Now in its third year, The Newcastle Writers Festival’s steely strength has little to do with this city’s industrial past and everything to do with the iron will of its founding director, Rosemarie Milsom. She wanted a writers festival and she got herself one, virtually single handed. This year, she has eighty volunteers, and a program that’s expanded from two to three days, but she’s still not being paid a salary and does the job part time, fitting it around her full time job as a journalist – oh and a mother of three. Steely indeed.
The festival venue is City Hall, a grand old building sandstone rabbit warren with a superb high ceilinged concert hall and lots of other rooms of various sizes for more intimate events. This weekend it was thronging with an estimated five thousand readers who came to hear one hundred and thirty writers on every conceivable subject. The line up included Les Murray, Don Watson, Marion Halligan, Bob Brown, Favel Parrett, Brooke Davis and PM Newton, to mention just a few.
I was lucky enough to chair the opening night panel on The Book That Changed Me, featuring Helen Garner, Michael Robotham and Jessica Rudd. It was a great way to kick off the festival, a reminder that all writers, without exception, start off as readers.
Helen and Michael had one book in common, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I had expected that she might talk about Janet Malcolm, who has been such a significant influence on her non fiction writing, but as always, Helen was unpredictable in the best sense; her most intriguing choice was one most of the audience, including myself, would have been unfamiliar with : an American poet called Charles Reznikoff who wrote a book called Testimony based on hundreds of hours of court evidence. The affinity with her own work seems clear.
Michael Robotham told a wonderful anecdote about writing a fan letter to his hero Ray Bradbury author of his choice, the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 and getting a letter back form his daughter, inviting him to lunch to meet the author. Sadly, Bradbury died just before the encounter. Michael’s other selections had several things in common: they were American, and they were men: Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.
He earned a tongue in cheek reprimand from Jessica Rudd when he admitted that he hated Jane Austen when he first read her (’ leave the stage’ she mock-chided him). Rudd recalled how reading Joe Klein’s Primary Colours set her course to write political fiction.But she was adamant that satire was not her style: while much of the genre is characterised by cynicism, she remains an idealist about what politics, and political fiction can achieve. (And yes, there’s a third Ruby book in the works).
Her other favourite book of the moment is Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, and she confessed to thinking about writing the author a fan letter. Encouraged by Michael’s positive response from Bradbury, she just might. Garner’s experience as a fan was not so glowing: she’d had the briefest of encounters with her idol, Janet Malcolm, at a smart party in New York, while Malcolm was holding someone else’s baby, but the opportunity for a meeting of minds was sabotaged by another famous writer. Malcolm’s loss, I say.
The next day, the juiciest revelatons to be had were from Blanche d’Alpuget in candid conversation with Meredith Jaffe, Books Editor of The Hoopla. Perhaps because it was a small audience, perhaps because Jaffe made her feel comfortable with considered questions, d’Alpuget said some intriguing things about her father, who was, among other things a boxer; ‘ He was so frightening I had no fear of other men at all’ she said.
Emboldened by her candour, I asked why if she found writing to be such a blissful pleasure, (she had described it as divine) she had given it up for over fifteen years before her recent foray into historical fiction with The Young Lion and its sequel, The Lion Rampant.’ I decided to devote myself completely to love,’ she answered.
Steel comes in all grades and strengths.
Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.