Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Ramona Koval

Four weeks ago I posted on another session from the Yarra Valley Writers Festival’s New Release Sundays, the one with Robert Dessaix talking about his book about growing older, The time of our lives. In that post, I mentioned that Dessaix had presented a couple of radio programs on ABC RN, including Books and writing. Well, coincidentally, this weekend’s program features Ramona Koval who presented, for five years, a successor to that program, The Book Show (which I also loved.) Her new release is the intriguingly titled A letter to Layla: Travels to our deep past and near future.

Layla is her granddaughter, and the book, as the session’s promo says, explores the following questions: How might the origins of our species inform the way we think about our planet? At a point of unparalleled crisis, can human ingenuity save us from ourselves? Sounds like a huge task to cover in 300 pages. Unfortunately, I had a little technical problem resulting in my getting two soundtracks, one with a 10 second delay, so I missed much of the first 15 minutes!

The conversation

Convenor – and journalist – Fiona Gruber started by asking the obvious question, who is Layla, which of course I’ve answered above. As far as I could gather via the garbled soundtrack I was listening to (until I got it sorted), this grand-daughter, together with her own realisation of, for example, climate change, got science-trained Koval thinking about what’s going to happen in the world. She noted her interactions with Layla – which I believe thread through the book – saying that “interaction” was elemental to the things she wanted to think and talk about.

Unfortunately, at this point, I was trying to work out what was going on with my system, so I missed much of the early conversation, which dealt with primates. By the time I had it sorted, we were nearly done with them – but I did get a few things!

Such as, that Koval likes to start at the beginning, but in this case she couldn’t start with unicellular organisms, hence the primates, hominids and hominins!

She talked about going to Georgia to see the homo erectus skulls at Dmanisi. She went there rather than Africa, the accepted “the cradle of civilisation”, because Africa is less safe, she said, and no-one would pay a ransom for her! Hmm … Anyhow, she told a very entertaining story about her Georgian tour, which I won’t repeat here, except to share that at the end of a long day, she was surprised that the scientist, whose name I didn’t capture, wanted to talk about the soul rather than the famous skulls!

She commented at this point that everyone she met gave her something different about being human than she’d expected. Anyhow, Gruber asked about the soul and what evidence there is for its existence. In art, she asked? Or ritual?

“we just measure”

Koval said she’s not religious, nor an ideologue, being more interested in where evidence takes her. She talked about being taken 700 metres deep into France’s Niaux cave. This would have been dangerous, she said, in the days without modern torches etc, so why? Her scientist didn’t want to answer. “We just measure”, he said, because they can’t know why. However, when asked, modern hunter-gatherers suggest that when people do things like this it’s because they wanted to go into “another world”.

This led to quite a discussion about scientists. Gruber suggested that this French scientist’s comment suggested a lack of imagination in scientists. She noted that there is consensus that cave paintings are spiritual, but that Koval found little consensus among her scientists. Koval responded that she didn’t see scientists as unimaginative – meaning, I think, that they have different imaginations. She also doesn’t think a lack of consensus is a problem. These disagreements, she suggested, are just “steps on the way to understanding”. One of my strong takeaways from this session was that Koval is curious and open-minded.

Koval talked about disagreements between scientists, citing one anthropologist Bernard Wood has had with other researchers, particularly in terms of process. The details are not my point here, though. After some discussion about this, Koval shared that Wood had told her that if he had his time over he wouldn’t do science at all because it’s all changing too quickly, and it’s hard to keep up. (This made me laugh because Mr Gums sometimes said the same about his career in electronic communications!) The interesting thing is what he said he would study – how humans make decisions. Koval liked this, saying this is the critical thing.

Gruber then raised race which led to the next most interesting point for me: University of New England’s Iain Davidson’s point that the original colonisation of what is now Australia is the first evidence of modern human thought. Such ability was probably evident before, but this act – the planning, etc, it involved – is the “first” evidence of such thought.

How interesting! I guess those of you who read in this area knew this, but I didn’t. Koval noted that these ideas are fraught with conversations about race and eugenics – but it is important to confront all ideas and continue being curious.

At this point, with around 10 minutes to go, Gruber turned to the second – and future-focused – part of the book. I won’t spend much time here, but Koval talked about cryogenicists and their perspective that nature is not our friend, that ageing is a disease to be cured. Some of these people are disdainful of our humanness, she said. However, many people are working on life-extension.

