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.

Newcastle Writers Festival: Friday

Once again the Newcastle Writers’ Festival is upon us; three glorious book filled days where you meet other book enthusiasts, see authors you love or have just discovered chat about their work, their passion, and their inspiration, and it’s also a place to immerse yourself within the book world. In its fourth year it is looking bigger and better and knowing how successful it has been in the past no doubt any expectations will be met. From 1 April until 3 April people from around Newcastle and across the state and country flock to the city where authors and numerous personalities from the Newcastle region, as well as wider Australia and overseas gather to discuss books and reading and important topics and issues of the day.

This year, creator and wonder-genius Rosemarie Milsom designed a program around history, memoir, and climate change, enlisting the help of big names like Tim Flannery, Kerry O’Brian, Leisel Jones, Richard Glover, Ross Gittens and a myriad of others to share the message and their stories. I booked in a total of 10 sessions, a combination of paid and free events, but as the nature of the festival goes, I ended up going to ones I had not planned and missed others I planned to see. No regrets though because they were all so wonderful.

The festival kicked off this morning, a variety of sessions on offer to get you in the mood before the official opening night event later tonight. This festival is not entirely about memoir and climate change, there are also some wonderful YA sessions and sessions about Aussie authors later this weekend that I am really looking forward to attending. One of the things I love about this festival is that not only has it introduced me to a bunch of books I probably wouldn’t have read, but it’s also helping me discover more great Aussie talent.  In a small way it’s even helping me step out of my comfort zone and take chances on sessions and authors to open my mind and embrace new things, whether that is new genres or ways of writing, or even listening to discussions I may never have considered before.

I kicked of the 2016 festival with a talk about Shakespeare, specifically What’s Special About Shakespeare? Hugh Craig, who was coincidentally my lecturer for a Shakespeare class many years ago, was speaking about what is it that has made Shakespeare last and remained so popular over the last 400 years. As a lover of the Bard and with my own celebrations in the works to celebrate this anniversary I was intrigued. Hugh spoke about how Shakespeare and his plays can be found almost anywhere, in any culture. Everyone knows something about Macbeth or Hamlet, bits of Shakespeare plots and characters and themes appear in popular culture, and not just in the English speaking world.

This was a fascinating analysis; Hugh asked whether an alien visiting earth, who had been introduced to Shakespeare, would be able to see from his works alone how exceptional Shakespeare is, is there numerical proof? Hugh looked at whether it was Shakespeare’s characters, the amount of plays he’d written, or even his vocabulary had an impact on his lasting success. With the figures broken down it is evident Shakespeare was not that exceptional himself, given the chance other playwrights such as Ben Johnson or Chris Marlow could easily have had the success Shakespeare did. What Hugh established though, that while Shakespeare was rather average, in both vocabulary and language, what makes him exceptional is what he does with the words rather than the words themselves. He used familiar words to their maximum effect; simple words had the greatest effect on a play because they were so moving. An example used was from Twelfth night. A simple phrase, “I was adored once too” opens up a completely new perspective on character Sir Andrew and yet there is nothing grand about those words themselves.

For the hour sitting there I was amazed. To see Shakespeare broken down into numbers and analysed in such a way actually made it more impressive. It took nothing away from the beauty of his plays and in an interesting way, it enhanced them even more. Knowing that Shakespeare contributed an incredible amount of words and phrases to the English language it was fascinating to see that it was not the vast vocabulary that made him special, it was what he did with it that does.

I will certainly be discussing this session further as part of my Shakespeare month, otherwise I think I could write about it forever and I would end up writing a thousand words or two on it which no one wants.

I also attended a wonderful session with author Peter Uren who hosted A Guide to Self Publishing. Peter did not go in wanting to give a “How to” talk, instead he spoke of his own experiences in the self publishing world. He spoke about the importance of a good editor and good writing, but he also spoke about how it’s crucial to find the right self publisher. Researching your options and choosing a publisher that is right for you is a key aspect. He also stressed the importance of doing your own promotion and the more you do yourself the cheaper it will be.

