This weekend, I hung out at the Canberra Writer’s Festival, as both a visitor and a volunteer. The volunteering role basically involved sitting at a desk in the foyer of the National Library and telling people where the Conference Room and the Theatre are located, though I did get to make awkward small talk in the lift with Richard Fidler as I led him and his publisher to our artists’ green room.
It’s the other two days of the festival that I want to talk about, as they’re the days where I attended some of the events, and came away feeling inspired. I didn’t really take any notes so I’m probably going to forget all sorts of things, but I’ll try my hardest to cover all the best bits.
Friday – Finding Inspiration in Found Objects – Workshop with Kaaron Warren
This was the only writing workshop I was able to attend over the weekend, though I would have loved to attend some more. Kaaron Warren is an Australian horror and crime author who has written three novels, several novellas and sold over 100 short stories. She takes inspiration from random objects she sees on the street, such as a half-full plastic cup of beer sitting on top of an electricity meter box, or jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on some gravel. She had a whole slideshow of photos of found objects, and got us to scribble some notes about each one (in the notebooks that she made us from old encyclopedias!). Then as a group, we started developing stories from just one (the cup of beer to be precise).
When we read out our stories at the end, what was most interesting was the way no two stories were alike, though most had come from the same photograph. I think that was the point that Kaaron was making. A found object can lead you almost anywhere. This was especially good for me, as I’ve essentially been trying to use found objects (or found photos from the Internet) as prompts for my Short Story Saturday posts. It was good for me to have confirmation that this is a good way to go about improving my craft.
I also loved the variety of ages in the group. They varied from a school group, all aged around 16-17, through to a few people my age, to retirees who were interested in writing memoirs for their grandchildren. I spoke to a couple of students in the tea break and they were both able to speak intelligently about writing. We talked about the difficulties of trying to put your writing into a genre box (and whether or not you should) and the macabre enjoyment we take from getting our audiences attached to characters only to kill them off.
Also, there was delicious fruit cake.
The Importance of Australian YA – a conversation with Jaclyn Moriarty, Ellie Marney and Will Kostakis
Ahhh, this panel gave me all the feelings! Ellie Marney is the instigator of the #LoveOzYa hashtag, which I totally thought was just a hashtag that you could add to reviews of Australian YA books. How wrong I was! So in 2015, the Australian Libaries and Information Association (ALIA) released the top 10 books in various categories that were borrowed in Australian libraries. In every category, at least 80% were by Australian authors. Every category, that is, except for YA, where there were only two. The others were all American books, and many had major movie adaptations. The purpose of the #LoveOzYA movement is to foreground Australian YA authors for Australian YA readers.
One of the major themes throughout this talk was how important it is for Australian kids to see themselves represented. So many of the books we read (I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else) depict American or British landscapes, characters and experiences, and there’s something about reading something uniquely Australian that strikes a chord. Jaclyn Moriarty described the reaction her young son had when reading about a character whose father lived overseas and whom he never saw, and how it made him feel better about being in the situation. She also described reading Ellie Marney’s most recent book and being moved by a description of a garden with Australian foliage, when we’re so used to reading about rolling green fields and fir trees (or similar).
Will Kostakis spoke about the plurality of the Australian experience – his experience growing up in a migrant Greek community and how there is such a huge opportunity for these different experiences to be depicted in YA. He also talked about how much he loves Australian swearing. We do manage it in a way quite unlike the rest of the world.
It also struck me how much these authors appreciated each other’s work. Ellie quoted another author who said “You don’t do any damage to your own career by lifting another author up” and that was exactly what they were doing. They clearly all admire each other’s work, and that was so great to see. It made me really want to be a part of that community.
At the end, they took questions, and I asked them how they respond to those who don’t see writing YA as “real” writing, but rather a stepping stone to writing “proper” (read: adult) fiction. They pointed out that writing for teenagers is incredibly hard, and we agreed that a lot of people don’t give teenagers credit for both their intelligence and cynicism. They are a tough crowd and they will call you out on your inauthenticity. Will also pointed out the fact that a large proportion of people reading YA are not actually young adults. While there is often a bottom age limit on YA Sarah books, eg. 12+, 15+, there is that + sign, and it is not just about “writing for kids” but finding that truth that resonates with so many other people. Jaclyn also told a story about receiving a letter from a 13-year-old girl who said “Whenever I feel sad, I hug one of your books”. If that’s not the definition of being a real writer, I don’t know what is.
Careful with the Axe – Sarah Schmidt in conversation with Sulari Gentill
Schmidt released this year a book called See What I Have Done, based on the Lizzie Borden murders. She described the way Lizzie came to her in a dream after she read a pamphlet about the trial, saying “I’ve got to tell you something about my father. He has a lot to answer for.” It was fascinating listening to her talk about the way her characters had a presence in her life over the 11 years (!) she wrote the book, and how Lizzie in particular spoke to her. She also talked about the various iterations of the book, how she originally had the Borden house as one of the point-of-view characters, and another character who could turn into other people, but these were vetoed by her agent as being “too post-modernist”.
I found what she said about her research methods quite interesting. She wanted the story to tell itself, and only really researched what she had to in order to tell that story. She talked about a moment when she had needed her characters to make toast, but knew they didn’t have a modern toaster. She said she got on Google, searched “nineteenth century toaster” and then said “Yeah, that’ll do.” This is probably an exaggeration of what really happened, but given that it’s very close to my own research methods, it was comforting to know that authors who go on to be internationally successful do the same! One audience member asked her how she reconciled writing fiction with writing about someone who was a real person, and she said the fact that she was taking some liberties with the facts actually helped her do that. She makes no claims to be a historian, and lets most of the criticism from the hard-core Lizzie fanatics (of which there are apparently many) slide.
So that was my weekend, and I was already having withdrawal symptoms by the time I got home. One day I will make it to the bigger writers festivals in Sydney and Melbourne but until then, I am glad that Canberra finally has its own!