Melbourne Writers Fest 2010: Days 1 + 2

As I said, I’ll be blogging for the Melbourne Writers Festival. Indeed, I’m planning to blog about every day of  MWF festivities in which I partake. With two days down, and many more to go, I haven’t seen heaps, but I’ve made a good start. Things are just getting warmed up.

So first off: Friday, Day One!

I went along to The Morning Fix at Feddish. I got there a little late, and missed Joe Bageant and Jon Bauer, but arrived just in time to see Benjamin Law, then Benjamin Law’s mum, and then Benjamin Law reading this story to a room of mostly old folks. Nothing like cockroach massacre and casual cursing with your morning coffee. Kim Cheng Boey then had to follow that up with his sincere recollections and musings on memory, childhood and the father-son relationship. Estelle Tang summarises it much better than me on the official blog, which you should all be all over already.

Later that day, I went along to the launch of Above Water. 2010 sees the sixth issue of this (free!) little publication by the Uni of Melbourne Arts and Media Department. Although it started half an hour later than scheduled, and then only went for about half an hour, they managed to pack in a lot. There was some nice awarding of awards to some of the up-and-coming literary newbies at Uni of Melbourne, along with a great stack of readings from said lit-n00bs. You should head on over to the University of Melbourne campus, to Union House maybe, and hunt down one of the free copies doubtless just sitting there waiting to be snapped up. With stories of domestic tension, identity, lost marbles, mutilated mermaids and more, the collection looks pretty strong, especially for a bunch of folks only just getting started on this writing caper. I think I’ll give it a review here someday soon.

After that, I had to head on home, but that night there were keynotes, and people saw these keynotes and lo, they did blog about them, and said that they were good.

The next day, Saturday, Day Two: I busied myself with such important activities as not leaving the house, and then later I spent several hours partaking in proofreading and snacks with my Voiceworx krew. So as it was, I only got along to one session before calling it a day. But I chose well, as it was quite a spesh sesh indeed: readings and discussion from two of the Age Book of the Year winners.

In fact, only the previous night, the Age Book of the Year awards had been announced. Jennifer Maiden won the poetry prize for Pirate Rain, Kate Howarth won the non-fiction prize for Ten Hail Marys and Alex Miller’s Lovesong took the fiction prize and the Book of the Year award. Alex Miller and Kate Howarth were in attendance at this session, chaired by Jason Steger, and it was a cracking session indeed.

First, Kate Howarth spoke about her harrowing, but ultimately triumphant memoir. People have asked her, after reading her story, ‘How could you abandon your son?’. She rejected the word ‘abandon’, and tells how she was forced to leave, to come back later, to do what was best for her child in a terrible situation, in a far-too-recent time when women were essentially powerless. She read two excerpts from the end of her book, where she finally leaves her son, and then is later reunited with him years later. The emotion got to her — she’d never read that section in public before — and it was the sort of moment where it seemed almost wrong to say anything more. She may have been in awe of sharing a stage with Alex Miller, but when Jason asked Alex if he’d liked to read, he replied ‘not really, after that reading’.

Alex was compelled to instead give his own response to Kate’s story. But, eventually, he did read from his book Lovesong.  I’d never seen him before or read his books (despite hearing lavish praise), but Alex Miller is a great writer to witness. At times a gently cynical, no-bullshit curmudgeon, other times a remarkably thoughtful and humble man. When he did start reading from Lovesong, he read slowly, calmly and softly. His voice had some special timbre or hidden quality that scratched past my inner ear, into my brain and rustled around comfortably somewhere in my body. I could have listened to him read all day. When he said the phrase ‘a bag of sesame biscuits’ in his reading, it was like a warm crackling aural fire. A strange, rare quality in a speaker that I notice sometimes.

After his reading, the trio discussed a wide variety of subjects. Kate spoke of the joy of being published and thus realising a childhood dream; of her wonderful publishers at UQP; how she taught herself to write rather than attend creative writing classes; of the driving forces of rage and truthtelling that motivated her to write; of her hundreds of drafts and her perfectionism in writing, that she likened to unpicking a bridal gown. And how she’s planning a sequel.

Alex Miller spoke about the power of the informed imagination’s daydream, how it can spark ideas that grow into novels, which seemed to worked for both him and for Tolstoy. He said how having a child changes your life way more than any book. He spoke of how he can’t stop writing or he gets cranky, because writing for him is a kind of therapy. And he said after he’d exhausted all other options,  he had to just learn and write novels. Now he can’t help it.