There was also some talk about computers, robots, AI, and whether they can ever replace us – and about computers and consciousness, and the idea of “singularity“. I’ll leave this here, except to report that Koval said that we are still in charge of things. No-one has, yet, made a computer capable of doing the complexity of what humans can do. Cooperation, for example, is fundamental to human endeavour and achievement, which is something computers can’t do (now anyhow, I suppose, is the caveat.)

Concluding discussion

Towards the end, Gruber asked more about the book itself. Did Koval aways plan it to be in the two parts. Koval replied that she was interested in all the ways people are thinking. She did her research, and the book, including the Layla parts, essentially self-assembled.

On whether the book changed her, an initially stumped Koval said that it made her admire humans’ need to understand, and desire to connect. It also made her think her next book should be about just ONE thing!

Gruber concluded by describing the book as one full of rabbit holes, good questions, and encounters with interesting people. I get the sense, from the review excerpts on Text Publishing’s website, that we only touched the edges of this wide-ranging book. I can’t imagine how you could achieve more in an hour’s conversation. I certainly found it an engaging conversation.

I thank the Yarra Valley Writers Festival for offering this session free of charge. This was the Festival’s first year, I believe. I’m impressed with what they have achieved and offered. I wish them well – for their sakes and mine – in 2021 and beyond.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
29 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays: Robert Dessaix

YVWF Dessaix Logo

Back in May, I attended several sessions of the Yarra Valley Writers Festival (YVWF), a COVID-19 bonus, as most of you know. The Festival also runs two regular events, a weekly New Release Sundays and a monthly Bookclub. I haven’t managed to attend any, until today, which involved Festival Ambassador Michael Veitch speaking with Australian novelist, essayist and journalist, Robert Dessaix. I read Dessaix’s memoir, A mother’s disgrace, before blogging, and I used to love his ABC RN radio shows, Lingua Franca, and Books and writing (which he did for a decade.) Today’s session was about his new book about growing older, The time of our lives: Growing older well.

The session’s promo described the book as “a wise and timely exploration of not just the challenges but also the many possibilities of old age”. Given I have had nonagenarians, and now a centenarian, continuously in my life since 2004, and given my own aging, this topic interested me.

The conversation

Robert Dessaix, The time of our lives: Growing older well Book cover

Michael Veitch started, of course, by introducing Dessaix, telling us that The time of our lives is Dessaix’s 10th book. He described the book as “joyous”, but hard to define – not a novel, not short stories, not a guide. More, he said, a kaleidoscope of impressions, spiritual and intellectual.

Dessaix liked that image, saying that kaleidoscope describes how he lives: he takes shards from what happens around him, shapes them, and hopes “a beautiful pattern will emerge”.

Several themes ran through the conversation, kaleidoscope being one, plus there being “bulwarks” against the ravages of age, the importances of having an inner life, the value of curiosity, and the idea of dance. The book begins with a dance (“Voulez-vous couchez avec moi”!) and ends with a Javanese dance, which nicely encapsulates his transition from loving Europe to being interested in Asia (particularly India and Indonesia.)

Later in the conversation, Veitch mentioned the death of Dessaix’s partner’s mother, Rita. It seems that she was the (or a) major impetus for the book. She was living in a retirement village – “village” being the wrong word Dessaix felt for such homogenous places – until she had the fall that resulted in her moving into aged care. I’ll return to this later …

Veitch read an excerpt from the book describing the inner life. This definition included that it’s like “a cherished piece of music [that is] shaped by our our individual memories”. (This is a tiny part of the full description, so please don’t quote me!) Dessaix said his aim is not to shut out the outer world, but simply to keep certain things in. The inner self is a conversation, and is something that “holds us together against nothingness”. Hmm, that sounds more like the time of Sartre and TS Eliot than now!

“of course, I’m curious”

Anyhow, Veitch moved onto the idea of curiosity, suggesting that it drives the book. Dessaix agreed, saying “of course I’m curious”. We are only here for a short time!

Dessaix went on to say that a major interest as he’s grown older is other people. How do people cope with what the world has served up to them? He loves to visit India, but not for the sights, which are purely background. He likes getting close to people, to understand their lives. Women, he said, are easier to become close to.

