Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 3
I had a gap between two sessions and decided to go and listen to Bryce Courtenay. I haven't read one of his books for years, but I admire his hard work and tenacity, and he usually has something entertaining or thought-provoking to say. This session was certainly both, and included Bryce lying and crouching on the floor, and acting out some of his stories. He is a great storyteller, and believes that without stories we have nothing - stories of the past are what we're all about.
But he also feels we have become self-indulgent - that too many authors turn inward and write about themselves instead of going out and writing about the world around them. He believes there are many stories still to be told about Australia and who we are. When asked about the children of today, he said "everything I was taught at school has proven to be wrong". Yes, there is too much information around - for adults. Kids are the new generation and are able to take it all in. This generation is the brightest there's ever been. A further question on reading, and he said he thought kids shouldn't be given reading lists, but needed to be guided to lost treasures and special books they might otherwise miss.
He takes research for his books very seriously, and spends $100,000 a year on it (last I heard, he had four researchers working for him). He believes in writing stories that stick to the facts, and never changes history to suit his story. There is always someone who knows, and will tell you if you have even the smallest fact wrong. He loves language, and had read all of Dickens by the age of eleven, and loved the words he used.
He feels descriptive narrative is dead because of the visual world we live in. You don't need to spend pages on description because readers now imagine so much. You should only describe the things in your setting or story that are unique. The writer writes two thirds of the book, the other third is written by the reader when they pick it up and read it. He has never written for money (after being in advertising, he didn't need to) - he writes because he wants to know for himself. He likes to write chapters of about 28-30 pages, just long enough for someone to read one in half an hour before they go to sleep!
Two pieces of advice he had to offer:
1. Never leave the spoon in the sink when you're going to turn on the tap (in other words, think ahead).
2. Listen with your eyes.
I didn't leave this session wanting to read any more of Bryce's books, but I did take away a strong sense of a man who is passionate still about his writing, and cares very much about stories and language and readers.