Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sydney Writers' Festival: everything in one massive post with nothing new to add

NB: This post just collects the four separate posts on my Sydney Writers' Festival and Commonwealth Writers' Prize experience into one 7,400 word post. Nothing new to see here, but it may be useful for linking to later on...

Part One

Our hotel, the Sebel Pier One

Yesterday was my first full day in Sydney. I went to the Blue Mountains along with the other two regional first book winners, Katrina Best (Canada & the Caribbean) and Cynthia Jele (Africa), for a session called “New Voices from Across the Globe”.

(The fourth regional winner, Mischa Hiller from the UK, was not able to come to Sydney due to health reasons and the three of us have decided it’s best he wins the overall best first book so we can hate him collectively and from afar, rather than it getting all awkward on Saturday when suddenly one of us are suddenly held up as being slightly better than the others).

The Carrington Hotel, Katoomba
Our session was at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. The session was packed out (the typical sea of grey; one particularly elderly audience member nodded off during the session – at least I hope she nodded off rather than dying...) and we each sold a goodly amount of books (though it was Bird Eat Bird > Happiness is a Four Letter Word > A Man Melting at the signing table if I’m honest).

I read from 'Oh! So Careless' (a risky proposition to read a story that ventures to South Africa next to an SA native...).

The chair for the session was author David Brooks, who’d clearly read and engaged with each of our books; his questions were good in a focussed, stage-managing way, while giving us space to get our own points and personalities across.

Main drag, Katoomba

A view from Echo Point

The 3 Sisters

So yes, all in all a great start to our Sydney Writers Festival (despite being 1.5hrs drive from Sydney at the time).

After the session we were taken to the nearby Echo Point, and walked down to the base of one of the Three Sisters. A truly spectacular spot, and nice to get a bit touristy for once.

We arrived back in Sydney after dark and were joined for dinner by Aminatta Forna (winner, Best Book, Africa) who was fresh from Auckland, and a couple from the CWP entourage (we writers can’t be trusted by ourselves! We might get lost).

Writers at dinner
At one point, PR Man/Agent/Avid Phone Call Maker Benython asked Aminatta why some people pronounce the final ‘E’ in Sierra Leone. I was compelled to mention the classic 80’s Kiwi song by Coconut, which no one had heard of, so I ended up singing it... A weird, weird moment.


Today (Tuesday), the three first bookers (and entourage) went to Juniperina Juvenile Justice Centre (I always spell it Juvenal Justice Centre, which would be some guy yelling insults at you in Latin), which is a girls only facility. We did two sets of workshops with 6 girls per session, consisting of a brief chat and Q&A about what it’s like to be a writer / where we come from, then led them through a writing exercise. Cynthia and I had the girls imagine they were shipwrecked on a desert island with a celebrity and they had to describe what it was like 5 hours, 5 months and 5 years after arriving. “Celebrities” ranged from the dude who egged Justin Beiber to Vin Diesel, and the final fates of the various castaways included going mad, making friends with a coconut and living in the trees; becoming OCD about cleanliness after Vin Diesel died from an infected foot as a result of a spear fishing accident; to eating Orlando Bloom when the fish ran out.

Some of the girls were harder to keep focussed than others, but they were no worse behaved than your typical 16-18 year old public school girls. There were a couple of the group who seemed to get a particular kick out of our visit (one girl brought out her notebook during lunch and showed us her poetry). So plenty of positives, though it’s best not to think about what the future might hold for many when they return to the outside world and their families (if they return to their families).

After my stint in juvie
This afternoon we’ve been left to our own devises. Dangerous, I know.  The more I’m around the bigger name authors (Howard Jacobsen and his wife are always stalking the halls and lobby of the Sebel) the more it hits home that writers can get away with a lot. I call it Pampered Writers Syndrome (PWS). In Auckland, David Mitchell said that writers at festivals were like seven year olds, liable to wander off in the middle of a conversation or become distracted by something shiny in the distance, with no idea of time or where they need to be, to have no concept of money (there’s always someone else to pay)... We three first bookers are slowly being corrupted, which I’m sure is adding to the CWP administrators sleepless nights.

I took a walk across the harbour bridge, which yielded a good view of the Opera House, but wasn’t that thrilling.