During this conversation he said something that spoke to me, which is that coping is “such a difficult thing to do”. We think, he said, that it will be easy. that we follow the path – get a job, marry, having family, etc – and that it will all just fall into place. I remember thinking that in my angsty teen years. But, he said, it’s not like this, “we have to cope every day with something”. He described the world as “an abattoir”, which is a strong image for what is apparently not a dark book.

This led to a discussion of friendship, but there was nothing particularly new here (for me anyhow), so let’s move on. He did, though, comment that the older you get, the things you care about become less. Now he will say what he thinks, and “take negative responses on the chin”. Around here, he commented that in the 1960s, we (and I became a teen in the 1960s so I was with him) believed everything would get better, but that euphoria of has evaporated into nothing. So sad, because we really did think we were on the way to becoming kinder, gentler, fairer.

“a stupid foreginer”

Veitch asked him about his current interest in Asia. Dessaix replied that Europe started to become tedious. He wanted to go somewhere where he would be a blank, “innocent”, so he started with India, and now visits (except this year) Java. Being in a place where he feels “not at home” stimulates him “to have important conversations with himself”.

He admitted that he is granted liberties because he’s “a stupid foreigner”; he feels open to saying things he would not say in Paris or Berlin.

Veitch read another excerpt which, if I got it correctly, described a secret door going from the formal European gardens of Dessaix’s younger days to the more riotous gardens of places like Java. He said he was humbled to discover he had shut out these intricate civilisations and now he’s too old. These are sensual places. Europe preens, and positions itself as sexy, but is not sensual.

“play and discipline”

Dessaix equated the inner life with a dance, the tango, which he said combines “play and discipline”. It is sexy, sensual, beautiful but also demands discipline. His aim is to hone these two – play and discipline.

At this point, the conversation turned to the aforementioned Rita, who died during the writing of the book. She, Dessaix said, did not have an inner life (though how he really knows, I’m not sure). Born in 1922, she, Dessaix suggested, was one of those women “crushed by the men they lived with”. He believes she did not feel she was worthy of having an inner life.

Veitch wondered whether you have to learn how to have an inner life? Dessaix thought yes, but that class is also involved. Rita was told she was a “stupid woman”. She was, he said, bored out of her mind. Dessaix said her aged care home “smelled of boredom”. This could be a judgement from someone not there yet, though I’m sure boredom does exist in aged care. Dessaix doesn’t feel he will be affected because “there is too much going on inside”.

Now, here’s the thing … many aged care places (here in Canberra, anyhow) offer many opportunities for residents to be engaged and mentally active, but it depends on one’s brain staying healthy, and on hearing and sight being good. Father Gums has quite an inner life. I know, because he tells me about the things he thinks about, but time can, nonetheless, hang heavily, because sight and hearing difficulties make it difficult to partake of opportunities offered to feed the mind.

“happiness & contentment”

The discussion turned to the difference between happiness and contentment. Dessaix initially saw little difference but refined his ideas as the book progressed. Fortunately, what he came up with is how I see it, because I’m bothered by the focus on “happiness”. Contentment – a sort of inner comfort – is what we aim for, he said, but it can never be complete, while there is suffering in the world. Happiness, on the other hand, can be complete, but it “drops on you”. There is no mystery to it. As Veitch said, happiness falls on you, while contentment settles on you.

Continuing this theme, Dessaix said that he doesn’t like “tranquility”, preferring “animation”. For this reason he likes the god, Ganesha, who dances! Apparently, grief guru Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said at the end of her life, “I wish I’d danced more”. I love it!

There was more, including a discussion about attitudes to death. Mainly, though, the conversation reiterated in different ways the main theme of continuing to “play” and engage in life actively, and of accepting ageing without fear. Ever the writer, Dessaix equated life with sitting on your own “Persian carpet”: it is beautiful, has repetitions, and is different from the one next to it.

However, he did add an element of reality, which I approved. Life, he said, is about maintenance – your eyes, your ears, your … well, you get the picture.

Dessaix said he found ageing liberating, meaning that things he had hoped for – like the Catholic Church disappearing – won’t happen, and he no longer cares, because he has his inner life. He is more tolerant now, accepting that some things can’t be changed.

As you age, said Dessaix, you can still be happy: there’s a shrinking list of things to be happy about but that happiness can be deeper.

Veitch concluded the session by saying that the book is not a dark book, and is more about life than age. He liked, he said earlier, that the book is called “growing older” not “old”.