P1200523Peter chose self publishing because he wanted his book on sale now, not years down the track which was a possibility. He does a lot of promotion himself and with three books under his belt he is pleased with his success so far. Self publishing is a misnomer in Peter’s mind, because you don’t do it all by yourself, you need to contact someone for help whether it is the beta readers, distributers, or self publishers who will help with print on demand and other production components. Peter also warned that not all you’re offered is what you’ll need, or worth what you’re charged. His advice is when in doubt ask questions and if you can’t do something, find someone who can.

It was an interesting and different side of the discussion than what I had seen before. I learnt more about the self publishing industry and it makes you aware of the fact there is a lot more involved than simply uploaded a final copy of your book to Amazon.

My final event of the day was attending the opening night. This year it was held in the beautiful Civic Theatre and after being entertained by MC James Valentine and hearing Rosemarie’s speech about her pride and joy with this year’s festival it was time to get to the main component. John Doyle spoke with Tim Flannery about his experience as a scientist with an English degree, and as old friends and with John Doyle at the helm there was plenty of laughter and humour in the discussion.

P1200527This was not the first event, but it was the first big event. Flannery spoke about where his passion for science and discovery came from, from the first fossil he found as an 8 year old to discovering species in New Guinea. He told stories about seeing effects of climate change first hand and told us what needs to be done to save not only Australia but the world with coal being our biggest problem right now. What was interesting is that Flannery used his English degree to tell the stories of science. Scientists, Flannery said, never appreciate how to write, writing novels helps you tell stories, converting to complex science into an understandable language.

I had a fantastic first day and after coming home late, tired, yet exhilarated, I have high hopes for what the rest of the weekend has in store for me!

YA at the Newcastle Writers Festival 2016

I am a huge lover of Young Adult novels, I don’t read them or review them as much as I’d like to but I love them. YA events are another thing I love and I grab any chance to go to one and hear about the latest YA titles and other YA related things.

This year the Newcastle Writers Festival has some wonderful sessions running about memoir, history, and, climate change, but for the first time they are also running two YA panels: The State of Play for YA and Love, Loss, and Everything in Between. Last year the Sydney Writers Festival had excellent YA panels, with authors discussing what it means to write for teens and how that affects content etc. There was also a great event with TeenCon that brought together numerous publishers and bloggers to discuss books and reading and of course, book boyfriends.

Now it is Newcastle’s turn and I for one am so excited to see what it is going to be like. The State of Play for YA sees three industry insiders get together, Jennifer Dougherty (Allen & Unwin), Stephanie Speight (Text Publishing) and Zoe Walton (Penguin Random House), who are going to be talking with Gerry Bobsien and providing some industry insights from those in the know.

The second session, Love, Loss, and Everything in Between, involves three YA writers, David Burton, Trinity Doyle, and Fleur Ferris, talking with Linsay Knight about exploring the big issues of adolescence. I am really looking forward to this because YA books are some of the best places to explore issues and everyone has a different approach in addressing them.

If you are heading to the NWF and are interested in YA, or maybe you’re currently undecided about attending, I suggest you take a look at booking in for one or both of these sessions as I’m sure they will be filled with fascinating and insightful discussions.

Both sessions are on Sunday afternoon, 3 April, and tickets for each session are $15. Check out the NWF program for info and how to book.

Newcastle Writers Festival 2015

NWFThe Newcastle Writers Festival happened this past weekend and once again I was front and centre eager to enjoy three days of nothing but books, authors, and the writing experience and be able to share it with like-minded people. For the first time the event went across three days, with a half day of sessions before the wonderful opening night on Friday where Jessica Rudd, Michael Robotham, and Helen Garner chatted with Caroline Baum about the books that changed them. James Valentine was a wonderful MC and he brought laughter to the night with many guest speakers thanking Rosemarie Milsom profusely, and rightly so, for her work in organising this festival year after year and for having such enthusiasm for its original creation. But the night was also an insightful chance to hear from three wonderful authors about the books they have read that had an impact on their lives. Discussion ranged from whether you need likable characters in books (no), to whether it is better to not meet someone you admire (typically yes), and listening to the panel discuss books that have stayed with them whether they were read as a child or as an adult was fascinating.