Shortly I’m off to meet the CWP judges for the first time. The writers and judges are having a bevvie before rolling along to the Sydney Writers Festival Opening Addrees: Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown by Fatima Bhutto, then on to the SWF Launch Party.

Tomorrow it’s two school visits/writing workshops, then another party for me (Random House Australia). I’ll also be recording a video interview for the SWF website and there’s a print interview with the Australian in the works. So yeah, ‘tis all go. But lovin’ it. Just lovin’ it.


Part Two


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.


Update 27 May: The article is now online. It manages to make me sound racist and ageist, but at least the photo kinda works.

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.


Part Three

Friday

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...


Part Four

Saturday

This was always going to be a big day. The announcement of the winners of the CWP best first book and best book was never that prominent an event on my itinerary. I'd been focussed firstly on the outreach events (and felt suitably warm, fuzzy and inspired afterwards), then the more traditional festival activities. I was most anxious about my two panel discussions on Saturday as I felt unqualified in terms of the subject matter, let alone the fact I'd never been on a panel discussion at a festival (let alone the 3rd biggest in the World) about anything other than my book and myself.

First up it was 'Mirth of a Nation', about whether Australia had lost its sense of humour "in these times of relative economic prosperity." The session was chaired by Steve Cannane, himself a funny guy (I remember listening to him on Triple J when I lived in Brisbane). To my left sat Richard Glover, a radio personality (he hosts the most popular drivetime show in Sydney), in addition to being the author of a dozen books and writing a popular newspaper column for over 20 years (!). To my right: Tim 'Rosso' Ross, radio and TV personality (most famously as one half of Merrick and Rosso), stand-up comic and author. Both Aussie institutions in their own way. On the SWF programme I was listed as "Kiwi Craig Cliff" and felt very much like the token New Zealander.

Me yarning at 'The Mirth of a Nation'
But thankfully I'd spent the last six days in Australia and it had brought back some memories from my time spent in Queensland (2004-2007) as well as supplying some new memories.

The night before I listed about four HILARIOUS anecdotes and I managed to squeeze them all in to our discussion. To my relief they were received with much laughter (my retelling of the counting to seven for the GG was particularly funny). It was all going great. I looked at my watch, thinking it must just about be the end of the hour, but it had only been thirty minutes. Gulp. I was out of material and the conversation was starting to veer off in the subtle differences between Australian states…

I was definitely the quieter of the three panellists the second half of the session, but I think I managed to hold my own. My posse (Marisa, Shannon my publicist from Random House, and Katrina Best) all said I did well. Which, given the fact I was plonked on the panel without being consulted and with little qualifications other than the fact I'm from across the Tasman, is probably a lucky break for the festival and everyone who attended the session (though it was a free event).

I should add that I managed to mention my book of short stories in passing (can’t quite remember how anymore), but I wasn't expecting much love at the signing table afterwards. And not much love is what I (and Richard Glover and Tim Ross) received. In fact, I only sold/signed two books, one to Richard and one to Tim. Rosso grabbed a couple of copies of his book, 'Mum Had a Kingswood' and signed one for me. 'Just take it,' he told me. 'I can't steal it,' I said. 'No one will notice,' he said. 'You're a bad influence!'


Afterwards I went and purchased Richard's book 'Why Men are Necessary' and got him to sign it in the greenroom after lunch as we were panel-mates again. This session was entitled, 'A True Bromance' and asked whether there was more to male friendship than mateship? This was a paid event and it was SOLD OUT well in advance. No, pressure, eh?

Joining Richard and I was actor/screenwriter/novelist Brendan Cowell. The session was chaired by journo and author Mark Dapin. Again I felt under-qualified and overmatched. Richard's recent book, The Mud House, is about his thirty year effort to build a house in the boonies with his best (male) friend. Brendan's first novel, How It Feels, is about the close friendship between two blokes. My short story collection is pretty devoid of bromance, which is kind of difficult to do when you're mostly writing about males and have a whopping 18 stories at your disposal.


I did managed to talk about how technology has created a kind of false friendship where males can be completely open about their feelings, but that this is still somehow superficial without shared experience (it's my contention that guys need to be doing some physical activity together for it to truly be friendship). I reference the mini-story in 'Orbital Resonance' where one guy shares his browser history with another, and this prompted a discussion of blokes sharing porn, and the strange intimacy this might bring about, which wasn't really what I had intended, but I went with it.