Overall, a good session about a book I’d like to read, but it is clear – and he would probably admit it – that Dessaix is a privileged person for whom ageing and an inner life will come easier than for some.

From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): New Release Sundays
1 November 2020, 4:00 – 5:00 PM

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online): Place, Family and the Weekend

I have now written three posts on last weekend’s Yarra Valley Writers Festival (which you can find on this linked tag). Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also wrote up several sessions. Given Lisa has also covered the last three sessions I have yet to cover, I will, as I did in my last post, try to focus on a few key ideas or thoughts that I came away with, mainly to document them for my own benefit.

The three sessions are:

  • Place in the New World Order: Alice Robinson (The glad shout), Meg Mundell (The trespassers), Karen Viggers (The orchardist’s daughter), with Elizabeth McCarthy
  • How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be?: Alice Pung (Her father’s daughter), Rick Morton (One hundred years of dirt), Richard Glover (Flesh wounds), with the ABC’s Michael Mackenzie (and again, I missed the beginning of this one)
  • The Weekend: Charlotte Wood (The weekend) with the ABC’s Amanda Smith

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

Place in the New World Order

Place is one of those aspect of literature that most interests me, so I loved this session.

On COVID-19’s effect on the writers. All said it has affected their creative output. Viggers admitted to feeling “stymied”, while Robinson finds her time limited by needing to care for her primary school-age children. Mundell said she feels less isolated because she is now surrounded by people. She’s not getting any creative writing done but is writing grant applications because “things have fallen over”. Mundell’s latest book is about a pandemic. She initially felt guilty for writing entertainingly about something so serious, and said it feels “surreal”.

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterOn whether the pandemic is affecting their thinking about their writing. Viggers, a practising vet, said she is still consumed with the summer bushfires. She is interested – horrified? – to see how politicians have engaged with scientists on the pandemic, when they haven’t done so regarding climate change and bushfires. Her writing content is not really affected. Robinson said it’s tricky trying to write about something unfolding at present, and she feels sheepish saying she’s trying to write about it. Mundell commented that she’s been obedient when she’s usually not, and has felt paranoid when others haven’t been doing the right thing. This made me laugh, as I tend to be obedient but I haven’t felt at all paranoid!

On how place impacts their writing. Viggers, saying that place is vital in a lot of writing, also said that place can be things like a location, an event, a home, a community. She uses place to orient herself as a writer, and then to explore our connections and help us to reengage with the natural world and each other. One of the great challenges is to bring readers in and engage them with ideas they may find uncomfortable. Robinson said that Anchor Point was based on landscape she grew up in. She was interested in how we have engaged with the landscape, and how we have failed to care for it. Mundell said she related to both Viggers’ idea of place as being what gets you in, and Robinson’s idea of place being where you start. She’s currently interested in an iconic place, a quarantine station which, being a border, is a place that contains memories. She’s also interested in “home”, which she explored in the anthology on homelessness she recently edited. She’s interested in the dynamics of places.

On enmeshing social justice in their writing, in a way that feels native to the text, not didactic. Robinson admitted she had to push the ideas – climate change, indigenous-settler issues, gender roles – to the back, recognising she needed to show her ideas through character’s relationships. Her second novel, The glad shout, was easier: the ideas started to manifest in the story and she found it easier to illustrate them metaphorically, or allegorically. A story, she said, can convey the ideas so the reader will feel them. Viggers agreed. You can’t tell readers what you want them to think, but you take them on a journey. In most cases, she presents a values argument regarding, say, the ethics of animal rescue (The stranding) or of kangaroo culling (The grass castle). She likes to use the different perspectives of her characters to convey different ideas, and gently add information the readers may not know! (I love that! I like to learn “stuff” from novels, though I also recognise that we readers need to assess what “stuff” authors tell us is fact and what is fiction.)

On ability to focus on reading right now (a problem I’m facing though not because of COVID-19). Mundell said she can’t sleep without reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and that she mixes it up with more gruelling books. Viggers is finding reading a bit of a struggle, but is reading Mundell’s and Robinson’s books.