All in all, it was assuredly a thoroughly satisfying session, except for that one person who didn’t turn their phone off, let it ring, and then proceeded to answer it mid-session. Let me just say: WHAT.

But all in all: a great first two days. Looking forward to the rest of the fest!

* * * * *

My picks for Sunday, which will quite possibly fill my next embloggenations to bursting: another Morning Fix of several of your soon-to-be-beloved writers; The Lifted Brow and friends getting up to all sorts of shenanigans in a shipping container on the riverbank; an In Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, the ace author of The Years of Rice and Salt and the Mars Trilogy; gettin’ wordy n nerdy at A Wordsmith’s DreamMeanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging: Birthday Stories; and Dog’s Tales at the Toff and moooooooorrrrrre. See you at the Fest?

(2011 Post-script: I went to a lot of other great stuff at the Fest, but never got around to blogging it fresh. Wups. Sorry. Sam Cooney, however, wrote a bunch of great stuff about the Fest, which you can read via his blog, which is full of other excellent things you should also read if you read this.)

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EWF update: Disco discourse, Quarter-hour launches, Bootcamps, Bon Scott and more!

The Emerging Writer’s Festival has been zooming along like a runaway locomotive, with plenty of events whooshing past and a weekend cornucopia rapidly approaching. Let’s see if I can make sense of the blur that has been my past five or six days.

Sunday’s Page Parlour was a jolly good time for all.  I browsed the tables thrice and then again, sat in on an interview with the wonderful Mandy Ord, got prodded with Ronnie’s attention-grabbing prodding stick and finally settled my spending at three rad-looking indie publications: Red Leaves, Caught in the Breeze and Flinch, which may all result in reviews one day. I was too tuckered out for the 48 Hour Play Generator that night, but if the reports are anything to go by, I really did miss out.

Meanwhile, there’s been a storm of TwitterFESTing, #ewfchat hashtagging, digital launches, online conversations and more, all as part of the online side of the festival. Check out all the EWFonline happenings here, or plough through the ever-growing hashtag archive on Twitter.

Back in the land of face-to-face, for four nights, four publications got their 15 Minutes of Fame.  Thuy Lin wrote a great summation of the first round on Monday. Jodie at Voiceworks/Virgule did too, but remember: it’s not a competition.

That being said, let me claim a FIRST on Tuesday night. But in an effort to rein in my logorrhoea, I’ve restricted myself to 15 words for each 15 minutes of fame-r.

1. My Pilgrim’s Heart by Stephanie Dale: ‘Journey through marriage and other foreign lands’.  Mullumbimby.  All humanity vibrating in Istanbul. Unlearning expectations.

2.  The Nine Flaws of Affection by Peter Farrar: Laconic. Carveresque. Drought. ANZAC. Comas. Wounds. Violence. Aftermath. First-person. Affection’s flipside. Kill those darlings.

3. Ondine by Ebony McKenna: Fantasy. Girl meets scruffy, black, Scottish ferret/boy at Psychic Summer Camp. Magic and love.

4. Offset journal: an unfamiliar journal, with DVD! Victoria University’s poems, songs, artworks, stories. Multimedia first publishings wonders.

Good stuff! Unfortunately, I didn’t get along to Wednesday or Thursday’s series of quarter-hour launches. Lose. Who else went along? Still, the two I did attend exceeded expectations. Even the publications I suspected might be a bit naff ended up surprising me and they all became books I’d happily snaffle.

Ooh, also on Tuesday night, I got along to You Can’t Stop the Musing, Craig Schuftan’s Disco Lecture. Working as a funny critique and defense of disco, his basic argument (full of wit and disco backing tunes) was, sure, disco is repetitive, stupid and artificial. But we like to dance to repetitive music and disco has mass popular appeal, so people can sneak into it what they want to say to a large group of people. Disco connects us to our bodies and our internal rhythms. Its stupidity challenges the mind/body dualism that forms the core of Western thought. And it may be artificial, but this can be a positive for oppressed sectors of society, such as gay people, who’ve been told their whole lives that their desires are ‘unnatural’; it’s basically challenging biologicial determinism. His lecture really did give me a greater appreciation of Saturday Night Fever, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and disco in general, old and new. Craig says his goal is to increase happiness in the world in this way, so that when we hear these songs on the radio, we derive greater enjoyment from them. Works for me!

On Wednesday night, I went along to the city library to try my hand at the Creative Writing Bootcamp in person, rather than the digital edition/s. Voicework’s Maddie Crofts ably guided a huge crowd of people in a variety of great exercises that I reckon I’ll re-use in the future.

