Friday, May 20, 2011

Sydney Writers Festival / Commonwealth Writers Prize 2011, Part 2

Picking up where I left off a few days ago...

Tuesday night was the opening of the Sydney Writers Festival, which was kicked off by an address by Fatima Bhutto, ‘Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. The nation implied by the title was Pakistan, though Bhutto spent a fair amount of time on the US as well.  You can listen to the address here.

This was followed by a party for festival participants in a shed on Pier 2/3. Massive amounts of finger food and tons of free booze which kept flowing till the house lights came up around 11pm. The party then moved back to the lobby of the Sebel, where most of the outta town writers are staying. The only wrinkle was that the Sebel’s alcohol license on a weeknight ran out at 11pm. But thirsty writers are not to be messed with. Led by Man Booker International Prize Judge (more about this later) Rick Gekoski, the organisers of the festival were convinced to lay down a few bottles of wine so that the party might keep rolling.
The Sebel Lobby: Rick Gekoski talking SWF Artistic Director Chip Rolley into supplying booze to the masses.

Fresh Prince of Bel Air moment with Benython Oldfield
After 4 hours sleep it was time to get ready for another day of outreach activities as a Commonwealth Writers Prize regional winner.  Over breakfast Katrina Best (best first book: Canada & Carribean) and I spoke to Rick Gekoski about the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which was to be at 4.30pm that afternoon (Wednesday). Rick couldn’t name names at that stage, but he made it clear that one of the judges didn’t agree with the selection and was going to kick up a fuss. By now you probably all know about Philip Roth’s win, and Carmen Calil’s dissent, but it was fascinating to hear it from the chair of the judging panel’s mouth.

Wednesday morning was spent at Blacktown Girls High School. I ran a workshop with the school’s writing club, which consisted of about 8 girls ranging in age from 12 to 17. The age-range was a bit tricky, but it was a fun session and the girls really seemed to get something out of it.

In the afternoon we went to Penrith High School and did a similar thing, except it was nice to finally have some boys in the workshops. Unfortunately our time with the students was eroded by a photographer everyone thought was from the Penrith Star (the local rag) who made us pose with the kids in pretend workshops in the library for 15 minutes before we could actually head off to our assigned rooms and start talking to the students for real.  Then, we writers were all pulled out of our workshops early to go and be interviewed by a reporter/photographer duo from the Penrith Star. (We still don’t know where that first photographer came from!). The Penrith journos were the oddest couple: characters straight out of a Christopher Guest movie. The reporter was this weedy, mumbly, feeble little man who laughed mid-sentence for no apparent reason, while the photographer had Spinal Tap hair and a huge belt buckle and composed the most awkward writer-student-writer-student sandwich photo that was part ten-car-pileup, part United Colours of Benetton ad.

When we arrived back at the hotel, I was interviewed by the Sydney Writers Centre. The interview has been posted on YouTube apparently, but I’m too afraid to look. I’m sure I’ll get better at interviews, though I’m not sure how many more I’ll do with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.

That evening I went along to the dinner Random House Australia was throwing for its authors who were appearing at the festival. It was one of those dinners where you are told where to sit and someone has clearly agonised over where to put people but they probably didn’t agonise enough (I really don’t have much to talk to a children’s book publiscist about, despite how lovely a person she seemed to be). There were probably 25-30 people seated at the table, most of whom seemed to be Random House people, though I did get to talk to James Fergusson (author of Taliban), Suelette Dreyfus (author of Underground) and, highlight of the night, Tom Keneally.  Tom really is a kind of loveable old man of Australian letters. When I said it was an honour to meet him, he said, “I am reminded of another young short story writer who approached me with reverence many years ago... who turned out to be Peter Carey. If I can offer one piece of advice: One booker is an honour; two is just an indulgence.” He was a crack-up. We also spoke about his childhood growing up near what is now the Olympic complex in Homebush (it was a swamp back then).

Yesterday was Thursday (I think; the days are starting to roll into one long boozy, heady, schmoozy mess). We kicked off the day with the final outreach element on our CWP programme: a trip to Gawura, which is school for indigenous kids from rough areas of Sydney. Again, I was joined by Cynthia Jele and Katrina Best, and this time Kim Scott (winner: Best Book, SE Asia and Pacific) came along too.
CWP writers and Larissa Behrendt at Gawura
The school is attached to a posh Cathedral school in the centre of town and I got my Ministry of Education property policy analyst geek on in observing the way the two schools were laid out. Gawura has about 30 kids ranging from new entrants up to about 12 year old who all work in an open plan space, though it is divided by some terracing and furniture. The only problem was the exposed cinderblock walls meant the acoustics were shocking so it was very noisy when we split into groups and each ran our writing workshops. I worked with a couple of Year 3 students. We started with them reading to me from their own stories and I was amazed at some of the words they were using (grimy, despicable, ghastly) until they showed me their “word wall”. Every week each student gets to choose a word from the dictionary and they place it on the wall with a wee definition underneath. We then wrote some new sentences on the word using new words from the word wall and there were some odd moments where I was asked how to spell words I’d never heard of before (dolally, muzzy) or words I don’t commonly write (nincompoop)...

The kids then wanted to hear me read from my book, which isn’t really pitched at 7 year olds. They really liked the cover of A Man Melting (“Is that you in the paddling pool?”) so a read them a bit from the story of the same name. As I read about a man who can’t stop sweating, I realised my story about existential angst was quite similar to the kind of gross-out, The Day My Bum Went Mental books these kids got off on. They especially loved the bit where a trickle of sweat runs down the bus and everyone thinks he’s peed his pants.
After this, we made our own books, starting with a title (using words from the word wall of course) and our pen names. My book was called The Dolally Duck by Mr Whimsical. 

Making books at Gawura
I then made each of my kids sit in the writer’s chair and the rest of us interviewed him or her about their books, which they really seemed to love.

You can probably tell by the amount of space I’ve devoted to this session how much I enjoyed it. All of the outreach events (juvie; girls writing group; extension high school English students; seven year olds) was different and rewarding and challenging and fun, but Gawura was my highlight.

Kim Scott on stage at SWF2011

After this I watch Kim's solo session at the Writer's festival, then caught the ferry to Watson’s Bay and had lunch with all the writers (David Mitchell had just arrived after squeezing in promo gigs in Melbourne and Brisbane after the Auckland festival) and judges and CWP people. 

One to add to my collection of Selfies in Sydney (from the ferry to Watson's Bay)

We ate at Doyles, which is in an amazing spot, right on the beach. The scallops were fantastic, the wine was flowing, the sun was shining... things were all going so well.

The view from Doyles, looking back towards Sydney 
But then most of us (Kim Scott and Mr Mitchell had to go back to town for publishing dinners or interviews) got in a mini-van and set out for Campbelltown.  Two and a quarter hours later we got there, just in time for Cynthia and Aminatta’s session, chaired by the African representative on the CWP judging panel.  Man, the traffic was bad. Luckily the trip back was quicker (still over an hour), but for some reason this really took it out of me.

Aminatta Forna and Cynthia Jele's session in Campbelltown

We were all in need of a glass of wine when we got back to the hotel around 9pm, which turned into two glasses which turned in to another night rolling in to bed at 2AM. I keep telling my liver that I’m not really a famous writer and that everything will go back to normal next week...

I’ve been taking it easy this morning, blogging (obviously) and ironing my shirt for the reception with the Guvnor General this afternoon. I also have two sessions today and two more tomorrow followed by the big announcement of someone else winning the overall Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book... I’ve been practising my gracious loser face and enthusiastic clapping.

1 comment: said...

You won! Congratulations - outstanding.