Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sydney Writers Festival / Commonwealth Writers Prize 2011, Part 3 of 4

I know I said the other day that I'd write one more post about my time in Sydney, but it turns out a lot happened in those last two days.

So I'm breaking it up into two posts...

FOREWORD: This is all coming straight from my fingertips and has not been heavily edited. If you're looking for a digested version, I've summarised my nine days and two festivals (AWRF and SWF) into 500 words for my Dom Post column which will be in the paper on 4 June. That's probably too digested. Maybe one day I'll whip these posts into shape.  But for now...


As I said in Post #2, I spent Friday morning blogging and ironing my shirt. At 1pm I appeared with Cynthia Jele and Katrina Best in our first session in the hub of Sydney Writers' Festival, Walsh Bay, aptly titled 'The First Time'. The session was chaired by the CWP judge from the Caribbean and Canada, Antonia MacDonald-Smythe (from Grenada). We each read for a couple of minutes (I read a section from 'Fat Camp', despite Antonia recommending I read from 'Copies'… doesn't she know about my read-aloud challenge?!?) then had a chat about all those first timey things: when did you decide you wanted to become a writer, how did you get published, what's it like winning a prize the first time out of the block.

Our session was in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which was a long narrow room (about 8 seats across and maybe 12 rows deep) with the sea on one side and a glass wall on another looking down onto a dance studio. I'm not sure if the audience could see the dancers, but I certainly could from up on the stage. At one point, I was talking about how there are lots of birds in my book (while sitting next to Katrina, whose goshdarn book is called Bird Eat Bird) when a bird flew into the room. I just kept on talking and didn't know until later that Antonia, our chairperson, has a crippling fear of birds. She did well not to let on, and the session continued on its smooth course.

Afterwards we were taken to the signing table at the big Gleebooks Store at the Hickson Road end of Pier 2/3.

In all I did three sessions in Walsh Bay and sat at the signing table three times. This first time I was given a stash of 7 or 8 books to sign for their signed books table. Apart from that, the only books I signed were ones for fellow panellists (more on this later).

The problems with the signing table / book store were manifold. Perhaps the biggest obstruction is the fact that there are so many events on simultaneously (usually 6, with at least half being free) that there's always somewhere to go immediately following a session other than the bookstore. The free events aren't ticketed, so the only way to guarantee a seat is to line up early. At the start of each session chair-people must kindly tell the audience that if they wish to leave the session early they should sit at the end of a row… which always strikes me as a negative way to begin a session.

The other problem with the bookstore is that the queues to buy books moved so slowly that once you've located an author's book and purchased it, they've probably buggered off after 20 minutes of twiddling their thumbs at the signing table.

It's a strange situation to be coddled by festival staff and publicists from your own publishing house -- and watched with interest during your session -- and then be dropped off at the signing table and completely ignored (it wasn't just me or my fellow panellists; unless you write gothic romance for teenagers, most writers struggled to sign more than a few books each time).

After a bite to eat and a change of clothes it was off to the reception at Admiralty House, the Governor General of Australia's residence while in Sydney. It's next to Kirribilli House (the PM's address: apparently both places must have the same square meterage so neither can be offended) and sits at the other end of the Harbour Bridge from The Rocks where we spent most of our time in Sydney.

The day before, all the Commonwealth regional winners had received invitations with gold embossed crests that stipulated how to dress -- men: lounge suit; women: daywear -- though I don't really get about in the sort of circles where those terms mean anything. I wore the grey suit I got made in Vietnam and they let me in and no one looked down their nose at me so I guess that is was a lounge suit.

We actually arrived 20 minutes early for our 4.30pm soiree and everyone (writers, judges, administrators, publicists, sponsors, principals, teachers and students from the schools we visited, random hangers on that seemed uninterested in writers…) was made to wait outside the gate till the exact hour stipulated on the invitation.

Katrina Best and David Mitchell stroll towards Admiralty House
Inside, the GG's grounds were quite grand, though for the number of international guests she must receive I reckon a few wallabies and roos hopping round and a koala or two in the trees wouldn't go amiss.

The inside of Admiralty House was trying very hard to be grand, in an Indian Raj kind of way, but the heavily patterned tiled floors and the heavily patterned wall paper and the heavily patterned carpets induced something more like nausea than a feeling of grandeur.

The main reception room had a trio of Navy musicians pumping out some light nautical jigs and wait-staff stood along the far wall stiffly holding out trays of drinks and avoiding one's gaze. I wondered if they were like Beefeaters and couldn’t respond to taunting by the guests, but didn't want to jeopardise the chance of having a beer (which tasted like Fosters, would you believe) in the GG's house. After about 15 minutes of nautical jigging and half-hearted mingling, the six writers were rustled up and made to stand in a line by the door.

The Governor General was announced.

She entered wearing a pink power suit with an incredible collar (by incredible, I mean one that challenges credulity). It reminded me of a something a skeksis might wear. She was thin, well manicure and, to quote Warren Zevon, [her] hair was perfect. It looked like she had recently been covered in clingfilm and was only let out into fresh air for special occasions.

