’s Blindness and rage and Simon Winchester’s Exactly (for Mr Gums). I also bought Brian Castro’s After China during the Festival, but at Muse. And, I already had some of the books I heard discussed, including Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of men, Karen Viggers’ The orchardist’s daughter, and Tara June Winch’s The yield.

All this is fascinating, but the best thing is that the Festival, now in its fourth year, appears to have done well with good pre-sales and, they say, “significant impromptu attendance”. This augurs well for its continuation. And that, of course, is what we want.

Jocelyn Moorhouse, Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (#BookReview)

August 31, 2019

Book coverAlthough it is quite a traditional memoir, style-wise, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, she’s an artist who had a happy childhood. Who knew that could happen? Secondly, while most memoirs focus on one aspect of the writer’s life – such as their career (sport, for example), their trauma (childhood abuse, perhaps), their activity (like travel) – Moorhouse intertwines two ostensibly distinct parts of her life, her filmmaking career and her life as a mother.

Jocelyn Moorhouse will be known to many filmgoers as the director of the critically successful Proof, How to make an American quilt, and The dressmaker. She is also the wife of PJ Hogan who directed Muriel’s wedding, My best friend’s wedding, and Peter Pan. This is one amazing couple. Not only have they each made critically successful films, but they are lifetime creative and life partners, working on and/or supporting each other’s movies, negotiating the logistics of parenthood, and so on. They have made it work for over 30 years, in a way that few do. That’s impressive.

It could all, then, have been pretty idyllic, but life rarely turns out that way, and for Moorhouse and Hogan it didn’t. The reason is that of Moorhouse and Hogan’s four children, the middle two are autistic. This resulted in an 18-year hiatus in her filmmaking career, although during that time she kept her hand in, mostly working in some way with PJ on his projects. The book, then, tells both stories, the development of her career from her early studies in media and drama at Rusden State College and then at the Australian Film and Television School, where she met Hogan, and her very particular and demanding life as the mother of two autistic children.

She shares the emotions of giving birth to two gorgeous children only to have them regress around two years of age, as is apparently typical with autism, into unhappy, and therefore difficult children. I say unhappy because it is clear that the children suddenly find the world confusing and frustrating. Their language and communication skills regress so they resort to screaming and crying, and other difficult behaviours. Moorhouse talks about the shock of diagnosis, the therapies they try, including the ones that work (for them), and the logistics of running a family whose life is peripatetic and dependent on the next film job coming along.

Moorhouse, the experienced storyteller (and in fact problem-solver), tells her story carefully. It’s not until halfway through the novel that she brings us to her growing uneasiness about her second daughter, Lily, and Lily’s diagnosis. It’s a tough chapter, because it was a shock to her. She realises that her discussion of causes, not to mention possible preventions and cures, could upset some readers:

I am aware that some of the readers of this book may be autistic themselves and could possibly find this chapter upsetting. Please understand that I wasn’t rejecting Lily because of her autism. If you keep reading, you will discover that I love her autism and her brother’s too. But twenty years ago I was afraid for Lily’s future …

It is tricky to write about issues like this, without offending unintentionally. It’s a long “journey”, to use current terminology, that she and her family go on. And it’s a hard one. Late in the book she says that it took her years to realise that a lot of the pain she was feeling stemmed from “an internal war between my instinct to cling to the dreams about life, and my need to accept the truth”. By the end, she and PJ learn to rebuild their dreams for Lily and Jack, and she learns to balance her need to work against the family’s needs.

This brings me to her career. I enjoyed reading about that, about her own films and the insight she gave me into a film director’s work in general. I worked with film – from an archival point of view – and met various film industry people over the years, but I still learnt much about just what a director does from this book, such as the amount of script work they (might) do, the work involved in casting, choosing location and designing sets, and so on. Each director has his/her own way of doing things, it’s clear, but I greatly enjoyed reading about Moorhouse’s experiences – the wins and losses, the need to be philosophical about those that got away or didn’t go to plan.

