Last Call at Adelaide Writers’ Week

As the sun sets on the 2020 Adelaide Writers’ Week, it’s time to welcome Vicky Laveau-Harvie, author of the Stella Prize-winning memoir, The Erratics.

`           In 2006 Vicky left Australia to return to her native Canada where her mother has been hospitalized for a broken hip. The mother has consistently lied to staff about her children. She only had one daughter, she has told them, and she’s dead. ‘Do I look dead,’ Vicky’s sister cries out when the nurse refuses her access. On other occasions the mother claims to have eighteen children, but not a single one of them on hand when you need them. She is most convincing in her lies, and has a way of wrapping the ‘hired help’ around her little finger.

            Vicky is travelling back and forth from the familys’ town of Ototoks to the hospital, when she spots a road sign warning of the unsafe conditions in this section of the Rocky Mountains. She seizes upon the name, the Erratics, as metaphor for the life she has led there before escaping to university. It is, she says, the perfect gift for a writer.

            After her mother’s death in 2013, Vicky Laveau-Harvie will discover that her mother’s affliction is termed ‘extreme narcissism personality disorder’, and that nothing can be done about it. Such narcissism meant that the two girls were merely extensions of the mother. Vicky’s sister becomes so incensed at her mother’s antics in the hospital that she grabs her medical chart and furiously writes: MMA. ‘What’s that?’ Vicky asks. It’s an ‘Australian-ism’ only learned yesterday, meaning ‘mad as a meat-axe’.

Vicky once asked her father why they had so much acreage around their home in Okotoks. That was the amount of space, he reckoned, that his wife needed to contain her huge personality; a personality that he has always given priority to over that of his daughters’, despite the fact that his wife has tried to starve him incrementally to death over the years.

Laveau-Harvie’s on-stage delivery at ADLWW is as smooth as the local Okotoks’ mountain range is treacherous and rocky. In her soft tones she is definite that a memoirist should never write for catharsis. You do your therapy first, she insists, and then you write.

            The Erratics twists back and forth in time, as anecdotes build to form the whole, hilarious picture of a family – or two daughters at least – in distress. It is a remarkable memoir that never loses pace, encrusted with the jewel of what is described as the author’s ‘tar-black humour’, and is an impressive credit to its literary genre.

Tags” memoir, writing, writers’ festivals, ADLWW, Vicky Laveau Harvie, Stella Prize

Adelaide Writers’ Week: another engrossing day

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My day started sitting beneath Lombardy poplars, myrtles and holly oaks in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, to hear a session entitled ‘Trees for Life’. The trees in the garden are symbolic, as I learned from Wikipedia:

The design of the garden is a simple rectangle with a low decorative brick wall. At the centre of the garden is Cohn’s sculpture of a female figure, raised on a plinth. This is surrounded by green lawns, and four garden beds with ornamental trees and shrubs at the edges. Cornish’s choice of plants was influenced by their symbolic meanings, selecting five Populus nigra “Italica” (Lombardy poplars) to represent the five women of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Trust; Quercus ilex (holly oak) and Myrtus communis (myrtle) for protection and love; Lonicera (honeysuckle) for love, generosity and devotion; and Syringa vulgaris (lilac) to symbolise memory, protection, youth and tenderness.

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The session on Trees for Life was held on the East Stage, a little to the East of the area around the sculpture. Sophie Cunningham’s book, City of Trees, is a collection of essays; memoir, fact – trees are characters – they tell stories, they evoke emotions. With her we travel across the world, always with trees as a focus but, as she said at the beginning of her talk, she is always drawn back to Australia. We are into the ‘withering’. By 2050 we will have lost a large proportion of trees across the globe. Old trees will die, and often there won’t be enough moisture for new ones to survive. But Sophie’s focus is particularly on loving what is here now.

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Michael Christie has written a novel, Greenwood. He was inspired when, at his home in Canada, he had to cut down a tree that was blocking his driveway. He looked at the rings in the trunk and thought of a family tree — ‘a map of time’. He used this idea to structure his book, which is about some wealthy tourists visiting an arboreal resort. I haven’t read Michael’s book and the interview didn’t venture into the detail. But there was illuminating discussion about the importance of trees and their value to mankind although, according to Michael, half of the globe’s trees have been cut down.

