My first day at the MWF

After much anticipation, my first day at the Melbourne Writers Festival went down a treat. I was so happy to be there…I’ve been wanting to attend this festival for years, and for one reason or another not been able to.

So this year is the year, and I’m going to half live there if I have my way.

I strolled into Federation Square, nice and early, and enjoyed the quiet buzz of anticipation. I’ve decided that I really quite like Fed Square, it’s such a unique space and perfect for this kind of event.

At 10am, I took my seat in the BMW Edge room to listen to Kate Grenville share her thoughts. As I’ve said before, I think Kate is an incredibly wise woman, and amazingly eloquent. She was also really influential in my own learning-to-write process at university, so I was very excited to hear what she had to say.

The main focus of the conversation was her newest novel, Sarah Thornhill (the third in Grenville’s trilogy about early Australia) although this discussion quickly gave rise to serious considerations of Australia’s dark history.

Being so committed to the process of research, Kate left no stone unturned in her research for The Secret River (2005), The Lieutenant (2008) and Sarah Thornhill (2011) and as a result discovered disturbing truths about the history of white and indigenous Australia, and about her own family’s involvement in these dark days. I think it’s fair to say that much of Kate’s recent work deals poignantly with the notion of the Australian identity, and all that that entails. She seems also to be fascinated by the notion of an individual having no past: “These first generation Australians found they had no ‘back’ to go to, Australia was their home.” This presented many challenges to her most recent protagonist, Sarah Thornhill, but also new opportunities.

I was enticed by her recount of how her novel, Sarah Thornhill came about, how “the cosmos” made sure that it happened by ensuring she was in the right place at the right time to learn the story of Sarah. I was equally engaged by the promise of treatment of the harshness of the Australian experience, including experiences of love, hard work and dangerous childbirth: “I thought, let’s write about childbirth the same way that men write about the battlefield.” She has certainly presented a tale of a strong, resourceful woman.

I was also really pleased that she was able to share a few pearls of wisdom on the process of research and of writing. A piece of advice that I’ll take to heart and practice:”Go where the energy is…” if you feel like writing, write…if you feel like going to the library, go and read. Words to create by.

After a short break, I wandered back into BMW Edge to hear from Lindsay Tanner, former Finance Minister and author of a new book, Sideshow. Tanner is passionate about the often detrimental effect of media on politics, and is highly critical of the sideshow that political coverage has become. “Politicians are changing without even realising it.” said Tanner “Today requires a challenging balance between entertainment and politics, and having the talent to manage both.”

It was really interesting to hear first hand, the effect that commercialisation, sensationalisation and ‘dumbing down’ can have on willingness and ability to run this country well. Tanner pointed out that “Television demands good pictures,” and went on the explain that this influences (often negatively) where politicians go, what they do, who they meet. Nothing looks as good as “sitting on the floor of a childcare centre” and this in turn can effect decisions that politicians make about where to direct their attention.

After this session, I had a little bit of time to kill so I looked over the shoulders of an eager little crowd to see a real live artist, Matt Bissett-Johnson. Matt is a Melbourne-based  political cartoonist who is regularly featured in a wide range of publications, including The Age and The Melbourne Observer. It was wonderful to see his process, and to have a bit of a giggle at his visual punchlines.

Don’t Feed the Artists sessions are being run from 12 to 3pm Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays of the festival and will feature Matt Bissett-Johnson, Alex Hallatt, Judy Horacek, Jon Kudelka, Bruce Mutard and Mandy Ord.

I’ll be back in the Square this evening to see a couple of sessions; Tasmania’s Call and Big Ideas: John Button Oration. I’ll be sure to let you know about these two sessions tomorrow.

Have you made it to any sessions? What did you think?

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