Adelaide Writers’ Week is considered by many to be the pinnacle of writers’ festivals in Australia, and 2014 didn’t disappoint. Some of Australia’s best writers plus a range of high profile international authors converged on the beautiful Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens for six days of talking about books to large crowds of readers.
I was lucky enough to have the whole week free this year, and I certainly made the most of it. For the first time in years, the weather, usually in the high 30s, was perfect. The festival begins on the Saturday with two kids’ days running parallel to the main program. I love to see little kids enjoying books, and aside from readings by authors such as Mem Fox and Katrina Germein, there were many other activities to keep small people entertained. We took our two-year-old on the Saturday and he had fun for hours.
As always, immersing myself in the world of books and writing brought inspiration. I haven’t been writing lately while I leave my manuscript to rest, but have been cogitating on a new idea, and throughout the week I found myself adding notes and snippets of subplots into my phone. I’m now feeling quite excited about jumping into it when the time is right. And of course I discovered a whole host of new authors, and bought a huge haul of books from the book tent.
Writers’ festivals are also an opportunity to meet other authors, and it was great to bump into Irma Gold, children’s author and editor of The Sound of Silence: Journeys Through Miscarriage, in which my own story was published a few years ago.
My highlights from the week, in order of appearance:
- Richard Flanagan – Much has been made of Flanagan’s latest book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but it wasn’t a book I had any interest in reading until I heard him speak about it. War stories are not usually my thing, but this book, based in part on the experiences of Flanagan’s father as a prisoner of war, seems so personal, and his reading from it so beautiful that it went straight on my list of books to be read. He also made a statement about asylum seekers that really resonated with me – and obviously with many others, as it earned him thunderous applause from the huge crowd – in that all the world’s great atrocities began with considering a group of people as less than human.
- Jaspreet Singh – It’s no secret that I’ve long enjoyed Indian literature, so it was great to hear this Indian/Canadian writer talk about his book, which chronicles the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres. Again, this is quite a personal book, as Singh was a Sikh teenager living in Delhi at the time. While I have read a bit about this in the past, it’s a little-known issue outside of India.
- Louise Doughty – The highlight of the festival for me, this author spoke extensively about her writing process. It’s always great to hear writers actually discussing style, structure and process rather than just talking about the book itself, especially when they admit to the same post-first draft panic that us aspiring authors have! I was only disappointed that I left my book buying too late in the week and all her books had sold out. And Doughty’s realisation that she came to while sitting through a murder trial as research for her latest novel will stay with me for a long time – that the prosecution writes its own novel of the murder while the defence writes a different version, and the jury are literary critics who decide which story has the most credibility. Brilliant.
- Hannah Kent and Elizabeth Gilbert – I saw these two on a panel together about writing historical fiction. Local author Kent is always such a pleasure to listen to, humble despite her enormous success, and her reading from Burial Rites was a reminder of her stunning writing. Elizabeth Gilbert, on the other hand, was a surprise. I’ve never read Eat Pray Love, and have to admit to a certain snobbery due to its commercial success, but her reading from her latest book, The Signature of All Things, showed her to be both a witty, accomplished writer and a down to earth person.
- Fiona McFarlane – I saw this new Australian writer on a panel with the aforementioned Louise Doughty discussing the issue of trust in fiction. Her first novel, The Night Guest, has already had considerable success, making the shortlist for the prestigious 2014 Stella Prize. Her explanation of the thoughts that went into the story was fascinating, and I’ve now added her book to my ever-growing to-be-read pile.
- Alexander McCall Smith – I wasn’t planning on staying for this session, but I’m so glad I did. McCall Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, among others, is a delightful man who exudes comedy and had the whole crowd in hysterics. Even the AUSLAN interpreter had to stop at one point as she broke down in uncontrollable laughter. Totally entertaining and endearing, and a prolific writer, turning out 3-4 books each year, it was a fun hour spent in his company.
- Jeet Thayil – another Indian writer, Thayil has recently released his first novel about the opium dens in 1970s Bombay. Thayil was open about his own battles with heroin addiction over 25 years, but it was his reading from the novel that was the highlight for me. His prologue is a six-page, stream of conscious sentence, and what a sentence! Thayil is also a performance poet, and the couple of pages he read from the prologue were simply amazing. He didn’t even stand up from his chair, but his presence, his compelling voice, and of course the beautiful words, were an amazing experience to hear. He reminded me a lot of Kevin Spacey.
- Michelle de Kretser – Winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for her novel Questions of Travel, Sri Lankan born Australian de Kretser was also a highlight. I saw her on a panel with Jaspreet Singh in an interesting discussion on travel and tourism and what it means to different people and cultures. It was a lovely moment when de Kretser’s former geography teacher stood up to ask a question near the end, demonstrating that teachers can have an influence on their students long after their school years.
- Christos Tsiolkas – While Tsiolkas was not his usual articulate self and often seemed to fumble for words, he’s worth a mention purely for his humility and genuine nature. He seems – still – genuinely stunned and humbled by his own success, despite the brilliance of his dissection of character in his most recent novel Barracuda. He also raised a passionate defence of public schooling, a subject close to my own heart.
And there ended Writers’ Week for another year. I’m now armed with a great pile of books and a lot of inspiration to continue with my own writing. We’re so lucky to have such an amazing writers’ festival here in Adelaide. I’m already looking forward to attending next year.