The next session I attended was titled ‘From Fact to Fiction’. Anna Goldsworthy and Anna Krien have both written novels after substantial careers of writing memoir and journalism. Both have written for Quarterly Essay.  Anna Goldworthy’s novel Melting Moments focuses on ‘an intimate portrait’ of moments in a woman’s life: 1940 to 2007. She said the idea emerged from stories told by her grandmother who had a late life romance after her husband, Anna’s grandfather, died. Anna made interesting comments about the 1950s, which she is too young to have experienced herself. She sees the time as a ‘whitewash’: straight after the Holocaust, we have Buddy Holly. The main character, Ruby, shows ‘female competence’. She ‘keeps everything nice’.


Anna Krien’s novel is titled Act of Grace — the term used for the compensation payment made to soldiers injured in war. Anna commented that these acts are far from ‘graceful’. The main character has PTSD — ‘a man trapped inside a nightmare’. As Anna said, ‘a man you look at, then look away’. She realised that there isn’t a literature based on the Iraq war. Anna said that she undertook an intense amount of research, but when you’re writing, she said, ‘you don’t really know what is going to come out’. Some accused her of writing about things she doesn’t know about. She disagrees with this. One of her characters has a conversation with Saddam Hussein.

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There wasn’t as much discussion as I would have liked about the line between fact and fiction. Anna Goldsworthy said that the idea for her book came from family anecdotes and both writers agreed that verisimilitude is more important than whether something in a novel is true or factual.

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Tony Birch has written a new novel, The White Girl. It addresses the former practice of  removing Aboriginal children from their families. Sometimes lighter skinned children were taken because it was thought they would assimilate better. But a brutal policeman, Sergeant Lowe must give her permission to cross town. Tony gave a beautiful description of a fictitious town that is divided by a levy bank. The wealthy live safely above it. The poor — including the Aboriginal families — are routinely flooded.

John Birmingham (famous for He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) and John Boyne (famous for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) gave a session ‘Reflections on Writing’. By this time it was cold and raining and we sheltered under umbrellas to hear their views. Both are very experienced writers. Raymond Carver has said that a successful writer needs ambition and luck. The writers agreed that you need some ego — a certain amount of boldness and arrogance, but luck is a huge component. As John Boyne said, you can make your own luck: seeing an opportunty and taking it. Don’t give a damn about upsetting people. (This comment came from his experience of writing about a transgender teenager when he, himself, is not transgender.) It wasn’t a case that he didn’t care about hurting transgender people — he didn’t want to do that — but he wanted to write about them, and the voice that tells the story is someone who is not transgender — so he doesn’t presume to know what it is like to be transgender. Nevertheless, he has received a lot of flak for this. He said that most of this was from people who hadn’t read the book! He now wishes that he hadn’t engaged with these people — they just wanted to be heard.

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Both men were asked about their writing process. John Birmingham, who is a ‘plotter’, has a clear blueprint. He goes to his desk at the same time every day and has a set program: 25 minutes to read through the previous day’s work (or a paragraph or two), a stretch, then 1 hour of writing. He then puts a red dot in his diary. A ten minute break, then another hour and another red dot. He aims for 4 red dots a day.

John Boyne writes more from the seat of his pants (what is known as a ‘pantser’) — sometimes in a frenzy, such as when he spent 60 hours straight, pouring out 50,000 words of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, because he knew he was onto something. He said, ‘something takes over you and you have to go with it’. He said that writers don’t talk enough about how enjoyable writing is, ‘It blows out of you onto the next page’. Along similar lines, John Birmingham said, ‘If a character wants to do something, let them do it!’.

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John Boyne

John Boyne writes eight to ten drafts. His favourite draft is the second — the first is just something basic to work from. He shows the sixth or seventh draft to his editor. Birmingham shows his first draft.

In terms of research, John Boyne said, ‘Get the book down, then research it’, whereas John Birmingham loves research and likes to know what he’s talking about before he starts writing.

I know that I’d love to be able to be like John Boyne and have the words ‘blow’ out of me onto the next page.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2020

Elwood Writers, has attended Adelaide Writers’ Week for many years — I’ve lost count how many — maybe for the last six or seven years. This year is the 60th anniversary of the Adelaide Festival, and Adelaide Writers’ Week, which has been a significant part of the Festival since its inception in 1960.

There are many attractive things about this week of listening to authors talk about their work — one of the main being that the main events are free. We sit on the banks of the Torrens River, in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden, in the summer sunshine, appropriately shaded by blue canvas, with a choice of parallel events on East Stage and West Stage.

