Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Melbourne Writers Festival 2011

I flew to Melbourne on Friday afternoon, arriving in time to meet up for dinner with Eleanor Catton (with whom I was to appear in a session on Sunday), Ellie’s sister, and NZ writer Julian Novitz who’s been living in Melbourne for the last five or so years.

We went to a fantastic dumpling restaurant in China Town. I felt a bit like I was in a Sarah Laing comic, they were some good dumplings… My brother’s going to China in a few weeks and now I have another reason to be jealous.

Ann Patchett's session in BMW Edge
State of WonderMy two sessions at the festival were not until Sunday morning, so I had Saturday all to myself. I went along to ‘in conversation’ sessions with Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) and Maile Meloy (Both ways is the only way I want it). Both were great, though I was particularly interested in Meloy’s comments about writing a novel after starting out with short stories, and her latest book, The Apothecary, which is for younger readers but based on the reading she gave it sounds as great as the rest of her quote-unquote adult work.
The Apothecary

In the afternoon I explored downtown Melbourne and bought an iPad2 from JB HiFi (thanks to Australia’s Tax Refund for Traveller’s scheme it was a lot cheaper than in NZ, and duty-free prices are just a joke), before catching a session on surfing in fiction with Malcolm Knox, Gretchen Shirm and Favel Parrett.

At 10am on Sunday I appeared along with David Morley in the festival’s final (free) ‘Morning Read’ session. We each had 8 minutes each and I led off with most of ‘A Man Melting’ (that is, the title story of my book, rather than most of my 320 page book… I’m not the Micro Machines man!). This proved a good segue to David Morley’s poetry ("[Like the character in ‘A Man Melting’] drinking and poetry are the only things that keep me alive"). One of the poem’s he read was ‘Marriage Vows of a Rom to a Gadji’ which I read with interest when it was published in the Guardian in April along with a heap of other vows, not because I cared about Kate and Wills’ nuptials, but it falls on my head to write the vows for our wedding in November as the writer-in-residence-relationship.

Morley was followed by Hannah Jane Walker, who recited a poem from her show, The Oh F**k Moment. Next up was Chinese-Australian poet, novelist and translator Ouyang Yu, who read a number of poems. Whether by design or chance, the poetry was bookended by another prose writer, Felix J Palma, who launched into a detailed explanation of his novel, The Map of Time in his native Spanish. He then gave his eight-to-ten minute reading... in Spanish. It was lovely to hear him read and my traveller’s espanol was truly tested (I got that there was time travel between the year two thousand ten and Victorian England, and the main character’s name was Shackleton). Then Palma’s translator stepped to the podium and explained the novel and repeated the reading in English – which got a lot of laughs this time, so clearly I wasn’t the only one missing the nuances the first time around.

So in all, a lovely session. My only problem was it ran well over time, and I had another session starting at 11.30 and needed to meet the chair for the first time, get mic'ed up and all that. But it all worked out fine and there was no need for el tiempo de viaje.

This next session was ‘New NZ Fiction’ featuring me and Ellie Catton, chaired by Sue Green. We each gave readings of about 5 mins: Ellie from one of the Saxaphone Teacher’s speeches early on in The Rehearsal; me Part 3 (on rejections) from my love letter to Wikipedia, ‘Orbital Resonance’.

#mwf2011 Eleanor Catton and Craig Cliff talking New New Zealand
Ellie Catton, Sue Green and moi at 'New NZ Fiction'
(taken by Antonia, my assigned Random House Australia publicist... I think the dreamy, spectral look is in this Spring)

We were then asked to tackle the question of what it means to be an NZ writer (and who qualifies as an NZ writer)... which is quite a difficult topic for anyone to grapple with, let alone two twenty-something writers with one published book each to their name. One inescapable fact was that, despite the quality of books being published in NZ (something we both had to stick up for!), it’s hard to find many NZ books in Australian book stores, let alone countries further afield. (Heck, it's hard to find my book in New Zealand!).  My view (again, I’m not the best qualified person to comment on this), is that it boils down to distribution models as much as it does market appetite: you can't buy what you don't know about or can't get a hold of.