After that, I went off to the Willow Bar for The Last Hurrah, which is somewhat-EWF-related, in that it was night of readings culminating in the launch of A.S Patric’s Music for Broken Instruments, which also received a digital launch at EWFonline. I was delighted to be kidnapped by the poems and stories of the Black Riders.

Thursday saw me attending my first Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre, where Torpedo‘s Chris Flynn argued that, while past decades have had Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Inspector Rex, K9 and the like, this decade needs its own heroic hound if we’re to have any hope . Pretty much one the most unique speeches I’ve seen. Great stuff.

Then that night, another Creative Writing Bootcamp, this time with Komninos. This one took a while to get started, but it too built up to some great approaches to generating stories and ideas.

Then it was time for Wordstock. This year’s theme was AC/DC. Can’t say I’ve ever been a fan, but I’d be lying if I said that night didn’t make them a little more respect-worthy. Clem Bastow dressing up as Bon Scott, visible package and all; Emilie Zoey Baker’s nostalgic bogan tribute; two ukelele tunes (one about circumcision, the other about reality TV);  Sean M. Whelan poetically applying the Schrödinger’s cat concept to Bon Scott’s life/death; Vachel Spirason again wowing us, with a construction worker’s flamenco/breakdance/aerobic  routine ; neo-feminist responses to Acca-Dacca traditions; awkward karaoke renditions; and Ben Pobje’s concluding ode to riding free and punching babies in the face.

After all of that, Friday’s lack of EWF programming was a chance to get my bearings, gather my resources, take a few breaths, make a few plans and ready myself for the weekend rush.

And now the Town Hall weekend approaches. How hectic is this program? I’m going to have a hard time choosing which panel I want to go to almost every hour. And I’ll have to pop out at some point to check out the zine bus and all the DIY wonders it holds.

Finally, before I forget, Bookseller and Publisher’s blog Fancy Goods has a wrap-up of the festival thus far. Meanwhile, their past editor, Miss LiteraryMinded/Angela Meyer has also done a wrap-up of her own.

Righo then, see you at the festival, or maybe on the other side!

Willy Lit Fest Part 2: eBooks

Well, okay. I had said this post was coming a day or two after my previous one. But I guess I hadn’t factored in driving to Canberra and back again, preparing to move house,  getting sick,  and a confounded devil named procrastination. But! This post’s subject matter remains relevant, I already had a draft written, and I just had to get it finished before getting down to my Emerging Writer’s Festival blogging. Anyway, excuses are lame, so enough of all that and on to eBooks!

The third and final panel I attended at Willy Lit Fest was named From the Quill to the Kindle, and up on stage was Torpedo editor Chris Flynn, Meanjin editor Sophie Cunningham, and Penguin Books senior editor Dmitri Kakmi. Again, before I begin, Ms Thuy Lin has a great roundup of this panel already, so I won’t go repeating everything. But I guess, along with some stuff from the panel, I had a few other things to discuss regarding eBooks.

One of the main questions the panel raised was whether books as we know them now will eventually ‘die’. I don’t see it happening any time soon and I think the two will coexist quite peacefully for a while yet. But will it, inevitably, eventually, happen? I know the comparison isn’t perfect, but if you look at the similar situation faced by the music industry, there remains a decent amount of people who still buy CDs and even vinyl, in addition to, or rather than, downloading. Maybe books will become something of a similarly fetishised or desirable physical object, kept alive by true believers. The arguments for physical books share similarities with those for CDs and vinyl: the ability to have an actual artefact that you can hold in your hands, show off to others, touch and smell. For many, these physical objects are more tactile and aesthetically pleasing, the cover/packaging/design looks better, or the experience may just be more ‘authentic’, more than ‘just data’ or, simply, it might be all about embracing a different but equally worthy medium. Like comparing a vinyl record to a folder of mp3s, a book is a different experience to an eBook, and both have their pros and cons. A page I bookmarked a while back, Books in the Age of the iPad by Craig Mod, explores something along these lines: the difference between Formless Content and Definite Content.

Another barrier I perceive to eBook adoption is the devices. If your paperback is lost, stolen, damaged, dropped in the bath or what have you, it’s not nearly as big a deal as the same thing happening to your new Kindle or iPad, along with any associated data you can’t retrieve. And if you’re not particularly well-off, mightn’t you just go to the library for all the free books you want, rather than purchasing a device worth hundreds of dollars?

