Thanks to the Wheeler Centre we had a mini Writers Festival here in Melbourne end April early May 2019. Some of the overseas authors attending the Sydney Writers Festival which goes from 29 April to 5 May were brought down to Melbourne to share their thoughts on books and writing. It’s a great idea, given how far these guests have come. Some were going on to the Auckland Writers Festival (13-19 May). Joe and I took full advantage of the opportunity and saw six authors over the course of a fortnight.

For some reason, not clear to me, the programme was called Mayhem. Because it was in May? Do writers cause mayhem? Do we want them to? Interesting questions.

Max Porter
I think Max Porter would be quite keen to cause mayhem. He wants to give readers plenty of leeway to use their own imaginations to fill in the gaps in his fiction. We saw him on Monday 29 April at the Athenaeum. He was interviewed by Ronnie Scott, a Lecturer in Creative Writing at RMIT who I hadn’t come across before but who was very good in the role.

I really loved Max’s first book, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers which I read in 2015. A strange, poetic book. Not so much a story as an evocation of a special period in life. What is grief? It is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood. How do you deal with grief? You muddle through. In this case a father and two boys are visited by a crow after their mother dies suddenly. The story is told in monologues from each character; Bird/Crow, Dad, Boys. No linear story telling here. We are listening in, overhearing snippets of family life, before and now. When the time comes for Crow to leave Dad asks if it’s because he, the father is over his grieving. The bird answers No, not at all. You were done being hopeless. Grieving is something you’re still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.

I’ve often thought of this straightforward explanation by one of the boys, all grown up and with a family of his own – it comes towards the end of the book and brings you back to earth. I tell tales of our family friend, the crow. My wife shakes her head. She thinks it’s weird that I fondly remember family holidays with an imaginary crow, and I remind her that it could have been anything, could have gone any way, but something more or less healthy happened. We miss our Mum, we love our Dad, we wave at crows. It’s not that weird.

The talk was mostly about Max’s new book Lanny which I’ve been given for Mother’s Day and for which I’m awaiting a period free from interruptions. I want to throw myself into it totally and read it in one sitting. Doable because it’s another short book – Max doesn’t believe in long ones. It’s about an unsettling topic. Friendship between a young boy and an older man; in this day and age a complex scenario. Like his first book this one is also told via short chapters in the voices of the different characters, although there are more this time. And there is a mythical element like Crow; Dead Papa Toothwort who may or may not be based on The Green Man of English legend.

His books are beautifully designed.

The talk was terrific. Max is such an interesting writer. He wants to evoke feelings and emotions rather than telling a straightforward story. As he said, plotting is not his strong point; in fact he eschews it as much as possible. He doesn’t want to go from point A to point B and nor does he want to describe his characters or want to explain what’s going on. Less is more every time. He talked about having written quite a bit describing the mother in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers but in the end he took it out. It just didn’t work and wasn’t necessary. Would have really changed the book if he had; and it’s true it wasn’t necessary. She’s at the centre of the book but you don’t need to know what she looks like and her character comes through in the snippets the characters remember about her. Beautifully done.

Max talked about the need for authenticity above all else. And how this is quite different for a novel compared to a poem. He said a poem is like a dark room and the final lines are like a light suddenly being turned on. On the other hand, novels can’t play tricks on people otherwise the reader feels cheated. He was asked what an aspiring writer should do and he recommended reading, reading, reading. In particular in different genres; he loves children’s books. He also recommends reading translated books; otherwise you’re alone in a white room. A very stimulating evening.

I didn’t take a picture; but here is one of Max at Hill of Content bookshop before the event.

You can listen to the whole thing here. Worth doing, a very interesting talk.

Jenny Erpenbeck
Second up was Jenny Erpenbeck: European Facts and Fictions on 6 May upstairs at the Athenaeum at 6pm. The first time I’ve been upstairs here and it’s a great space for an author talk. Nice and intimate.

Jenny was interviewed by Melinda Harvey, a Lecturer in Literary Studies Monash University. Her questions were good but she took a while to get them out. The discussion centred on her second book, Go Went Gone which is the first of hers that I’ve read.

