For the first time in an almost unbelievable twelve years I upped and hied myself to the Perth Writers Festival this last weekend. Twelve years is a long time in politics and writers festivals: the last time I attended it was held in the quaint and relatively compact confines of the Fremantle Writers Centre, and we all sat under the trees in groups of about twenty and listened to whatever was put in front of us because, quite honestly, programmes were just something that happened to other people. Since then, it’s been swallowed by the corporate maw of the Perth International Arts Festival and moved to the rather more lush and expansive grounds of the University of Western Australia. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s fucking enormous.
The Festival runs for three days, and having some time off work for writah-dahlinking, Luscious Lyn and I managed to attend two of them: a day to ourselves on the very grown up Friday, and in the company of our 20 and 8 year old sons on the Family Fun Day two days later. And what we saw… well…
What we saw has changed things, and I’m not yet quite sure how to quantify what they changed. But somewhere along the line, something inside of me went ping, and although I’m not sure exactly what has changed, still I knew things have.
It started early: at the very first session we attended, the very first session of the very first day– “Boys Behaving Badly”, an examination of sex, mysogyny and manhood. I wasn’t as much interested in the subject as I was in the speakers, because one of the authors speaking was John Doust, and John was my mentor when I first started stand-up comedy way back in 1992. Even back then, John talked of writing a novel loosely based upon his lifetime experiences, and he’s gone on to write two. I wanted to hear him speak, to see him in action after many years out of touch. And he looked fine, and happy, and he certainly sounded content with the stories he was telling and the current shape of his career. But as I watched him, something started ticking inside of me, and I left the tent in rather more pondering a mood than I was expecting.
And then I sat and watched a panel discussion on ‘place’, and observed the convenor and the two mainstream novelists on the panel treat the crime novelist with suspicion and barely-concealed ambivalence– admittedly, he was a giant arse, but that wasn’t all of it. And the ticking got a little bit louder.
And then we trooped into the Octagon Theatre with hundreds of other acolytes to watch the big ticket item of the day– and, arguably of the Festival– the reason why the title of this blog is only a paraphrasing and not an outright steal of that David Bowie song– the 16-bucks-a-ticket-plus-booking-fee discussion on writing between China Meiville and Margaret Attwood. I had hoped for a lightsaber duel, a battle of wits so quick that much of it would only be assimilated in retrospect: a bedazzlement; a clash of rapiers; a fireworks show. What I got was a couple of chummy masters sitting back after a bloody good meal, letting out their trouser buttons and calling for the port to be served. It was a different kind of brilliance, a more sedate and leisurely kind, but as it progressed I found myself strangely disappointed.
Part of it was the lack of challenge in the questions asked, either by the audience or by the moderator, an irritating little twerp who had no idea that the role of a facilitator is to get the fuck out the way and let the interesting famous people talk so insisted on blethering his inconsequential and sycophantic opinions like a junior drinks waiter with a word-of-the-day calendar. But there was more to it than that, and it’s at this point where I begin to lose my way: something didn’t sit right with me, and I cannot pin it down. Whether it was the lack of urgency, of challenge, or the comfortable assumption that what these two heavyweights of speculative fiction were discussing– and perpetuating– was not at all linked to furtherance of the speculative genre, I don’t know. Maybe it was just the observation that these two giants of speculative fiction were being feted by so many more attendees than they would have if they’d worn their skiffy badges with trumpeting pride…. All I know right now is that, for me as a career-oriented writer, something changed during that hour, and I’ll be some time sorting it out.
Whatever it was, I came out of that session with different eyes.
It was on this day, also, that I had two very public moments of change, and they were purely ego-based:
“Excuse me, are you Lee Battersby?”
Not once, but twice. One a professional peer I’d never met in the flesh before, one a reader who had attended the Corpse-Rat King launch in 2012 and approached me to ask about the new book. It might be shallow, but thousands of people attend the Festival, including hundreds of writers, and I have never really extended my public self outside of the small SF circle in Perth. For the first time, I walked anonymously through the crowd at a multi-level writing event, and was recognised. And something inside of me ticked a little louder at that point, because something was becoming clearer:
There is an audience out there I have never approached, never tapped into, and the fault is mine. Because while I have always insisted that I see myself as not just an SF writer but a writer, sans prefix, the truth is that I’ve not behaved that way. And it turns out that I haven’t really thought that way. Not really. And walking around that giant Festival, with its multiple tents and splendiferous signage and signing room and bookshop a million bloody miles deep and wide, I felt something I haven’t felt at an SF con in years: I really, really wanted to belong to this. I wanted to take my place on the stage, be acknowledged as a peer, a fellow worthy. I wanted to step out of my rock pool and go swimming in the deep, deep waters beyond.