Style-wise, Unconditional love is a straightforward chronological memoir, told in plain language, making it an accessible read. A lovely, though not unusual thing she does, is to begin each chapter with a quote. They come from diverse sources, including filmmakers (like Ingmar Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini), writers (like Virginia Woolf and Maya Angelou), people who treat or have autism (like Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin), and artists (like Marc Chagall). The opening quote, for the introduction, comes from Margaret Atwood, saying that, “in the end, we’ll all become stories”, which seems perfect for both a memoir and a filmmaker.

This is a generous memoir, rather than a tell-all one. There’s little name-dropping, though of course names are dropped because that’s the business she and Hogan are in. There are references to relationship and financial challenges – you’d be surprised if there weren’t any – but these aren’t dwelt upon. She also seems careful to not intrude unnecessarily on her children’s rights to their own lives, particularly as they get older.

Unconditional love is a book that will appeal to readers interested in Australian filmmakers, to those interested in families with autistic members, but most to anyone interested in a story that shares the challenges of a life but focuses more on the solutions.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJocelyn Moorhouse
Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019
ISBN: 9781925773484

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

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

August 28, 2019

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!

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 2: PM’s Pick (Brian Castro with Genevieve Jacobs)

August 26, 2019

Book coverPM’s Pick, featuring the multi-award-winning Brian Castro, was another must-attend session. The night before, while dining at Muse, I checked to see whether they had any Castro in their classy little bookshop. They did, including a second-hand copy of his fourth novel, After China. I snapped it up, and as I did, bookseller Dan reminded me that he’s “very literary”. I know, I said! He is also very reclusive, making this a not-to-be missed session. And it was free, my original payment being refunded when they found a sponsor. Woo hoo!

The session was titled PMs Pick in reference to the fact that Castro won the 2018 Prime Minister’s (PM’s) Literary Award for Poetry for his verse novel, Blindness and rage: A phantasmagoria: A novel in thirty-four cantos. Even the title is scary, but Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has tackled it.

Castro and JacobsCastro conversed with local ABC radio presenter Genevieve Jacobs. It was a smallish audience, and a quiet conversation, but provided some fascinating insights.

Castro, like Gerald Murnane whom he referenced a couple of times during the conversation, is a self-described recluse. This event is the first he’s done, he said, for three years! I didn’t know that when I booked it, but I’m doubly glad now. The worse thing when he’s writing, he said, is having to be “a social gadfly”, so he hides away, except that he needs to talk to his students at the University of Adelaide where he teaches creative writing.

I’m going to focus on what I learnt about Castro and his ideas (not quite in the order in which the conversation went), and end with a reference to Blindness and rage.

Firstly, why does he live in Adelaide? Hong Kong-born, he has been Australian-based since going to a Sydney boarding school when he was 11 years old. He called himself a fringe-dweller, explaining that he doesn’t, exactly, live in Adelaide but in the Adelaide Hills. Before that, he lived in the Dandenongs on Melbourne’s fringe, and before that in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney.

He likes the provincial life, which he doesn’t see as negative. It’s also something that Lucien Gracq, his fame-seeking protagonist of Blindness and rage, comes to value.

Then, there’s his job. He teaches creative writing, but he’s not convinced it’s a worthwhile thing to do. (Should I be sharing this?!) Universities, these days, he said, are factories. What do you do with a creative writing degree? Maybe get work in publishing? He has had just two writers win awards over the years he has been teaching. Creative writing has become an industry, but it pays his way, given his novels are not exactly best-sellers!

Indeed, he had quite a bit to say about the writing life, some of it in response to the Q&A, including how tough it was to get that first publisher when he was 32. Winning the Vogel award did it. He has been lucky, he said, and is particularly so now because his publisher, at Giramondo, is also his friend. One of the lessons he has learnt over the years is to accept disappointment! Cheery, eh? His early days were very difficult, because if you want to write, you must invest everything in it. However, reality starts to hit when you start to age, and need to shore up something for retirement. It’s difficult for literary writers in Australia, where returns are small. Only five Australian writers, he said, really live off their writing.

