If you’re looking for a mini-break that will provide congenial company in a glorious setting, with lots of goodies to take home with you, go to a Writers Festival. It’s a kind of health farm for the brain where all ages, genders and tastes are welcome and generously catered for. And if you’re a spry retiree like myself and watching the pennies there is absolutely no better value to be found, and Sydney is right up there on all counts. So given that it’s already a bargain you can afford to splash out, but here are a few tips.
Flight or fight? If you prefer the former don’t scrimp on the airline and find yourself stuck with the one that insists you get there two hours early to wait in the queue for the one gal to process the whole line. But if you do, make sure you pay attention to what’s going on – announcements about boarding and mere details like gate changes seem to be extras. But it gets you to Sydney and that’s the main thing.
The Walsh Bay Precinct is a great spot to have your brain kick-started. It’s a place where soaring triumph of engineering meets stunning stretches of glittering water penetrated by long industrial-chic wharves with a post-modern fusion of grainy timber, corrugated iron and umbrella-fringed cafes. Ten metres in any direction get you a soy latte and a chance to spot the celeb. These literary types can be hard to spot: no minders, no paparazzi, just a curious familiarity, which has you wondering whether you know them or is it just from the ABC or from the cover of their latest book. It can be embarrassing as when I waved at the still ridiculously beautiful Robyn Davidson of Tracks fame before I realised that I knew her because I’d listened to her speak for an hour but amazingly enough she didn’t remember me from row F, seat 17! Fortunately literary celebs know how to make stuff up really convincingly, hence the benign and tolerant smile with which she allowed me to slink away.
The sheer profusion of offerings and dazzling array of choices means that you need a few strategies. A liberal sprinkling of tickets booked ahead will give you some guarantee of covering your areas of special interest. And at an average of $20 a pop, (cheaper if you’re on a pension) they’re a bargain. But many of the best sessions are free, which involves some careful planning. I suggest you work in pairs, one to queue, one to fetch coffee and muffins. It also helps if you bump into a friend near the front of a long line. You just have to be glare-prepared because it won’t get physical. This is a classy crowd used to being nice and since the dominant demographic is older women, the worst punishment you’ll get is a snooty up and down of your outfit, so dress carefully.
While we’re on dress code – avoid sweeping orange capes unless you are six feet tall and gorgeous. Black seems to be the default option at these things: black jeans, black boots and if you’re lucky you’ll hit the fashion jackpot as I did in my Target bargain black trench coat which turned out to be the coat du jour! So I looked appropriately serious for tortured Norwegians like Karl Ove Knausgaard whose novel My Struggle, “the six-volume autobiography that turned a frank and unforgiving eye on his own life, and so intrigued the Norwegian people that they had to declare Knausgaard-free days.”(!) Black is also favoured by sensitive literary young men you’d want to introduce to your daughter to, like those in the session Boys to Men which had Richard Glover, talking to writers Richard Beasley and Craig Silvey about the difficult path to manhood. One of psychologist Dr Arne Rubinstein’s solutions is to get all the dads and their sons in a circle and they start bawling…he reckons it works wonders, and I’m sure he’s right.
But don’t expect to outdress impeccably suited sophisticates like Anne Summers with her long silky legs and insanely beautiful shoes that prove she’s a feminist for all fashion seasons. Indeed her presentation on The Misogyny Factor was a witty, incisive but impassioned cry for decency and equity in the workforce and everywhere else that will have you burning your sad stretchy old bra and buying an expensive and beautiful piece of underkit. Nothing dowdy and earnest about this feminism!
She was engaged in conversation by Julia Baird from The Drum and made me realise that the difference between good and great at these things is often the interviewer. A really good one will tap into levels of insight and erudition and that fills us with excitement about ideas to take home into our own lives. It’s a given that the writers are splendid wordsmiths but folk like Julia Baird, Ramona Koval, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Geordie Williamson, Richard Fidler, Jamie Valentine and Michael Cathcart to name a few, manage to value add in remarkable ways.
If I had to define it I’d say they all share a confidence in their ability to listen and follow the conversation wherever it might go. This means they’ve done their homework and know they won’t get fazed if something comes out of left field. So instead of hastily shuffling their sheets for the next question they are more inclined to relax and allow some pause for thought. Let’s face it, it’s a fake setting but in order to give us earnest readers the chance to be close to the creators of the works that have given us so much joy, someone up the front pretends to have a chat. The first giveaway is the water. When did you last sit down with a mate and a bottle of water with two glasses in front of a big crowd for a good ol’ chat? That doesn’t mean you need alcohol, although I suspect that was what helped Dermot Healy captivate us all. No, the best of them are so genuinely into it and on top of the wider implications of what is being said they can allow the chat to go anywhere it feels like going. It’s a gift that has to do with personality, empathy and a dose of humility as well as high levels of scholarship.
I’m sure all the interviewers/facilitators do come prepared, but here are a few of my personal irritants whereby a perfectly good writer is left to languish at the end of a string of unrelated questions:
- Eagerly trying to prove one’s own cleverness with long preambly questions. (Audience members do that but they can be forgiven – the folk on the stage are meant to be the professionals)
- So overwhelmed with awe at the greatness of the presence before them they just breathily reiterate how marvellous they are and don’t probe deeply.
- So intent on their questions they don’t listen properly to the answers to use them as a springboard, but just ask the next question.
- Intent on proving their own relationship with the writer…can be OK but not when it becomes about them.
Some writers are irrepressible though, no matter how silly the questions. Dermot Healy was asked by an audience member how it would be if he hadn’t gone to London, but had stayed at home and become more steeped in Irish tradition. Stupid question, but Dermot simply smiled and said Sure if I hadn’t gone to London, I’d have had to invent it. And I’m not sure how anyone else would have handled the wonderfully unruly William McInness because the charming gal that we saw just let him rampage hilariously through life, love and hot dogs – a festival highlight!
A few last minute tips:
- Don’t be afraid of serendipity…nothing worse than coming out of a worthy but dull session to hear gales of laughter from another venue. It happened to us with the etymology guy Mark Forsyth. Who knew the dictionary would have them rolling in the aisles?
- If you have any money left, lash out one morning for the Seibel buffet breakfast…not so much for the food but because there’s a good chance you’ll spot one of your favourite writers over the meusli – always a thrill.
- Sydney’s final gift was a freebee: the Vivid light show made the walk back to Circular Quay truly magical.
Writers Festivals start us thinking in all directions and this one was no exception. Thanks to Hugh Mackay I’m no longer under the Utopia Delusion, and after listening to passionate Janeites Caroline Hooton, Damon Young and Tegan Bennett Daylight, I’ll be looking at Mr. Darcy with fresh eyes – hardly an arduous task! Last and maybe most lasting, Angela Meyer’s great seminar Blogging For Beginners has taught me lots of nifty new ways to inflict myself on the world. Don’t say you weren’t warned.