It’s hard to put into words the galvanising energy that emanated from the marquees and stages at this year’s Festival. But here’s a small taste of what the 2017 Byron Writers Festival had to offer from our festival reporters Emily Brugman, Jen King and Tara Kenny.
Friday 4 August
Sunshine and smiles were out in full force for the first day of the Festival. However, it was a different question of luck on the morning agenda at ‘Australia: Still Lucky?’ as Rebecca Huntley, Laura Tingle and David Marr discussed immigration, gay marriage, equality and Australian society’s sheepish contentment with the nanny state.
Jock Serong spoke with Festival founder Chris Hanley about his three works of fiction, in particularly the sibling rivalry explored in The Rules of Backyard Cricket. Having four brothers, Serong was interested in the inimitability of those relationships, saying, “there are things that we do between brothers and sisters that are very painful, and yet we get over them, and there are other things that may seem small in comparison that we hang on to forever.”
Jimmy Barnes spoke candidly to Mandy Nolan about his family, his past and where he finds himself today. After painting a picture of his childhood in the slums of Glasgow, of his father “as hard as nails”, and his grandfather, “a bare knuckled fighter” he spoke about the difference between bravado and courage, suggesting bravado was something he learnt a long time ago, but only recently has he found courage – courage to look back and confront the past.
Tex Perkins joined Bec Mac on stage to discuss his new memoir. With satisfaction he called the book funny (which was a must), and said that the formula was simple: hardship and tragedy plus time equals comedy. Of his tenuous relationship with fame and success, Tex reflected: “like the dog chasing the truck, once it gets a bite of the tyre it realises that rubber doesn’t taste that good.”
In conversation with Laura Kroetsch, Hannah Kent discussed her new book, The Good People before an transfixed audience. She discussed the lethal nature of small communities, and the superstitious beliefs – rooted in paganism – that gripped rural Ireland in the early 19th century, where her book is set. One of the book’s many achievements is that it shines a light on a moment in history that has been largely lost, because the Irish potato famine decimated an entire peasant class who were of an oral tradition.
In ‘Millennials Strike Back’, Jennifer Down, Kayla Rae Whitacker and Bri Lee were joined on stage by the winner of the Suzie Warrick Young Writer’s Award Tara Anne. Bri Lee, after reading from her wonderful essay in the Griffith Review, suggested that young people and women are constantly being silenced by society and by the system. The young award winner responded with both frustration and passion, stating: “We’re the Millennials! We’re supposed to band together to make stuff happen!” The panel’s chair, Jerath Head summed up the message from the Millennials as this: “We’re young. We have a voice.”
Echoing our Millennial’s passion for action was Clementine Ford, who boldly tackled rape culture, internet trolls, and society’s general inability to confront men’s violence against women. Every woman in the marquee gave a silent amen to Ford’s statement that, “Feminism isn’t about women hating men, it’s about women learning not to hate themselves.”
As the sun dipped over the hinterland, the day closed to a full house as Kerry O’Brien, Mei Fong, Roger Cohen and Christina Lamb discussed ‘The State of the World. The conversation of course turned to Trump, where wit sparked laughs despite the overwhelming position we find ourselves in.
Saturday 5 August
What a day for a festival! The cloudless sky, gentle breezes and winter sunshine were the ideal hosts for day two of the Byron Writers Festival.
David Marr set the mood for the day at an amusing session with Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen. Just who was interviewing who was soon in question with the audience hooting with laughter as David discussed his favourite sections of the paper. On a more serious note, the topic of marriage equality, on the paper’s front page today, was discussed, and remained a theme for many of the day’s sessions.
While passionate republican Peter FitzSimons also mentioned marriage equality during the ‘Thea Astley Lecture’, his primary goal today was to encourage and explain exactly what the republican movement is all about. Susan Wyndham also launched the late Thea Astley’s first book of poetry before Peter took to the stage.
Emrys Westacott, David George Haskell and Magdalena Roze, in conversation with Paul Barclay, pondered the complexities of ‘The Simple Life’. They discussed whether our ecological footprints are smaller when we live in cities or in rural areas, and the role of extravagance and generosity in a frugal world.
In a session called, ‘Writing the Landscape’, Bruce Pascoe spoke about Australia’s relationship to the land, saying “the country is calling out to us to love it” and that our failure to hear her call is tied up in our failure to acknowledge our history.
Later in the morning, Mathematician and author Adam Spencer and Lex Hirst discussed a topic that doesn’t normally get much traction amongst the literati set – numbers! Spencer, who has made a career of making maths cool, urged the crowd to question why it’s almost “a badge of honour to be crap at your times tables”. Perhaps not for long, since according to Spencer mathematicians will inherit the earth, or at least “build this century”.