Various gems regarding what he likes to write and read came out during the conversation. For example, he thinks we should read for mood not plot. I relate to this, because this is exactly what I most remember about the books I’ve read. I rarely remember the story, or character details, but I remember the tone and/or how the book made me feel. He’s also most interested in metre and rhythm, which makes sense, because these contribute strongly to mood. He talked about hearing Homer in the original ancient Greek. He didn’t understand it, but the rhythms “electrify the brain even if you don’t understand it”.

So, he “always pays attention to the language first. The plot will come, if it comes.”

Castro described himself as a “short writer”. Long novels don’t appeal to him. He quoted WG Sebald who didn’t like 19th century novels because you could see “the engines grinding” in them! He also said, which won’t surprise you, that he’s not interested in linear narratives, though he recognises there are different tastes and preferences.

Interestingly, for someone seen as a “very literary” writer, he also questioned “grandiose notions of high literature”. He loves works you can read on multiple levels.

Jacobs, of course, asked him about winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, wondering whether he was surprised. Yes, very – though, when he resisted attending the Awards Ceremony, having previously experienced the bad end of such events, he was told-without-being-told that he should be there! Neither he, nor Gerald Murane, who also won that year (for fiction), wanted to attend.

Regarding winning, it shuts you up for a while he said! He’s having a year off, waiting until he retires. On whether winning has an impact on sales, he simply said his books don’t sell well. His publisher told him he was publishing Blindness and rage for posterity! (Hence Castro working as a professor!)

And regarding the mushrooming of literary awards and whether they support literature, he said Yes and No. Some people can win big money and disappear. However, money does help you buy time, which we’ve heard here before. But then you have get back to the desk. How you high jump that desk is the challenge he said.

The issue of translated fiction also came up. I sensed that Castro (like me) has a love-hate relationship with it. Love, because many of his favourite writers (like Sebald, for example) don’t write in English and he’s not fluent in all the languages of the authors he reads. But hate because he misses “the textures, colours, flavors when read in translation”. Castro said there’s a huge swathe of literary works that haven’t been translated. It came out, in the Q&A, that his novel, After China, had been poorly translated into Chinese, and that they had omitted the first chapter because of the sex!

Blindness and rage

Book coverNow, I should say a little about Blindness and rage. Inspired by Virgil, Dante (the 34 cantos of his Inferno), and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it tells the story of writer Lucien Gracq who, told he is terminally ill, goes to Paris to finish the epic poem he’s writing and to die there. He joins a secret writers’ society, Le club des fugitifs, which only dying writers can join. It publishes an author’s last unfinished work, but not in his/her name. This reflects Castro’s own view that the work is all, the writer doesn’t matter! He doesn’t think fame helps anything.

Castro said that he reads a lot of literary biographies for pleasure, but he inserts writers in the novel to mock. He particularly mocks what he sees as the glorification of French intellectuals, which has been “going on for too long”, he said. Lucien finds them, mostly, arrogant and dismissive. Jacobs commented on the many allusions in the book, and asked whether he expects us to leave the written page? No, he doesn’t expect us to go read the authors, but, he’s a “fictioneer”, and doesn’t mind if people check Wikipedia’! (Harumph!)

The novel chronicles Lucien’s gradual recognition of what’s real in life, from his initial desire to seek something “vainglorious”. It does this, I gather, with a good deal of irony and humour, undermining, along the way, various literary traditions and assumptions.

I haven’t read Blindness and rage yet, but I’m now intrigued. Anything that looks at the lives of writers/artists – that questions who they are, what they are about – intrigues me, particularly when in the hands of someone as clearly provocative as Castro. And as humorous! Castro said he didn’t set out to be humorous but the PM judges noted it, and he admitted that gravity needs a touch of lightness. Jacobs suggested that the undercutting of seriousness, such as can be found in the book, is very Australian. Castro seemed to accept that, but added “also democratic”!

And, of course, there was a reading – of Canto XXX, which starts:

It may be a fact that
if you’re dying of thirst
in the desert
you do not call for whisky
and all you want is water
which may drown you
in full irony.

Canto XXXI has a verse which starts “To be able to write is not to say anything/but to put small things together”, which do, in the end, I’m sure, say something!


