Feeling that I should spend my spare time actually writing, rather than going to writers festivals, has meant that I haven’t attended a festival in quite a while. So I’d forgotten how much fun they can be. Or is it just that they seem more fun now that I actually know some people there?
Either way, the single Sunday I spent at the week-long 2016 Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) in Melbourne was well worth the time. I met up with some writer friends, I heard some fascinating speakers and I learned some useful things.
The EWF could, however, stand to learn some useful things about producing a clear and easy to read program. Name of session venue, anyone? That said, the programming and speakers were excellent – here’s my little overview of the day.
Who has the right to tell a family’s story? What are the risks and benefits? This was an outstanding session, with the engaging and articulate speakers beautifully chaired by Lee Kofman.
Alice Pung started writing Unpolished Gem at the age of 19. If she’d started writing now at the age of 35, she said, she’d have written a different and probably less candid book. Ruth Clare, on the other hand, felt that if she’d written her memoir Enemy (about growing up with a violent father, a Vietnam war veteran) when she was younger, the result would have been facile and without depth.
Impressive New Zealand writer Courtney Sina Meredith felt it was important to speak about her family and the women around her because there was a literary black hole where they should be. But she wrote with no idea, then, about what a political act it was to write about her “brown family” in Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick. It was easy to tell she was a poet when she talked about the “hot blooded fever beneath my skin to get that story out.”
Kofman asked all the panelists if they had any no-go zones. Alice Pung discussed the need to write the deeper emotional truth. Ruth Clare said she tried to limit herself to telling her own stories, not those of her siblings or her children. Courtney Sina Meredith responded with “It appears not!” But she went on to discuss grappling with her inner voice about what she felt she was allowed to say. Then each read a piece from their work that they considered risky. Pung’s reading, from her second memoir Her Father’s Daughter, brought the panel to tears.
Kofman then asked the panelists why they write memoir, if it is so obviously fraught? Alice Pung told a story of a very conservative rural man whose eyes were opened by her first memoir. That man eventually became her father-in-law. Ruth Clare said she wrote the book she’d spent years waiting to read. She “felt alone and wanted to feel less alone.” Courtney Sina Meredith discussed how books about family have always spoken to her and named The House of Spirits and Whale Rider as favourites. She said “a poem is a jewel, a novel is a city but a memoir is a whole country. Don’t just write about what you know but love what you know. Your own story is unique and will never come again in this world.” She went on to discuss that memoir seems to be claiming a space that men have claimed for a long time, and that women have no need to apologize for writing about what they know and have.
Finally, the Emerging Writers Festival and others were called out about the habit of equating emerging writers with young writers. A quick glance at the audience would immediately say otherwise! Another lively session deftly chaired by Lorna Hendry (who smilingly complained to me later that having to chair made the whole process much less fun).
The panelists discussed the benefits of coming to writing later in life. Emma Viskic, with debut crime novel Resurrection Bay, felt that a first book is an accumulation of “all the things you’ve been thinking about all your life – consciously or unconsciously.” Sally Abbott, winner of the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2015 and with her debut novel to be published in 2017, considered that “having lived a life it was time to make sense of it all.” Ruth Clare said that “you don’t necessarily enter your twenties feeling you deserve to be heard. It takes time to build that confidence.”
The panel noted that youthful achievement in the arts is often linked to privilege. Not every young person can afford to have the time and space necessary to write a book. The panel also discussed why there were no men on the panel – do men and women identify differently as ’emerging’? Is ’emerging’ a title older men eschew but older women embrace? The heartening fact that Annie Proulx was first published at the age of 53 was noted and celebrated.
This was the session I actually came to see because (full disclosure) the lovely Sarah Vincent is one of my Hardcopy 2015 colleagues. Archly and ably chaired by Robert Watkins, a publisher at Hachette Australia, for me this session about the various paths to publication revealed to me how far I’d come and what a great deal I’d learned along the way.
Sally Abbott, as noted above was the winner of the inaugural Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2015 and will have her debut novel published by Hachette (who run the Richell Prize) in 2017. She submitted the requisite sample of her unfinished manuscript more or less just to see what happened. She was shocked to win. Several agents approached her once she was shortlisted but she has so far not signed with one but will consider doing so for subsequent projects. Sally comes from a background of journalism and professional writing and has found the whole publication process a roller coaster of excitement combined with fear of failure.
Jane Harper’s recently released novel The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2015. Rights have since been sold in more than 20 territories and been optioned for a film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company. Like Sally, she entered the prize without dreaming she was a contender. Jane is a journalist who has also participated in creative writing courses. Jane heaped enormous praise on her agent, and highly recommended having one.