What this new understanding means, and what I do with it, I don’t know yet. What it means for my career, and how I market myself and my work, I’m not sure– after all, I’ve just finished my second fantasy novel, pitched a third, and sent the outlines of an entire new fantasy series to my agent. But my capacity for evolution remains latent, and I think I need to work out how to excite it.
More contemplation is required.
Come Sunday, and I could relax and play Dad: the day was all about Master 8 and introducing him to a side of the writing world he had never experienced. He understands that Mum and Dad are writers: he’s seen our work on the brag shelf, and has seen all the fuss surrounding the publication of The Corpse-Rat King, but this was his chance to immerse himself in a world of writers at his level, while Lyn and I got to walk around behind him and smile like indulgent parents who knew the secret.
And did he do so? Did he bloody what!
The day was a wonder, and included a less than formal Perth SF Writers picnic in the sunken garden attended by a bunch of creme de la creme types like Stephen Dedman, Juliet Marillier, Katy Kell and Daniel Simpson; and the beautiful surprise of bumping into Lorraine Horsley, one of my closest University pals who I travelled to Kalgoorlie to see married in 1992 and hadn’t seen since– even though we were heading in different directions to support different people, the few minutes we spent together were an absolute joy. But the day had two superb highlights, and they both changed not only my little boy’s life but the way our whole family views things:
Last one first: Ten Tiny Things is a picture book by Meg McKinlay and Kyle Hughes-Odgers, and it’s based on a sweet and simple concept that Meg explained during their presentation– that slowing down and taking the time to truly examine your surroundings can lead you to discover small and rare moments of beauty and surprise that can change the way you see the world. There’s a blog associated with the book, and Meg urged everyone to visit it, and post photos of the tiny, surprising things we saw next time we took the time to search.
Master 8 was entranced by the presentation, and come Monday morning we all walked to school together with the express purpose of exploring as we went. You can see the results on the Ten Tiny Things blog, and we’ll be doing this regularly. Having weened ourselves away from the TV in recent days, these family experiences are becoming more and more frequent, and our children are blooming.
But before that, right at the start of the day, he had the kind of experience you dream about giving your kid.
James Foley is the illustrator of one of Master 8’s favourite books: The Last Viking, written by Norman Jorgensen. Foley was presenting his new book on Sunday, In The Lion: we made sure we had a copy and there we were, Master 8 first in line, front and centre, fifteen minutes before Foley started, book held out, asking for an autograph.
He got more than that: Foley drew kids out of the audience to help him act out the book. Master 8 didn’t get the chance to volunteer: he was chosen to play a part. And we got to sit and watch him move from excitement to adulation to outright hero worship, and know that our little boy was no longer someone who liked to read. Thanks to Foley, he was becoming a lover of books.
Which would have been enough, it really would. But later in the day, something happened that moved this very nice man who treated our son to something a little special up into the very highest ranks of authors I’ve met. Because we were lining up to see another presentation when Master 8 turned around, waved, and said in an excited voice, “Hi James!”
Now, Foley was there with his family, obviously waiting to see the upcoming presentation, and I wouldn’t have faulted him for giving a simple “Hello” back and turning away. But he didn’t. He engaged our son in conversation– sparing us a quick smile but very much concentrating on Master 8– and when the young Master announced “I’m a novelist, too!”… (A quick aside: Master 8 is writing a novel. Apparently. It’s called ‘The Wizards’ and it’s the story of Saruman, Gandalf and Radagast going to a mountain to kill an evil dragon. So far, he’s come up with a title and a picture. That’s as far as it’s got. For ages. Until this weekend, that was as far as he’d thought of it.) …he didn’t say “Oh, yeah?” or smirk, or say “That’s nice” or any of those other hundreds of adult responses to precocious kids that we all know, and see, and give from time to time. Instead, he said four words that changed my little boy’s life.
“Really? What’s it about?”
And at that moment, and for the rest of the day, Master 8 was a novelist. As he said to us on the way home, “I made a fan, and so did he.”
And that was worth everything.
So a weekend of change, it was, although the forms of that change are yet to be discovered. But Lyn’s back writing, and I’m examining my career, and Master 8 wants more than ever to throw himself into Mum and Dad’s world, and one thing I do know is that I want to taste this environment again, and not just as a passive observer. My career has room for growth, room for expansion, and although my roots are solid, there’s a lot of sky to grow into.
Wonder what’s up there?