Friday, September 03, 2010

Nicholas Shakespeare

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Session 2

Usually I choose sessions at the festival with writers whose books I have read. This year, I went for a few writers I didn't know, and tried to read at least one of their books beforehand. With Nicholas Shakespeare, I read Secrets of the Sea and around 60 pages of In Tasmania. At first I thought Tasmania was all he wrote about! But he began by talking about his latest book, Inheritance, and how the story was given to him by Murray Bail who read about it in a lawyer's office. In a nutshell, a young man accidentally attends the wrong funeral and, by signing the condolence book, ends up inheriting a large amount of money from the dead man.

Inheritance I can imagine any writer leaping on an idea like that - it appealed to me, too. (Yes, I bought the book!) He said that he thought that this gift of a story meant it would be fast and easy to write, but it took him three years. Whatever the idea is, you have to find your own story in it, and that is what takes the time and effort.

He said he thought this book was about a man trying to learn how to be authentic, and that just to learn how to be yourself is a big enough job for any life. Celebrity can create a crack in a person so that the devil or other people can get in and contaminate you. An interesting viewpoint. He also said any novel is an exercise in failure - you know it's not going to be as good as you want it to be, but you put your best into it and acknowledge its flaws, just like you do for your children.

His father was a diplomat so they lived in some pretty dangerous places when he was growing up, including Cambodia and various countries in South America. Inheritance is his first novel set in England, where he was born. He moved to Tasmania to get away from Bruce Chatwin, as he'd spent 7 years writing his life story and wanted to go somewhere Chatwin had never been. And then found a village of Chatwins in Northern Tasmania. He said another reason he moved there was so he'd have time and headspace to read all the books he'd always wanted to. He tries hard not to let his writing time be eroded by technology and all its distractions.

Secrets of the Sea has many beautiful and arresting images in it, but the one that stuck with me (whether I wanted it to or not) was of the child, Zac, "who had been discovered by Tildy at the age of eighteen months with a large spider sticking out of his mouth." The spider was a huntsman. In question time, I just had to ask if that had actually happened, and he said yes! At his local childcare centre, a boy had eaten a huntsman. A later metaphorical reference to legs dangling from the child's mouth only served to make the image stay even more firmly in my head. Such is the power of words.

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