There’s not a lot to share from the Q&A, besides what I’ve included above. One struggling writer of science fiction asked about finding publishers and agents, which didn’t feel quite appropriate for the forum.

Another asked – and this made me smile – how she could find a copy of After China! Luckily, Castro was able to say that Wakefield Press is republishing it. And another asked whether he would consider doing a reading (for audiobooks) of Blindness and rage, like Seamus Heaney did for Beowulf. Castro seemed intrigued and not totally negative about the idea.

The session ended as quietly as it started, but I left feeling glad I’d spent time with such a writer, and wanting to read Blindness and rage.

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 1: Identity (Tara June Winch with Yvette Henry Holt)

August 26, 2019

Holt and WinchToday was the day I was able to devote to fiction writers. There were still clashes, but there was never any doubt that I would attend this Tara June Winch session, even though it meant missing a panel featuring Charlotte Wood, Brian Castro, and Simon Winchester. Why were these scheduled opposite each other?! The Festival-goers complaint! Anyhow, fortunately, as you’ll see, I did get to hear Brian Castro too; and I have seen Charlotte Wood before and did see Simon Winchester in a different session.

Anyhow, as I said, I was not going to miss Tara June Winch, and I was not disappointed by my resolve. It was a special session. There was a lightness to it, a joy, a love, a generosity, but also a deep and passionate commitment to indigenous lives and culture.

Poet and current chair of FNAWN (First Nations Australians Writers Network) Holt commenced by jokingly welcoming us to the Boris Johnson Fundraising event at the Canberra Raiders Festival! But she then turned serious, acknowledging the passing of Kerry Reed Gilbert (see my Vale post) whom she called one of “our most imperative voices for treaty in Australia”. She called for a one-minute silence.

Holt then introduced Wiradjuri-born Tara June Winch, who now lives in France. She named Winch’s works to date: the award-winning novel Swallow the air (my review), short story collection After the carnage, script for the VR program Carriberie (which I’ve seen at the NFSA), and her latest novel, The yield. She then handed over to Winch.

Book coverWinch explained The yield’s genesis. Ten years in the writing, it was inspired by a short course she did in Wiradjuri language run by Uncle Stan Grant Sr (father of Stan Grant whom I’ve reviewed here). Discovering language was transformative. She’s always regretted that she didn’t include more language in Swallow the air.

She then discussed the tussles she had writing the book. She started with too broad a canvas, but her mentor, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, encouraged her to focus on 500 acres of land, telling her she could tell her story through that lens. So, she found her 500 acres on the Murrumbidgee and created fictional place names – the Murrumby River, and the towns, Massacre Plains and Broken. These names, Broken and Massacre, which do exist elsewhere in Australia, convey the nation’s brutal colonial history, and thus encompass truth-telling. I appreciated hearing this, because I have started referring to fiction as part of the truth-telling process, and hoped I wasn’t being naive.

She said she wanted her places to be real, but she used fictional names so that she wouldn’t be imposing her story on the specific stories and experiences of people living in a place. I was glad to hear this too, because I think there’s real sense in using fictional place-names, as, for example, Melissa Lucashenko does in Too much lip, Tony Birch in The white girl, and also Karen Viggers in The orchardist’s daughter. It is these sorts of insights that can make attending festivals so meaningful.

Winch then described her three narrators, all of whom tell the story of the same 500 acres:

  • Poppy, first person narrator, dictionary writer and August’s grandfather; he is dying but is also a time traveller, so, Winch said, there are elements of magical realism.
  • August, third person voice; she tells a contemporary story of the 500 acres and the challenges faced, including from mining and river degradation.
  • Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf, a Lutheran missionary, who’s writing a letter in 1915 about his experiences running the ironically (I assume!) named Prosperous Lutheran Mission from the 1880s. Winch created him to “round” out the story. He’s her villain, but she gives some balance, humanity, to him by sharing his own experience of loss of mother tongue.

At this point, Holt noted that at Hermannsburg, the Lutheran missionaries are remembered more positively than other denomination missionaries tend to be. There was some discussion about religion, and how indigenous people who’ve had positive experiences with Christianity can comfortably straddle the two belief systems.