There was a Q&A, including:

  • one responder suggesting to Mundell that grant writing is creative writing.
  • positive takeaways from the current lockdown: our writers suggested appreciating small things, like relationships, that you matter to friends, and the connections people have made (Mundell);  the creative ways people have connected, and that people might think about how we’ve learnt not to consume too much, to touch lightly (Viggers).
  • Tasmania’s Gothic setting suited to Viggers’ novel: she said she loves the south, loves southern light and atmosphere. It speaks to her but she doesn’t think of it as gothic.
  • stories about COVID-19 appearing: Mundell thinks there may not be so many COVID stories, but she’s interested in some of the themes that have come up, in the stories we haven’t heard, the people left behind (like the homeless). Viggers commented that it is hard to write when you are deep in a lived experience.

How Weird Does Your Family Need to Be?

I missed the beginning of this session, unfortunately, and, time being what it is, I have not managed to catch it up via the link sent me, but Lisa covered it in her post (see my opening paragraph.)

Book coverI joined during the discussion of intergenerational trauma. Morton shared his mother’s statement, “I don’t hate your father, I feel sorry for him”. You do inherit these things, he said. He wrote his book carefully because he wanted to show the impact on him but didn’t want to make his father a villain. (How generous and understanding!) That said, he, his mother and sister have determined they “will never let this cycle of abuse continue”.

Glover talked about his mother not being an affectionate person. She eloped with his English teacher, after which his father fell apart and left home! Rick’s story, he said, is Angela’s ashes, while his isn’t, as he was left with a big house and a pool. A friend said, “Richard never really left home, home left him.” Glover talked about the man his father organised to look out for him, Steve Stephens (sp?) who was a “huntin’, shootin’, poetry writing Australian man”. This man looked out for him many times through his life.

Pung Her Fathers Daughter Black Inc

Pung, whose brother committed suicide, talked about how love can’t save a person. She noted, however, that your love is often imbued with your own fears and insecurities. Regarding how her brother’s suicide has affected her own parenting decisions, she said it has made her reprioritise, to look at the nature of love, and, most of all, to let children be who they are and grow into who they’ll become.

A favourite scene in Glover’s book is a short speech from his sister about their father. She said, “If you knew what my father had been through and yet how beautiful he had been to all of us,” and then burst into tears. That’s life, he said, “to turn darkness into light”. This sort of philosophy appeals to me.

The Weekend

Interviewer Amanda Smith started by quoting a description of Wood as “one of our most original and provocative novelists”.

On whether friendship in your 30s is easier than friendship in your 70s. Wood saw the novel as a sort of cautionary self-portrait re what kind of older person she wanted to be. When you are young friendships are fluid, she said. There can be a chemical attraction and romance with friends when you first meet them, but after a while you find flaws. You go through stuff together, some people change before others, and some don’t want others to change at all. We want to hang onto our friends the way we know them. She also talked about observing older women who are friends, and the frictions she sometimes sees. They are enmeshed, and behave much like they might with their siblings.

Book coverOn whether the women are true friends given the evident tensions. This is an issue discussed in my own reading group, but we felt exactly the way Wood responded. Yes, she said, they love each other. Their remarks about each other are a reflection on their own anxieties. Some readers, she said, don’t think her characters are likeable. Grrr … this is an issue that really bothers me. Why do characters have to be likeable? Smith asked the right follow-up question …

On whether fictional characters have to be likeable. Wood said it depends on what you think is likeable! She likes “spiky people”. Also, she said, there are all sorts of layers to our relationships with each other. Her characters are all grieving, they are like a three-wheeled car. She likes her characters (as do I.) She talked about how women she meets associate with the characters, with many telling her “I’m Jude”! Some say they are Wendy. (It didn’t seem like many admit to being Adele!)

On what vicarious experience of ageing Wood brought to the novel, given she’s only in her early 50s. Sometimes you don’t understand what you are writing until you get to the end of the book, Wood said. Both her parents died in their 50s, so she’d never really considered what it would be like to be 70 or 80. She wanted to enter the imagined space of being old. One of the reasons she writes is to understand how to live, to work out how to be in the world. In this book, this concerns how to be if you live to 70 or 80. (I must say that with a nearly 91-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father, I don’t see 70 as old!!)

Wood said that a Jungian philosopher says that the purpose of ageing is to become our real selves. What, she said, does that mean for friendship.

On women transitioning out of careers. All her characters have been defined by magnificent careers but don’t seem to have accepted the end of those careers; they haven’t reimagined themselves, or found their essential selves. Wood said she wanted to write about women getting older who weren’t defined by their families, because most representations of older women are as mothers, grandmothers, matriarchs, in their family hierarchy. She wanted to write about women who were not like that. Only Wendy is a mother, but she doesn’t really get on with her children. These women still feel they have work to do, still have their faculties, but the world is moving on from them.

