Friday, June 27, 2014

Writers in conversation

This blog has been sadly neglected this year, but for a good reason (well, good for me, anyway!). I'm studying again and the course work has consumed my every waking hour, almost. Between that and the reading for my topic, and working to pay the bills, even my recreational reading has suffered. It seems that gone are the days of reading 2-3 novels a week!

But I'm gradually returning to the world of reading and creative writing and imagination and story, and what has really helped is going out and simply listening to other writers talk about their craft. Last night was the best possible example of how inspiring it can be to hear a writer talking honestly and in depth about what and why they write. It was our VU Writers in Conversation event with Helen Garner.

You may not know Helen's work if you live outside Australia, but she is reknowned here for both her fiction and nonfiction. It seems that everything she writes causes controversy, and yet when you listen to her talk about her works, you wonder why. It's because of the depth of her writing. She tackles subjects that other writers might shy away from, and does it with such intensity that I think people shy away from what she reveals.

Her most recent novel I have read is "The Spare Room", which is about two women, one of whom, Nicola, is dying of bowel cancer and comes to stay in Helen's spare room. Nicola is pursuing alternative therapy and Helen ends up getting quite angry with her for a number of reasons. It's quite a confronting book about death and choices and the effects of both of those things. I think you would have to read it to understand why some readers reacted so negatively to it, but for me the key is Helen Garner's unflinching portrayals of characters.

When it comes to her nonfiction, she has again caused furores over both "The First Stone" and "Joe Cinque's Consolation" (do a search on either or both to see what I mean). Regardless of what you think of these books, Helen's nonfiction is as deeply affecting as her fiction. She talked last night of the experience of writing "Joe Cinque's Consolation" and how close she became to Joe's parents. Her re-telling of a huge literary lunch in Sydney, to which she took Joe's mother, was heart-stopping.

And her ability to then put these events into words on the page is astounding. She also spoke about meeting a Turkish man on a railway platform who showed her photos on his phone of his brand new baby, and how she ended up talking to him and becoming friends with him and his wife. It was hardly a surprise when she confessed to the audience that she "has no boundaries" and that maybe this is a fraught thing, but I think it's why she is able to write the way she does. She doesn't hold back, she doesn't hold people at arms-length.

All the same, we were fascinated to hear that her new book, out in August, is about Robert Farquharson (follow this link to read a summary). She has spent eight years on it, which is a monumental task. I came away from listening to Helen feeling inspired and in awe. I plan to read "Joe Cinque's Consolation" as soon as I'm able, but I know I'll be thinking about many of the things she said for some time to come.