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Recollections of a good festival


Julia Gillard signed many books at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard  was the most anticipated writer at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival 2015. Tickets for the day of her appearance sold out and the rush for seats resembled pre-dawn summer swoops on Mediterranean sun lounges.

Luckily the previous sessions were entertaining … Malcolm Knox, Richard McHugh, Sarah Armstrong, Mia Freedman, and I was fortunate in that my neighbour in the marquee, accidentally bought an extra coffee.

But it was all worth it. We remain curious about Julia. Claire Wright was a thoughtful interviewer and a refreshing alternative from the media mainstays whom we’d heard interview Gillard many times before. There is also something to be said for giving people the space to speak without a pressing need for ‘gotcha’ journalism. We may actually learn something. We certainly learned about Gillard’s passion for her current roles, particularly as Chair of The Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

I was struck when Gillard spoke of girls education in sub-Saharan Africa where girls will only start to be educated at early high school level well into the next century. It is important not only so that girls can receive education and training and lead meaningful and contributing lives but also to counter the number of child brides.

Gillard whose misogyny speech garnered huge numbers of viewers and acclaim, said she did not know why Tony Abbott’s speaking in front of the ‘ditch the witch’ and much worse signs ‘was not a career-ending moment’. What if it had been?

Writing is hard work both intellectually and physically, said Gillard. She spent 3-4 weeks on chapter planning. She did not want the book to be full of bile and wanted to emphasise that the bitter-sweetness of politics is outweighed by the latter.

Gillard said she was leaving politics and did. Wayne Swan who also appeared at the festival did not leave politics choosing instead to remain on the backbench, and vocal calling things as he sees them.  Another high profile Labor leader  who was present was former Queensland premier, Anna Bligh who has weathered cancer to move into a new phase.

Other political, policy and current events  were debate by George Megalogenis on the back of his fine TV series, Jonathan Biggins (entertainingly so), Tariq Ali who resonated with the Byron audience and Jane Caro and Erik Jensen. As ever to mention everyone, it would turn into a list.

For me, the fiction and memoists are a huge drawcard.


Jackie French inspires

  • Jackie French who has inspired thousands of young people to write. When I mentioned that I mentor one such young person, French asked me for her name, scribbled a message in a book and handed it to me for her.
  • Chigozie Obioma who  writes of his place, and who did not need friends as a child because his brothers and sisters were his friends, and who took us to West Africa with his story.
  • And Jennifer Clement, who puts into her novel, Prayers For The Stolen, the truths from Mexico that can’t easily be reported.
  • Michael Robotham who keeps us awake too long.
  • The moving launch of Vera. Vera Wasowski’s biography as told by Robert Hillman and launched by Kerry O’Brien.
  • The appearances and clear thrill felt by Emma Ashmere whose novel, The Floating Garden gathers praise like flowers as it goes.

These are a few recollections of the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015 — it’s not easy to know where to end or begin — and I will end and simply to say, happy reading for 2016.



The festival that was 2015


The Forgiveness panel: David Vann, James Bradley and Sarah Armstrong at 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival. Photo: Kalem Horn

To Forgive and Forget: The limits of forgiveness

It may be easier to say “I forgive you” than it is to forget past wrongs. Does an apology necessitate complete forgiveness, or does the pain cut too deep for any form of absolution?

According to James Bradley, critic and author of the recently released novel, Clade, some things are unforgiveable.

Clade takes place over several decades, focusing on the Leith family as they deal with a world afflicted by the effects of climate change, along with their family dynamics. Bradley, speaking with David Vann and Sarah Armstrong at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, said that he attempted to connect climate change to a more personal experience.

The impact of global climate change on the world is something Bradley believes we, as a species, are responsible for. He declares an anxiety from wondering how to ask for forgiveness from his own children in 15 years from now, when the global situation worsens. This anxiety formed his inspiration for writing Clade.

Circumstances, such as climate change, can be very severe and unforgiveable by some. However, David Vann, author and University of Warwick creative writing professor, believes “children have a huge capacity to forgive”.

His new book, Aquarium, tells the story of twelve-year-old Caitlyn and the tumultuous relationships between herself, her long lost grandfather, and her mother, Sheri.

