IMMERSION WRITING WORKSHOP 2019
Australia has a plethora of regional writers’ centers, catering to a variety of genres and experience levels. One of the best is the New England Writers’ Centre (NEWC) in Armidale, chaired by celebrated Australian author and local resident Sophie Masson (below).
The drive north of Sydney takes around six hours, through drought-stricken sheep country to a tidy town of 24,000 souls and many churches. I was there in March 2019 to deliver a one-day workshop on non-fiction immersion writing, based invariably around often traumatic, life-changing experiences. (House rule number one: ‘What’s said in the group stays in the group.’) Typically these sessions open with friendly banter, develop through cross-exchanges of personal experience and end with revelations about the participants’ lives - confirming that writing at this level is not only a process of creativity but also of self-exploration and, at some level, therapy. The passion to ‘get started’ on a book was palpable. Delivering workshops like these is part of the mix of being a writer, along with lectures, book reviews, prize judging, juggling finances and publishers - and, when the muse hits, the ‘closed door’ journey of writing books.
Linda Nix, editor of the Centre’s newsletter, The New England Muse, asked a few probing questions about my life and writing. The results appear on my Blog page. NEWC also asked me to make this brief video about the workshop (set against a crop of early-winter grapefruit in my Sydney backyard…)
CANBERRA WRITERS FESTIVAL 2018
Designed by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin in the early 20th century, Canberra is a planned city in which, as Australia’s politicians frequently discover to their dismay, not everything goes to plan. A leafy, sprawling national capital with a population of just 400,000 (a great percentage of those being bureaucrats), its Parliament House has, in recent years, seen more than the usual level of chicanery associated with Australian politics: the nation has burned through five Prime Ministers in the past eight years, and all indications are there’ll be a new leader next year. Plan, what plan?
By contrast, the Canberra Writers Festival in its third year (the second under Artistic Director Jennifer Bott AO) proved to be a well-organized mix of passionate debate, engaging conversations and good literary company. Spread over some great venues, including the imposing National Library of Australia (one of my favorite public buildings), the four-day festival brought together a generous mix of literary stars (action-thriller writer Matthew Reilly flew in from L.A. and Irvine Welsh from Scotland), leading Australian writers/journalists, and various political heavyweights under the theme Power, Politics and Passion.
I had two appearances. Firstly, on a panel discussing the pitfalls of writing novels (aptly titled ‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’) in which every conceivable blockage to greatness was aired, from mildly-distracting marriage breakups to the serious dangers of collaboration to the ultimate evil of editors slashing perfectly brilliant manuscripts with their heartless, pitiless pens. (The stuff that no aspiring author wants to hear, of course, although the audience was highly attentive and eager to learn…)
Secondly, a terrific interview with author Lisa Portolan, author of Happy As: Why the Quest for Happiness is Making Us Miserable. We explored a wide range of themes around the elusive notion of happiness, not least, as Lisa asks, ‘Why do we devote so much of our lives to attaining such a transient state?’ plus the irony of why humans try so hard to keep up with their social peers when equally they admire the rebels who don’t. The role of social media too: how it brings together communities of interest to positive effect while also allowing users to create ‘polyester identities: completely and utterly fake’. After a fascinating hour we’d barely scraped the surface of what constitutes, for most of us, the ultimate measure of a good life - are we happy or not?
JAIPUR LITERARY FESTIVAL 2018
Billed as 'the greatest literary show on Earth', Jaipur in 2018 didn't disappoint. Covering the five-day event for ABC Radio's 'Book Hub', I caught up with a wide range of authors (more than 200 in attendance this year) including Michael Ondaatje, whose photograph I took for US Publishers Weekly at the Adelaide Festival Writers Week years ago. I had the pleasure of interviewing several Indian authors including UK-based Preti Taneja, whose striking debut novel We That Are Young - a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear set in modern India - was named one of The Sunday Times 2017 Fiction Books of the Year.
Another wonderful encounter was with Los Angeles-based novelist Charmaine Craig (below, at book signing), author of the compelling Miss Burma - based on the turbulent history of her mother's family in Burma and the struggles of the Karen minority. (I recorded a lengthy interview to coincide with the novel's Australian release later this year.) Longlisted for the 2017 US National Book Awards, Miss Burma has drawn strong reviews. 'In reimagining the extraordinary lives of her mother and grandparents,' Emma Larkin wrote in The New York Times, 'Craig produces some passages of exquisitely precise description.' It's a terrific novel of human strengths and foibles.
Jaipur was a color riot (it's known as the 'Pink City') but I also went monochrome to capture some of the thousands of faces in the crowd. I was struck by the preponderance of young people - around 60% of those attending the festival were under 25, which bodes well for literature (in India at least!). I've posted some of my mono Jaipur images on the Photography page.
You can listen to my ABC Radio National report on the 2018 Jaipur Literary Festival here.
ABC STORYTELLING WORKSHOPS
Working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Deborah Fleming AO, the former Executive Producer of ABC TV's Australian Story, I co-hosted video storytelling workshops in October/November 2017 for news producers around Australia. Exploring and dissecting what makes a great story is one of my core pleasures, and I enjoyed this immensely.
For two decades, the award-winning Australian Story has been one of Australia's top-rating programs. In 1995 I helped devise the program along with Deb Fleming and a talented team, and Deb went on to helm the show for 19 years through season after successful season. It’s won countless prizes and nominations and is still going strong.
These one-day workshops drew draw on our long experience and highlighted the key ingredients of a well-told video story, employing techniques from classic cinema, stage drama and literature along with examples from contemporary media. (Everything from Scorsese to Kundera to French TV ads...) The enthusiasm and creativity of the young journalists attending was palpable, and impressive.
Storytelling transcends technology, going back to the beginnings of human communication, but I'm fascinated by how we can use the power of many platforms and outlets - TV, radio, social media - to reach new audiences in new ways. In that sense, I see storytelling not as displaced or diminished but confirming its absolute role in whatever cultures we live and work in. Our lives are stories - we live and breathe our stories - and, without stories, who are we?