I also admitted I had a mancrush on David Mitchell since I read Cloud Atlas a few years ago and being in his presence this week still made me a bit of a giddy school girl.

The session was filled with laughs, but for all the stuff we said about how guys don't need to talk or share feelings to connect with one another, the four of us (Mark Dapin included) shared a lot of personal information. Richard, Brendan and Mark all shared the details of how their parent's had split up and I spoke briefly about my father's death when I was a teen. We all agreed that the father-son relationship is an important model for how other male-male friendships will work, and we all at times felt adrift or on the outer.

Mark Dapin was a great chair in that he gave each of us plenty of chances to keep bringing our books back into the discussion (I spoke about the relationship between the grown-up Danny and the fat kid Barry in 'Fat Camp', for example, as an instance of guys bonding over shared activities, and that the expression of feelings only came when a suitable rapport had been established).

But again, despite an enjoyable session, we were not mobbed at the signing table. I might have signed one book, I can't remember now.

I was on a mini-high after surviving my two Saturday sessions. Only after making it to the otherside could I understand how truly awful they could have been. I think if I hadn't built up a layer of confidence from my previous sessions in Auckland and around greater Sydney, and hadn't been surrounded by writers and publishers, and hadn't had a great time riffing with school kids and juvenile delinquents, I would have bombed. But I had bought into the misconception that I was supposed to be there, and managed to get away with it.

(Now that I'm back at work in Wellington, it all seems rather amazing and unreal. Not that future festival organisers should shy away from putting me on random panels… I'll just need to refind the switch)

And then there was nothing else to distract me from the very real fact that in a couple of hours, one of myself, Katrina, Cynthia or absent Mischa would be elevated to be a winner twice over (we were all regional winners already). I didn't rate my chances of winning Best First Book. My reasoning went something like: short story collections never win these sorts of things, and even if they did, Katrina's and mine share a similar sly sensibility, while hers is brief and consistently pleasing, mine is three times longer and inevitably uneven: thus I figured we'd cancelled each other out. So it was down to Cynthia and Mischa. I haven't read Mischa's book yet (I have it with me now), but it sounded like the kind of book that always comes out trumps in these sorts of situations. Equally, hearing Cynthia talk about her book over the past week, I believe it too would be a worthy winner - what better intension can a novel have than to give her friends and other women in her generation something to read, something they can connect with?

So I didn't bother composing a thank you speech, even in my head. It felt like such an action would open the floodgates for disappointment. We were all to be seated on stage when the winner was announced. I didn't want to look disappointed, because (especially if it was one my new friends, Katrina or Cynthia, who won) I didn't want to look like I thought my book was better than any of the others.

So anyway, the session started at 6.30pm in the 900 seat Sydney Theatre. The event was free but we were competing with other big events on what is biggest day of the festival. I'm not good at estimating numbers, but there might have been 200 - 300 people there.

The event was MC'd by Jennifer Byrne, the host of ABC's TV book show, The First Tuesday Book Club. To start there were the obligatory speeches from the Governor General , and Danny Sriskandarajah, the interim director of the Commonwealth Foundation who managed to have a dig at New Zealand in his speech.

I was first up after the speeches to read for 2-3 mins. I started by thanking the GG etc, but jokily neglected to thank Kiwi-bashing Mr Sriskandarajah. I think I said something like, 'If I win, I'll have to think long and hard whether to include you in my thank yous…" to which I quickly had to add, 'Not that I think I'll win…'

I then read from the opening of 'Parisian Blue'. After reading I had a 2 min chat with Jennifer Byrne about how the story started as a scene in the novel I wrote for my MA in 2006, and how I wrote the short story as a way of stopping myself working on the novel anymore.

David Mitchell reading at the Commonwealth Writers Prize announcement
The other writers then went through the same short reading followed by short chat routine until all six of us had spoken. David Mitchell, that last author to read, said that he was sad it had to end as it felt like he was being entertained by close friends around a fire. But then it was time for the envelopes.

A rep from the sponsor, Macquarie Group Foundation (love you guys!), and the GG came on stage and things went still. A short speech was given of which I can remember nothing. She started to open the envelope, saying, 'And even I have no idea who it will be…'

Pause.

A long pause. Time enough for me to finally consider the possibility that it's my name inside the envelope. And in that moment it felt possible for the first time. Perhaps even likely. Hadn't I played the role of promising young writer so well that week? Didn't I believe in my own book, my own stories?