(After the session I met up with the guy who edits the NZ Society of Author’s magazine and I might be writing something longer and more considered about the opportunity new distribution models present NZ (and other small market) writers to break-out rather than waiting for a Booker nomination or a feature film based on one of your books.)

Anyway, it was an interesting discussion, but afterwards I wished we had had more of a chance to talk about our own work. Luckily, I got to talk to Ellie quite a bit outside of the session: it seems we’re both writing novels that are set in the past but aren’t entirely comfortable with them being called historical novels because of the connotations this carries. (Basically, I’m trying to write something that isn’t a romance in period costume; while the action in Ellie’s novel sounds like it has a lot to do with, of all things, astrology...).

In the afternoon Julian Novitz and I went to two panel discussions: Beyond White Guilt with Sarah Maddison and Tony Birch, and Things They See Coming (about dystopian fiction) with Steve Amsterdam, Meg Mundell and Max Barry. The latter reminded me of this post NZ reviewer Nicholas Reid made on his blog a few weeks back on utopian/dystopian fiction and might provide a good addendum to anyone else who attended the session.

After which it was time for happy hour in the green room, followed by the wrap party for festival volunteers (and thirsty writers who just don't know when to call it a day). At the party I got talking to a Canadian writer called Dave Bidini. Gradually I learnt that he was also a musician and was, in fact, a founding member of the band The Rheostatics (I have their album ‘Whale Music’, which has been voted in the top five Candadian Albums of All Time; but mostly knew of them as the band that opened for The Tragically Hip on their live album Live Between Us).

I told Dave about my Tragically Hip fanaticism (including my framed set list from a Paradiso gig in Amsterdam in 2008) and he offered to put me in touch with the Hip’s front man Gord Downie, who’s a voracious reader, so I could send him a copy of my book.

Pause for effect.

Now, I was several free drinks into the evening and I know I have a tendency to talk too much about pet topics in this state (later that evening I described my kiwi tracking expedition, complete with full-volume kiwi calls) and the morning after I was like, there’s no way Dave’s gonna follow through and hook me up with Gord f’n Downie. Not because Mr Bidini didn’t seem like a nice, genuine guy (we also talked about hockey and he convinced me that fighting in hockey is unnecessary and should be eliminated from the sport’s culture like drink driving… something I had previously thought was one of the best things about the sport [the fighting, not the drink driving])...

But today I received an email from Mr Bidini:
C: Gord's reply below, Holmes.
He will be sending u an email.
Don't shit yr pants. 
And then a bit later -- to the sound of Handel’s Messiah and in a flood of heavenly light -- an email from Mr Downie himself arrived in my inbox. I will be sending him a copy of A Man Melting tomorrow! This is a big deal because, among other things, I listened to over 1,000 Hip songs during 2008, when I wrote most of the book and there are at least two song titles (‘So hard done by’ and ‘Yawning or snarling’) embedded in the text.

Gord also said:
‘We - the hip - are about to reconvene for a record we've half-finished. It's gonna be a good one, I think. Perhaps, I can reciprocate by sending you an advanced copy in the new year?’
I managed to keep from shitting my pants, but my head totally asploded!

So yeah, that was my Melbourne Writers Festival. My third ever fest as a participant (after Auckland and Sydney in May). One should never forget about the readers/audience members, as that the reason any of it happens, but making connections with other writers and booky-peops is surprisingly fun...

I’m off to Going West Festival in Titirangi on Saturday. It promises to be a different, more intimate festival experience. M’s coming with me this time, we’re being put up in a lovely bed and breakfast and have a rental car for the weekend.

But first it’s time to bash out a few thousand more words on THE NOVEL…


Vanda Symon said...

Sounds like a fantastic time, Craig. Nothing like a bit of festival networking, huh?!!!

Anonymous said...

what is wrong with historical novels exactly? why are writers so precious about 'genres'?