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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!’.
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.