The discussion made me want to re-read it. Jenny’s from East Germany and her protagonist is also from East Berlin so has a feeling of dislocation in the ways of West Germans which gives him some insight to the plight of the refugees. She did a lot of research, talking to those whose experiences she uses in the book. She thanks them by name at the end of the book. The novel describes the experiences of a number of young men as they seek refuge in Germany. They come from different countries in Africa and each has had different experiences both in terms of the circumstances from which they are fleeing and about where they want to go. It’s very topical although she started writing it before the big influx of refugees into Germany in 2018.

Their stories are told through the eyes of a recently retired, widowed classics professor. As noted, from the eastern side of the wall so in remembering his past he ponders the differences he sees in the present Berlin and remembers how those from the east were regarded by westerners. It gives him an affinity with the men he meets. The reader, like him is drawn into the terrible bureaucratic processes and the day to day lives of the refugees.

Being a professor he is interested in the broader global influences at work and he investigates the histories of the countries they have fled. It is all neatly done. The role of work in providing self esteem and satisfaction bubbles through the book; both in terms of the refugees, who aren’t allowed to and our professor, recently retired and his circle of friends who are facing retirement with varying degrees of equanimity. Jenny, from East Germany, talked about how work is a necessity for a person’s sense of themselves.

Of her discussions with refugees, she said she was surprised that it was talking about the normal day to day lives they had left behind that upset them the most. Not the harrowing violence they had fled or of the traumatic journeys they had endured. It was remembering the little things about their family routines, working lives, day to day regular things that upset them most. She was asked why she focussed on men to the exclusion of women and said this was because women would have made it more complicated and in any event, while absent from the lives of their men, women were really ever-present in their emotional lives. Interesting.

Go Went Gone is not written in as poetic a way as Jenny’s earlier book, Visitation which I found at a second hand bookstore. It was published in 2010 and I thought I was lucky to find it but it’s been re-issued.
It’s quite similar in structure and tone to Max Porter. Each chapter relates the experience of one of the inhabitants of the house; only one, the gardener, is constant throughout. The blurb on the back of this recent paperback correctly describes it as concerning A house and its inhabitants. A country and its ghosts. Beautifully put. I have written about it here. I find it interesting; that the same author could speak in such different voices.

Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper
We were to go to another talk at 8pm downstairs at the Athenaeum so we took ourselves off to the great little place next door called Bistro D’Orsay, great food and they are used to serving people who have shows to get to. We had a lovely encounter of the sort that can happen at a writers festival. While we were hearing from Jenny Erpenbeck in the upstairs space the historian Antony Beevor was on at the same time downstairs speaking about History and Hubris. I would have liked to see him as well – bad programming Wheeler Centre!

A couple sat down next to us in the restaurant (the tables are very close together). I’d just posted a picture of Jenny Erpenbeck on Instagram at the same time the Wheeler Centre posted a picture of Antony Beevor which I showed Joe. He got all excited (in a quiet sort of way) and gestured to the two next to us. It’s him, he whispered. I turned and said Are you enjoying Melbourne? and we proceeded to have a little conversation; Told we’d chosen another writer over his session, he graciously observed; you can’t be in two places at the same time.

He left briefly and we got talking to his companion. Brain like a sieve I’d forgotten who Antony Beevor’s wife was.
She:I write biographies.
Me: Who’ve you written about?
She: An English cookery writer, you may have heard of her, Elizabeth David.
Me: Oh yes of course we’ve heard of her.
She: Elizabeth Howard.
Me:Oh she had a terrible life.
She: Yes.

And in the hubbub I didn’t hear the next bit but Joe did – And Patrick Leigh Fermor. There was a bit of overlap in conversations then; Joe saying I’d read all of Patrick’s books and her biography of him, me asking what her name was and for some reason she was saying her grandmother was Diana Cooper and her father John Julius Norwich, before she said her name, Artemis Cooper. I then got her a bit mixed up with Allegra Huston, her half sister.

Finally we sorted it all out and I said how much I loved her biography of Patrick, and how pleased I was that she’d published the third volume of his trilogy about walking from Holland to Constantinople (as it then was), The Broken Road. The tragedy was that he’d finished it before he died, she said. I told her I’d loved her father’s book, Shakespeare’s Kings and Allegra’s memoir, Love Child.

Then Antony came back and I told him how great Berlin: The Downfall was. It’s incredible but a terribly brutal story. I told him I wasn’t up to reading any more of his histories! That and saying I hadn’t been to his session must have made me sound like every author’s nightmare! She said he’d nearly had a nervous breakdown writing Berlin.