Winch then did a reading, which was of course special. She read Chapters 1 and 3 – they are short, and in Poppy’s voice. The first paragraph starts:

I was born on Ngurambang — can you hear it? — Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words. Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language — because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.

Holt described the novel’s opening, and I think I’ve got this right, as “brushstroked around language”. She then quoted indigenous writer Ellen Van Neerven (whom you’ll find here too) who has said that a recurring theme in contemporary Aboriginal literature is that of returning, which, when I think about what I’ve read, rings pretty true. Holt then said something, and again I think I’ve got it right, about the “circumnavigation of Aboriginal placement” which I guess refers to the way indigenous people, rarely easily, find their way back to their start.

Winch talked about her intentions for the book. She wrote it as a gift for her father who had no language, and for her daughter whom she hopes with grow with language. She wants it to be life-changing for them. She also sees it as a handbook for claiming native title, and for recovering language. She describes her book as “faction”, which of course, with my open-mind to the fact-fiction nexus, I rather like. During the Q&A, she added that she was writing for people who still believe taking children away was a good thing.

She spent some time at Wagga Wagga Writers Writers House (love it!), where she, a coast girl, learnt about Riverina country. She “dragged” the book around with her for years, working on it in various locations.

She worked with indigenous intellectual rights lawyer Terri Janke to make sure all protocols were met, and that she had not included secret/sacred stories. Bruce Pascoe and Eric Rolls helped her with Knowledge about landscape through time. Wiradjuri people, her people on whose land the story is set, have given her good feedback.

Holt shared a favourite quote from the book (at the end of Chapter 2), in which Poppy tells August about memory and history, about the torture of memory versus forgetting. It ends with

He was telling her more – that a footprint in history has a thousand repercussions, that there are a thousand battles being fought every day because people couldn’t forget something that happened before they were born. ‘There are few worse things than memory, yet few things better,’ he’d said. ‘Be careful.’

Holt also mentioned indigenous Australian poet Kirli Saunders who is fostering poetry in first languages at Red Room Poetry.

They talked about the “heartache we carry”. Winch shared the challenge of creating a palatable story, a story with characters “you can root for”. She said she needed to take on the trauma of her research herself. She wanted to be truthful but not dogmatic, not hit readers over the head. She wants the truth to seep into the readers.

Winch conclude with a quote from the Persian poet, Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” This, she said, is her book.


The conversation was followed by an engaged Q&A which continued the warm, welcoming, respectful tone set by Holt and Winch. One person, who was only one-third through the book, questioned Greenleaf’s villainhood, but Winch said “read on”! However, she also said that she wanted to take the idea of a villain and turn it on its head. People aren’t black-and-white, she said.

Another question concerned the dictionary, and how good it would be if more indigenous words were everyday parts of Australian language. Winch noted that it’s a sign of respect to use local words when we travel overseas, so why not the same here? Fluency isn’t necessary to show such respect.

There was also a passionate comment from the floor about Adani and the disrespect being shown to indigenous people, particularly to Adrian Burragubba.

Perhaps the most significant question concerned the sense that there is a strong momentum building of indigenous voices. Holt and Winch respectfully, but clearly, responded that these voices have always been there, that the renaissance is not with indigenous people but with non-indigenous Australians. Indigenous writers are now getting an audience which means that Australians have changed! Perspectives, again, eh?

Holt, noting that this Session’s audience comes with an understanding of Indigenous literature, asked what has changed in your (the audience’s) psyche about Aboriginal Australia? There is, she agreed, an explosion of indigenous voices being celebrated, but the voices have always been there! Publishers, though, Winch noted, have played a role. Winch and Holt affirmed their wish for respectful mutual conversations in which we share each other’s skies.

The session ended with more discussion about language. Winch said that she wrote the book for what comes after, that is, to encourage readers to vote well, to get local indigenous languages into local schools. Language heals, and it continues culture. She wants us to have the conversations, to think nationally, act locally. She also commented on the acceptance of apathy in Australia versus France where protest is part of fabric of their nationality.