Vann said that Sheri and her father’s reunion serves as a test of forgiveness for them. The grandfather abandoned his daughter Sheri at a young age, and he is seeking her forgiveness. But Sheri tries to keep Caitlyn and her grandfather apart, effectively punishing him vicariously through her own daughter.

The willingness to forgive may take longer, depending on the situation. Sometimes forgiveness might not occur at all.

Author Sarah Armstrong believes that any form of forgiveness between her novel’s characters in His Other House, would happen after the book has ended.

The adulterous main character, Quinn, falls in love with another woman in the midst of dealing with problems in his marriage. The result of Quinn’s cheating is the pregnancies of both his wife and his lover.

Armstrong said that she set out to write a lead male character that was likeable and identifiable, showing that otherwise good people often hurt others.

Perhaps it is human nature to constantly upset, disappoint, and hurt others, hence—as Vann points out—our similarity to characters in Ancient Greek narratives. Nothing changes.

“We act unconsciously and out of control,” Vann said, pushing the point that we are archetypal figures who make the same mistakes and always ask for forgiveness.

Knowing this helped Vann to reconcile with his mother, with whom he had had an uneasy relationship for years.

But forgiveness through reconciliation need not deny events.

Bradley expressed his own suspicion at the word ‘forgiveness’. He believed that it, like ‘closure’, seems to imply that the past has been dealt with and can be forgotten.

“Understanding the situation is not the same as absolving,” he said.

Vann and Armstrong agreed with Bradley when he suggested that literature should provide a way of thinking through the matter of forgiving and (hopefully not) forgetting.

Lachlan Rutherford is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student at Southern Cross University. He is writing his Honours thesis on David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

Joan London reads from her latest novel The Golden Age at Byron Bay Writers Festival 2015. Photo: Kalem Horn

The simple act of reading: Why all reading is created equal

After many years of pondering, I’ve come to the conclusion that all reading is created equal.

This is not to say that all books are created equal — I’m not saying that there aren’t good or bad books. What I’m saying is that the act of reading, of diving into a story and experiencing the characters, setting, and themes is universal in literature, regardless of a story’s quality.

I think many people were very excited to attend the panel inspired by the book The Simple Act of Reading by Debra Adelaide for exactly this reason. Readers of all experience, who love everything from trashy romance novels to Greek classics, can appreciate the way it feels to dive into a book.

This Sunday morning session at Byron Bay Writers Festival included Andy Griffiths, Malcolm Knox, and Joan London, and chaired by Catherine Keenan, and it represented a hugely diverse group of authors, to say the least.

The Simple Act of Reading book itself is a collection of essays and memoirs, penned by authors on the ways that reading led them to writing.

Griffiths, who has written celebrated children’s books including The Day My Bum Went Psycho and The Treehouse series, cites his earliest reading experience as being a German book of morality tales for children called Der Struwwelpeter. Griffiths found humour and horror co-existed in these stories, where the consequences were absurdly out of proportion to the “crime” committed.

The children’s author decided that this combination was exactly the sort of book he grew up wanting to write. Recently he had re-read Pinocchio and lamented the disservice that Disney had done to the story by taking all of the horror out.

Knox, too, cited the same children’s book as being a great part of his childhood, although he joked that perhaps the reason his career “didn’t go in the same direction” as Griffiths’ was that when he read these German fairy tales, he took them seriously.

Perhaps that’s why he began as a journalist, and became a novelist later.

Author of several works including A Private Man and Summerland, Knox has not only won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction, but also won a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.

To me, Knox’s early reading choices really reflect a desire to deal with the real, the concrete. In contrast to Griffith’s stories, which exhibit some of the silliness that he appreciated about the otherwise horror-driven works of his youth, Knox’s writing is more serious, more solidly based in reality.

A Private Man, for example, deals largely with a death and the consequences of that death. Not as fanciful, but valuable in ways different from Griffith’s work.

London boasts an incredibly varied catalogue of works including a book based on the oldest poem in the world, Gilgamesh, which serves to ground an ancient tale in modern times. She has also written The Golden Age, which follows two people, whose lives become entwined after meeting in rehab.

When asked what sorts of books she likes to read, London confessed to enjoying the sorts of stories where inventive and intelligent children are able to create a good situation out of bad ones. When she picks up a book it is to “find out what this writer has to tell me about being a human being, and how to place your experience”.