They were only staying one night in Melbourne, at the Sofitel where they always stay. They were flying to New Zealand the next day where, after a week sightseeing in the South Island, they were both speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival. Her session was already sold out and his not at the time we spoke with them. And that was it. We were off to our next session, leaving them to their dinner in peace.

I was over the moon. How great is it to get to talk to authors whose books you have admired. I would point out that Joe had in fact not read any of the above-mentioned books, but managed to look as though he had! I was cross with myself for not immediately recognising who she was. I’m also cross in retrospect that I didn’t tell them that I’d loved their book Paris After The Liberation; another great read.

Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer’s session was named for her latest book The Female Persuasion which I haven’t read. And she’s also famous for an article in the Times Book Review called The Second Shelf in which she argued womens literature is treated as a trivial genre, consigned to the lesser shelves in bookstores. I haven’t read that either – but I strongly agree with the premise, so here it is.

She was interviewed by Brodie Lancaster, critic and editor who has read both of those as well as Meg’s other books and was terrific. Here they are.

The only book I’ve read of hers is The Interestings which I quite liked but I found the name silly. It’s about a group of young people who meet at summer camp and what happens to them as they grow up. Meg told us that yes, she did go on a summer camp and it was a place where she made friends for life. She’s interested in what happens to people as they move through the different phases of life. Which is exactly what The Interestings is about. I would like to re-read it having heard from her.

The latest book has a character who sounds like Gloria Steinem who mentors a young woman. A funny thing about these sessions is how the different writers often say similar things. Meg made the same point that Max did about the need for a novel to be truthful. She told a joke which had a punch line that undercut the whole story. Makes a joke but undermines a novel if you did the same thing. Interesting.

Meg also wrote The Wife, recently made into a film starring Glen Close and so she was asked a bit about that. She’s full of admiration for Glen and observed that the novel was all about the voice of the titular woman whilst the film is all about Glen’s face. I’d like to read it even though Artemis thought it misrepresented the way biographers go about their work!

The Wheeler Centre has put up a podcast of this session which you can listen to here.

Susan Orlean
Next we saw Susan Orlean in a session called Stranger Than Non-fiction. She writes for the New Yorker and has three non-fiction books to her name, none of which I’ve read; The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin and her latest The Library Book. But I do feel as though I know Susan as I follow her on Twitter. She was interviewed by Sarah Krasnostein the author of the The Trauma Cleaner which I have read and which is wonderful. Here they are.
It was a very interesting discussion about writing non-fiction. Susan is clearcut, non-fiction is about facts and there is no grey area; facts are facts, if you make things up its fiction. She says a non-fiction writer needs to be curious about everything and she clearly finds all sorts of things interesting. One of her first pieces for the New Yorker was about how staff learned how to fold jumpers at Benetton Stores; she discovered that it’s a learned skill!

She does lots of research because she wants to find out stuff. And she knows when she has done enough when she knows more of the whole story than the people she’s interviewing who may only know their little bit of the total. Like others she said if you want to write you need to read lots.

This summary doesn’t do justice to the conversation which was great. Susan was very vivacious and lively. She read a bit from her book on libraries; its focussed on the fire that nearly destroyed the Los Angeles library in 1986 but sounds as though it is actually a hymn of praise to libraries. Her mate George Saunders was in the audience.

Andrew Sean Greer
Next up we saw Andrew Sean Greer who, in the drolly titled session The Less We Know, was being interviewed by Benjamin Law. Droll because it is a play on the character Arthur Less, the protagonist in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Less. The two of them had great rapport and it was very enjoyable. Here they are.

And here’s the book with a great cover. The blue suit is almost a character; a talisman for Less who feels he’s falling, falling, falling. I’ve read it twice and enjoyed it a lot and the conversation enhanced my understanding of it a lot. There does seem to be quite a bit of synergy between Andrew’s experience and those of his character.

Less is a writer in mid career who has turned his back on a loving relationship with someone much younger. He takes off on a round the world trip to avoid going to his young lover’s marriage. In his youth Less had a long relationship with an older man; a Pulitzer prize winning poet. We travel with Less as he attends various author gigs; interviewing writers more famous than he, attending writers symposiums to talk about his former lover, shortlisted for an obscure international writing prize, being the outlier guest at someone’s wedding, a stop over in Paris and finally an attempt to finish his stalled novel in an writers retreat in India. Lots of exotic locations; Mexico, Morocco. Lots of humiliating experiences for Less. WE get flashbacks to his time with Robert the poet and meet his friendship group all jockeying for position in their mid life careers and relationships.

