MEMORY OF A NOWHERE NEAR FREE FESTIVAL

Last weekend, Luscious and I braved the overpowering heat and made our way to the Perth Writers Festival. Lionel Shriver, Lyn’s favourite author, was the keynote speaker for the Festival and amongst the honour roll was Margaret Drabble, another author much admired by the Luscious One. And me, well, I’m just a massive writing geek and can find panels to go to like a weasel sniffing out trouser legs.

Plus, of course, I was running a workshop on the Saturday, so I had an artist pass that got me into paid sessions for nada. Which was nice.

Our first call was the opening address by Lionel Shriver on Thursday night. I’ve yet to read any of Shriver’s work, but Lyn has read 9 of her 11 novels– and picked the other 2 up at the Festival– so I was looking forward to witnessing the sort of author that could get inside her skin so heavily. She was due to speak on her relationship with religion and the relative absence of it in her work– a hot topic in our household, and one with enormous potential for discomfort for Lyn, especially if her literary hero started to spout the sort of anti-religion rhetoric she finds so hurtful.

Which, of course, she proceeded to do.

I found the lecture intensely uncomfortable– a strange experience, given that I am the staunchly atheistic one in our relationship. Shriver was everything we had hoped she would be: intelligent, articulate, passionate, and — eventually– reasonable. But she took the long path to get to the point where her speech levelled out and she showed any sort of empathy to what she acknowledged might be as much as 84% of her audience, and in the meantime she was so supercilious and patronising to anybody who might not share her views that I found her genuinely unlikeable, despite agreeing with her sentiments. Turns out I can’t stand the sight of rabid zealotry, not even when I agree with it. By the time she softened her argument, I’d stopped caring. It’s not often I can find someone entertaining and disappointing at the same time, but there it is.

After an artists party that was notable mainly for catching up with the lovely Satima Flavell Neist and Meg McKinlay, and he rare occurrence of being gobsmacked into silence by a McKinlay bon mot– much to the undying amusement of the Luscious One– we returned on Friday for the panels we had earmarked as the potential highlights of the Festival. For Lyn, it was a chance to hear Margaret Drabble speak. For me, after a panel that was advertised as a discussion of real ‘spy fiction’ jobs but turned out to be a conversation between self-published types about self publishing, it was a panel on art theft by author, broadcaster and rare book dealer Rick Gekoski.

Art theft is a current fascination of mine– I’ve got a novel idea that refuses to sink back into the morass of story goo inside my head and keeps bubbling back to the surface– and Gekoski turned out to be an erudite, entertaining speaker, combining a deep knowledge of his subject with a fine line in pithy quips: asked for his opinion of the Elgin marbles controversy, he responded with a plan to extract a thank you from the Greek government for rescuing them, and to transport the Acropolis to London and reassemble it in Hyde Park. Notes were taken, plot points considered, and on the basis of the talk I scurried over to the Festival bookstore and got me two Gekoski books signed before meeting Lyn for lunch. You can check out my review of the first of them, Tolkein’s Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books here.

Saturday began with my writing workshop on building believable fantasy worlds, Universal Law. With 18 eager students at my beck and call, including familiar faces in Meg Caddy, Anthony Philips and Richard O’Brien, I had a fabulous time delivering my usual dancing monkey-puppet act and forcing total strangers to write ‘My mother-in-law is so fat…” jokes and unicorn v narwhal death matches. There may have even been learning involved. Three hours on stage was just the tonic I needed– I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable in panels, and had really not enjoyed my last experience, where I felt trapped into skewering the work of a person I like while he sat in the audience too mortified to squirm. Performing on stage where I can control the time, the flow of information, and the interactions with the audience, has always been more enjoyable to me than the awkward collaboration of a panel, and this was a fun workshop indeed. Perhaps it’s a measure of my ego, but the older I get, the more I feel like sharing the stage with others results only in me pissing them off. If I’m going to piss people off, I want to mean it.

Another Gekoski panel beckoned for me in the early afternoon, this time in partnership with author Chris Womersley, and it was as entertaining as the first. Gekoski proved to be the highlight of the Festival for me. Highly intelligent, articulate, funny, erudite and principled, he was the perfect panellist, bringing a deft yet telling touch to all he discussed. And, of course, he was new to me, so had the advantage of novelty as well.

My final stop for the day was a panel on the future of graphic novels with the crew from Gestalt Comics, including my buddy Emily K Smith, and a number of digital comics storytellers, followed by a screening of Comic Book Heroes, the documentary on Gestalt that I had managed to completely miss when it aired on the ABC due to my lack of terrestrial TV. The debate was lively, the documentary made for compulsive viewing, and apart from telling the audience in no uncertain terms that gestalt are not looking for new authors at the moment– thus scuppering my dreams of adapting The Claws of Native Ghosts for them– I was able to introduce myself to publisher Wolfgang Bylsma and briefly discuss some day job exhibition possibilities.

Sunday was Family Day, and Lyn and Miss 12 declined to attend. Lyn had not enjoyed the Festival– she discusses her reasons briefly in this blog post– it had been fiendishly hot, too many of the panels were ticketed to make for affordable attendance, and too many of the free panels had been of the “buy my book” variety, leaving her isolated and bored; and Miss 12 simply wasn’t interested. That left Master 9 and me to wander the grounds. It was a day of tree climbing, digital car racing, face painting, ice creams and balloon animals, as much as day out at the Fete as attendance at a writing event. But it was just what Master 9, so often a prisoner to his illness, needed. A day in the sun, running around the beautiful gardens of UWA, viewing what he wanted when he wanted to, with the bonus of a signed book and the opportunity to create his own 8 page novel.

The Castle of Death by Connor Battersby. Because of course.

It was exactly what he needed. And the Festival was, in many ways, exactly what I needed. My long, slow, disengagement with SF continues, and the opportunity to view a multi-disciplinary event like the Festival from the inside has certainly gelled a number of nebulous desires for my career, as well as reminding me that what I enjoy from working within that environment is the illusion of expertise, and the opportunity to outlines my artistic philosophies without feeling like half the room is waiting for the chance to deride or argue. I’ve come away from it thankful for the opportunity and with a crystallised view of what lies ahead. In career terms, the experience has been golden. Whether I spend the entire three day weekend in attendance next year will very much depend on Luscious, who had a very different experience than me, and whether that continued exposure has career benefits.

I’m inclined to think it will.

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