This led to a discussion about self-delusion. People can be exceptionally self-deluded throughout their lives, but these women confront some of their self-delusions. Wood said that this generation of women belong to the first group of women to face the end-of-career challenge that men have been facing for a long time. Interesting point. I hadn’t really thought of that.

On Finn (the ageing dog). Wood talked about her Judy Harris Fellowship, which involves a writer working with scientists. She said Finn was a response to a scientist saying he’d like to see some evolutionary biology in her novel. He mentioned how ageing is more accelerated in animals than in humans. She wanted to write about ageing she said, but her women didn’t think they were ageing, it was irrelevant to them, so how talk about it? An old dog could do that, she realised. Each character has a response to his decay, each also has an epiphany related to Finn. Finn creates tension between people but he also became a useful thematic/narrative device.

On the role of the house. Wood said that houses are really wistful in novels: they can convey a primitive sense of self, also a sense of turf and territory. However, this house does not belong to any of the characters, though each feels a kind of kinship with the house, and thinks the others aren’t doing it right. The house is not fancy, in fact it’s quite ramshackle. Wood felt she could “do stuff about oldness and newness, what is salvageable”. (Oh! My reading group and I didn’t pick this up!) She talked about the fancy white sofa that Jude had bought for Sylvie (the dead house owner.) Wendy thinks the sofa spoils the house, while Jude thinks the house spoils the sofa. Great point!

There was a Q&A but I’ll leave it here … and conclude my posts on the wonderful Yarra Valley Writers Festival!

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

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

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online):  If I tell you I’m going to have to kill you (Crime panel)

This is my second report of the sessions I attended of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival. I hope to write up more, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts. She did not, however, attend Christos Tsiolkas – see my post – nor this crime panel. Like Lisa, I really read crime, but I am interested in the genre as a form of literature, and I was very interested in these particular writers.

Crime panel

Festival director Michael Veitch introduced the panel, appropriately, as a cabal of crime-writers. It comprised Robert Gott (who didn’t make it, for technical reasons, until quite late), Emma Viskic and Jock Serong, with Angela Savage convening, again. Good on her. Again, I had quite a bit of breaking up in my reception.

I enjoyed the panel immensely. Savage, a crime-writer herself, was spot on with the questions, and the panelists were both thoughtful and entertaining. It turned out that they – with Sulari Gentil – had travelled to the USA as a sort of Aussie crime roadshow called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America. More on that later, but their familiarity with each other meant that they related well on this panel.

Why crime?

Viskic said that, before publishing her first novel, she’d written two manuscripts – her burn-upon-death novels. The the problem was they were boring. The only bits that worked were the things she really likes about crime novels – the dark things.

Ex-criminal lawyer Serong said he didn’t gravitate to crime, and doesn’t see his writing as “a genre exercise”. But crime, he said, comprises “a great reservoir of human drama and characters”. He has an ambivalent relationship to crime, and is never sure whether he is writing it. Rules of backyard cricket has been described as “very noir”, he said, but On the Java Ridge is “very much about crime”.

He shared Gary Disher’s description of crime fiction “as a social barometer” which Viskic leapt onto, saying that crime offers “a great way of exploring what is right or wrong in society”. She was very funny about her own fascination with how to do crime!

Serong said his main driver is the exploration of character – and particularly of who Australians are. He said that we Australians have done well with COVID because, despite our seeing ourselves as larrikins, we are in fact “very compliant”!! Haha, I loved this. It’s helped, I think, that we’ve had coherent leadership, presenting us with a vision about what we’re aiming for – but he has a point!

What makes Australian crime fiction Australian – besides the setting?

Serong said that Aussies are doing crime differently to other countries: we are bringing indigeneity into our stories, and are exploring Australian identity in terms of how far you can push the Australian character.

He then said that outsiders would probably say landscape is what differentiates our crime. However, now we are seeing more crime set in cities and suburbs, which doesn’t reach the overseas market so well.