She had that new car smell.

Aminatta Forna was the first writer in line, and her Excellency Quentin Bryce exchanged a few pleasantries with her. Aminatta then foisted her onto me, by saying, "And this is Craig Cliff."

I shook the GG's cold, bony hand and said, "I'm the Kiwi."

"Yes, I know."

"Is my accent that strong?" I asked (I should add here that five days in Sydney had brought back the trauma of three years of accent jokes back in Brisbane and I was on the defensive).

"No, I have your book on my mantelpiece," she said and gestured over by the ornamental fireplace. There were the eight regional finalist's books. Not a spine had been cracked. "I didn't notice your accent," the GG added.

"Oh, well, maybe if I started counting you'd notice," I said and proceed to count, "One two three four five sux seven". The GG's minder quickly moved her on to whoever was next in line and it only sunk in a few minutes later that I had counted to seven for the Governor General of Australia. At least, I concluded, I proved that not only are New Zealanders literate, we are also numerate (to a point).

After a while the guests were allowed outside to explore the grounds. The sun was setting and the bats were flying to the northern side of the river to roost (or whatever bats do). It was lovely. Much nicer than inside. I felt like playing a spot of French cricket on the perfect lawn…

Looking from Admiralty House towards the Opera House
After an hour at the GG's residence, we writers were whisked off to Parramatta for 'Eyes on The Prize', a reading featuring all six regional CWP winners who were in Sydney. By whisked off, I mean we sat in a minivan for an hour and a half. The highlight for me was listening to David Mitchell and Aminatta Forna talk about speech marks. It went something like this:

DM: Two quotation marks is American, I think. The British only use one.
AF: I thought it was the other way around. I use two.
DM: I use one for speech and two for reported speech within a line of dialogue.
AF: I use two with one inside.
DM: And your publisher is okay with that?
AF: Let me double check my book…

Ladies and gentlemen, this is probably the least interesting conversation in the history of man, and yet I have to admit it was fascinating for me, if only because of who was talking. It was a great relief to know that great writers can also be bores from time to time.

When we got to the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, the news was broken to us that the turnout was only small. How small? the big guns asked. About thirty. How big is the theatre? It seats about 600, but we've put some seats on the stage to make it more intimate. Some of the festival pros started laughing at the insanity of driving for so long to perform for so few. I thought for a moment this evening would go down in infamy as 'The Parramatta Incident', but everyone was a professional and sufficiently good humoured to see the funny side. Crisis averted.

Not sure what the tissues are for...
In the end the crowd was more like 40 people (though that included CWP judges and entourage), and we writers were pushed right up against the back of the stage in our comfy chairs. Each writer was allotted 12-15 minutes to read from their book. I read third: the first five or so pages of 'Touch'. I read a lot better than I had that morning (I still felt half asleep), and got a lot of nice feedback from people. It's interesting because no one (reviewers, friends, family) has every really mentioned 'Touch' (either as being good or bad); I'd never even had it workshopped.

I did feel for all the audience members seated on plastic chairs while the lush red upholstered seats of the theatre proper sat behind them like the mouth of some great fish.

At the signing table afterwards, I had a lot of fun because 1) there was wine, and 2) I sold books to 10% of the audience. If only I could do that at the bigger sessions!

I also implemented some advice from Aminatta Forna: when your signing queue is short, talk to the people nice enough to have bought your book for as long as you can to stave of the ignominy of sitting their idle while your compatriots rattle off their John Hancocks (sounds dirty but it isn't).

I had nice chats with some of the younger crowd (I think my book does better with the under 60's) and it didn't feel like I was even using any tricks… It's strange how quickly one becomes accustomed to "being a writer". I even talked to a lady who had the nerve to come up to me with one canvas and one paper bag full of books and say, "I'd love to have bought your book, but I've spent so much today already." I've no problem with people not buying my book (otherwise I'd have a problem with a fair swathe of humanity) but please don't feel you have to apologise to me. Anyway, I stuffed down my mild annoyance and asked her about what other festival events she'd been to, blah blah blah.

I managed to stick to the signing table until it was time to head back to Sydney, so I think I passed that 'converse with the punters' test.

We were given more wine on the drive back, but by this time 1) I was getting a bit wined out, and 2) my darling fiancée had arrived from NZ and was waiting for me back at the hotel, so I abstained.

We arrived back at the Sebel at about 10 o’clock, which was like midnight for Marisa so she was already in bed. I went back down to make our apologies and had a glass of wine forced on me, but managed to hear a bunch of writers talk about James Fergusson (author of Taliban; whom I’d met at the Random House dinner on Tuesday and tried to convince that it was racist to say ‘Abo’ even if it began as simply being short for ‘Aborigine’ on Wednesday). Someone described him as ‘a bit of a beater’, which pretty much sums things up.

And that was Friday...

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