Winter 2018 Soiree | Jennifer Bryce

Elwood Writers recently held its Winter 2018 Soiree at St Kilda Library in Melbourne. Over four blog posts, each of the writers will tell us more about the work they presented at the event. We begin with Jennifer Bryce.

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Elwood Writers soiree, St Kilda Library.

It’s daunting to get up in front of 30 or so people – even when they are friends – to read your own work. Daunting because what you’ve written is something of your own creation; you are vulnerable – you can see the response of the audience – it’s more immediate than receiving a critique (or a rejection notice) for something you’ve written.

But the experience of reading in a public setting is extremely valuable. We usually read work out aloud in our writing group meetings because we find that hearing our words brings out different aspects of a piece. You might have read a piece to yourself several times – but things jump out when you hear the words rather than just look at them. And when you know that it’s to be a public reading, you go through the work with a fine tooth comb.

Earlier this year I started work on my second novel. It is connected to the first (which is at present doing the rounds of publishers), but not necessarily a sequel. Publishers would classify it as historical fiction. For our Soirée I chose to read the very beginning of this new book. One reason for choosing the very beginning is that it should make sense to listeners without requiring any explanation.

I love to immerse myself in early 20th Century history – I’m intrigued to understand the world that existed just before I was born. In my new book a young woman travels to London in the 1930s to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. So much happened at this time: World War II was brewing, Edward VIII was about to abdicate in order to marry a divorced woman (he also had Nazi sympathies), radio had developed and people liked to ‘listen in’ to news broadcasts and concerts.

My protagonist has completed a diploma at the conservatorium in Melbourne, but she is naïve to the extent that the trip to London on board the Strathnaver is indeed a rite of passage. She isn’t modelled on any particular person of that time although a few years earlier pianist Eileen Joyce had left Australia ultimately to become a celebrity known in films and on gramophone recordings as well as on the concert platform. Other young women, such as composer Miriam Hyde, also ventured overseas at that time because Australia was seen as a backwater and you had to study overseas to ‘make it’.

For the Soirée I divided the first chapter into two parts. In the first part, the ocean liner leaves Melbourne. The young musician is alone and she watches the coastline as the ship steams up Port Phillip Bay and through the heads. I have never travelled by ship, so I had to read memoirs and talk to people who had had the experience of a liner pitching in rough seas, sea-sickness, the layout of a large steamer. I found useful photographs on the Internet. In the second part, my protagonist has met one of her cabin mates (she is travelling tourist class and has to share a cabin with strangers) and they have dinner in the tourist class dining room. This part was assisted by an old menu I had from the time when my mother was taken overseas by her parents in 1939. Compared to today’s menus, the food was stodgy and plain – Brown Windsor Soup, roasts, caramel pudding.

I know, from experience, that this chapter will change a lot before I consider the piece to be ‘finished’ – indeed, is a piece of writing ever finished? But the challenge of reading at our Soirée meant that I gave the all-important opening chapter special attention.

My first novel took several years to write. I hope that the process will be a little shorter for my second. One thing I’m sure of is that in a year’s time the piece I read at our Soirée will be different. I hope that in a year’s time I will have finished a complete first draft of the novel. Even though I have a plan, it will change.

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Duo con Brio, St Kilda Library.

At the Soirée I enjoyed the opportunity to play some music. Playing the oboe is an important part of my life and I’m in a chamber group: Trio con Brio. Our flautist has been unwell, so we were Duo con Brio: oboe and cello. We have found that some of Bach’s Two Part Inventions for keyboard work very well for this combination because Bach gives an interesting line to both treble and bass – it’s not a case of the cello plodding away and the oboe having all of the fun. We enjoyed playing some of these pieces in between literary items.


For more on Jennifer’s work, visit her website Little Smackerel.

All images HarrietClaire Photography

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we tell our stories, and pay our respects to Elders past and present.

Helen’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

Once again Adelaide delighted with its heady mix of festival fare. Writers from round the world took to the stage in the wonderfully situated Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens by the river. This year I was drawn to the writings of the chroniclers of our times – the journalists and social commentators who strive to show us the truth of complex human situations through both non-fiction and fiction. A highlight was the poetry reading session curated by Peter Goldsworthy, with six of Adelaide’s noted poets reading from their collections. I particularly loved the simplicity of Jules Leigh Koch’s and Cath Kenneally’s readings. Their observations on the small, often suburban details of life can be both profound and poignant. Leigh Koch’s Man in the Bookshop ‘tucks his thoughts away like a bookmark’ while one of Kenneally’s characters is ‘leaking at the seams’.

In US journalist Thomas Frank’s ‘Listen Liberal’ he explores the failings of the US left and the disintegration of the middle class. He believes the Democrats cannot find the policy or conviction to alter the economy and ‘the gravity of discontent keeps pulling to the right, and the right and the right’. Ben Ehrenreich and Mei Fong, respectively writing about the lives of Palestinians living in the West Bank in ‘The Way to the Spring’ and the effect of China’s one-child policy in ‘One Child’, discussed the very real issue of bias and objectivity in telling compelling stories. Ehrenreich posed the question: How can you write about Palestine objectively when it is very clear there is an absolute imbalance of power? You cannot denude the truth, he purports, and you must be transparent about where you stand. Fong concurred that the reader wants to know the truth and you must give your reader a clear point of view. Of course bias is in her book by her very status of being Chinese and a woman.

Journalists Patrick Cockburn (Ireland), ‘The Rise of Islamic State’, and Janine di Giovanni (US), ‘The Morning They Came for Us’, both Middle Eastern experts, gave a sobering and thorough account of the chaos that is Syria, painting a clear picture of the major players involved and the likely outcome. On the other hand, two novelists have brought the stories of the marginalised to readers via fiction. Mexican author Yuri Herrera, ‘Signs Preceding the End of the world’, and Korean Krys Lee, ‘How I Became a North Korean’, explore the realities of displaced people. Herrera delves into the shadowy world of border communities where people are not ‘recognisable’ (no papers or passports) and must adapt to many migrants from different worlds living together. He deems ‘art allows us not to be hostage to one version of reality’. Lee wanted to write about the people she knows who are not just ‘North Korean’, but complex human beings. How do we know what it is like to be that person who is simply a stereotype to the outside world? she asks.

I enjoyed an entertaining session on Books and Reading with Keith Houston (Scotland), an expert on the history of the book, and Alberto Manguel (Canada) who has written extensively on books and reading. It was heartening to hear both authors emphatically stating that the book will survive, that libraries are our identity and memory, and can and must collect everything, including new technologies.  Libraries must be preserved, they concurred!

Of course there was so much to sample of the Arts and Fringe festivals running concurrently. Watching the Berlin company Schaubuhne Berlin’s rendering of Shakespeare’s Richard III in German was a roller coaster of frenetic-paced, fantastic acting, to the accompaniment of heavy metal music, rapping, and with audience interaction and nudity (his) on stage. A phenomenal performance and for this writer quite thrilling as Richard limped off the stage, plonked himself next to me at the end of the row and asked ‘Do you mind?’ as Anne delivered her soliloquy over her dead husband’s body.  No proscenium arch here!

Finally, as part of the Fringe Festival, a delightful concert of popular music by The String Family, mum, dad and two teens all on cellos or violins, had everyone’s toes tapping.  Their story of life on the road for the past thirteen months, travelling around Australia, living in a caravan and winning the Australian National Busking Championship, had moments of great poignancy as they live out ‘the dream’. While missing the family and friends they have left behind, they have come to understand, first hand, the hardships of life on the land for so many Australians. Now there’s a book in that.