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Something in the Water – Byron’s never ending supply of talent

The Byron area produces an abundance of writers. So many emerge that the Writers’ Festival can afford to showcase the new talent every year. The theory posited this afternoon was that there is something in the water. There does seem to be an element in the area that is especially conducive to writing. If I had to make a guess, I would say it’s the festival itself and the community it fosters. When Jesse Blackadder introduced the four debut authors, she asked for a proper Byron welcome. The following roar of applause, whoops and cheers was as endearing as it was deafening.

The first emergent writer to speak about how the area shaped her as a writer was Jessie Cole. Her novel Darkness on the Edge of Town was lauded as exquisite and pitch perfect by The Australian this week. She grew up in the area, she tells us, but she never really felt like part of it. Cole explained how she is quite often isolated, both emotionally and geographically, living in a technological black spot with no mobile reception and no broadcast media save for the dear old ABC. Jessie gives credit to this degree of separation for providing her with an impetus to write. She wasn’t compelled by the Byron area so much a given a realm without distraction to create her story.

Amanda Webster’s story is an entirely different matter. The Boy who Loved Apples is Webster’s memoir, detailing her experiences raising an anorexic son. The impact of Byron on her story is immediately apparent; the story, after all, is set in Byron Shire. The novel took eight years to emerge fully formed, and when it did Webster was not without reservations. She explained that the beauty of this area might help you write, but it leaves you unprepared for publication and the sensation of having a readership. She was telling her son’s story as well as her own, exposing a very personal experience to the world. Webster remained chipper, though, as she took us through the experience of writing in Byron.

“It’s not the water, it’s the coffee.” She laughed, but ended by saying that the real value of the area is the support of her fellow writers.

Lisa Walker’s first novel, Liar Bird is a romantic comedy featuring a pig that is feral and a frog that is a philosopher. She always knew she had a book inside her, but it was her move to Byron from the city that compelled her to finally write it. Her own sea change acted as inspiration for Liar Bird, with the novel’s protagonist undergoing a similar experience after losing a PR battle with a potoroo. Walker explained how fond she is of the local fauna; she was very impressed to see that wildlife is an important part of so many people’s lives. This, perhaps, explains the philosopher frog. Walker also detailed the lack of anonymity the area provides to writers, how her readers might be trying to find analogues of people they know. A futile activity, she assured the audience, as all her characters were entirely fictional.

Shamus Sillar absorbed the stories of the area from his childhood onwards, managing to find hilarity in the experiences recounted to him. He told of how he noticed a scar on his father’s leg while body surfing. It turns out his father was out spear fishing and found that his leg was the catch of the day. Sillar told us about his Nanna and the trove of stories covering both family and local history. We’re told she had wonderful store of tales and an even more wonderful store of lollies. Sillar’s wedding is just such a story; involving a doughnut of storms, a tearful bride-to-be and a happy ending with rainbows and humpback whales. As the title suggests, Sillar’s debut novel Sicily, it’s not Tuscany is set in Sicily, but it’s author has taken Byron with him and put the attitudes and character of the place into the story.

It probably isn’t something in the water, it might not even be the festival or any other X-factor that turns Byronians into auteurs. There might be, but even if it’s just a stroke of luck, there’s no denying the effect the area has on the locals that are brave enough to put pen to paper.

David Wilton is a Media student at Southern Cross University

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