Elsewhere, an impressive journalistic line up of Roger Cohen, Christina Lamb, John Lyons and Ben Knight gave the audience a glimpse into the elite ‘Foreign Correspondents’ Club’. The panel shared their experiences of reporting from war torn nations, and discussed how their profession has changed over time. Technological developments have hugely streamlined processes, political changes mean that once welcome journalists are now actively targeted, and newspaper cuts mean fewer foreign correspondents and less camaraderie. The one constant is the great need for quality reporting, particularly in the face of increased totalitarianism and claims of “fake news”
In a session called ‘Science, Philosophy and Ideas’, geek giants took the stage to rowdy applause, encouraged by a spirited Adam Spencer, keen to match the raucous energy of the previous session, ‘Rock and Roll Lives’ with Jimmy Barnes and Tex Perkins. The session certainly lived up to Spencer’s hopes, as Dava Sobel, Emrys Westacott and Robyn Williams delivered a fantastic combination of science and ideas, peppered with a good dose of laugh out loud humour.
In ‘This Book Changed My Life’, Barry Jones, Tracey Spicer and Susan Wyndham spoke to Adam Suckling about their most influential reads. Wyndham spoke about reading Honour and Other People’s Children, by Helen Garner. She said: I remember thinking, “this is Australian fiction, this is our literature – I see myself in these pages – and this is something to strive for.” They also spoke about the books that have influenced the world, and Barry Jones suggested The Koran eclipses The Bible and all other texts in history, in its absolute and long-lasting impact. When asked which book she would recommend to our current Prime Minister, Spicer selected Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for its depiction of displaced peoples, saying Turnbull has lost his compassion.
Peter FitzSimons made his second Saturday appearance in conversation with Chris Hanley. The impassioned and colourful Chair of the Australian Republic Movement recounted “going at it like two cats in a sack” with Malcolm Turnbull over his perceived questioning of the PM’s commitment to the movement, and bemoaned the apathy of young people on the issue of a republic. Not one to mince words, FitzSimons put it best with the question: “Do you think Australia should have an Australian head of state (or are you miserable d**ckhead?”).
Sunday 6 August
Perhaps suitable for a Sunday, the day started with spirituality, or more precisely, the hunger for it. Muslim Susan Carland, Buddhist Meshel Laurie and Catholic priest Tony Doherty discussed it with Ailsa Piper in what can only be described as an uplifting session!
In ‘Stories of Nature’s Great Connectors’, Nicolas Rothwell, David Haskell, Tim Flannery and Steven Lang discussed our place on earth within nature, and examined the way we connect with the species around us. Rothwell suggested that looking into the eyes of a bird, or being with trees, is about freeing ourselves from the self and the confines of our own species, while Flannery stated that we are riding on the back of an enormous wave of human expansion, and the big question of our time is this: how will we deal with our own vast legacy, that of toxic soil and Carbon Dioxide?
In the panel ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears: the Writing Process’, Holly Throsby said that to write a novel, like any creative process, you have to back yourself, giving permission to all budding writers to believe unequivocally in their own ability, while Kayla Rae Whitaker praised the editing process, saying, ‘The Animators is a better book because there have been other hands involved.”
In a session on ‘Historical Fiction’, Hannah Kent, Ian Townsend and Melissa Ashley each agreed on the role of serendipity in the research process. Later, the session chair, Nicole Abadee, asked whether Hilary Mantel was correct when she said of historical fiction: “Don’t lie. Select, highlight and omit, but don’t lie,” Kent replied: “When you’re drawn to stories that exist in a gap, sometimes you just have to add something of your own, even if it’s only to express an emotional truth.”
The question of perspective came to the fore in ‘Men of Fiction’ when Kim Scott, A.S. Patric and Steven Lang discussed the task of writing beyond one’s own experience. “It’s not a question as to whether or not a writer can inhabit another’s experience,” said Lang. “Of course they can, that’s what fiction is. But you should write from genuine experience. For me the perspective a woman, for example, is not a stretch or a foreign experience because I’ve grown up with lots of women.”
Top-notch critics, Geordie Williamson, Andrew Ford, Sebastian Smee and Peter Thompson, in ‘The Masters: Art, Music, Film and Books’, spoke about the problem of art as a commodity, each agreeing that art should not be valued according to its monetary intake, but should exist beyond those confines.
Kids didn’t miss out either today and there was LOTS of shrieking, squealing, giggling and yelling coming from the Greenstone Partners marquee, aka Kids Big Day Out, as children’s authors Lucas Proudfoot, Isobelle Carmody, Hilary Badger, Peter Helliar, Tristan Bancks, Sally Rippin, and Richard Roxburgh read from their books, gave drawing demonstrations and took questions from their very inquisitive readers.
Be sure to checkout the Weekend in Pictures for more session and Festival highlights.