Sarah Vincent and Kate Mildenhall are both enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program. Sarah’s weight loss memoir Death by Dim Sim sparked a great deal of interest from the publishers who saw it during the 2015 HardCopy program and Sarah has since signed with one of the agents involved in that program (with Jacinta di Mase, who I subsequently signed with too). Jacinta sent Sarah’s manuscript to a range of publishers and there was so much interest that it was eventually auctioned (the winner was Random House).
Kate Mildenhall’s road to publication had more to do with networking, with engaging with the publishing industry and meeting publishers along the way. Aviva Tuffield, at Black Inc, expressed an interest in seeing Kate’s manuscript and a year later Kate was able to send something through. Her novel Skylarking will be published in August.
The panelists discussed the notion that creative writing can’t be taught and dismissed it as a nonsense. The general view seemed to be that writing was a skill or craft that had to be learnt like any other. The other benefits of formal writing courses included gaining industry knowledge – it is hard to be published if you don’t how the process works – and gaining the often intangible benefits of belonging to a community of writers. That one has been an incredibly important benefit for me, I must say. Courses and competitions also provide valuable external validation and feedback, all of which lead to increased writing confidence.
This session focused on genre fiction, featuring best-selling writers I’d never heard of but who were so smart and thoughtful that I’d be very pleased to hear from them some more. But as they pointed out, the Australian literary scene is not geared towards genre fictions. Shame. ‘Genre’, btw, is code for science fiction, fantasy, romance, crime. It was acknowledged that so-called literary fiction is simply another genre, with its own tropes and expectations. I have argued for a long time that genre is no indicator of quality – there are excellent and bad writers in every category – but that’s a blog post for another day!
The challenge, agreed the panelists, is to defy reader expectations – which is as true for genre fiction as for any other sort. For Jay Kristoff “the book doesn’t begin to take shape until I understand how I’m going to confound reader expectations,” and he “loves it as a writer when the book takes a turn even I didn’t see coming.”
The discussion turned to the way genre fictions can become a place to raise the issues of today. The post WWII golden age of comics, for example, had an emphasis on radioactivity. Romance novels, noted Kate Cuthbert, are where women can talk about female desire. Dystopian novels explore our fear of change, and the power of one person to make a difference. Or the power of a group, although the panel was unanimous about how difficult it was to write engaging ensemble pieces and laughingly suspected George RR Martin (Game of Thrones) simply killed his characters off when it all got too hard!
The discussion also ranged around the difficulties of creating an alternate world, and the desire to escape from the standards set by Tolkien (where heroes are white heterosexual men in a northern hemisphere landscape). The best worlds, thought Jay Kristoff, were the same as this one but with one key difference. In Harry Potter the difference is magic. In Game of Thrones the difference is the length of the seasons, which last for years rather than months. Then the effects of that single difference become very telling and interesting.
The marketing for this sessions said: “These successful entrepreneurs will share how they marketed and established successful, innovative literary projects and share their advice, insight and guides for aspiring literary entrepreneurs.” This was the least successful session for me.
The panelists were all young, articulate women who had followed their passions, leading to some interesting discussion about the pros and cons of working for free. And while I admire their work and work ethic, I couldn’t admire their business sense.
Clementine Ford (I’m a big fan) confessed to having no idea about the money side of things, it was all too hard. She undertook menial jobs when she had to and just attributed the rest of her career to luck. It seemed that she was the only one actually making a living from her passions but she may have gone a bit pale when A.H. Cowley mentioned her $7500 tax debt, incurred through poor record-keeping practices. Cayley (who co-created, curates and hosts Confession Booth, both the long-running live event and the Confession Booth podcast on ABC Radio First Run) now freelances as a copy-writer, in order to pay the bills. Apparently that qualifies as living a literary life. At least Bri Lee, founder of feminist interview series Hot Chicks with Big Brains, mentioned staying solvent and keeping a spreadsheet of income and outgoings. Sophie Allen was also quite clear that her day job supports her ability to indulge in her literary passions, as the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Chart Collective, and the Assistant Prize Manager of the Stella Prize.
Overall, this panel came across as, well, maybe not naive but certainly a little carefree about their financial futures – and that’s their choice and good luck to them. But anyone who attended this session seeking sensible advice was left wanting. I do wonder where the panelists will all be in ten years time, when the glamour of living the literary life has worn a little thin.*
*Probably heading up publishing houses, and pronouncing on whether or not to accept my next book…