I had a big month at the Wheeler Centre in May. What a fantastic organisation to have in Melbourne; thanks to the Bracks Labor Government which promoted Melbourne being internationally recognised as a city of literature and the Wheelers who finally ensured its ongoing funding. The authors were in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival and thanks to the Centre, came down to Melbourne as well. For the first time, Wheeler events were held in the Northcote Town Hall; very handy for people living Northside and as it turns out a great venue. I assume it holds more people than the Centre’s home in Little Lonsdale Street.
First up, on a lovely Sunday afternoon, was Anne Enright. The audience was made up of people like me – women of a certain age! Joe was one of the few men present. I’d read both of her books when they came out. First, The Gathering which won the Booker Prize in 2007 and then The Green Road which was published in 2015. I wasn’t that keen on either of them to be honest. I thought the writing was very good but The Gathering had too many things going on and The Green Road too few. Proving that you just can’t please readers! Anne was wonderful in person; very open and forthcoming – not all that easy in front of 400 or more people. About the process of writing, what she thought her books were about, and how readers responded to them. She was also very funny; including when reading out loud her description (from The Green Road) of a hideously familiar family dinner – including maternal hysteria, paternal obfuscation and sibling malevolence.
She didn’t realise she was writing about family life essentially – which are the best bits of both books – until the response to The Gathering. She is very insightful into relationships between siblings, and with how parents and children bounce off each other. Perhaps to the detriment of both! I loved that she was not prepared to follow most male Irish authors and claim as personal influences people like Joyce and Yeats. They go without saying and its sort of presumptuous to claim them. She was expertly interviewed by the New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul – who asked insightful questions about the books succinctly and without making it all about her!
After a quick bite to eat, another benefit from being at the Northcote Town Hall there were plenty of places to choose from, we were back to hear from George Saunders, author of the wonderful Lincoln In The Bardo.
This time the audience was full of young people, both women and men, who obviously knew and appreciated George from his essays in the New Yorker. I didn’t know anything about him until I read his Lincoln book, thanks to a recommendation on Twitter by the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter. I also didn’t know, until after I had read the book, that the bardo is a Tibetan concept, describing the spirit world. Which makes sense when you read the book. Which contains the most beautiful, poetic, writing. It was just wonderful and so was George. Although we were a little let down by Don Watson’s interviewing I thought, although this may just have been me, as most of the audience may have enjoyed the focus on current political matters in America, rather than concentrating on the novel. I thought even the bit George was asked to read out was disappointing.
I really loved the book. It covers a very short period during the Lincoln presidency when his young son, Willie, dies on the same evening as a Presidential Ball. I knew about these events from reading the non fiction account of Lincoln’s presidency, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Another great read if you are interested. George intersperses his fictional account with factual, contemporaneous records of some of the things he is describing. For instance the state of the moon – some say it was a full moon, others that it was waning. Also descriptions of what people were wearing, and how they were comporting themselves during and after the ball and at Willie’s funeral. Its all very inventive. We are seeing everything through the eyes of unquiet spirits hovering over the graveyard where Willie is finally interred. The whole novel manages to be a sort of history of American life at the time as well as offering insights into the character of Lincoln himself. Beautiful. And I’m so pleased to have heard from the author in person. He took a very long time to write it. I hope he now spends more time on fiction than on essays. Although I have now looked up some of his essays and they are beautifully written.
My next outing under the aegis of the Wheeler Centre was at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street. Where Michael Williamson was interviewing the English food critic Jay Raynor. He was spruiking his book My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out. And we, the audience were treated to a four course meal, with free flowing wine, as we listened. It was a very select event, only about 80 people sitting at tables of 8 in a long gallery with wonderful views over the city. Jay was also touring Australia with an interactive show about another of his books, The Ten Food Commandments, with the Melbourne event being held at the Northcote Town Hall the night of our lunch. He was also in the spotlight for having written a scathing review of a Michelin starred Parisian restaurant.
I thought he may have been a bit of a smart alec. But in person he was very considered and interesting. The discussion was very general and not really focussed on either of the books I’ve mentioned. They were on sale and appeared to be very little, but I didn’t buy either. He talked about food reviewing, sustainability and much more. He’s a journalist first and foremost and was forthright about the techniques he uses to keep people reading his reviews. You have to make it interesting. He sees his responsibility as being to the reader only – not the industry. On the other hand he doesn’t review poor ‘mum and dad’ restaurants, leaving it to the market to sort them out. He is happy to criticise the big franchises that charge the earth for their meals – hence the Paris review. All very interesting and enjoyable. Although the wining and dining meant we may not have been as focussed on the conversation as we might have been.
In the evening of my Jay Raynor lunch I was back at the Northcote Town Hall. This time with feminist friends to hear the author of The Bad Feminist, Roxeane Gay. The hall was full of young women which was great to see. Roxane, who I have not read, is obviously a great role model for young feminists. She was interviewed by a young woman, Santilla Chingaipe, and it was a very affirming and positive conversation. I expected her to be more pugnacious, maybe because of the titles of her books. She also has a collection of short stories called Difficult Women and more recently released an autobiography called Hunger which recounts a pretty horrific assault. But she was very measured in her responses to both Santilla and questions from the audience, including, late in the piece, a dopey one from a bloke. How can a bloke in a hall full of women take it upon himself to ask anything, let alone a dopey question? There you go; that’s why we need women like Roxeane to inspire us still.
My final Wheeler Centre event for May was with the wonderful Hisham Matar. We were back in the Wheeler Centre itself for this one. I’ve seen him before, also thanks to the Wheeler Centre, a few years ago. He is a very charismatic figure, very articulate about the act of writing and the complex issues that he writes about. When previously in Melbourne he was discussing the second of two novels he has written, neither of which I have read. In this instance he was talking about his recently published memoir, the Return. A hauntingly beautiful book about his search for his father; an opponent of the Gaddafi regime in Libya who disappeared when Hisham was nineteen. The book has a lovely sub-heading: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between.
At the start I thought it was a little patchy and difficult to follow, with anecdotes and memories from one period interspersed with others from different periods, seemingly randomly put together. But this method of telling a difficult story eventually gelled into a very moving and heartbreaking whole. In his conversation with Hilary Harper, he explained that one of the hardest things about writing it, was deciding what to leave out and he excluded a lot. The book is better for it I think, much more accessible. It could have been very grim and hard to read. Instead it is a very warm and human recollection of his father, his family and his culture – of fathers and ons and the land in between. The stories that are included, eventually give you a very full picture. This is true of the relationships within the family, even though his mother and brother are barely mentioned. Nevertheless the snippets he includes gives you an understanding of what the loss of husband and father has meant to them.
It’s the same with what he includes about his very public campaign to discover what happened to his father. This was long and difficult and conducted in the media. But the mechanics of what he did and with whom is well and truly kept in the background of what is a personal journey of discovery. The stories that are included show how dangerous this campaign was. The complex politics of the Middle East and Western intervention in Libya also take a back seat. The dealings with the Blair Government included in the book are sufficient to illustrate the difficulties he encountered. It’s a very truthful account of his own responses to his situation. He doesn’t gild the lily, remembering that he barely spoke to his father on what was to be his last farewell. In response to a question he said he effectively became two different people when writing this extremely personal story. The professional writer enjoyed being in the tunnel of the process of putting into words what was a complex story. As an individual, and a son, he found the subject being written about very difficult to deal with. So at his writing desk he became the writer, leaving the son outside. Incredible really. Reading the book and hearing Hisham’s thoughtful views were indeed a pleasure.