As I said some similarities between Greer and Less, when Greer was told he’d won the Pulitzer Prize he was running a writers retreat in Tuscany for an Italian Countess! He was very charming and often funny; wearing leather pants that looked to be the same that he describes Less buying in Paris. I asked who he had in mind in creating the figure of Robert, the poet with whom Less has the long affair. It was Frank O’Hara! I wouldn’t have guessed.

There’s lots in the book about the creative life. Greer was keen to depict successful, loving gay relationships and he’s done that too. Although the fact the characters are gay to me doesn’t seem central to the novel. He also described how midway through a novel he has an anxiety attack and takes to his couch; he accompanied this description with hand gestures to his forehead. That’s when he realises the book is not going to be what he thought at the start and if he can come to terms with that, he can go on and finish it. Sort of similar to the trope you often hear that the characters in a novel take over; but a bit more nuanced.

Here’s another picture of Andrew giggling during the interview, where you can see the leather pants. He seemed to be enjoying himself.

There’s a nice interview with Andrew here.

Mary Norris
Mary was a copy editor at the New Yorker which is where I first came upon her. Her session was titled From Comma Queen to Greek Geek. She was interviewed by Penny Modra who shares her interest in grammar to the extent of having a regular spot talking about it on ABC Radio. They were a great combination in conversation; bouncing off each other. Here they are at the Wheeler Centre.

I first became aware of Mary through the fantastic little videos she used to do for The New Yorker. Here’s an example. So I was very keen to read her first book, Between You And Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as I’ve written this blog.

In it, she has advice about when to use commas, colons, semi colons, dashes and when to use which or that. Little things that have always troubled me. And it’s part memoir as well. She comes from Cleveland and you learn a bit about that and about her family. There’s an affecting bit about her younger, favourite brother that makes a grammatical question personal for Mary, all about appropriate pronouns.

There’s lots about what working at The New Yorker was like and the different people she met there. One of whom had a comma shaker which was a joke of course but there’s a poignant bit about how she ended up. So it’s not just all about boring grammar! Not that I find all the grammatical stuff boring.

I’m now keen to read her latest book which is about learning Greek, Greek To Me but I’ll have to get it from the library while our resolution not to buy new books is on foot. It sounds terrific and she is a great writer as you can see in this article for her old employer The New Yorker.

Anyway it was a great interview. The photo makes it look serious but it was great fun. Mary likes dashes and not colons – dashes flow better and have more energy: a colon stops things dead. At one stage Penny asked Mary whether she could identify a semi colon in a sentence she was going to speak – and Mary did! It was a quote from John Clark.

Mary says she might write about cows next. In The Comma Queen she talks about how she likes cows, they lead a placid yet productive life! She’s even done a course on how to judge dairy cattle and knows the difference between the different breeds. She’s a woman of many talents. I told her after the interview that I hope she does write about cows.

All in all we had a great fortnight. Stimulating on so many levels. All of the authors were so generous in their contributions. The book Less makes fun of these sorts of events but properly done they are great opportunities for people to learn and broaden our minds. I loved all of the sessions. And here in Melbourne we have a great range of places to eat after having our brains fed. As I’ve said before the Wheeler Centre is a great institution to have here in Melbourne. We finished the fortnight exhausted but exhilarated.


2 Responses to Writers Galore But Is It Mayhem?

  1. Joseph Burke says:

    Great discussion. It was a terrific few days and the authors and interviewers were very very good. There’s only two oversights in this account. First, you failed to clarify that it is your extensive reading and our joint cultural endeavours that makes this literary osmosis possible. Second, that this enables me to briefly hoodwink even the authors themselves provides immense – if ephemeral- satisfaction.

  2. [...] In the middle of these talks – in fact in between the Jenny Erpenbeck and Meg Wolitzer ones – I even got to talk to a couple of authors I’ve read and loved over the years – Anthony Beever and Artemis Cooper, even though I didn’t go to Anthony’s session. It’s all explained in my blog. [...]

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