Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Brisbane Writer's Festival - 2009 (Day 1)

The following sets out summaries of sessions from my first ever writer’s festival. Aside from the little I could glean from the program guide I had no idea what to expect. I’d pre-purchased my tickets for the ticketed events, and I’d also figured out which of the free events I was interested in. I hadn’t really planned on setting up my event preferences in terms of theme, and certainly didn’t restrict myself to simply fiction or non-fiction authors.

As you will see I managed to cover a wide variety and have no regrets of missed opportunities, and certainly don’t feel I made any poor choices in my selection. It was a truly inspiring experience, and who knows, one day it could very well be me on the stage talking about my book.

This is interesting as I think the festival helped to reawaken something in me that has been dormant since my childhood. I recall loving to write stories, I even wrote a script for a play, but somehow along the way things happen, paths change, and destiny’s callused hand pushes and pulls you this way and that. Drifting and quite often disconnecting.
But that’s youth I guess, and with time’s winged chariot snapping at my heels, it’s time to get serious.

Day 3 (or my Day 1)
Sexing Up Historical Fiction
Linda Jaivin and Tobsha Learner discuss the possibilities.
(Chair: Glen Thomas)

I was looking forward to getting to my first session of the festival so I made an early escape from the office on Friday afternoon. In typical fashion I was early, so I grabbed a seat in the shade and waited to be marshaled into the Studio. Both authors did some readings from their latest books. Given that the session was on ‘sexing up’ historical fiction, it was no surprise that the chosen passages were steamed up with erotic imagery.

Linda read first from A Most Immoral Woman, which is set in China in 1904 against the backdrop of imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War. The story is inspired by the real life journal of Australian George Morrison, a Peking correspondent working for the Times of London. The other main character is Mae Perkins (the most immoral woman), and another real life character. Mae was none too shy in her sexual exploits and freely told her many lovers of her past episodes, the stories of which she used to titillate Morrison.

Tobsha read from The Sphinx, which is set in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1977. The timing was inspired by Tobsha’s interest in the postcolonial situation following Nasser’s socialist revolution, and takes place at the time that President Sadat visited Israel to make peace between the two powers. The result of which saw Egypt thrown out of the Arab League.

The story is told in first person through the eyes of Oliver, an English geophysicist. His wife, Isabella, is a marine archaeologist who dies having discovered an ancient artefact – an astrolabe - she’d been searching for all her life. Oliver is swept up in the intrigue and ensuing sabotage, and seeks to understand its mystery, which takes him to the past of Isabella’s once wealthy Italian-Alexandrian family.

Both authors were asked by Glen to talk about why they chose their respective settings, and to also talk about the sort of research that was required. As an expert on China, the setting came naturally for Linda, but the catalyst was her reading of Morrison’s journal, which is available in the State Library of New South Wales. Morrison, like Mae, was not shy in sharing his sexual exploits and it was here that Linda came across Mae. Given the social mores and morality of the time, Linda was fascinated in the context in which these sordid stories were told by Mae. Linda says her behaviour was so transgressive for the times, so given her personal interest in sexuality, Mae was ready made This then became the idea for her book.

Tobsha points out that there have been a lot of stories written in Alexandria, but none to her knowledge are set in 1977. Her story also goes back to London in the punk 70s, a time she experienced herself, so she was able to revisit those heady days of sex, drugs, and punk music. The astrolabe is also a real artefact, so with considerable research she was able to explore it’s mystery and use it in her story. With Isabelle’s family heritage, she could examine the postcolonial situation and the Italian diaspora. Tobsha discussed the Italian colonial history of Mussolini, and then Nasser’s Egyptian Revolution of 1952, in which the colonials were stripped of land and prestige.

A lot of the discussion revolved around research techniques and a question was asked by someone in the audience wanting to know how the authors got the nuances of dialogue and speech accurate. As with all the research, Linda and Tobsha both talked about reading the literature of the times, and Linda mentioned how in his journal Morrison wrote about his favourite author Kipling, so to better understand Morrison’s psychology, in reading what he read, she was able to construct his character.

Tobsha also talked about visiting the setting and in the case of The Sphinx, she spent a few months in Alexandria breathing in the location. She also mentioned the importance of, where possible, seeking out visual and auditory clues – anything relevant from the time to bring the landscape of the story to life.

Given my personal interest in postcolonialism it was amazing to hear both authors speak.

Science is Stranger than Fiction

Marianne de Pierre and Peter McAllister join physicist Paul Meredith to explore the boundaries between science fiction and science fact and the endless possibilities in between.
(Chair: Jack Heath)

As an icebreaker and to get conversation flowing, Jack asked the panel to talk about what started them writing. Looking at my notes it looks as though I only scribbled down Marianne’s response, which in some ways is similar to my own. When she was eight she wrote an unashamed rip-off of Enid Blyton – “The Splendid Six”. I’d have to check what age I was, but I wrote a Wells rip-off, but mine was a little more obvious – “The Time Machine”.

The next question asked was ‘do SF writers set out to write an account of what the future will be?’ Marianne said that she wasn’t bound with an intent to predict the future, she simply lets her imagination go.

Jack then started to query the panel on the importance of plausibility in their constructed worlds. Paul suggested that it is essential as without plausibility the picture you are building for the reader is destroyed. Furthermore it was agreed amongst them that the logic must be rigorous, even in cases where technologies are invented by the author, the logic must remain constant throughout the story universe. The needs of drama also need to be considered as well.

Paul interesting also noted that scientists go through similar thought processes to creative writers, and that science itself, is a creative process. Looking into the future, is similar to writing fictional stories of possible futures. Peter and Marianne also discussed the balance between story and explanation, and said that it can be difficult to know how much information to give the reader. They also said that sometime you will have pages and pages of research notes, which at the end of the day, in the writing process only make it into a single sentence.

Towards the end of discussion the plausibility of posthumanism was discussed with Marianne a firm believer that sometime in the future we’ll have overcome the limits of flesh, and be able to transport, or imprint our consciousness into virtual, mechanical, or some other hosts. Paul was sceptical and disagreed.

Finally, during question time an audience member asked if they knew of the best way to contact extra-terrestrial life forms. Paul pointed out that if there is alien life out there, regardless of whether they look like us, they will be subject to the same universal laws of the universe, for example, physics, geometry, etc.

The only criticism with the session is that Jack, due I suppose to his young age (23), would interject the discussion, or introduce his question with a Gen Y (dare I say it) attitude. It was juvenile at times is what I'm trying to say.

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