Newcastle Writers Festival Recap: Part Two

The Newcastle Writer’s Festival is always packed with amazing sessions and my Saturday was no different. I attended five sessions on Saturday and while I covered my first three in Part One, I’m covering my other two and my Sunday session in this second part.

Chris Hammer and Holly Throsby with Suzanne Leal

My fourth session on Saturday was Creating Memorable Characters with Chris Hammer, Holly Throsby. They spoke with Suzanne Leal about how they create characters who feel real and the development of their books and writing.

Suzi asked Holly if her towns Goodwood and Cedar Valley were real places but Holly explained they were made up but were similar to many other towns of that kind. She also explained that the reason she set her stories in the 90’s is because that was when she was a teenager and it felt natural to write about when she was a teenager herself.

Chris told us all about his book Scrublands and where the inspiration for Martin came from. There was no journalistic skill needed but he told us that his inspiration was that he had done journalistic stories like that before. Chris explained many people assume he is a war correspondent when they find out he was a foreign correspondent but he wasn’t.

Getting into character creation Suzi asked if Chris had an image of his character in mind or was he based one someone real. Chris explained he chose to keep Martin’s description broad, he isn’t vividly described in the book at all despite being written in third person. Holly worked on instinct, she initially had a couple main characters but nothing definitive, mainly an outline.

Chris said that while there is truth in writing what you know, there is also truth in imagination. He also spoke about how writing a novel is liberating compared to being a journalist. As a journalist you need to fact-check and protect sources, as a writer you can write the big stories first and fact-check it later. His story isn’t based on real events but are similar to stories he’s covered in the past.  Holly is also a songwriter and she spoke about how writing music and novels are different. She can’t write novels the same way she writes songs but there is a melody in her writing.

The audience asked insightful questions and one question was how both authors write distinctive voices, especially with so many different characters. Chris said since his story is through Martin’s perspective he must drag out different characters through their dialogue. Holly said it was a matter of imbuing the sense of the person to the page. Having heard of but not having read any of their books before I came away from the session with some fascinating insight and intrigue, and certainly with renewed interest in checking out their books for myself.

Clementine Ford with Amy Sambrooke

My next session was an evening session with Clementine Ford to discuss her latest book Boys Will Be Boys with Amy Sambrooke. Amy started off the session by asking why Clementine wrote her book to which Clementine explained that there were words and then there was actions. She felt there was a need to have these conversations about the things that came up in the book. It is the perfect companion to Fight Like A Girl and Clementine felt that you couldn’t tell the whole story without telling both sides. The second reason was the Clementine had a baby boy and become even more invested in creating a world where he won’t perpetuate harm nor be subjected to harm by others.

Amy asked Clementine to explain toxic masculinity, something Clementine said was a great term but one that is often misunderstood. Toxic masculinity isn’t all masculinity. She explained that men want to maintain the standard power, men also won’t get told off for being feminists unlike women. She said that men continue to be surprised by the #metoo stories which shows how they don’t understand the women in their lives. She said men don’t ask women about their experiences, a comment which resulted in an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience. She summed it up that toxic masculinity is that men can behave how they like until they have to say sorry and we’re meant to accept it and forget the pain it’s caused.

Amy brought up the concept of consent and why it is so contested. Clementine told a story of a friend of a friend who had GHB put in her drink at a club and how lucky she was to have nothing come from it. She questioned what could possibly be so broken about someone for them to do that, and just because this one woman was saved, who else wasn’t that night. She made the point that is isn’t just the perpetrators but those around them enabling them. People don’t want to acknowledge it’s people they know doing these kinds of things.

The conversation moved onto sex and morality and Clementine said it was never too early to teach consent. Not sexual consent but consent for kissing, touching, hugging; teaching children they don’t have to be hugged by people if they don’t want to. If they don’t want cuddles then they should be respected.

Male bonding was also brought up and this too has suffered, Clementine saying that the patriarchy breaks men in different ways. Not being able to have strong emotional male friendships was something that was causing suffering to men.

It was not all hopeless because Clementine left us with hope that things can change. She told us we need to raise kids in a way that doesn’t make this normal. Make it unacceptable to tell sexists jokes, racist slurs. She reminded us smoking was once so commonplace and people thought it would never change but if someone tried to smoke in a hospital now people would not only look on horrified but would berate whoever had lit up. She said humans are malleable and it will take time but we are capable of changing the behaviour of those in society. One thing that was a great conclusion to the session as the reminder that “power is not gained by taking it from someone else”.

This was a great session to end my Saturday with and one that was enlightening, intense, and fascinating all at once. I came back Sunday with vigour to see Clementine speak again on the panel Why Women’s Stories Matter with Kate Lilley, and Alison Whittaker. Trisha Pender spoke with these amazing women about their stories and why it was important that they were told.

Trisha Pender with Kate Lilley, Alison Whittaker, and Clementine Ford

Kate’s work Reckoning emerged after the #metoo movement but it was a work long in the making. Alison entered into a conversation she hadn’t entered into before. She had hoped to address a specific audience with Blakwork but it turned out to be a small percentage of the audience she received. The book she wrote was an entirely different book in the hands of a white woman than it was in the hands of a queer aboriginal woman. Clementine’s book is a companion piece to her first book telling the other half, Fight Like A Girl isn’t a universal story but the things explored in Boys Will Be Boys harms everyone.

Each woman read from their books and I was fascinated by Alison’s poem “A Love Like Dorothea”, a reworking of the poem My Country by Dorothea Mackellar which is a love letter to 19th century Australia but which ignores the Aboriginal presence entirely.

Amy asked the panel how the political climate influence their books, especially the 2018 NAIDOC theme “Because of her, we can!”. Kate said there is now a cultural shift to take these stories seriously which has moved her to write things with very personal motives. Alison said it was rematriation as a resolution to colonialism, while Clementine said nothing political changed her view, she was always going to write this story. She did say though that the public conscious shifted to have an eagerness to learn about things outside of themselves and while there is still resistance, people are having the conversations.

Clementine read a passage from her chapter Girls on Film and why women’s stories matter. She brought up the Captain Marvel and Ghostbusters backlash and said there is an (incorrect) insistence from people that no one wants to see these stories because they don’t want to see these stories. If we’re only told one story then we think only one story counts.

Trisha said that they always have sessions like this at festivals but they’re still needed. Women’s stories aren’t reviewed as often as men’s. Kate said that literary reviewing in Australia is terrible and not taken seriously. On the subject of diversity Alison worried what it means to be put in the diverse box. The weight of expectation is there even for not important works as people are asked to bear that and think that presence is enough when it isn’t.

The whole panel spoke about the use of humour in their writing and how it is a necessity because the writing can be dark. Clementine said that men are easy to joke about but they are not very good at laughing at themselves. She said that women are extremely funny, our use of sarcasm and in the matters of our lives. The humour is not understood by the people who the joke is about because they don’t understand our stories.

It is always such a thrill listening to these kinds of sessions because not only do you get to hear from people you may never have discovered, but the conversation is so captivating and broad and enlightening. No matter what the session was about I often come out of these festivals with inspiration whether for my own work or simple to change the world. It is a wonderful feeling and one of the reasons I love coming to these festivals. I cannot wait until the next Newcastle Writers Festival next year and I have no doubt Rosemarie Milsom and her team will excel once more.


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.