Viskic said that her work encompasses rural and urban landscapes, and settler and indigenous culture, that she’s drawn to urban and small town settings. She particularly likes the latter because it’s “more claustrophobic, more like family” which highlights her deaf detective Caleb’s outsiderness. She said she was always going to cover “black-white” stories. She’s not indigenous, but has indigenous family. She admitted that it’s a fraught thing to do, but it felt “cowardly not to do it”, like creating “terra nullius” all over again. Also, she said, Koori people, like deaf people, have been denied language and culture.

Why use fictional settings?

Serong’s first novel has a fictional setting, from “pure ignorance”. He thought a novel had to be fiction! His later books are all set in real places. He talked about research for Preservation which is set in a real place: the challenge of knowing how the rivers were then, which birds were there then, and of conveying the complex way Yuin people moved across the landscape versus his shipwreck survivors who just headed to Sydney, keeping the ocean on the left!

Viskic said that she fictionalises place for creative freedom. Once you name a place, specificity, which is important in writing, has to be right. She rarely uses fact in her fiction. But there is also the privacy reason, to avoid people feeling they know or can identify characters.

Series vs stand-alone?

Viskic always planned her Caleb novels to be a short tight series of three to five books, because events in the novels have consequences for characters, and she wanted her characters to grow over the novels. She’s coming to the end of this series, but was relieved to realise that she can come back and do another Caleb series later.

She also said that her novels can be read on two levels: the plot level, but you can also deep dive into the whys and wherefores. She’s less interested in who done it, and more in why and what happened after.

Serong, on the other hand, had not considered a series because he tends to jump around conceptually. However, Preservation is going to be the first of a trilogy, because there are more stories to tell about this 50-year period in Bass Strait history. It’s not a traditional crime novel, but colonialism could be seen as a high level crime. Stealing an entire continent is one of the great heists of all time (and it is accompanied by smaller criminal acts). There were moments of Eden, he said, when we could have made better decisions but we keep missing those opportunities. (Like, I thought to myself, the Government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Voice to Parliament!)

On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America

At this point Robert Gott (who had convened an earlier panel) managed to join us, and the conversation turned to the crime roadshow, but look, I think I will save that for its own post. I’ll just say that Gott said it was Sulari Gentill’s idea, and that when she posed the idea the rest of them “complacently said, sure, whatever”.  However, Gentill pushed on, they obtained an Australia Council grant, and off they went.

Savage commented that it was a real coup to pull off this trip, and its success has paved the way for more. It was the first of its kind but they don’t want it to be the last, they’d like to see it as “an inevitability”.


I didn’t record all the questions but there were questions about the relationship between crime and real life. Serong, ex-lawyer remember, said he was constantly amazed at what people get themselves into. Books and screen lag far behind real life, he said. On the other had, said Viskic, in real life you don’t have to be credible. Ridiculous crimes occur. However, in fiction, things have to be believable and motives have to be clear. People don’t tolerate much in the way of coincidences for example.

Gott added that real criminals are mostly boring, not very smart, dull-witted, so the crime is more interesting than the criminal. The implication was that fictional crime is more about character.

There was a question regarding whether Australian crime is in danger of going down the ultra-violent American route. Serong thinks not. We don’t have the guns for a start. Savage mentioned here Serong’s Staunch Prize win, noting that you can write riveting crime without including horrible acts of violence against women.

Savage also said that all of them have strong women in their work. She wondered whether this was particularly Australian, or just because of our time?

What do you think?

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

Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online): Road to Damascus (Christos Tsiolkas with Angela Savage)

Book coverToday I attended several sessions of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival, which the organisers turned around and converted to an online event with the arrival in our lives of COVID-19. I plan to write up a couple more sessions over the next week, when time permits, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts.

I was looking forward to this session, because Damascus is my current read. I also wanted to see interviewer Angela Savage (whom I’ve reviewed here, and who comments here every now and then) because she is such an engaged writer, herself, as well as a supporter of writers.

Now, I must say that although I’ve really liked the two Tsiolkas novels I’ve read, I was not really looking forward to reading Damascus. Biblical times are not something I gravitate to, and I had heard that the novel contains quite a bit of violence. However, although Damascus does indeed start with something violent – the stoning of an adulterous woman – I was engaged immediately. The violence was neither gratuitous nor laboured, and Tsiolkas’ writing just got me in (again). I’ve read about a third of the novel and the subject matter, the origins of Christianity, is keeping me interested, because I’ve started to realise why it is worth reading. Tsiolkas is focusing particularly on Christianity’s commitment to equality or egalitarianism. Given the way organised Christianity seems to have lost much of its way in our times, it seems a good time to consider its founding values.