For sure, when Sophie held up what must have been an imported iPad (a first for an Australian literary festival, she wondered?), I was a bit excited. I’ve only tinkered briefly with friend’s iPhones and I’m keen to play around some more with these new devices. However, none of them look like something I’d buy. There is definitely an appeal to their many features, but I feel like the eReader medium is still in its early transitional stages, and I won’t be as interested until there’s something like colour e-ink and a move away from both DRM restrictions and monopolisation, where only Apple and Amazon seem to call the shots.  Still, the fact of the matter is that in Australia we’re still lagging behind the USA and other countries when it comes to this sort of technology, so we do get an element of foresight to the developments.

One argument that Chris Flynn made for the transition to eReaders is an environmental one. To me, this is where the eBook option starts to look way more appealing. The proportion of books made with non-recycled paper really is disturbing (again, Thuy Lin’s got the stats). Indie publishers do better in this regard, I’ve noticed, but there are so many mass-market paperbacks, disposable magazines and bulky textbooks that would be much more environmental and sensible on an eReader platform.

I do wonder, however, what the environmental and social costs are if millions of people are always purchasing the latest eReaders, iPhones, iPods, iPads, smartphones, laptops, etc. Here are just two articles that at least begin to interrogate some of the other factors behind eReaders and the like: the costs, conditions and materials involved in manufacturing; whether ‘conflict minerals’ are used; and the huge amount of greenhouse gases involved in maintaining ever-expanding computer/server networks. I think, especially if these things are noted and start to be addressed, and we get eBooks and eReaders right, then they will be indeed be a far greener and greater option.

Someone on the panel made another interesting assertion: that publishing is always behind the eight-ball, and that tech companies are taking publishing from the publishers. This, so far, has not just meant a bypassing of the usual production and distribution channels, but lots of secrecy and Digital Rights Management.

A somewhat recent post on Mobylives outlines a few of the problems with DRM. At the other end of the argument, of course, are people worrying about piracy wrecking the book business. I’m still not sure where a balance lies so that artists and publishers see rewards for their efforts, without placing unnecessary burdens or restrictions on their audience. I like Cory Doctorow’s thoughts on the matter (here’s a good three-part interview with him), but I’m not sure his approach can apply to everyone. But still, any DRM that is applied can and will be broken: Kindle’s DRM was broken last year. In the end, I’d like to think that if you offer high quality, assured, open, flexible and beneficial content for a reasonable price, a good amount of people, especially your loyal fans, will be happy to pay for it. And at least those who don’t are still reading and sharing your stuff.

Interlude: relevant webcomic!

Another related interesting point that arose in the panel: I’d never considered the legal deposit issues that come with eBooks. When a work like a book is created in Australia, the publisher is required to send copies the State and National Library for archiving and such. But if you’re only giving away DRM-locked licenses to books (as with the Kindle) rather than actual copies, it makes legal deposit rather difficult. Libraries can’t actually store a lendable copy, because Kindle eBooks can’t be shared and loaned, thanks to their DRM. It’s very odd to think that when you buy a book, it still doesn’t belong to you, and that the provider can actually alter or remove it from your device remotely.

Beyond all of that DRM stuff, I was interested in what Sophie talked about concerning changing mediums, and how they change the reading and writing process. From speech to handwriting, to redrafting over and over on a typewriter, to the cut and paste of computers, and on to the podcast/audiobook/eBook/multimedia situation we find ourselves in now, with all the associated multitasking distractions and possibilities. (Meanland has been exploring this stuff in more detail). Compare all this to the more fixed text of a book. But we have to remember: the novel is only 200 years old. Novels may well become rarefied, kept alive only by true believers, and maintain an old-fashioned status, akin to opera today. But people will always want stories, and many will want long-form narratives. So really, there’s no need for concern.

Finally, I believe Dmitri Kakmi mentioned this video to illustrate the merging of reading with play; it’s a fusion between iPhone and Book: the PhoneBook!(?):

I guess after all this rumination (I really need to write some shorter posts), I’ll finish with a link to a recent post by Emmett Stinson, who hopes, as I do, that with the arrival of the iPad, the launch of Kobo and other imminent developments, we can stop talking about the future of digital publishing in Australia and start talking about what’s actually happening in the present.

And with that, I think I’ll end my rambling about eBooks and Willy Lit Fest. But as one festival passes, another emerges. Thus, the Emerging Writers Festival began on Friday night, with The First Word. I went along, and I’m planning to get as involved as I can in the rest of the festival. In the spirit of that, I plan to get my blog on harder than ever. Starting today!