The last audience question/comment was given to Jeanine Leane (whom I’ve reviewed here), who reiterated the call for more first nations languages and literature in education. It is growing in the tertiary sector, but there is a “sad gap” in primary and secondary education. (Here’s an opportunity for me to donate some books to my son’s primary school.)

Her mantra was: Start reading books and think small picture.

Such a strong but gentle, provocative but gracious, session. (And, I’ve written a lot!)

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 4: Bruce Beresford and Ladies in black

August 25, 2019

Pomeranz and BeresfordIt’s a curious thing, isn’t it? When I write my book reviews, I spend very little time on the content, focusing mostly on themes, style and context, but when I write up festivals and other literary events I find it hard to be succinct about the content. Perhaps this is because I can always go back to the book to check something, while these events are fleeting. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so I want to capture all I can. Of course, many events these days end up as podcasts, but you can’t be sure how long they’ll be there. Anyhow, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it …

Why I attended this one should be obvious. I have read, loved and reviewed Madeleine St John’s The women in black, and I have been following the story of its adaptation to screen for over ten years, keeping my fingers crossed that Australian director Bruce Beresford would get the money to make it! Finally he did, and Mr Gums and I saw it soon after. An added attraction was that Beresford, whose memoir I have reviewed, was being interviewed by the inimitable Margaret Pomeranz of Margaret and David.

Ladies in Black – A thirty-year obsession: Bruce Beresford in conversation with Margaret Pomeranz

The women in black, Madeleine St John, book coverPomeranz began, it seemed to me, by wanting to focus more generally on book-to-film adaptations, but Beresford focused, not surprisingly I suppose given the session topic, on The women in black/Ladies in black.

Are there some elements that make a book easy to adapt?

Beresford responded that he looks for story rather than adaptability. However, The women in black (my review) was easy to adapt, because it has short chapters, a strong narrative line, and a lot of dialogue. By contrast, many years ago, he was offered The thorn birds, but found it so badly structured that he rejected it.

Later in the conversation, Pomeranz returned to the issue of adaptations, asking him what’s different for him as filmmaker between working on adaptations versus original screenplays. No difference really, said Beresford. His main issue is whether he thinks he can handle the script. Nonetheless, he admitted that he had had flops which David Stratton, he said, had treated mercilessly. That got a laugh, as we knew Stratton was in the audience.

He mentioned working with Horton Foote on Tender mercies, calling him the best writer he ever worked with. He also worked with William Boyd on adapting Joyce Cary’s Nigerian-set novel, Mister Johnson. A challenge, he said, because the novel is anecdotal with no through plotline. He is now working on a David Williamson script about Isaac Newton. He likes doing Williamson, his dialogue is sharp.

Beresford returned frequently through the conversation to the challenge of raising money. He mentioned the Italian producer, Dino De Laurentiis – a pleasure to work with, astute, generous, kind, and able to make all feel they are contributing.

Why change the title from Women to Ladies?

There was a play and a film called Woman in black. Also, some people misunderstood the title, assuming something darker. He found himself explaining that it was about ladies working in a department store, hence the change to “ladies”.

How did it all come about?

Beresford knew St John at university. She was well-read, fun, witty. He lost touch with her until the early 1990s when Clive James recommended a book he’d read, calling it “one of best novels ever written.” Beresford loved it too, describing it as marvellously funny, observant, and with a fluid style . He thought it would be easy to fund. Famous last words! It took 23 years to put the funding together, with producer Sue Milliken (whose memoir I’ve also reviewed).

I liked his clear articulation of the story’s themes: young women asserting themselves, and the clash of immigrant culture. He made very few changes, saying the book is the film and the film is the book. His main change is the last scene bringing the characters together, but this was presaged in the book.

Making the film

Film critic Pomeranz was particularly interested in the filmmaking process – from the intellectual decisions to some of the more practical aspects – and assumed, rightly, I think, that the audience would also be interested in behind-the-scenes stories.

The book, she said, seems to have an acerbic view of Australians, and is also about Australia on the cusp of change (a time when Pomeranz and Beresford were young). How did he handle these? Beresford said that it resonated closely with him, and that he did his best to recreate the time. Madeleine was very observant which made it easy.