Before the opening night I went to Forever Young where Megan Buxton talked with Melina Marchetta about her books and her writing career. What was wonderful about the session was that Melina spoke about how getting a classical education was not always a good thing when it came to writing, and that trying to fit books into genres is not always a helpful thing. It was really wonderful to hear about her approach to writing and Melina spoke about how she likes to write about people trying to find their place in the world and she always offers hope in her stories. With an afternoon session about the benefits of a writing group the festival was off to a very positive start.

Saturday morning however was one of dual emotion. I could only stay for one session which was an intense disappointment because I had originally an entire day planned, but I am glad that session I did get to see was Keys to the Kingdom with Garth Nix. Having been a lover of his books for such a long time, I am always glad to see him speak and get another pile of books signed. His session with Magdalena Ball was quite insightful, speaking about his latest book Clariel, which we were also given a reading of, and he discussed why categories like Young Adult and Fantasy should be partially ignored and certainly not be used to discriminate against a genre, meaning readers should not be limited in what they read. With all the concern about adults reading YA both Nix and Marchetta had great things to say about why YA is not just for teenagers and it is a message that I think needs to be out there more widely as it still seems to be ignored.

The final day on Sunday was filled with a great contrast between politics and publishing. With Porkies and Politics Jane Caro, Dee Madigan, and Steve Lewis talked with Paul Bevan about how political advertising works and the nature of the political environment both past and present. It was insightful and fascinating, and with great minds like Dee and Jane in discussion there was an enjoyable debate. My final session of the day was a great panel where published writers gave advice on how to get books and stories published. Jessie Ansons moderated with Marg Jackson, Aidan Walsh, and Maree Gallop all offering great advice on the best practices in getting your work published. I got some great ideas for my own work and inspiration and motivation to try new things, something the writers festival is always great at offering.

In my opinion this festival brought out some big names with Garth Nix and Melina Marchetta, but I know many other people who were there for other authors and prominent figures such as Bob Carr and Bob Brown, Marion Halligan, and Les Murray. Rosemarie mentioned on opening night that 130 writers were attending the festival ranging from poets, university creative writing students, journalists, as well as prominent names in politics, meaning that an incredible range was provided for all who attended. With something for everyone there is always something brilliant to see and discover and there is always the chance of discovering someone you had never previously heard about but soon grow to love.

What is particularly wonderful about the festival is getting a chance to talk to other people who are there for the same reason as you: the love of books and writing. I had a great weekend with my two best friends and got to catch up with some great familiar faces and friends like Kaz Delaney and Sheree Christoffersen, while also sitting in on some informative, inspiring, and motivating sessions. I already look forward to the 2016 festival (no pressure Rosemarie!) and I know it will be just as enjoyable and as great a success as the one this year and in years past.

Newcastle Writers Festival on Reflection

After two wonderful days and one wonderful evening the 2nd Newcastle Writers Festival is over. Once again I have been exposed to so many new and wonderful authors, all of whose works I now have to devour.

At the opening night Wendy Harmer made everyone laugh and think and every author I had the honour of listening to was a wealth of knowledge and provided many laughs of their own in each event.  And even for all the sessions I was unable to attend  I have no doubt that everyone took something away from it and with a smile on their face.

Of the highlights I can’t say I have a single favourite, though there is a small bias towards all things fairy tales and short stories.

After learning and listening about crime fiction, children books, fairy tales, short stories and much much more I can be sure to say that I have a myriad of ideas, knowledge, admiration, and wonderment as a result…not to mention sore feet and empty pockets.

With a chance to get signed copies, the occasional photo and sneaky chat, plus up and close interaction with a variety of authors, there was a strange form of intimacy as you all wandered the same city hall, seeing the same familiar faces in audiences and even seeing those who were on previous panels now sitting beside you in the audience of another.

The new city hall location was good as it allowed quick journeys from room to room and let us stay dry in the brief rainfall event.

Macleans the booksellers also did an excellent job in getting books to their devoted would be owners and it was fascinating watching the piles of books drop so drastically in a matter of moments.  I myself came out of the weekend with four bags and 14 new books for my ever growing shelves, not to mention all the great authors I discovered.

All in all it was it was a superb weekend once again, one that went by far too quickly and one I already look forward to in 2015.

We must also continue to thank Rosemaree Milsom for thinking up this wonderful festival and making it one I look forward to attending for many years into the future.

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