Newcastle Writers Festival Recap: Part One

Earlier this month I attended the fantastic Newcastle Writers Festival for my 7th year in a row. I’ve been going to the NWF since its inaugural year in 2013 and every year it is amazing to see it go on to bigger and better things. The big names came again this year with Trent Dalton, Kerry O’Brian, Gillian Trigg, Michael Robotham, and Jane Caro just to name a few. The weekend was perfection and I was lucky enough to see five sessions on the Saturday a mixture of both free sessions and paid sessions.

The Thrill of It: Ailsa Piper in conversation with Michael Robotham

My first session of the day was a last minute decision to see Michael Robotham in conversation with Ailsa Piper. I haven’t actually read any of Michael’s books but the session was enjoyable nonetheless and I had heard many great things about him over the years. Michael is an engaging personality and I enjoyed hearing his stories about growing up in his small town and the misadventures he had there e.g setting fire to the entire town of Gundagai and becoming “the second plague, basically”. This was his first year back after having to skip last year due to a quadruple bypass, a decent excuse to cancel your appointment and one he still feels bad for missing. Because of this we were fortunate to hear about his upcoming book as well as the one he released last year.

Ailsa asked Michael questions about where he got his ideas from since his work is so steeped in morality. Coming from a town where crime was non-existent he learnt most of his knowledge when he moved to Sydney at 17. Working as a journalist he covered court cases and police issues and discovered a real sliding doors moment when he became involved Ray Denning case. He aged 20 and Denning 21 Michael become “fascinated by what led to the divide that led to me in the witness box and him in the dock”.

One of the key quotes I loved was that “society gets the monsters it deserves”. Very rarely does someone just become bad but Michael also stressed the point that backstories explain not forgive people. He mentioned that we all have many layers of who we are and we all have secrets we have never told anyone and that is what interests him.

When asked why all his books were set in England he told us the story how he wrote “the great Australian novel” but since he was living in England at the time it wasn’t going to be published and so he wrote another set in England. He never knew it was going to be a series and so each of his books now must be set in England. Michael has been asked now to publish this great Australian novel and while he is tempted, while it remains unpublished in the drawer it can forever be the great Australian novel. A genius move.

Lives Erased: Marguerite Johnson with James Bennett, Anthony Venn-Brown, and Stuart Edser

My second session was Lives Erased where Marguerite Johnson moderated a panel with James Bennett, Stuart Edser and Anthony Venn-Brown. Each of the panel discussed their own experiences and struggles with their sexuality and their interaction with the conversion therapy. And while the session did not go much into the details of the history of conversion therapy, the conversation explored the damage it does to those involved. Each of the panel member explained their struggle with accepting who they were and how they had fought in many instances for decades against who they were and the damage that had done to them.

One thing I noticed was that the audience was filled with a lot of young people, something rarely seen at these festivals as it is more common to see people middle aged and above. I loved that our panelists noticed too and addressed that because of their personal and public fights over the decades kids now are freer to be who they are without the shame and guilt they felt, nor the pressure to change themselves.

The session was very personal and intimate and each of the panel’s personal histories were tragic and fascinating. Anthony Venn-Brown has the sad honour of being the oldest survivor of conversion therapy in the world which I was so surprised at and it certainly says a lot about the effect on those who undergo it. Anthony was fascinating to listen to as he spoke about how gay was never gay, it was sexual deviant, something that would get you jailed or institutionalised.

Marguerite asked great questions and one I was particular interested in was how important it was to write about conversion therapy. James said it was important because it combats ignorance, stories are important for doing that. But Anthony said something which I found myself agreeing with, he said that writing is not healing, it is retraumatising. Of course every story is different and I can see how maybe writing about it lets you see things in a different light, but having to draw on those feelings and events that you work so hard to get through seems like such a painful and brave thing to do. But from that Anthony also said was that there wasn’t a single story prior to 2004. Now we have more stories and movies and experiences that tell us why this is so terrible and the struggle that so many LGBTQI people have gone through for decades and for centuries.

The end of the session ended on a bittersweet moment with an audience question asking where do we as a society go from here. Marguerite made a great point saying that with only one state actually banning conversion therapy and the issue of marriage equality being reduced to a postal vote, there is evidently a long way to go. Stuart said that every new generation needs to stand on the shoulders of the previous generation, women and minority groups alike. People need to be careful because rights so can casually be taken away. There is always progress but there is always push back and it is up to everyone to keep fighting.

After such an emotionally charged session I went to something seemingly just as emotional, but wasn’t quite in the end: Stories of Resilience. Annabel Smith spoke with Rick Morton, Mira Atkinson, and Heather Morris about their works in writing about trauma. Each panelist read passages from their books and Annabel asked wonderfully insightful questions about each of the panel dealt with their trauma and how they ended up writing about it. Mira wrote to explore how trauma isn’t personal while Rick wrote that it is personal but people experience different trauma from the same experiences. Heather mentioned that with trauma people from all over end up becoming your family, it is a shared humanity, something you’re not going to get anywhere else.

Mira made the excellent point the resilience isn’t survival and spoke of the danger of being self-congratulatory about reliance. Annabel’s questions were sharp but gentle as she asked the panel if they knew what they were digging through. Rick’s answer was that if he had written it earlier it would have a different tone, one of hate and spite instead of his attempt at light humour. Mira told us that writing was not cathartic and that it was hard to articulate trauma. Rick also pointed out that the more you try to remember something the more it degrades, there are no pure memories. I enjoyed listening to each of them speak, especially with the range of themes and subjects in their books. Overall it was an interesting panel and one that accompanied my previous session quite well. I had taken a chance on this panel to gain some insights and I came away with admiration for the strength each of the panelists had in telling these stories whether they were their own or someone else’s.

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