There was a question during the Q&A regarding his physical recreation of Sydney. Beresford described using trams at the Sydney Tramway Museum, printers at the Penrith Museum of Printing, and the unrenovated 7th floor of David Jones in Sydney for the first scene at Goodes when the doors are opened. The rest was done at Fox Studios.

Pomeranz asked him how he approaches a screenplay. Is it all structure? No, he said, it’s about dialogue and characterisation. I laughed, really, at how often Beresford said the opposite to what Pomeranz assumed!

Pomeranz also asked how you know what audiences will like. Beresford said you never know but he hoped they’d respond to St John like he did, and then talked about the difficulty of getting funding for Driving Miss Daisy, because potential producers didn’t believe it would interest audiences. An old southern belle being driven around by an old black man!? How then do you know you’ve got it right, Pomeranz persisted? You don’t, he said. However, he runs a rough cut of his films for an audience in an out of the way place, and stands at the back to watch their reactions. He looks for their emotional reactions, and will use that in final cuts.

He storyboards his films (and indeed the NFSA has some of his storyboards). This makes both the filming and editing easier, because he knows what he is doing. He works with editor Mark Warner, and has for over 20 years.

Regarding casting and characterisation, Beresford described the challenges of casting Magda, and his not using a Middle-European. (Middle European Australian actors turned down the role because they thought it was a supporting role! Silly them!) Pomeranz suggested that St John’s view of men is acerbic, and Beresford admitted he softened Lisa’s father because he didn’t want to lose the fact that he loved her. Beresford also talked about Patty’s husband who runs away, embarrassed by his own sexuality, saying that some people, “get” this while others don’t.

The film didn’t have much of a cinema release in the US, but is on Netflix; it is opening in France, but not in England! Say no more!

A bit more about Madeleine

Through the conversation and Q&A, other interesting facts came out about Madeleine St John, such as that she wouldn’t allow translations. She made Beresford her literary executor, and he approved translations after her death! Hmm, that old ethical conundrum for literary executors. It has resulted in money going to her two nominated charities.

However, most of what came out is in Helen Trinca’s biography (my review) so if you are interested, I recommend that.


There was quite a lively Q & A, including:

  • various members sharing how closely they related to the story, for themselves or their mothers’ generation. Beresford said he advised the marketers not to promote the film to older women, as they’ll come anyway, but to young women, as it’s all about them. The marketers didn’t listen to him, but the young women came.
  • questions relating to the novel, such as does he require the cast read the novel or prefer they don’t. He doesn’t stop them, but usually they just read the script.
  • a potential contretemps occurring when an audience member commented that the book/film represent an Anglo view of Central Europeans. Magda’s negative comment about the German language, for example, this person said, the feeling of Central Europeans. Some misunderstanding ensued, but Pomeranz, and general goodwill, hosed it down pretty quickly.
  • Beresford naming his favourite directors as including John Ford, Carol Reed, Martin Scorcese, and saying he likes many new films.
  • Beresford believing that while it is always hard to get funding, the Australian industry will continue as long as people want to see their own stories.

It was a lively, warm, light-hearted session, and yet it was also informative about both this film and filmmaking more generally. Mr Gums and I enjoyed it – as we also did a lovely dinner at our favourite Muse afterwards.

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 3: Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler

August 25, 2019

Picture of the two conversantAnd then it was time to hop into the car, and drive over the lake for the sold-out session (as indeed was my first session of the day), Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler. There was no time for lunch!

Why did I choose this session? Why not? It’s Simon Winchester!

This session was also recorded by ABC RN for Richard Fidler’s Conversations program.

The conversation focused on the prolific historian’s latest book Exactly: How precision engineers changed the world (which was published in the USA as The perfectionists, with the same subtitle). I like our title better, as perfectionism can carry a hint of judgement, don’t you think? Anyhow, the conversation covered a number of topics, including his inspiration for the book, the history of precision, stories about precision, and the impact and future of precision. I’m going to try really, really hard to keep this one short because I don’t think I need to tell you all about the content of the book which was the main focus. I’m going to dot point some of the interesting facts I learnt.