Back to my point about how all reading is created equal—this panel has three authors who have read a plethora of books in their lives. Griffiths finds himself always revisiting The Catcher in the Rye; London says that Alice Monroe was a huge influence, and Knox admits to reading what he calls “airport trash”, the junk you get from the newsstand because you have nothing else to read.

Not all of what they’ve read is quality, but all of it is valuable. Need proof? Consider that no matter what it was that they have read in the past, or what they will read in future – these are published authors. They are the sum of their experiences.

I don’t care what anyone says – that itself is valuable.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Michael Cooney (r) and Don Watson (c) mull the ins and outs of political speechwriting with session chair Jeni Caffin (l). Photo: Kalem Horn.

Putting words in their mouth: The art of speechwriting

Speechwriting is a tough profession. Crafting another’s ideas and words into an eloquent package involves a lot of people who, as Don Watson told his audience at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival, “really they never thought about words.”

Rather amusing for the man who was speechwriter to Paul Keating when he was prime minister, and who went on to lead the charge for quality and integrity in public language.

No easy task as you can imagine, and I think to be successful you must have some measure of passion for the person you’re writing about and what they stand for.

Certainly for Watson and Michael Cooney, who was speechwriter to Julia Gillard, there is no shortage of passion for the prime ministers they served.

This showed in their discussion and Jeni Caffin, their session chair at the festival, who described their books as “love letters” to the prime minsters they served.

So what makes a great speech?

Watson, who authored Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, is matter-of-fact: speeches should be direct, concrete, and never in the passive voice. He describes speechwriting an endless and often draining task, and admits to finding a certain measure of respectability in being considered a “bleeding heart”.

The most famous of Keating’s speeches, the Redfern Speech, is an intensely gritty acknowledgment of the crimes committed against Australia’s indigenous population. Watson had a heavy hand in writing the speech, however it’s interesting to note that Keating himself has claimed sole authorship, insisting that it is inherently his.

Who then do the words of the speech belong to?

There’s a lot of anonymity in being a speechwriter. While it’s generally known that speeches are written by a person hired to do so, there’s so much give and take between the writer and the speaker that there exists a sort of co-authorship that cannot be ignored.

The responsibility for the work is perhaps a little less clear. If the work is good, the praise will fall to the person you wrote the speech for. If you fail, you’ve given them bad advice. In the case of Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech, this symbiotic relationship between speaker and writer is quite relevant to me after hearing Watson speak.

The dawn of the digital age has made Cooney’s experience quite different Watson’s. Watson talks about coming from the age of newspaper transcripts, when speeches spread slowly and were much less far-reaching. Online communication has made the world considerably “smaller”.

Gone are the days of waiting for print media to write about the events. The same day Julia Gillard made her famous self-written misogyny speech, it spread as far as to where I lived in Massachusetts, US. An incredible feat, far removed from the experience of Watson’s time.

Cooney praises the internet and social media and the effect it has had on speechwriting. The increased visibility of famous speeches means that they can now be spread globally in a matter of minutes.

Cooney suggests that a great speech must form a well-thought out and impressive whole; the digital age and expansion of global media means that your 20-minute speech is going to be broken up, often delivered in 7 second clips. If the entire speech is lacking, that 7-second clip will be as well.

He suggests that the easiest way to fix a lacklustre speech is to format sentences into subject-verb-object structure, to deliver lines that are direct. In speeches such as the one Gillard delivered in Brisbane on Australian mining, the carbon tax, and the economy as compared to the rest of the globe, his short, cutting lines punctuating longer thoughts proved that this this strategy really works.

The impressive speech came just before the G20 Conference, and was one of the defining moments of Gillard’s political career.

After hearing these incredible men discuss their careers, I can’t help but wonder after the title of the conversation. Can anyone really say that speechwriting is putting words into someone’s mouths?

It’s so much more complex than that. Caffin suggests that unlike a movie script, you aren’t creating thoughts for a person. You’re voicing what they already think and feel. It’s a tremendously difficult exercise in empathy; there’s art in being able to anticipate and construct a piece that reflects what another person wants to say.

The responsibility of writing for another person is a heavy cross to bear, but if Cooney and Watson’s passion and fervour for the work they’ve done is anything to go by, it’s well worth the struggle to succeed.

Megan A. Morgan is a Bachelor of Arts student studying Writing and Visual Arts at Southern Cross University. She holds a prior degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.