And she did say my name, and I stood up, went over the Governor General and received a sealed envelope and another bony handshake, and soon enough found myself at the podium.


Okay, I thought, just thank the important people. I took a breath and started with the Macquarie Foundation (without someone to bankroll such a prize, there'd be one less chance for a big break for first timers like me) and the Commonwealth Foundation and all the people who'd helped make this week a reality. I thanked my fellow first bookers, who I now count as friends, and the best bookers, who I count as older, cooler siblings who've gone away to university in far off countries. I thanked Random House NZ for publishing me and Random House Australia for looking after me in Oz. I felt I might start to ramble so I said something like, 'I could stand here and thank friends and family for more time yet, but I think it's time I sat down.'


Flash forward to twenty minutes later (Amanita Forna has been awarded best book and delivered a speech which also seemed impromptu, though she managed to segue into her well rehearsed riff about what Nadine Gorier calls 'witness fiction'… being the experienced hand that she is) and I'm signing my first book of the night. There's a shiny gold sticker proclaiming it the winner of the 2011 CWP Best First Book. I look over to the wings where Marisa is standing with Shannon the publicist and realise I friggin' forgot to thank her! My fiancée. My first reader and nicest critic ('I think you should put a comma there, but whatever').

Man did I feel dumb.

I called her over and apologised for not thanking her. She seemed cool about it. She could tell I was a bit shocked up there and knew I hadn't prepared a speech.

Phew, bullet dodged. I signed some books (I wasn't in a state to count) was interviewed by two different ABC radio shows and BBC world service and went downstairs for the big CWP dinner. People kept congratulating me and asking how it felt. I don't know what I said, but on reflection it felt like floating.

Over dinner my cup kept being refilled and then when the party moved back to the Sebel the wine kept flowing. On the walk back to the hotel Marisa and I were joined by David Mitchell who seemed in good spirits, considering. He gave me advice about writing what I want to write and taking my time etc etc, then told me about the Reality TV show he and Kim Scott had devised called, ‘Bunch of Losers’. It took its starting point from the night's events, but after the announcement of the overall winner, they’d then play the acceptance speeches the non-winners had been forced to pre-record before the event. Then there were a series of greater and greater embarrassments until the non-winners were stripped naked and forced to act as furniture for the winner while they signed copies of their book. According to Katrina Best, Kim and David also came up with a theme song for the show, though I wasn’t lucky enough for a rendition.

Cynthia Jele, me and David Mitchell (with Rick Gekoski in the background)

People from other events poured into the Sebel and many of the ones I'd met over the course of the week came and congratulated me. Someone stuck a Best First Book sticker on the lapel of my blazer. The wine kept flowing. People ebbed away, up to bed, back home, into the night. Eventually it was just me, Marisa, Amanita Forna and her cousin with a strong Irish accent, sitting on the floor of the Sebel surrounded by everyone's half-finished and abandoned wine bottles. I didn't feel that drunk. We floated up to bed.

Sunday

That morning I was hungover like I haven't been for many years. The kind of twisted-liver dry-wretch hangover I used to get when I took a certain kind of medicine. It was as if the ill affects of all the booze I'd drunk the past week had been deferred until that day. When I thought about the fact I'd won, I felt sicker, the ache in the back of my head boomed louder. I told Marisa this.

'Why?' she asked.

'I don't know,' I said.

Maybe it was the new weight of expectations someone in my position might feel. Maybe it was guilt at being held up above my new friends. Maybe it was just that my small cerebrum couldn't compute this crazy, crazy new development.

Around 1pm I was finally mobile and we went for a walk to the Rocks' Sunday Market. Over lunch I googled myself and saw the growing list of news articles about Aminatta's win (with my win nicely there on her coattails).

At 3.30pm we were driven to the airport in one of the SWF's flash fleet of brand new Audis. At 6.30pm we were on a plane back to Wellington. At 1pm NZ time we were in bed. At 8.30am the next day I was at work at the Ministry of Education. They'd already seen the news in the Sunday Star Times, and also on stuff.co.nz. Someone had printed out the following quote and stuck it to my monitor:
"…found it harder to flick the switch between public policy and fiction (believe it or not, they do differ)"
- Craig Cliff, Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book winner 2011

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