Book coverFirst though – oh oh, will I still be able to keep this short – the book is cleverly (though probably still chronologically) structured according to increasing levels of precision (or, to put it another way, decreasing levels of tolerance.) So, Chapter 1 is Tolerance 0.1, Chapter 2 is 0.0001, right up to Chapter 9, the second last chapter, which is a mind-boggling: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01! We are talking precision after all!

You won’t be surprised that one of the questions Winchester poses is “Are we becoming too focussed on precision?” I’ll leave you to judge.

A propos the book, too, Winchester said that he likes dredging up people overlooked by history (as he did, for example, in The surgeon of Crowthorne and The map that changed the world.)

Now, some interesting, more-or-less random facts:

  • Pioneers of precision engineering were Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), a founding father of machine tool technology, and John ‘Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson (1728-1808), who invented a precision boring machine that helped James Watt get his steam engine off the ground (as it were). Do you know them? They were instrumental in starting the Industrial Revolution.
  • Precision has a precise birth-date! 4 May 1776 (which Star Wars aficionados apparently know for another reason!) This is the day Wilkinson’s cylinder boring machine was delivered to Watt. Its precision was one-tenth (0.1, you see) of an inch.
  • The concept of interchangeability, which is also crucial to the history of precision and modern manufacturing, started in France in the 1780s with a demonstration of assembling a flintlock gun from boxes of identical parts. Attending that demonstration was Thomas Jefferson who took the idea back to America, for arms manufacture. This idea was also taken up later by …
  • Two famous car manufacturers, Henry Royce and Henry Ford, who took the idea of interchangeability to a new level. Both born in 1863, Royce wanted to build the finest car in world, while Ford wanted to build a car that would enable as many Americans as possible to see their amazing country. In roughly the same period, Royce’s company made 8,000 Rolls Royces (Silver Ghosts), of which about 6,000 are still in running order, while Ford made 18 million Model Ts, which are all gone! But, they served their purpose, eh? These two men used the same idea with different ethoses: expensive perfection versus economies of scale.
  • The failure in 2010 of Airbus 380, QF 32 demonstrates the importance of precision, being caused by the mis-machining (by Rolls Royce in fact) of a tiny tube. It was half a millimetre too thin.
  • Precision machines at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) were developed to detect infinitesimal cosmic gravitational waves predicted by Einstein in 1916. Almost century later (we must be precise!), in September 2015, these machines recorded such waves.

Fidler found the discussion of precision, interesting but also dizzying and troubling, and he had some questions:

  • Are we fetishising the idea of precision? Fidler talked about being in Iceland without mobile access and the pleasure of having to use a map again. Years later he still has the map of Iceland in his head, which you don’t get when use that precise service, GPS on your mobile devices.
  • Is our focus on such precision something we should worry about? Our modern world is based on a knife-edge of precision, driven by commercial factors. Do we need to go 5 mph faster? Should shareholders demand profits that result in pushing precision to risky levels?
  • Are we forgetting the values of craftsmanship? Does our precise environment make us want to seek the imprecise? Japan, said Winchester, keeps its feet firmly on ground, being famous for precision, but also for fine craftsmanship in materials that can’t be so precise. He talked about Seiko and its super precise quartz movement. However, there’s also a section of their factory which hand assembles mechanical watches, the Grand Seiko, which regularly wins horological awards. These don’t have the same precision, losing 5 seconds per day, but do you upbraid someone for being 5 seconds late!! (Fidler joked about the ABC’s precision and how the news fanfare will occasionally overplay him if he runs late with his sign-off. We know, we’ve seen it happen on TV). Winchester introduced us to the Japanese idea of Wabi sabi, which expresses joy in natural lines.
  • Have we reached limits of precision? No, apparently not. There’s quantum engineering and optical engineering which continue to push boundaries. Meanwhile, much is happening in the world of standards – the standard kilogram, metre and second.

Amazing, really, how something so boring sounding as precision engineering can be so interesting! All helped of course by the talents of Winchester and Fidler.