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John Boyne had come from Ireland. He has written eleven books for adults (there was discussion about the unnecessary labelling of books as ‘for young people’, ‘for adults’). His most famous book is The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, which was a New York Times No.1 best seller and sold 11 million copies.

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John was here to talk about his most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky.  The focus of this story is something that would intrigue most writers:  Maurice, an aspiring author charms a celebrated novelist, Eric, as Boyne says, he ‘reaches inside’ him. This raises questions such as, who do stories belong to? Do we own our own stories?  Do we have the right to tell other people’s stories? Boyne said, ‘There can be no discussion of morality when it comes to art’, and ‘I read other people’s stories … that is why I write’. He says he was strongly criticised when he wrote a book about a transgender teenager — because he is not transgender. Boyne points out that the book was written from the point of view of the teenager’s little brother: it’s a novel.

John Boyne was asked, What does ‘success’ mean for a writer? For John , it’s not the winning of prizes (he has won some) but how well you have achieved what you have set out to say.

There is a section in a Sydney bookshop for ‘plotless novels’. John said that he believes the story is really important. He wants a page-turner. For him, a good novel is one where you need to want to know what will happen next.

In The Ladder to the Sky, young Maurice is ambitious — but he is ambitious for fame, not for the quality of the work. Clearly John Boyne doesn’t believe in aiming for fame.

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From hearing John Boyne, I listened to a couple of academics, Martijn Boersma and Justine Nolan, discuss ‘Modern Slavery’. I was reminded of how frequently we support the exploitation  of others — using palm oil, coffee beans, the fishing industry — apparently 95% of retail chocolate is not certified free of child labour. There is now a modern slavery law in Australia, but no penalties for not complying! There were a few encouraging examples given of powerful people, such as ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, speaking out against modern slavery — satellite imagery can survey workers at brick kilns, block chains can show the complete history of a transaction. But it was pretty depressing to realise that the world hasn’t progressed a huge way since the pre -1860s slave trade.

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Another fascinating non fiction book is by Hannah Critchlow, The Science of Fate. It used to be that discussions of Free Will and Determinism, were the province of historians, philosophers and theologians. Now, neuroscientists are important contributors. It has been shown that neuroplasiticity is an important factor in learning. We are aware of biological determinism through genomics — eg prediction of our Body Mass Index, schizophrenia, IQ, how long the natural course of a person’s life will be. Neural circuits can be studied from 20 weeks’ gestation to find whether a person will have, for example, autism or ADHD.

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There is now some serious study of Epigenetics — can memories be passed across generations biologically? Some studies with mice suggest that they can be. Maybe experiences of Holocaust survivors explain depressive illness in family members generations later.

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When I opted to go to a talk by Bart van Es, I was expecting to hear of another story like The Diary of Anne Frank. Bart van Es, a professor at Oxford, is recognised as a Shakepearean scholar. But this book takes a very different path. van Es, whose family is Dutch, was aware that something had happened in his family during World War II — there was some secret — not talked about. When a Great Uncle died, Bart van Es realised that history would slip away if he didn’t try to get to the bottom of what had happened. As he said, ‘without families you don’t get stories’. Lien was still alive, in her eighties. She had been sheltered from the Nazis by the van Es family and other families from 1942 to the end of the war. Bart tracked her down and visited her. He’d been told that she would be reluctant to talk about her wartime experiences but he said that when Lien opened the door of her apartment ‘it felt like family’. The resulting book tells Lien’s story, but not just that. It describes how difficult it has been for her to live with those experiences. How there was a family rift as recently as the 1980s, resulting from tensions accumulated from the time of the war. It questions why it was that the Netherlands society  in the 1940s was ‘unresilient’ — how do you respond when authority is not to be trusted? There had been no recorded anti-Semitic attacks from 1550 to 1942 — the Dutch people were not used to having to be resistant. Apparently the family friction of the 1980s revolved around the grandmother’s belief that Lien should ‘move on’ — forget that time. Lien’s parents had been sent ‘East’: that meant to a concentration camp. When, at the end of the war, she realised their fate, she let two rings her parents had left with her drop through floor boards to be lost forever. But of course that physical act could not expunge the pain of the separation. Many years later she visited Auschwitz and said, ‘It’s over’. The book is also about what it was like for Bart van Es to uncover this family story.

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