So, the conversation, but with the proviso that I did miss bits due to much of it being broken up by connection/transmission problems somewhere.

I’ll start by saying it was a lovely conversation, held between two people who obviously know each other well. That’s one of the lovely things about these writers festivals – you get to see the camaraderie that exists between some writers, and discover some of the ways they support each other. In this case, it came out that Savage had read some of Tsiolkas’ drafts and had had discussed them with him. She praised him for the time he takes with his work, for the way he honours his art.

The first questions explored some of the novel’s background. Tsiolkas said he’d spent five to six years on Damascus, and was terrified when it came out because it is quite different from anything he’s done before. However, he’s fortunate, he said, to have a supportive publisher in Jane Palfreyman, albeit she too was nervous about this one!

While he doesn’t call himself a Christian now, he did grow up with Christianity. He was interested in how much of what we know about Christianity has come through the interpretation of Saul/Paul, and he talked about his interest in Paul, from his adolescent understandings of being rejected by an admonishing Paul to his more mature comprehension when he returned to Paul after a personal crisis. That Paul, he realised, had suffered too. He said that (Biblical) Paul’s aim was to teach people how to live while “waiting for the kingdom” or eternity (which he thought was going to happen any day now.) For Tsiolkas, this has translated to “am I really leading the life that will enrich me?

From here Savage asked him about his characterisation of Paul.

Tsiolkas talked about his research. Saul/Paul was a Jew who left his faith to follow a strange scandalous religion. Tsiolkas talked about exploring the differences and similarities between Paul’s world and ours, and the challenge of finding his own way to Paul. He knew he wasn’t writing a hagiography, because the reality is that we are human. What is remarkable about the Christian story, he said, and what the Greeks and Romans could not understand, is the fact that through Jesus the sacred becomes human. However, the book also wasn’t going to be “a kicking in the guts”. It also wasn’t intended to be heretical or blasphemous (though some might see it that way!)

He needed to give Paul a battle, and so we have in the book sins like lust, greed, vanity, pride.

This brought us to the question a novelist begins with. For Damascus it was what was it in the Christian belief system that changed the world?

Savage then asked him about the novel’s structure. She loves, she said, how he structures his novels – and if you know me as a reader, you will know that structure is something that fascinates me. I have read enough of the novel to notice its non-chronological, four-points-of-view structure – which Savage called a “roving point of view” – so I was keen to hear his answer.

Tsiolkas said that structure is important to him as a novelist. It provides him with a blueprint which stops him getting lost. Voice and structure are the first things he thinks about. He was lucky with Paul’s voice, because of Paul’s letters. The three other voices are:

  • Lydia, representing the history of female participation in the church, something that was later wiped away. (Lydia, from a dye-making family, appears in the book of Acts as the first woman Paul brings to the new religion.) Tsiolkas talked about how he had wanted the female voice to be a slave, given Christianity was largely reviled because it accepted slaves, but he couldn’t find the voice and had no models from his research to draw on. He emphasised what a radical moment this acceptance of slaves was, and, as I have already noticed in my reading, he said that the novel’s refrain, “the first shall be last, the last shall be first”, makes this point. Anyhow, he struggled until suddenly Lydia came to him in the early hours one morning, and he just started writing her. I love stories like that.
  • Thomas, representing the doubter that he wanted in the novel because he, too, is a doubter. He chose Thomas from gospel of John, because, like Thomas, he doesn’t believe Christ was resurrected. Tsiolkas believes there is no eternal kingdom, that working out how to live a good life has to be worked out here and now. This idea offers another direction in which the church could have gone.
  • Timothy was Paul’s companion in the Bible. His father was pagan Greek and his mother Jewish, so he embodies “between world-ness”.

Savage, noting that it’s not a blasphemous book because it has such a respect for the values, asked about its reception. Tsiolkas said the way people have engaged and have wanted to have a conversation about it has been heartening. He’s been “blown away” by people’s generosity in responding to it.

There was a Q&A but I’m going to end on Tsiolkas’ wonderful answer to the question about his personal faith, because it’s an answer that is more broadly applicable I think. He said that the only answer is to hold doubt and faith together. If you know me, you’ll know that this sort of almost paradoxical answer suits me to a T.

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